By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Taking a trip to Belize is like searching for an answer to a big question. It is an attempt to render this small Central American country a defined territory, and an opportunity to learn something of its history, people, and landscapes.
Belize is a country of just 13,670 square miles, however, it’s not the smallest in Central America. El Salvador, a little further down on the map of this beautiful region with a troubled history, covers 13,050 square miles but has 175 times more people: 6.1 million compared to the 347,000 people who live in the six districts of Belize.
The story goes that the land in Belize was part of the Mayan empire, which stretched from southern México to Guatemala. Although the Spanish arrived first and tried to colonize it, the British were the first to settle there and use slave labor to exploit the campache and mahogany wood. Spain made a final attempt to regain the territory on September 10, 1798, when the Baymen —British pirates and buccaneers— clashed with Spanish troops in the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The date is now a national holiday.
After the battle, Baymen took control of the land, which until 1973 was known as British Honduras. On September 21, 1981, Belize gained its independence, but its relationship with the United Kingdom is still tangible: the Queen’s image appears on the Belizean dollar and England purchases much of the country’s agricultural products: oranges, bananas, and seafood.
Culturally, Belize shares much with other Caribbean territories that were once British colonies and seems almost an anomaly in “Spanish Central America.” The official language, for example, is English, although more than half of the population is mestizo and speaks Spanish. The English spoken in the streets is Creole, or Belize Kriol, which emerged from the slaves’ need to communicate, but 10.5% of the population speak a surviving Mayan language and another 2.9% keep the Garifuna language alive.
Today, after enjoying just thirty-four years of independence, Belize is committed to tourism as a major source of development, and certainly has everything it needs to be a prime destination. Here is a look at some of the beauty on offer.
The gateway to Belize is Philip Goldson International Airport, about twenty-five minutes from Belize City. The town is small and crowded and its streets teem with tourists who come on cruise ships for just a few hours to visit this corner of the Caribbean. It’s Tuesday, September 1st, and with the new school year underway, children dressed in multicolored uniforms are on their way to school.
Must-see places in Belize City include the Supreme Court buildings, St. John’s Cathedral, the Governor’s House, and the Swing Bridge, which until recently opened to give passage to fishermen coming back to the city after a long day’s work. One of the most beautiful places in the city is the Pedestrian Walk where you can enjoy the indomitable wind and the sense of freedom that comes from living on the edge of the Caribbean Sea.
Fun facts: Belize City is at sea level and occasionally gives one the feeling, visually, that it’s sinking. Because of this proximity to the sea, the city is full of canals. Its back streets are very narrow and can only be navigated by drivers in the know.
Be sure to go to the Museum of Belize where you can learn about the country’s history, appreciate remnants from the Mayan civilization, and discover an incredible insect collection that includes butterflies, beetles, and spiders. The museum, incidentally, is located in a former prison.
Mountain Pine Ridge
The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in the Cayo district —home of the nation’s capital, Belmopán— covers an area of 300,000 square miles and, as its name suggests, is a pine forest (in recovery due to a plague that almost wiped it out) with rivers and beautiful waterfalls.
The Thousand Foot Fall is among the reserve’s many attractions and can be appreciated from a designated lookout point. A little further downstream is the Rio on the Pool, which is simply a succession of smooth rocks that form small pools perfect for soaking in. But perhaps the most impressive site of all is Big Rock Falls, which can be accessed on a path along which you’ll hear the rushing sound of falling water. Due to the waterfall’s considerable height and the formation of the channel, you can swim comfortably at Big Rock Falls. And if you don’t know how to swim, no problem: there are small pools, and just the sight and sound of the water is a feast for the senses.
The Río Frío Caves are another special place inside the reserve. According to ancient Mayan beliefs, the caves were the entrance to the underworld, but the huge inlet proves an irresistible temptation for me, because of its beautiful shape. And the river flowing inside the cave lends a special flair to the place. The cave is short —you can see the exit almost as soon as you enter— and populated (like any self-respecting enclosed space) by a large community of bats. Don’t panic: they’re harmless and it’s well worth stopping to appreciate the caprices of nature carved into the rocks.
Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and Caracol
The Cayo district also has some of the best Mayan sites in the country. The ancient city of Caracol, for example, was at one time an important political and economic center, and the most imposing building in Xunantunich, El Castillo, stands 130 feet high. Lastly, Cahal Pech is a city where the buildings are smaller but it’s easier to imagine domestic life thanks to the many squares, hallways, and rooms inside the complex.
To get to Xunantunich you have to cross the Mopan River on a ferry ride that takes just two minutes. That’s right, two minutes! Although some say a bridge would be more practical, the ferry remains as a tourist attraction. In the forest around the ruins, families of howler monkeys fill the space with deep sounds. With a little luck, a monkey will cross your path.
Spanish Lookout and Barton Creek
There are two Mennonite communities in Cayo, marked by important differences. The best known is perhaps Spanish Lookout, a more modern and open community dedicated mainly to agriculture and mechanized ranching. Here you’ll find stalls selling farm products and many good restaurants. The Barton Creek Mennonites retain a more traditional, rural way of life based on community work and the use of land in keeping with human capacities. A visit to Barton Creek, which is without electricity or running water, is like a trip back in time, where the only noise you hear is the whistling wind. Abraham and Deborah, a married couple, are one of the families there and, believe me, talking with them is an experience. You can purchase freshly harvested produce in Barton Creek also, but be aware that the community is not “armed” for tourists and, perhaps for that reason, it is even more captivating.
If you look at the map of Belize, you’ll notice Placencia, a strip of land in the Stann Creek district with a lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. It takes three hours to reach from the village of San Ignacio, Cayo, but just twenty minutes by plane.
The Placencia Peninsula offers both relaxation and rumba. And as soon as you enter the area you notice the explosion of small hotels, inns, and restaurants to suit all budgets that have cropped up in the village.
Placencia’s main attraction is undoubtedly its turquoise sea and the many marine activities available for your enjoyment. Belize has a system of reefs that are part of the Mesoamerican reef system, the world’s second largest coral reef after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to Belize every year to enjoy the beauty of these formations. If you include a day in Belize to scuba or snorkel, you won’t regret it. The diversity of corals and fish is amazing, and the colors below the surface are dreamlike.
Placencia is also home to a Garifuna community, Seine Bight, which is well worth visiting to encounter the ethnic group’s language, dances, and music, which have been declared part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Higher up on the map are Hopkins and Dangriga, also Garifuna communities, but you’ll need more time to visit them, as they’re farther away.
Copa Airlines will offer two weekly flights to Belize starting in December.
Where to stay
The country offers a wide variety of accommodations to suit all budgets, but here are a few recommendations:
• Cahal Pech Village Resort: in the town of San Ignacio, Cayo district. It offers rooms and cottages with spectacular views of the town, plus three swimming pools, a bar, and a restaurant. The hotel is very quiet and the cabins are quite cozy. The staff helps organize tours to places of interest and has a Spanish-speaking guide.
• Captain Jak’s: on the Placencia Peninsula. It has rooms equipped with living rooms and kitchens available for backpackers, couples, families, and large or small groups. They rent bikes and golf carts for touring the town and its surroundings. The carts are quite useful and protect visitors from the strong tropical sun.
Where to eat
• Restaurant Nerie’s, in the Fort George area, Belize City. Offering typical Belizean food such as rice and beans, fish, salad, and fried plantain. Among the delights on offer are the crab and fish soups. Try the fresh limeade.
• Guava Limb Café in Morra Town, San Ignacio. A cozy restaurant located in a restored wooden house on stilts. The menu is varied and the dishes are impeccably presented. Be sure to try the ceviche.
• Benny’s Kitchen, in Benque Viejo del Carmen on the Guatemalan border. This local kitchen offers both traditional dishes from Belizean cuisine and dishes in which you can savor the influence of Mayan, Guatemalan, and Mexican cuisine. The watermelon juice is delicious and refreshing.