Many people know little about Belize, let alone know where it is. I wrote this page to try and answer most of your questions on this interesting widely varied country. Belize is located south of Mexico, north, and east of Guatemala, on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. It is only a 2-hour flight from Houston or Miami, making it a convenient vacation destination.
It is one of the smallest countries in the world, being only 8,867 square miles or 174 miles long by 68 miles wide. For comparison, it is approximately the same size as New Hampshire or Wales if you’re from the U.K. Though small in size, it is large with adventure. There are only about 370,000 people living in Belize. The country is made up of dense tropical jungles, mountains, ancient ruins from lost civilizations, some of the best scuba diving in the world, the second longest reef on Earth as well as hundreds of tropical Caribbean islands to explore.
English is widely spoken, especially in places where tourists go. The Belizean Dollar has been pegged to the US Dollar at 2 to 1 since 1973. This means if a coke costs $2 BZD it is $ 1USD or just cut the price in half. Also, the US Dollar is accepted just about everywhere. The average temperature year-round is 85° F (29° C) and the humidity is usually around 85%. Upon arrival, everyone is given a 30 day Visa passport stamp, which is renewable for another 30 days for $50 BZD for the first 6 months and then it becomes $100 BZD. See my page on living in Belize, for more immigration-related information.
History of Belize
The Mayan culture dates back to 1500 BC. They then ruled the area for 2500 years and then quite mysteriously, disappeared. The Mayans built huge cities like Caracol that had over 140,000 people or the political center and temple, Lamanai, which boasted a population of over a million people. Belize is home to several magnificent, Maya archaeological sites and to this day, a large portion of the country is designated as protected land.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive, in 1506. Although they chose not to create a settlement, they did lay claim to the area and declared it a Spanish Colony. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that the Baymen (English & Scottish settlers & pirates) began arriving and settled in Belize. They mostly lived along the coast and survived by harvesting wood and dyes for the Spanish. During that time, the primary industry was the exporting of mahogany. Today, in addition to mahogany, Belize also exports sugar and fruit.
The British arrived in the 1800’s and declared the area a colony in 1862 naming it British Honduras. It was renamed to Belize in 1973. The British ruled until 1981 when Belize was given its independence on September 21st, although it is still part of the Commonwealth.
Lay of the Land
Belize is divided into six unique Districts with a varying geographical terrain. The mainland consists of lush jungles, hills, hundreds of Mayan ruins and dozens of breathtaking waterfalls among the 35 rivers crisscrossing its land. The entire coast of Belize has a vibrant, coral reef that runs parallel to it with about 200 tropical islands (Cayes), surrounded by clear blue waters, contained within it. As I travel around the country, I am constantly amazed at how widely varied it is and the cool things I discover. Recently, my friend and I walked from the hotel we were staying at to some amazing Mayan ruins in the San Francisco-like hills of San Ignacio. See other traveler’s reviews on best things to do in Belize for ideas and travel planning help.
This District was the first part of the country to receive a settlement, largely due to the rivers that provided the settlers with inland transportation. It includes Belize City, the most populous city and the first capital of the country until Hurricane Hattie largely destroyed it in 1961, as well as the two most popular islands: Ambergris and Caye Caulker. These two Cayes are highly recommended for visiting and staying at while Belize City is not.
This is the most populated Caye with over 20,000 residents as well as the most popular among tourists. There are dozens of beautiful, beachfront resorts to choose from, each with its own style, all with spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea. A couple highlights of the island are its Marine Reserves, which are protected for future generations: Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, which is a designated World Heritage site, at the north end of the island and Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley to the south. Both sites are great for seeing underwater wildlife and each is about a 20-minute boat ride from the middle of San Pedro. Another highlight is Marco Gonzalez Maya Site, a 2000-year-old Maya archaeological site to the south, which is also worth visiting.
The beach is always just a few steps away and is a great place for people watching or simply sitting on a dock and enjoying the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. If you are an early riser, the island offers some of the most beautiful sunrises on the planet. You may find my page on Sightseeing in San Pedro useful for planning your trip or visit TripAdvisor’s page on Ambergris Caye Activities.
Ambergris Caye has a nice variety of restaurants. You can experience everything from delicious, budget-friendly, local food (traveler’s tip on local food: always go where the longest line is) to fine dining on the beach. Tacos, flauta’s, and tostadas are some of my favorite, inexpensive, San Pedro treats, which can be found around town and at the park at night. San Pedro even has a great food tour, which I did with my friend Aimee and we both really enjoyed the experience. Along the way, we visited El Fogon and got to try an infamous local delicacy known as Gibnut, aka Royal Rat, nicknamed after the Queen of England tried it on her last visit. Click through to read – Eating our way around San Pedro with the new Belize Foods Tour.
The island motto is “Go Slow” for a reason. This island is definitely a must do if you want to experience a laid-back, tropical lifestyle. Most people agree that this is what San Pedro was like 20 years ago with its sandy streets and slow-paced, old school, tropical vibe. You may find it quite refreshing in this fast-paced, modern world. Click here to read about a funny Caye Caulker trip for my cousin Erin’s birthday party. She and her husband Rudy were in town on a cruise ship so I had my friends Mary and Denis island hop with me to throw her a birthday party. Between the lunch at the Lazy Lizard, street food, and 2 taxi rides around the island, we made some adventurous memories. If you are considering a visit to Caye Caulker you may also like this write-up – Flying to Caye Caulker on a Mission and 3 Travel Light Taco Tips. Click here for TripAdvisor’s list of favorite Caye Caulker Activities.
Most people will tell you to avoid Belize City except to travel through it. While I am in agreement on this, it does offer some good shopping, a rich history, and even some nice architecture. If you decide to visit, here are my recommendations on Belize City Attractions. You can also click through and see all the write-ups I did for the Belize Tourism Board, which got a full page feature in Reporter News. Or click here to see TripAdvisor’s list of best things to do in Belize City.
Corozal is a District known for its agriculture, growing sugarcane and fruit such as papaya. Its main city is Corozal Town, a sleepy coastal town that is a common stopover for travelers before heading on to other parts of Belize. Mexico is a short 9 miles from Corozal Town, which has a population of over 10,000. The area is rich in Mayan archaeology, but very few of the sites have been excavated. One that has been dug is the Santa Rita ruins and it is open to the public.
Read about Corozal Town here – The Best Tortilla Chips on Ambergris Caye come from Corozal Belize and Cerros Ruins in Corozal District. The Best Tortilla Chips on Ambergris Caye come from Corozal Belize and Cerros Ruins in Corozal District. Or you can find a list on TripAdvisor of Things to Do in Corozal.
Orange Walk is the second largest District in terms of area, sharing its border with Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west. Orange Walk Town is the main city in the District, with a population of nearly 10,000. It is the starting point for the river tour to Lamanai ruins. If you have a need for speed, read Fastest way to Lamanai, a great contribution by Barbara Hickman. She and her crew opted to do the Tropic Air Tour of Lamanai Maya Ruin versus a longer day taking the tour by boat.
Thousands of Mennonites have settled in Orange Walk and farm the land, doing dairy, growing vegetables, soya, and sugarcane. It is a beautiful sight to see tall stalks of sugarcane growing across the road from the airport. Another fascinating feature of this district is that it is home to over 400 different species of birds, making it a paradise for Ornithologists. It is also a great place for crocodile spotting and Lamanai actually means ‘Land of the submerged crocodile’.
Located in western Belize, on the border with Guatemala, Cayo is the largest by area and the third-most densely populated District. The Capital of Belize, Belmopan, is located in this District, but the most populated city is San Ignacio. San Ignacio is known for its rolling hills, beautiful forests, and many tourist attractions. There are several Mayan ruin sites in the district, with the two most popular being Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. You may choose to go cave tubing down a couple different rivers and explore some caves and ancient ruins. Or you can read some excellent reviews for San Ignacio Restaurants on this TripAdvisor list. The current top three activities according to TripAdvisor are; Green Iguana Conservation Project, Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins and the San Ignacio Market. Click through to browse all San Ignacio Activities.
Stann Creek District is to the south of Belize City and gets its name from the old world term “stanns” which means safe haven. Its most populous city is Dangriga, which is known as the cultural center of Belize due to the settlement of the Garifuna people. The Garifuna are rich in culture with their food, music, and dance. They are the descendants of two slave ships that wrecked in 1635.
Placencia is also located here and is a major tourist spot as well as a retirement destination. It is located on the coast on a peninsula known to have some of the best white sand beaches in Belize, which gives it an island feel. Click here for my Useful Placencia Vacation Information. You will find no shortage of Things to do and see in Placencia on the traveler review list.
Just north of Placencia is Hopkins, a small fishing village, and the site of a few future, beachfront housing developments. It too is known for its incredibly beautiful, sandy, white beaches. It is worth a trip to one of these towns to experience the true Belizean culture. Click here for a list of things to do in Stann Creek.
Toledo is the southernmost District in Belize with Punta Gorda as its main city and also home to a Mayan Cacao (chocolate) factory. It is also the least developed District in the country; however, true adventurers will enjoy the extensive cave networks, coastal lowland plains, unspoiled rainforests, and offshore cayes. Sometimes the least developed areas are where you find true freedom and have the best fun away from the fast-paced world we are bound to. Click here for TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Toledo.
Traveling Within Belize
The main highways are paved and have bus services connecting cities and towns. Car rental can be found at the international airport and in Belize City. The fastest way, of course, to get to all these great places in Belize is to fly. Check out Tropic Air, but click on the link first to learn about how you can donate to two local charities. Read “Best way to get to Ambergris Caye” and other great traveler reviews on the 17 minute Tropic Air flight from Belize City to everyone’s favorite island destination.