Your adrenaline revs in the frenzy of bright buildings and animated crowds upon your landing in San Pedro, one of the most colorful towns on Ambergris Caye in Belize. Religion runs deep here; neon signs flash the word of the Lord at you from your first steps outside the airport. You don’t have to be Christian to feel inspired by the pulse of faith beating at the heart of this charming town.
A shop owner treats you to a ready smile and a wealth of knowledge. Hawking their wares along the beach or on the main drag, walking alongside you in the street, the locals urge you not to miss the Chicken Drop. This national game involves placing bets on a giant checkered board. A moderator combs the crowd for a volunteer, who lifts up a chicken, swings it around in a circle three times, shakes it three times (it “quickens the process,” the locals say), and places it on the board. Riotous laughter explodes from the players watching, anticipating… If the chicken takes a lucky poop on your number, you win the betting profits. It’s literally a crapshoot.
Belizeans welcome tourists with open arms. Though Belize is still a developing Central American nation, its growing tourism industry is catapulting the country into a higher economic bracket. Belize claimed independence from the Europeans in 1981 and left behind its former name, British Honduras, as a vestige of its former subjugation to external powers. But because of a shared history with Great Britain, modern Belize is a melting pot of cultural influences: Maya (Belize’s true original inhabitants), Mestizo (Mayan and European), Creole (African and European), and Garifuna (descendants of African slaves and the Caribbean people). A burgeoning Mennonite community even calls Belize home. Nearly all residents speak English, Belize’s official national language, and Spanish.
Belize consists of six districts and more than 1,000 islands. Roughly twice the size of Jamaica and just under the size of Massachusetts, Belize borders Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea. In July 2011 the population of Belize was estimated to be just under 330,000. Although this figure may seem large for such a small, mostly rural country, Belize is the least populated of the seven Central American nations. The exchange rate generally hovers around twice the American dollar. Track exchange rates carefully and count your change. Oftentimes Belizean shopkeepers “accidentally” miscalculate in order to make more money on a sale. Most places accept American credit cards, so unless you want to shell out five bucks for a $1 Twinkie fix, opt to pay with plastic.
Rainforests blanket nearly 60% of the country and represent one of the top draws for tourists. It’s easy to get lost in the thick of the jungle, but a good guide and a well-worn path will keep you off the track to serious trouble. In the first ten minutes of a hike, your Belizean guide tells you exactly how to survive. Your guide shows you how to avoid army ants so they don’t latch onto your scent and swarm you. You learn to break open coconuts with rocks. You slash tree roots to find an ample supply of water. You discover you can raid a termite nest for sustenance (don’t worry, they’re extraordinarily nutritious, and they taste like fresh mint).
Coastal areas offer world-class diving on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-longest barrier reef in the world. Choose from a wide selection of aquatic adventures available in Belize: snorkeling, scuba, kayaking, and cave tubing. All of these excursions promise to be brilliantly colored by unique wildlife species and stunning scenery.
The staples of traditional Belizean food are red beans, chicken, and coconut milk rice. You can find a meal composed of these simple ingredients pretty much everywhere you go, and it’s definitely worth a taste. The tender chicken falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. Clean coconut notes accent the earthy tanginess of the beans. Sample another Belizean specialty, limeade, for instant refreshment: cane sugar and tart lime juice mingling in pure, ice-cold water. Try it once and your mouth will water at the thought forever after.
Belize’s wet season lasts from June to November, dry season from December to May. Most travelers visit during dry season. If you’re among them, be sure to bring ample sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. The UV index in Belize ranges from eight (very high) to eleven (extreme). The sun bakes you to a crisp in half an hour if you forget the SPF. Tourism swells in the heat – holiday vacations and spring breaks take place during dry season – and wanes in the wet season. “Wet” might mean a fifteen-minute shower every afternoon, or days of torrential downpours. You can plan your trip around the weather, or just pack a poncho and climb on board for the ride in wet-season Belize.
Mayan ruins hidden in the rainforest provide a tactile link to Belize’s past. Closer to rock climbing than to a Stairmaster workout, the trek up the steps of the High Temple at Lamanai really gets your heart pumping. You grasp the rope installed to help visitors ascend the steep staircase, your thighs burning. But once you reach the summit, it’s the incredible view that leaves you breathless, not the climb. One sweep of your gaze provides a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding rainforest, high above the canopy and the New River lagoon. The thought of ancient Mayans standing where you do now is humbling. The open air and the serenity of this spot temporarily quell your wanderlust. For a moment, you stand still listening to the echoes of history.
Aldous Huxley wrote of Belize: “If the world had any ends Belize would be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere, to anywhere else. It is all but uninhabited.” Rich with cultural influences, humming with the sounds of the rainforest and the mysteries of the Maya, Belize captivates and inspires you. Because of its innumerable facets of beauty, this country evokes something unique in everyone.