I seem to have acquired a new trend to my travels — I head to a new country that I’ve heard good things about and seen some pretty photos of, but don’t actually know that much about. I go in without expectations, having done little to no research, and simply open myself up to whatever happens.

So far, this has actually been a surprisingly good approach to traveling. It has left me pleasantly surprised in places like Romania and Bulgaria; in Iceland and Slovenia. I’ve made some great memories, and learned a few things along the way.

Most recently, I approached a trip to Belize and Guatemala in this way. I had heard rave reviews of Belize, but didn’t actually know much about the Central American nation at all.

Belize bus station

As it turns out, Belize is pretty darn interesting, despite being tiny. Here are some things I learned about the country:

Ties to Britain

Belize is the only nation in the region with a British colonial heritage. The Spanish conquistadors originally explored Belize and claimed it for Spain, but they decided not to settle it because of a lack of resources. Eventually they handed the colony over to the British, who first appointed a superintendent over the Belize area in the 1780s and formally declared it a British colony in 1854, calling it British Honduras. Belize was granted independence from Britain in 1964, and became “Belize” in 1973. However, according to the CIA World Factbook, border disputes between the UK and Guatemala delayed Belize’s actual independence until 1981. Today, it is still a Commonwealth country.

Curiously (to me, at least), they do NOT drive on the opposite side of the road in Belize. I had expected them to, since their ties to the UK are so strong and so recent. But they don’t.

The prevalence of English

Perhaps because of its ties to the British Empire, the official language in Belize is not Spanish, but English. Nearly everyone in the country speaks it, which is almost odd since it is completely the opposite if you cross the border into neighboring Guatemala or Mexico. However, most Belizeans speak English as a second language, with Spanish and Kriol (Belizean Creole) being more prevalent.

Belize

Caribbean vibe

Even though Belize is situated firmly in Central America, the country has a distinctly Caribbean vibe to it. Perhaps it’s because of the English influence, or the fact that Belize is on the Caribbean Sea. Or perhaps it’s neither of those reasons. Regardless, Belize felt less to me like a Latin country, and much more like a Caribbean one (especially out on Caye Caulker, where the Rasta culture is alive and well).

Mayan history

Before the Brits (or any Europeans, for that matter) came in, Belize’s main population was the Maya. Even though most people associate the Maya with Mexico, the civilization actually extended through Belize, Guatemala, and even Honduras at its height. The largest Maya city in Belize was Caracol (which you can still visit today), and it’s estimated that, at one point, up to 400,000 Mayas lived in the area that is now Belize.

Cahal Pech Maya ruins, Belize

Small population, size

Believe it or not, there are actually less people in Belize today than there were in the Pre-Columbian Maya days. There are only a little over 300,000 inhabitants in Belize these days, giving it one of the lowest population densities in Central America.

The country of Belize itself is small, though — it’s not much larger size-wise than the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Belize Barrier Reef

Off the coast of Belize lies part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches from the upper Yucatan peninsula all the way down to Honduras, making it the second-largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Because of how close the reef is to the coast of Belize, it is easily the country’s top tourist attraction, popular with both snorkelers and divers.

Belize Barrier Reef

Exchange rate

The exchange rate in Belize is $2 Belizean dollars to every $1 USD. It has been this way for decades, and will probably remain this way for decades more. Most places in the country will accept either Belizean or American money.

The dark side

I’d be remiss talking about Belize if I only focused on the good or safe facts. Like any country, Belize has its issues. Issues like poverty and bad roads and violence that cannot be glossed over.

Belize currently has a heavy foreign debt burden, high unemployment, and a massive income disparity between the rich and the poor (more than 40% of Belizeans currently live in poverty). The country also has a high rate of HIV/AIDS, growing involvement in the Mexican and South American drug trade, and gang violence in cities like Belize City.

I’m not sharing this to scare you off of visiting Belize; I’m just simply pointing it out because you DO see evidence of most of this while traveling here. The roads are mostly unpaved, there are many run-down houses and huts, you are not advised to drink the water, and Belize City is certainly not a place I would ever want to go walking around in on my own. However, the positive things about the country — the friendly people, the beautiful landscapes, the interesting history, the uncrowded destinations — more than make up for Belize’s shortcomings.

Belize jungle

 

Overall, my experience in Belize was an extremely positive one. I learned all of these things about the country, plus one more:

I also learned that Belize is definitely a place I want to go back to.

——

Have you been to or would you like to go to Belize?

 

 

*Note: I explored Belize as part of a complimentary “Land of Belize” trip with Intrepid Travel. As always, though, all opinions are my own.

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37 Responses to The Truth About Belize

  1. Magu Bee says:

    It’s been a big dream of mine, and one of the first points on my Bucket List, to go to Belize. Sounds just as exciting as I’d imagine it!

    Plus, what you say in the very beginning – for the last 3 years I’ve been traveling without usually as much as even looking at a guidebook, let alone getting it for myself or following it along the road. Not having expectations is the best thing we can do, not only while traveling but in life in general.

  2. Rebecca says:

    It’s only been recently (since you started writing the blog posts about Belize) that I’ve actually wanted to go. I’d never really given it much thought before. But now, Caye Caulker is one of the top things I want to do in the whole world! It looks so sunny and quiet :) Belize is DEFINITELY a place I want to go to!

  3. memographer says:

    I always find some new info in your posts, Amanda :) I would, definitely, learn Spanish before going to Belize :) and driving on the right side… that’s awesome! Would love to visit Mayan Caracol one day.
    memographer recently posted..The Miracles Of Polaroid: Girl With A Red Hat

  4. Lucy says:

    Good to see Belize getting some blog love – it’s one of those places that doesn’t seem to get mentioned much. Can’t wait to get out there myself this time next year, I’m going to be doing a few weeks on a backpacking honeymoon around the country. Helpful to know my terrible Spanish won’t be a problem too!
    Lucy recently posted..The View from the Shard in the snow

    • DangerousBiz says:

      That sounds like an awesome honeymoon, Lucy! I would definitely consider Belize a great, little-known honeymoon destination. Such diversity in a small area!

  5. Alouise says:

    My mom’s friend has a property on Ambergris Caye and the pictures she always shows looks fantastic. I knew a few of these, but I didn’t know Belize’s population was so low. That kind of surprised me.
    Alouise recently posted..My Canada- It’s Fantastic

  6. Belize is definitely on my radar for 2013!
    Bethaney – Flashpacker Family recently posted..Travel Hacking New Zealand: Transportation on the Cheap

  7. Andrew says:

    I’m in Caye Caulker right now! 3rd time in the last 12 months!

  8. Sofie says:

    Very interesting post. Learned a lot here. Darn, I realize I sound SO general here, but I mean it! I must admit I knew nothing about Belize except that it existed.
    I must say it looks ‘nice’, but it doesn’t make me go: “I want to go NOOOOOOW!”.
    Sofie recently posted..Stick your tongue out against cancer!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I feel like most people don’t know very much about Belize. (In fact, my grandma DIDN’T even know that it existed, and didn’t believe me that it was a real place! She requested a postcard as proof. Haha.)

      And, as for making you want to go there right now, check out my post on Caye Caulker. ;) That might convince you!

  9. really appreciate this article and the honesty in it. I had never heard of this place before but Its a place I would now love to go to. Its interesting to think you can see evidence of the bad parts of the country, yet the reef looks so beautiful!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Belize is like any other country, really. It has its shortcomings and failings, but there are a lot of great things about it, too!

      And yes, the reef is amazing!

  10. Travis says:

    Fantastic post! I spent a couple months doing research in Belize last year and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. The people were kind (I was even able to stay with a Mayan family in their house for a while), the Mayan sites were amazing, and the reef was absolutely stunning. Belize is definitely not for those accustomed to “package tours” (unless you head to Ambergris Caye), but the reward is definitely worth it. I do agree on the “roughness” of some parts of the country (I needed an armed escort for some areas I needed to head to), but for the majority of the time I felt safe and welcomed. From wading through Actun Tunichil Muknal to see crystallized skeletal remains of ancient Mayan sacrifices to diving and snorkeling with Whale Sharks near Placencia, Belize is definitely a place worth the visit. Again, great post and safe travels.
    Travis recently posted..The Mystery of Stonehenge

  11. Red Hunt says:

    I enjoyed Belize for it’s compactness and easy communications as well. It takes awhile to get used to armed guards and violence when travelling through Central America, but I never felt unsafe in Belize, despite being quasi-kidnapped one night.
    As with most countries in Central, just skip over their capital city, and your impression will likely be more positive!
    Red Hunt recently posted..Getting Buggy in Borneo

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Good tip on the skipping the capital cities part. I think I would probably agree with that!

      But, like you, I never found myself feeling unsafe in Belize.

  12. Charlotte says:

    I’ve been to Belize before, and, like the locals say “You gotta SEEZ it to BELIZE it!” ;)
    Charlotte recently posted..Paulaner am Dom

  13. Sam says:

    To be honest, the main thing I had heard about Belize was its reputation (among Central American countries) as a country that is not welcoming to same-sex couples, and apparently (at least according to Wikipedia), there is a “heavy penalty” for homosexual acts. I know there are plenty of countries where it’s apparently a lot worse (Saudi Arabia and its death penalty comes to mind), but considering that Mexico has marriage equality in some states, and that Belize’s other neighbours don’t seem too bothered about the matter, I never considered visiting if/when we travel in that region. However, you’ve painted a very nice image of the country, so we may have to reconsider!
    Sam recently posted..Have We Made a Mistake?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I had not heard anything about a lack of tolerance for homosexuality in Belize, and I didn’t personally see any evidence of it while I was there. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there, of course. Interesting! Now I want to know more.

  14. Jenna says:

    A friend of mine owns a wonderful yoga studio that does retreats every year, and they did one in Belize a couple of years ago. The photos and stories made me really want to go there, and I like the fact that it’s not far from the U.S. (compared to Brazil, for example). Thank you for the comprehensive information!
    Jenna recently posted..I’m an AFAR Ambassador!

  15. amelia says:

    I read this http://www.belizenorth.com/expats.htm who is a real travel consultant, and an expat and wondered why your description is so different. I’ve done a lot of research on Belize and most of it is like this ex-pats. Are you real? or are you just an SEO plant?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’m not sure what your question really is, Amelia? I am very real, and I didn’t really write anything about living as an expat in Belize (since I only have experience visiting as a tourist). So not really sure what you’re comparing?

    • Veronika says:

      I was in Belize in May-June this year and loved it. Sure there were moments of aarrgghhh… but all in all – I am on my way back right now! The post you mentioned is written as seen through the eyes of someone who is LIVING in the country. Besides many of her points reminded me a small child whining… Things are different in different countries – that’s just the way it is. Banks can be terribly irritating in Norway too and so on. The easiest way to enjoy living in another country is to learn to take it easy and to accept a few things. I have lived abroad for more than 10 years so I know what I am talking about ;) Caye Caulker, here I am again – already tomorrow!

    • Pete says:

      It’s nice to read all the comments I was born and raised in Belize lived in Canada for the past 14 years we move back to Belize a year ago. And so far have no plans of leaving there so many different things to do it’s a perfect place to visit perfect place to raise a family I can’t imagine dragging my kids anywhere else. Just stay away from Belize city

      • DangerousBiz says:

        Haha, I like that even you advise avoiding Belize City… It’s definitely not a very nice place. But the rest of Belize (at least, what I’ve seen of it) is lovely!

  16. Audrey says:

    I love all of your posts! I’m a smalltown Ohio girl myself, and I think it is wonderful you are able to travel the way you do! Thank you for your take on Belize. :-)

  17. Rashaad says:

    Random question: Did you visit Belmopan?
    Rashaad recently posted..New Year’s Day

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