For the outdoor enthusiast, Belize presents unlimited opportunities, packed as it is with nature reserves, national parks, archaeological ruins and a barrier reef that is the envy of the world. Though the country is tiny, much of the mainland is covered with protected jungle, which forms some of the world’s best flora and fauna reserves. Scattered among the wilderness are well-preserved Mayan temples, and out in the waters of the cayes lives an incredible array of marine wildlife. You can swim with sharks and stingrays off the islands or track the elusive jaguar in the jungle.
You won’t find urban sprawl galore here; Belize City has the country’s highest population, peaking at around 80,000. Belize’s cities and towns are small, low-key, and often very dusty and rural with nice community vibes. San Ignacio is a great place to base yourself for trips into the wilderness, whereas the beach town of Placencia is perfect for relaxing by the Caribbean Sea. Heading down to Punta Gorda in the south of the country, you’ll find the remaining indigenous populations who come together on market days. Belize’s capital city, Belmopan, with its population of under 15,000, is barely on the tourist radar, while Belize City provides a look at the grittier side of Belizean life.
Exploring the ancient history of Belize is awe-inspiring. The country has over a dozen archaeological sites, some of which are in excellent shape and conjure up the past of the indigenous peoples. The 20th-century excavation of Altun Ha yielded a 5kg (11lb) head of a sun god carved out of jade, and the fabulously well-preserved Caracol was once the centre of a major Mayan kingdom. At the vast cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal you can follow the footsteps of the Mayans in their ritual of human sacrifice to please the gods.
But what most people come here for is the nature. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is considered to be the best jaguar sanctuary in the world; the protected barrier reef is one of the world’s largest, 90% of which has still not been researched; and the Half Moon Caye is an island entirely dedicated to birds, in particular the red-footed booby.
Belize stands out in its position in Latin America: surrounded by Spanish-speaking and Spanish-influenced countries, it has a lot more in common with the Caribbean island states than its neighbours. Now part of the Commonwealth, Belize was British-owned for centuries and the official language is still English, though the dialect has a definite Caribbean twang. Independent since 1989, Belize very much has its own laid-back, relaxed identity, running on ‘Belize time’. Don’t be in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything in Belize – the key here is to be ‘chilled’.
Belize is a country of various cultural, language and ethnic groups. Approximately 200,000 people in Belize consist of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, English, Mennonite, Lebanese, Chinese and East Indian heritage. Due to racial harmony, religious tolerance and a relatively non-violent political culture, all of these different elements have mixed and blended successfully, to give Belize a widespread reputation for its friendly peoples.