Orange Walk District is home to a mixture of cultures and some 40,000 residents
Orange Walk District
The beautiful Central American nation of Belize offers plenty of majestic vistas and landscapes. From its pristine beaches to its untouched jungles, the entire country is truly a sight to behold.
The Orange Walk District is undoubtedly one of the best examples of Belize’s natural beauty. Otherwise known as “Sugar City,” this picturesque region is located about an hour from Belize City and 30 miles from Corozal Town. The area is inhabited by more than 40,000 people, making it the third most populous district in the country. Due to the Mexican influence in the region, Spanish and Creole are the most commonly spoken languages in the Orange Walk District.
For visitors to the Orange Walk District, there is plenty to see and do. The ancient Maya ruins at Lamanai and Cuello are always particularly popular. At these historic sites, travelers can immerse themselves in the Maya culture and get an up-close look at how the Maya people lived and worshipped.
The storied history of the Orange Walk District does not stop there, however. It is also home to two 19th century forts. It is believed that Fort Cairns and Fort Mundy were erected by the British Honduras West India Regiment after battles with the locals. Both sites can still be visited today.
Of course, the Orange Walk District is also famous for its vast expanses of untouched jungle. Travelers to the region can go on an adventure into the wilderness in search of a cascading waterfall or a rare bird. In fact, the region’s jungles are home to more than 400 different species of birds – making it the perfect place to relax with a journal and some binoculars.
The Orange Walk District’s abundance of trees made it an ideal location to set up a logging operation – which is exactly what the locals did until the late 19th century. They would cut down trees and float the timber down the New River and on to Belize City where it was then exported to other regions of the world.
Though travelers to Belize have no shortage of superb options to choose from when picking out the best places to visit during their vacation, the Orange Walk District should sit near the top of every list. Its combination of stunning natural beauty and historic sites makes it the perfect place to take in just about everything Belize has to offer.
Orange Walk Town
Orange Walk Town is the fourth largest town in Belize and is located 53 miles north of Belize City. The town is known for its diversity and visitors come to explore Mayan sites like Cuello and Lamanai (pictured above) and a variety of other natural parks.
If you are looking for ideas on what to do once you are in Orange Walk Town, below are our top 9 favorite things we recommend.
The Top Things to See and do in Orange Walk
Altun Ha – This is one of Belize’s most popular tourist attractions where you’ll find the largest ancient pyramid, the Temple of the Masonry Altars. The Temple is 54 feet tall and dates back to the 7th Century. Climb to the top for a spectacular view!
Shipstern Nature Reserve – With more than 27,000 protected acres, this nature reserve is home to wetlands, lagoons, and tropical forests. All five cat species, along with the endangered Baird’s Tapir and over 300 species of birds are found here.
Cuello – Cuello is the oldest Mayan site found in Belize. To see this magnificent relic, you’ll need permission from the Cuello family as it’s located on their own private land.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary– If you enjoy birdwatching, then you’ll love the sanctuary! Located on 25 square miles, you’ll see over 286 species of birds in their natural habitat of swamps, lagoons, and waterways.
Lamanai – It’s one of Belize’s largest ceremonial centers and means “submerged crocodile”. Found on the New River, the 24 miles of Mayan relics is filled with wildlife, birds, and beautiful scenery. Some of the ruins are: temples, plazas, colonial structures, and a visitor’s center. There is also a colonial sugar mill and the remnants of two 16th century Spanish churches.
Mennonite Communities – Orange Walk is known for its Mennonite communities. It’s not uncommon to find farmers with their horse-drawn carriages here.
La Inmaculada Church– Located in the center of town, this Spanish colonial church is a reminder of the influence the Spaniards had in Belize’s history.
Rio Bravo Conservation & Management Area – The area of Rio Bravo is 4% of Belize’s land area and is a protected rainforest. It’s not unusual to see jaguars, toucans, iguanas, and over 400 species of birds living here.
La Milpa – This is the third largest archeological reserve in Belize. At least 85 major structures and 24 plazas have been identified.
Honey Camp Lagoon – Honey Camp Lagoon is a freshwater lagoon in Orange Walk. The lagoon is located approximately 9 miles away from Orange Walk Town.
Banquitas House of Culture – Las Banquitas House of Culture offers a unique historical collection depicting the evolution of northern Belize.
5 Can’t-Miss Things to do in Orange Walk
Do you love surprises? If you’re nodding your head yes, include Orange Walk, a small district with big tourism perks, next time you fill your itinerary. Orange Walk is not like the party meccas tourists usually pick; rather sites and experiences will pique your curiosity and keep you engaged, whether you intend to spend your entire vacation there or you’ll just visit for a day or two.
Often referred to as an explorer’s playground because there’s a unique mix of commercial interests, ancient Maya ruins and sport-focused activities, plenty of people come to Orange Walk simply because it’s a foodie heaven where diverse cuisines merge to make the town a gourmet’s paradise. In other words, stay away if you don’t intend to bring your appetite and taste buds.
You’re welcome to read travel books, scour the Internet and ask friends what they recommend you put on your Orange Walk itinerary, but in case their lists fall short of a comprehensive menu of things to do and see, our 5 suggestions could be the highlights of your stay.
1. Eat up. Treat yourself to Orange Walk-style tacos filled with onion, cabbage, chicken, pork or all of the above. If tacos aren’t your thing, try pibil, an authentic Maya dish made by slow-cooking and hearth-searing whole pigs that cook so long, meat falls off the bone. Taste the light side of Orange walk by indulging in ceviche or salpicon and if you’ve room for dessert, keep this in mind: Belize has been called the chocolate capital of the region.
2. Visit Lamanai Maya archaeological site where you can work off some of the food you just consumed. Located along the New River Lagoon shore, you can reach this ruin by either boat or car. On your way, enjoy side shows put on by area wildlife. And in case you enter a trivia contest back home, knowing that the Maya name Lamani translates as “Submerged Crocodile” could cement your reputation as a brainiac.
3. Explore the New River Lagoon itself. It is one of the nation’s top birdwatching spots, so bring binoculars and your birding guidebook. This river was critical to Belize trade for centuries and it’s the longest river within Belize boundaries as well as being nation’s largest body of fresh water. Look for blue-crowned matmots, turtles, iguanas, bats and, of course, crocodiles.
4. Honey Camp Lagoon offers visitors a beach experience that can’t be surpassed. Once ground zero for Maya ceremonies and rituals circa 1000 AD and 1500 AD, you likely won’t find artifacts or sacrificial remains, but the lush beach gives visitors an opportunity to chill out and use their imaginations while digging their feet into the sand.
5. Can’t get enough Maya history? La Milpa Archaeological Reserve adds to your understanding of centuries of occupation by Mayans whose civilization was one of the most advanced in the hemisphere. There are 24+ plazas to stroll; each one is hidden amid lush forest that gives visitors an idea of what life was like during the occupation of this ancient society.
What’s next? Visit Ice Break in Orange Walk where homemade ice creams are the talk of the town. You may not be familiar with flavors like sugar corn, peanut, sour sop and craboo, but remember that you’re in Orange Walk to discover surprises and enjoy guilty pleasures. When you’re asked which flavor you’d like to try, you won’t be the first visitor to sample several of them!
A Brief History of Orange Walk, Belize
Is it possible to write the history of a district that has been around since 2500 BC and not turn it into a mega-book? It is. Allow us to introduce Orange Walk, a tourist destination that’s loaded with character.
According to archaeologists working on a site named Cuello that is closest to Orange Walk, Belize, this land has been continually occupied by people undertaking sophisticated farming practices using primitive tools for centuries. Given the name Alcan (Land of the Canoe People), this thriving community farmed the land leaving little trace beside those primitive tools, yet ancestors provided the foundation for 600 years of Maya culture.
Having a vibrant, peaceful existence, these people were able to develop all manner of arts, science, innovation, and cultivation, yet despite being an epicenter of learning, architecture and the arts, this entire society literally vanished off the face of the earth around 925AD. Theories include everything from invaders from outer space to conquests by other tribes. For the moment, the mystery remains conjecture.
For the disappeared Maya and succeeding generations, farming and cultivation sustained people who were not exposed to outside influences until Spanish explorers arrived on the shores of Central America in the early 1500s. Indigenous peoples, some of whom were direct ancestors of early Mayas, were displaced as these outsiders brought with them subjugation, disease and African slaves.
Ultimately displaced by British conquering forces, Orange Walk came to be controlled by logwood cutters impressed by the wealth they could generate by harvesting and exporting hardwood from rainforests and jungles to England. This continued until the 1700s at which point, the battle for control between the Spanish and English was driven by the increasing demand for the woods that were being harvested in “the new world.”
Why is it important to mention the logging phenomenon? Because Orange Walk was most likely settled as a riverside logging camp thanks to its proximity to the New River that gave ships access to the Caribbean Sea. Historians believe the name Orange Walk was conferred upon the town by settlers enjoying the fruits of the orange trees that proliferated on the grounds of plantations owned by Europeans.
Conflict continued to ravage the region just as logging was destroying the ecosystem, but by the mid-1700s, the people had had enough of being subjugated and by 1798, revolutions at the site of St. George’s Caye caused the Spanish to give up and return to Spain, leaving the people to pick up the pieces of society while continuing to contend with British occupation.
Due to its proximity and value, Orange Walk continued to grow, surviving a War of Castes that brought refugees flocking there for safety as well as displaced Mexican, Maya and Africans brought as slaves to Central America.
By 1864, the British were so entrenched, Orange Walk became the site of occupying forces garrisons. By 1872, the village population was made up of 1,200 Creole and Mestizo people was brutally attacked by three waves of Indians. Orange Walk survived but was immediately fortified by building two fortresses constructed for the area’s defense between 1874 and 1876.
As time passed, the British occupation become a fact of life and intermarriage furthered the integration of society as buildings were built, improvements made, industries flourished and grew and the Catholic Church became a prominent part of Orange Walk, as still seen in the churches, cathedrals and number of practicing Catholics living in the area. Declaring its independence as a district from Corozal in 1881, Orange Walk became an epicenter of chicle gathering, subsistence farming, cattle and sugar enterprises, and logging continued to produce revenues from exports to England as late as 1875.
By 1900, Orange Walk had grown large enough to warrant a highway connecting it to Belize City which was completed in 1925, but it was the river that continued to be the major driver of activity as steamboats imported by the British started moving merchandise at a faster clip than ever before.
By 1939, the district had developed so unique a personality, even the ongoing wars and occupations that marked Orange Walk for so many centuries had become nothing more than a fascinating part of the area’s history.
Today, Orange Walk is the 4th largest town in Belize with a population that exceeds the 13,400 person census taken in 2010. As the capital of Orange Walk District, it bears the distinction of having survived some of the most volatile battles ever waged within Belize, including the Caste War of Yucatán and Battle of Orange Walk in 1872.
Nicknamed “Sugar City,” Orange Walk’s leading industry is sugar cane agriculture, refining, and exports, though, like other hot spots in Belize, Orange Walk is enjoying a thriving tourism industry as well as becoming a popular retirement area for ex-pats.
But perhaps the most notable Orange Walk distinction comes from the amalgam of cultures who remain today an example of diversity. Mestizos, Yucatec Mayas, Creoles, Mennonites, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indians, and other Central American cultures prove that even with a history of catastrophic wars, in peacetime, people can live together in harmony.
Contact us if you need assistance in planning your Orange Walk vacation.
Get a copy of The Ultimate Belize Bucket List! Written by Larry Waight, a local with more than twenty years of experience in the travel industry, the book is packed with tips, information, and recommendations about all of the best things to see and do in Belize.