- A natural beauty
- Country life
- Piña coladas, getting caught in the rain
One of the world’s youngest countries, Belize has a landscape that shifts from Caribbean island paradise to jungle-clad mountain, and a culture that blends Mayan with Mennonite, European with Garifuna…
Inhabited by ancient Mayans migrating from Mexico, plundered by Spanish conquistadors, then colonised by European pirates, Belize has a chequered history. Since its independence in 1981, however, Central America’s most sparsely populated country has become known for the astonishing beauty of its landscape, the friendliness of its diverse people, and the incredible diving at the Barrier Reef, second only in size to its Australian counterpart. Lush rainforest, acres of pine reserves, white-water rivers, sacred stalactite caves and plunging waterfalls mark the inland Cayo region. Further south, manatee-filled mangrove swamps of the Placencia peninsula lie past vast inland prawn farms and a rapidly developing coastline, where the predominately Creole/Caribbean population enjoy a slow-paced life of palm-fringed bars, lively street jump-ups and lobster festivals. In the oceans to the east, banana-shaped Ambergris Caye (Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’), and its easygoing, easy-living town of San Pedro, attract travellers in search of fabulous fishing, diving, or whale-shark watching.
Beach roulette with chickens. Yes, you read that right. Every Wednesday evening in San Pedro for the last 20 years has been ‘Chicken Drop’ night. A giant, 100-square bingo card in laid out on the beach and a wire mesh suspended on top. An inexplicably enthusiastic crowd each bet a dollar on a square and a chicken is set loose upon the ‘board’. The pot goes to the one who has selected the square upon which the chicken eventually chooses to ‘drop’, and the lucky winner also gets to clean the board for the next round.
- Cabs are a cost-effective means of getting around – short trips within towns rarely cost more than a couple of dollars. Boat taxis travel regularly along the length of San Pedro in Ammbergris Caye and there’s a regular water bus that leaves from Fidos Bar at least once or twice an hour from the jetty. With a valid driver’s licence, you can also hire golf buggies for pootling around the town.
- Tipping culture
- More upmarket restaurants will automatically include a service charge, otherwise 10–15 per cent is the norm. Taxi drivers don’t usually expect a tip, but you can round up to the nearest dollar.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Shops generally open from 8am to 8pm, depending on the season. Banks usually close for the day at 1pm, but you can also change money at one of the numerous ATMs.
- Packing tips
- Insect repellent is essential for jungle trips and visits to the mangroves; an umbrella is more convenient than a waterproof jacket for sudden showers. Take closed shoes for walking around the jungle at night as flip-flopped feet can fall victim to nibble-happy red ants. Soldier ants have such stubborn mandibles that they were once used by the Mayans to keep cuts closed instead of stitches.
- Recommended reads
- Recommended reads Birds of Belize by H Lee Jones will help you identify the nation’s vast array of exotic avians; for a flight of fiction, try Belizean author Zee Edgell’s award-winning meditation on independence, Beka Lamb. Gen up on the finer architectural points before your trip with the beautifully illustrated Taschen tome, Maya: Palaces and Pyramids of the Rainforest by Henri Stierlin.
- Taking their culinary cues from an assortment of neighbouring cuisines, Belizean dishes can exhibit influences from Mexico, Spain, the Caribbean and historic Mayan culture. Coastal delicacies such as conch fritters and grilled lobster vie for attention with mountain fare such as intensely flavoured mole chicken or light escabeche broth. Breakfast is often lavish and substantial; huevos rancheros (eggs served with refried beans, salsa and corn chips) is typical, as are deep-fried, doughnut-textured jacks (fritters) drizzled in syrup.
- The Belizean dollar (BZ$) is currently pegged to the US dollar at a rate of 2:1. Always check whether you are being charged in Belize or US dollars before you agree to pay.
- Time zone
- GMT -6 hours.
- Dialling codes
- Country code for Belize: +501.
- Do go/don't go
- Belize normally sustains a subtropical, moderate climate all year round, but can be quite wet with brief but frequent showers and clouds outside of the dry months. January/February to the end of May is the best time to visit for uninterrupted sunshine. Spring and the winter months bring the most clement weather, as well as the most visitors. August to October is hurricane season in the Caribbean, so most travellers stay away – you can benefit from reasonable rates if you don’t mind enduring some gusty squalls.
Don't go home without...
A bottle of Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce – widely available in Belize, this potent concoction will give your food a Belizean zing for months after your return.