Although this small Central American nation spans less than 9,000 square miles — roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts — few places on Earth can match Belize's diverse natural beauty. The barrier reef's turquoise and coral hues contrast with the staggering Mayan ruins scattered throughout the country's lush rainforests. Plus, it's not just the landscape, the history, culture and people of Belize are just as blended.
Belize has spent years concealed underneath the shadows of its Mexican neighbors —Cancún, Cozumel, and Tulum. But today, this Central American country beckons visitors with its thatch-roofed jungle lodges, impressive Mayan ruins, secluded snorkeling and scuba diving havens, and laid-back atmosphere. Sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize's eastern shoreline flanks the Caribbean Sea, while its mainland extends into a myriad of wild rainforests to the north, west and south. Facing off against the sun-drenched mainland coast are hundreds of tiny islands known as cays and atolls. These islets lure travelers with swaying palm trees and cerulean waters.
Belize's largest island, Ambergris Caye, attracts the most visitors. Stroll through Ambergris Caye by day and you'll find a relaxed beachfront filled with spectacular waterfront sites; by dusk, you'll revel in its vibrant nightlife. Just be sure to save some time on the mainland for unraveling Belize's subtle charms. From its luxuriant Mayan sites to its sparkling waters, there's plenty to explore in this enchanting coastal country.
The best time to visit Belize is from late November to mid-April, during the country's dry season. Although this peak season draws thousands of tourists, dealing with crowds is an easy sacrifice to make for warm temperatures, clear skies and easy access to the country's top attractions. You'll probably want to pass on visiting during April and May, when humidity mists the tropical landscape and temps reach triple digits. Expect showers from June to mid-November and strong winds. If you want to beat the rush of tourists and don't mind packing an umbrella, come during the rainy season in September and October. But keep in mind some establishments shut down during the offseason.
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
Before European colonization, Belize was the heartland of the Mayan Kingdom's vast empire. The region served as a complex trade route between Guatemala and Mexico during the Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 900), and there is also evidence that the country served as a centerpiece for ceremonial practices as well. In present day Belize, there are 1,400 Mayan sites.
By the mid-17th century, the British Empire usurped the country and brought Creoles (people born in a Caribbean New World colony) and Black Caribbean natives, known as Garifuna. Over time, Creole and Garifuna populations gradually integrated themselves into Belize's culture, creating their own customs while under British rule. Full independence wasn't gained by the country once known as the "British Honduras" until 1981.
Today, Belize is a mixture of cultures. Home to about 300,000 people, the largest ethnic group in the country is the Mestizo people, who are a mix of Mayan and European descent. Creoles are the second largest ethnic group, making up about 25 percent of the population. Smaller ethnic groups include the indigenous Mayan descendants of the Yucatec, Mopan and Kekchi tribes, as well as the Garifuna people. The rest of the population consists of people of European, East Indian, Spanish and Mexican descent. Most Belizeans speak English, although you're likely to hear a spattering of Spanish, Garifuna and Creole as well. Since the country is such a melting pot, including expats from Canada, Europe and the U.S., the Belizean people are known for being welcoming and hospitable.
Although less party-oriented (and more modest) than folks you'll find in Cancún, Belizeans dress casually, even in restaurants. No need for a jacket and tie here. When dining, you'll want to sample Belize's Caribbean and African influenced seafood dishes, such as conch served with rice and beans, the gumbo-like chimole and the served-cold fish and shrimp ceviche. You'll also want to savor some of the unique fruits found in the country, including sapodilla, soursop, cashew fruits and cacao — the fruit that produces chocolate.
You should forgo tap water unless it's been purified or boiled and stick with bottled water. The U.S. State Department also recommends getting vaccinations for hepatitis A and typhoid as well as having your vaccinations for tetanus and diphtheria up to date.
When dining out, the tipping policy is similar to the practice in the U.S. — anywhere from 10 to 20 percent is accepted and giving cash is always best. One person you can skip tipping: the cab driver.
The official currency here is the Belizean dollar (BZD), but U.S. dollars are readily accepted in most places in the country. The exchange rate is locked in at $2 BZD equals $1 USD, so price conversion is fairly easy here. However, it's still a good idea to check what the current exchange rate is before you go.
Since tourism is the largest sector of the country's economy, most tourist areas are safe, but you should still be alert to petty crimes and pickpockets. The country does have an organized crime problem and violent crime is fairly prevalent, especially in Belize City. Visitors should travel in groups, stay vigilant and take extra precautions (carry a copy of your passport with you and watch your belongings at all times).
The best ways to get around Belize are by car, water taxi and plane. Taxis and rental cars are the most hassle-free mode of transportation around Belize City. Cabs and cars are also the easiest way to get to and from Belize City's Municipal Airport (TZA) just outside the city center or Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (PGIA), which is about 10 miles northwest of Belize City in Ladyville. Hopper planes also transport passengers to popular islands like Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Water taxis are the best mode of transportation to access Belize's numerous cays. Attractions on the mainland are relatively spread out, but Belize itself is a compact country, equipped with commuter buses that transport passengers to popular things to do. However, these buses are typically run-down and routes can be difficult to navigate.See details for Getting Around
You'll need a valid passport to visit Belize, and you can stay for up to 30 days without a visa. All tourists and non-Belizean citizens traveling by plane must pay an exit fee of $39.25 USD, which is usually included in airfare. Tourists traveling on a cruise line are charged a $7 USD exit fee. Visitors exiting Belize at the Mexican or Guatemalan border must pay $15 USD for a 24-hour visit, and fees for crossing the border increase if the visit exceeds one day. For additional information, visit the U.S. State Department's website .
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