Know Before You Travel to Belize
Although a relatively small country, Belize – approximately the same size as Massachusetts – it is home to one of the most diverse natural habitats on Earth. Few spots on the globe can rival the gorgeous tropical landscape, complete with an enormous coral reef offshore. On land, the Belizean countryside is dotted with the ruins of huge Mayan cities, interspersed in a kaleidoscope of tropical rainforests and jungles. The people of Belize are a patchwork of indigenous and local cultures, with a rich history and proud craftsmanship traditions still preserved in hundreds of villages.
For many years, tourists neglected Belize in favor of more popular destination spots in Mexico such as Cancun, Cozumel, and Tulum. But today, Belize is becoming increasingly popular as vacationers can luxuriate in jungle lodges, climb large Maya temples, snorkel in the crystal clear waters, and relax in the slow-paced lifestyle that characterizes much of Belize. Located on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, Belize has hundreds of miles of gorgeous beaches, while inland rain forests and mountain slopes are home to large nature reserves. Over 450 small islands (known locally as “cayes”) and atolls can be found just off the coast, offering unparalleled opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and diving.
The largest island in Belize, Ambergris Caye, is a popular destination spot for visitors. A true tropical paradise, the island has laid-back beaches with waterfront bars, and the island is home to numerous clubs and places to dance until dawn.
How to Save Money in Belize
Belize is still one of the most affordable places to visit in Central America, but the budget-conscious traveler can save money and explore this beautiful country by:
- Visit during the low season – Otherwise known as the green season, lodging and entertainment is between 30-50% cheaper from June and October than during the peak months. As long as you don’t mind the occasional light rain shower, you’ll be able to explore Belize in all of its glory during these less popular months.
- Inquire about family discounts – Many hotels and resorts offer special pricing for children under the age of 12, and most also offer baby-sitting services. Many rooms also feature small kitchenettes, as well as extra amenities, so be sure to ask about special family discounts when booking your room.
- Take the bus – While some visitors prefer to rent their own car, gasoline is quite expensive in Belize. It’s usually far cheaper to take one of the numerous public buses. Watch out though for the infamous “chicken buses”, decrepit overcrowded vehicles that offer little in the way of safety or comfort.
Culture and Customs in Belize
Before becoming an overseas British colony, the land now known as Belize was the heartland of the Ancient Mayan Empire. Functioning as an important trade route for goods and valuable resources between what is now Guatemala and Mexico during the Classic Period of the Mayan Empire (roughly A.D. 250 to 950), Belize was also an important religious center as well. Visitors to Belize can explore more than 1,400 different known Mayan religious, ceremonial, and urban sites.
In the early part of the 17th century, Belize came under the jurisdiction of the British Empire, which is why English is the official language of this Central American country. The British established numerous sugar plantations, bringing in Creole peoples and the Garifuna from nearby Caribbean islands. Officially known as “British Honduras” until 1981, today Belize is a rich blend of different cultures and traditions.
With approximately 350,000 residents, Belize is home to over a dozen distinct cultures. The largest ethnic group in the country are known as Mestizos (Spanish for “mixed”), descended from European and Mayan ancestors. The second largest population group are the Creoles, forming about a quarter of the population, descended from peoples originally from other locations in the Caribbean. Other ethnic groups in Belize include the descendants of the Maya, including peoples of the Yucatec, Mopan, and Ketchi tribes. Also present are the Garifuna, who arrived in Belize just over 100 years ago, a mix of African emigrants who escaped persecuting in nearby Caribbean islands. Other ethnic groups found in Belize include British, German, East Indian, Spanish, and people of Mexican descent.
Related:Where is Belize?
The official language of Belize is English, which most of the population speaks. Also quite popular is Spanish, spoken by about half of the people in the country, as well as the Creole and Garifuna languages. With plenty of retired immigrants from Canada and the United States, Belize is a true melting pot, with dozens of different cultures living peacefully together. Known for their hospitality and laid-back friendly attitude, the people of Belize are truly special.
The dress code in Belize, even for most formal events, is rather casual, with shorts and sandals perfectly appropriate almost everywhere. Due to its abundant coastline and rich ethnic heritage, the food in Belize is a mix of Caribbean and African influences, with lots of local seafood delicacies including conch served with beans and rice, chimole, and shrimp ceviche. The fertile tropical soil of Belize means that you can always get fantastic fresh fruit, as well as cashew, cacao (chocolate), sopadilla, and soursop.
Bottled water is a must, as it is not recommended that you drink tap water unless you are sure it has been purified and boiled. The U.S. State Department also advises visitors to Belize to get vaccinated for hepatitis A and typhoid, as well as ensuring that your vaccinations for tetanus and diphtheria are still valid.
When eating in restaurants, tipping between 10 and 20% is expected for good service, and cash is always preferred. There’s no need to tip taxi drivers, as fares are all-inclusive.
The local currency in Belize is known as the Belizean Dollar (BZD), but American dollars are accepted almost everywhere. The Belizean Dollar is permanently pegged to the American dollar at a 2 to 1 ratio (2 Belizean Dollars are 1 U.S. dollar), making it very easy to convert prices.
Tourism forms the biggest part of the local economy, and most tourist spots are very safe. Nonetheless, it is wise to always be vigilant against petty thefts and pickpocketing. Organized crime has gained a foothold in this otherwise laid-back country, particularly strong in Belize City, where violent crime has recently seen an upsurge. When traveling to Belize, it is recommended that you stay in groups, monitor your belongings at all times, and always carry a copy of your passport with you.
Ten things to know before traveling to Belize
Belize is the vacation destination of a lifetime waiting to happen. It is incredibly beautiful and warmly welcoming. It comfortably close to home for Northern American visitors. It is surprisingly affordable and is sure to provide tons of fun for all members of the family but before booking your adventure vacation to the “Jewel” here’s what you need to know.
1.) It was home to ancient Mayan cities and civilizations and there are many ruins and archaeological sites scattered across the country. These mysterious historical monuments offer a glimpse into the past of the people who once inhabited the land.
2.) Belize was first occupied by Spain but later became a British colony. It was granted independence from Great Britain in 1981 and remains a member of the Commonwealth nations.
3.) It is locked in an age-old territorial dispute with Guatemala, which claims Belize as part of its territory. The countries are currently in the process of arranging measures to settle the dispute in the International Court of Justice.
4.) Early in the country’s development, its economy depended heavily on agriculture and later oil but now tourism is the number one foreign exchange earner hence its emphasis on providing an excellent tourist experience.
5.) The exchange rate from Belize to US dollars is 2:1 meaning tourists get more bang for their buck. Credit cards are accepted but having cash on hand is encouraged since ATMs are few and most businesses charge 5 percent for using credit cards.
Related: Best Time to Visit Belize
6.) There are no Visa requirements for citizens of the European Union, CARICOM, the US, Costa Rica, Chile, Guatemala, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Uruguay and Commonwealth territories.
7.) There is a US $35 departure tax to be paid when leaving the country.
8.) Visitors can legally drive in Belize with an international driver’s license and a passport.
9.) There are plenty of bugs and insects in Belize so visitors are advised to keep bug spray and repellent handy.
10.) Tipping is not mandatory but is encouraged. Also, some restaurant bills come with a 10 percent service charge added on.
Once you know the basics then it’s time to hit the beach at any of the award-winning world class resorts in dreamy coastal towns such as San Pedro, Caye Caulker or Placencia. If you fancy something a little less salty there are plenty more resorts located inland with spectacular mountain and jungle views. The small size of the country means getting from the beach to the mountains is just a short drive away.
Belize is a wonderful destination for an unforgettable romantic getaway or a relaxing family retreat. Belize is also the only Central American nation with English as its first language. It’s also home to the second largest barrier reef system in the world. Its small population (360,000) includes a richly diverse cultural mix and the residents are friendly, hospitable and are willing to accommodate. Many tourists come to Belize and enjoy the experience so much they keep coming back for more!