Belize is a small country in Central America, bordering Mexico and Guatemala. With a landmass of 23 000 square kilometres, Belize is about the size of Wales and has a population of 250 000. The country was known as British Honduras until 1973, and achieved full independence in 1981. Economically, Belize is reliant on sugar, which accounts for 50% of all exports, with bananas running a close second. Recently, prospecting in the central Cayo District has revealed petroleum deposits, which may provide a source of future revenue for the nation.
Ancient Belize was home to the Maya civilisation, which lasted for over 2000 years in some parts of Belize, from 1500 BC to 900 AD. Today, the influence of the Maya is evident in the amazing archaeological sites that dot the forested landscape, as well as the Yucatec, Mopan and Kekchi ethnic groups whose way of life is still based on Mayan cultural traditions.
Geographically, northern and southern Belize are quite distinct. The north is largely flat, swampy and low lying, while the south boasts the Maya Mountains, which rise to 1120 metres. The coast is protected by the second longest barrier reef in the world, and some 450 tiny islands, known as cayes, can be found offshore together with three coral atolls.
Unusually for Central America, Belize is English-speaking. Belizean Creole, which was originally spoken by those of mixed African and British ancestry, is today used by almost 75% of the population. Spanish is also widely spoken, or at least understood.
The local currency is the Belizean Dollar (Bz$). At the time of writing (Autumn 2006) 1 Belize Dollar was worth Â£0.27 / $0.51 / â¬0.40. Visit www.xe.com/ucc for up-to-date conversion rates.
The climate is tropical, and conditions often very hot and humid. The rainy season runs from June to December, when heavy downpours are the norm. The prevailing winds come from the Caribbean and potentially devastating tropical storms or hurricanes are not uncommon during the wet season. The driest time of year, and the best time to visit, is between January and April, although the coastal regions can experience rainfall at any time of year.
San Ignacio - a relaxed town under an hour from the capital, Belmopan. Enclosed by rainforest, this is a superb area for eco-tourism. Belize Explorer is just one of the local operators offering guided canoe trips on the nearby Macal, Mopan and Belize rivers. Hiking, birdwatching and caving are also possible in this spectacular region.
Five Blues Lake National Park - protected since 1991, the park encompasses over 4000 acres of rugged limestone terrain and broadleaved forest, with the lake itself covering over 10 acres. Deep in the Maya Mountains, the area is full of unexplored cave systems, as well as a profusion of wildlife that includes rare orchids and more than 200 species of birds. The Belize Cayes - beyond the barrier reef lie the coral atolls of Turneffe Island Reef, Glovers Reef and Lighthouse Reef, all offering superlative scuba diving. The reefs are exposed at low tide and the calm, sheltered waters are beautifully clear and luminous. As well as stunning coral formations, divers can expect to see snapper, barracuda, angelfish and the odd nurse shark or manta ray.
Mayan archaeology - Belize is home to eight major Mayan sites, which are wonderfully mysterious places to visit. In western Belize lies Xunantunich, built during the Maya Classic Era ï¿½ the journey alone is an adventure, with a hand-cranked ferry to transport visitors over the Mopan River. The most impressive ruins in Belize, however, are found at Lamanai in the north of the country. More than 700 structures make up this ceremonial complex, with an archaeological museum on hand to explain the history of the site. The dense jungle and black howler monkeys make a trip to Lamanai an unforgettable experience.
The Fort Street Tourism Village in Belize City was created to cater for visiting cruise ships, boasting over fifty pleasantly air-conditioned craft shops. Also in Belize City, a marginally more authentic experience is to be found at the National Handicraft Center. Run by the Belize Chamber of Commerce, it sells many souvenirs, including carvings, furniture, ceramics and basket work. Your money will be supporting artisans from around the country if you shop here.
Belize doesn't cater for the younger crowd quite as well as other destinations in Central America, and it's really somewhere to come for peace and quiet rather than clubbing. Having said that, there is definitely still nightlife on offer. Up in the hills near the Guatemalan border, San Ignacio has a good social scene, while Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker in the north will have more appeal if a chilled-out surfer vibe is what you are after. All over Belize you will hear reggae and punta music being played - look out for local jumpups, which are basically punta parties that go on all night, or at least until the rum runs dry!
- In Belize, vehicles drive on the right.
- Drink driving is punishable by a fine, and the blood alcohol concentration limit (B.A.C.) is the same as in the UK - 0.08%. Drivers involved in an accident whilst intoxicated can face manslaughter charges.
- The speed limit is 55 mph on major highways, 25 mph on other roads, although these are infrequently heeded or indeed indicated.
- Seatbelts must be worn by drivers and front-seat passengers.
- Belize's five major highways are paved, but the remaining 80% of roads are dirt and can be challenging to drive along, particularly in the wet season.
- Look out for speed bumps, potholes and locals, including other drivers, cyclists and animals.
Food and Drink
Street stalls serve up tacos, empanadas, fish burgers and fruit - handy snacks if you're on the move. Traditional Creole cooking centres around rice and beans, with banana and plantain on the side and coconut, herbs and spices to add some interest. Seafood is excellent on the coast.
Belikin is the local beer, and rum and pineapple cocktails are also popular. A Belizean wine, made from cashew nuts, is produced in some parts of the country - it's worth a try but liable to give you a nasty headache if you overindulge!