October 12, 2011
The crowds in Belize City, full of shouts and cheers and celebratory energy, engulf you as you stand along the shore. You begin to share in the collective anticipation. The colorful sails of the regattas rush past, stirring up a breeze that tickles your face. Over the waves the sailors hurry their regattas forward in hopes of winning the day. The harbor erupts when the fastest regatta finishes the race. The noise fills your ears; you breathlessly cry out, joining your voice with the voices of Belizeans on this national holiday, Pan-American Day.
Formerly known as Columbus Day, Pan-American Day takes place on October 12th every year in Belize. What began as a commemoration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas is now feted as one of Belize’s national holidays. It’s a day for Belizeans to celebrate the life and culture of their own country. They honor especially the Mestizo and Mayan cultures of Belize. Nobody works, all businesses close, but the people are busier than they’ve ever been. On Pan-American Day, Belizeans gather with friends and family, make music (and dance to it), eat and drink, relax, and compete!
The high-powered regatta race represents only the tip of the iceberg for Pan-American Day competitions in Belize. Sporting events occur all over the country. National and international runners and bicyclists participate in a two-day Hike and Bike the Rainforest competition in Cayo. Hearts pumping, sweat pouring, these athletes help raise money to preserve the rainforest. It’s easy to get swept up in the competitive spirit of Belizeans on Pan-American Day. Running and biking aficionados from all over the world visit Belize every year for this great cause.
The charming town of San Pedro hosts the Belikin Spectacular, one of the largest billfishing tournaments. Top prizes exceed $10,000 and draw expert anglers from all over the world. Horse and cycle races add some excitement to fiestas throughout the country.
If sports wear you out, head over to the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts. Here you will see Belizeans wearing traditional dress, dancing down the streets to Garifuna and Punta music, and holding a parade in celebration of Pan-American Day. Festivals in these two districts are known for being exuberant and colorful. Food vendors line the streets, calling for you to sample their cuisine (and capitalizing on everyone’s good mood – some sausage vendors will charge you extra for a bun). Local artists display their work throughout the district, and you’ll get to chat with Belize’s most talented painters and craftspeople, and buy direct from the artist if a piece strikes your fancy. Gorgeous hand-painted Mayan calendars persist as a favorite item; you’ll feel like you snagged an authentic archaeological relic, except with brighter, fresher paint and newer stone. If you’re looking for an inexpensive souvenir unique to Belize culture, a Mayan calendar is the way to go.
For a glimpse of living beauty, watch Belizean women walk the stage and vie for the title in the Miss Pan-Am Pageant. The beauty contest takes place annually on Pan-American Day in Orange Walk. With the diverse cultural influences of this sun-kissed, vibrant nation, it’s unsurprising to find scores of stunning women in Belize.
Pan-American Day in Belize happens to fall right in the middle of a week celebrating you, the visiting traveler! Belizean officials sponsor a Tourism Week every mid-October featuring fairs, raffle drawings, Dutch and silent auctions, and many other activities. The merriment is contagious this time of year in Belize. If you remember Columbus Day from grade school as a day of singing rhyming songs (“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) about a man who exacted a dubiously positive influence on the native cultures of Central America… well, travel to Belize and gain a whole new perspective on this extraordinary corner of the world.