Benque Viejo del Carmen Town
Widely known simply as “Benque” to locals, Benque Viejo del Carmen is the westernmost population center in Belize. Situated a mile from the Guatemalan town of Melchor de Mencos, Benque Viejo del Carmen is some 81 miles (130 kilometers) west of Belize City. The George Price Highway (formerly known as the Western Highway) runs from Belize City through Belmopan and onto Benque Viejo del Carmen.
Despite its Spanish-language name which refers to the Church of Our Lady of Mount Ramel, Benque is a fully bilingual town with a full complement of schools, shops, banks, and other facilities. Approximately 8,000 people live in Benque Viejo del Carmen, the majority of which are either of Maya or Mestizo (indigenous peoples of Mexico) descent. Many children from Guatemala cross into Benque Viejo del Carmen every day to attend school and to learn English because the town is home to the only official land crossing between the two nations.
Movie director Caleb Botton filmed many scenes in Benque Viejo del Carmen as part of his film “Seven Days in Carmel,” which covers all of the elaborate parades and celebrations held in Benque Viejo del Carmen during the Holy Week festivities held prior to Easter. Despite its Catholic and majority Spanish-speaking heritage, the town is also home to diverse offerings, including popular Chinese restaurants, boutique eateries, charming cafes, and a top-rated soccer (football) team. Benque Viejo del Carmen is also a popular stopover for people heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal or visitors interested in buying traditional Maya fabrics made in Guatemala.
In the modern era, Benque was first settled by ethnic Maya coming in from nearby Flores in Guatemala. Originally primarily used as a lumber camp thanks to its position along the Mopan River, the majority of the population were converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid 19th century. The Catholic Church continues to operate several churches and schools in the town.
Due to its low cost of living and nearby land crossing into Guatemala, there is also a small but significant population of expats who live in Benque Viejo del Carmen. The town also regularly draws in larger crowds on national holidays and other celebrations due to its lively festivals, fairs, music concerts, parades, and processions. Benque Viejo del Carmen is also considered the prime place to participate in Catholic celebrations for holidays like Easter and Christmas.