Snuggled between Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, Belize is thoroughly Central American, but with its cayes lining the Mesoamerican reef, it also identifies bona fide Caribbean. What’s fascinating is that as you make your way through Belize, you’re bound to notice cultural influences that stretch far beyond Belize’s narrow geographic coordinates. With a history unlike that of any of its neighbors, the tiny nation of Belize enjoys an astoundingly diverse culture. Belize is a multi-cultured patchwork formed by indigenous peoples, pirates, exiles, former slaves, refugees and expatriates from all over the globe.
Early British settlers brought the English language, but it was the slaves imported from West Africa who brought Belize its reggae and rhythms. The Mayan people native to Belize maintain a vital presence in the country, despite their migration from coastal areas to inland regions soon after the arrival of European colonists. They continue to speak the Mayan language, eat traditional food, and wear their characteristic colorful clothing (which they also sell in marketplaces throughout the country).
As if three major ethnic groups in a small area weren’t interesting enough, the population of Belize also includes the Garifuna people. Mostly inhabiting southern Belize and centering in the town of Dangriga, the Garifuna are the descendants of native Carib Indians from the Leeward Islands who intermixed with African slaves, thereby creating a new race. Exiled to the Honduran island of Roatan in the late 1700s, the Garifuna made their way to the shores of Belize. A raucous national holiday on November 19th marks Garifuna Settlement Day, a festival punctuated by boatloads of palm-frond-waving Garifuna re-enacting the coastal landing of their ancestors.
Let’s not forget the Mestizo. In the midst of all of the civil war and strife that dominated Central America during the 1980s, many mestizo refugees from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras flooded the country, making mestizos of Mayan and Spanish ancestry one of the most prominent ethnic groups in Belize today.
East Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Mennonites also live in small communities throughout Belize. While these groups remain a small portion of the population, their threads too are interwoven into the history of Belize. Around the time of the Garifuna migration to Belize, East Indian indentured servants began arriving in Belize to work the sugar plantations. Even after indentured servitude ended in 1838, many East Indians remained, welcoming friends and relatives from their homeland to join them in their new paradise home. Also from the Asian continent, many native Chinese have been industriously opening stores and restaurants in Belize since shortly before WWII, when they fled a Japan-invaded China for Central America. Today, about 6,000 Chinese people continue to live in Belize. These Chinese business-owners share the marketplace with a tight community of Arab merchants from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria who arrived in Belize around the turn of the 19th century.
Mennonites are another small but important group living in Belize. You can visit their farming communities in The Orange Walk and Cayo Districts to taste wholesome organic produce, buy fine handmade furniture, and witness a traditional way of life that originated in Germany and today thrives in Belize.
Each of these ethnicities contributes to the rich collective culture of Belize. But the Garifuna in general, and a musician by the name of Andy Palacio in particular, have had a tremendous impact on Belizean music and dance. Whether you’re visiting Belize for the carnival festivities of a national holiday, or simply lounging at a local bar for some laid-back low-season relaxation, there’s a good chance you’ll hear the Punta-inspired rhythms of Andy Palacio. The corresponding punta dance is a sensual, gyrating style of dance, deeply rooted in African rhythms, that communicates the passion and vibrancy of the Belizean people.
According to my friend Mike, a former Peace Corps worker who spent two years entrenched in rural Belize, the punta is best described as “amazing and impossible.” The cultural heritage of the punta is so important to Belize that in 2001, UNESCO added the Garifuna language, dance, and music to the registry of Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
With all these different ethnicities coexisting in such a small area, you would expect a degree of animosity or racially-motivated strife. Fortunately, the people of Belize are renowned for being some of the most laid-back, hospitable citizens you could hope to encounter, and everyone seems to get along fine. Mike says, “Everyone who travels claims: ‘the people in X country are so kind,’ but Belizeans take it to the next level. The hospitality and generosity of the Belizean people is unparalleled.” Although he does let on to the existence of some underlying racial sentiments not visible upon the surface, he maintains that in spite of conflicting ideas, “everyone manages to live in peace and relative tranquility.”
The diverse cultural mix in Belize makes it a unique travel destination. In the scope of a single trip to Belize, you can bounce to reggaeton rhythms on the beach, negotiate with a mestizo fruit vendor in Spanish while finishing up breakfast en route to the cayes, buy some authentic Mayan pottery from a native woman who traces her ancestry back to ancient times, join in a Garifuna Day carnival and fall into a trance watching the punta, and talk diving with an English dive instructor whose relatives still live in London… only in Belize.