Photo Courtesy of Thomas Prior
Located on the East Coast of Central America, sharing a northern border with Mexico and otherwise surrounded by Guatemala, Belize is often called “Mother Nature’s Best-Kept Secret” – and it seems that the secret is definitely out. World-class diving, eco-adventures, boutique luxury resorts, and an e…volving culinary scene are just a few of the reasons tourism is on the rise. Belize’s cultural heritage is rich, and the diverse influences are reflected in today’s food, music, dance, and folklore. Despite its seemingly small size, Belize offers ample adventure for adrenaline junkies, while miles of beaches and secluded rain forest retreats beckon travelers looking for a little R & R.
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Belize is subject to the Atlantic hurricane season, so expect June through early November to be on the wetter side. Thankfully, Belize is spared from most major tropical storms. But if you are planning to tackle a lot of activities, low season is a gamble. When rains are heavy, roads and rivers on the mainland may be compromised. It’s not uncommon for Maya sites and caves to be closed due to flooding. December through April is definitely the high season in Belize. The biggest influx of visitors is around the end of the year and Easter week. May is also a good time to visit, when things begin to mellow and businesses offer specials as they scale down for the impending slow season. Expect some restaurant closures and scaled-back staff at resorts during September and October, when many local businesses give their employees time off, take their own vacations, and gear up for the upcoming high season.
Daily flights arrive into Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (BZE) near Belize City. Large hubs like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Miami offer the most convenient routes on American, Delta, and United. Delta recently launched the first West Coast service to Belize from Los Angeles, while United Airlines launched East Coast service from Newark. Many mainland resorts can arrange for airport shuttle service (for a fee) to pick up guests. From outside the United States, look for inbound flights from San Salvador through Taca Airlines. Belize’s national airline, Tropic Air, has convenient flights from Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. Land arrivals from Guatemala and water and land arrivals from Mexico are cheaper options, especially with budget travelers exploring Central America. Belize charges a departure tax, but flights booked through major U.S. carriers have the fees included. Currently, the fee for non-residents departing Belize is about US$35 per person.
Buses, water taxis, and even intra-state flights traverse Belize. There are two airports in Belize City—International (BZE) and Municipal Belize City (TZA)—approximately a 20-minute drive apart. Tropic Air and Maya Island Air offer flights to the most-visited destinations, including the Cayes. There are rental car agencies at the airports, and scheduled bus service runs on the mainland between larger villages. The water taxi dock is closer to Municipal, and a ride will cost you up to $40.
Food is not one of the main reasons travelers choose to visit Belize, but it should be! With so many cultural influences at play in the country’s cuisine, Belizean food is underrated. Look for Garifuna, Maya, Lebanese, Chinese, East Indian, and other international cuisines throughout Belize. Without a doubt, the most popular local dish is stewed chicken with rice and beans. Fresh seafood is abundant throughout the country, especially in the Cayes, though lobster and conch fishing is tightly regulated, with fines for sale and consumption outside the allotted seasons. You’ll find Belizeans are passionate about their barbecue. It’s nearly impossible to walk down the beach on a Sunday without smelling a grill nearby. Snacks and street food in Belize are definitely worth seeking out. Not-to-miss breakfast specialties include fry jacks and johnnycakes. And no matter what you eat, a meal is not complete without locally produced Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce on top! When it comes to drinks, a cold Belikin always hits the spot, and for the occasional morning hangover—or goma, as most call it—try a Michelada. Tropical drinks are everywhere, with unique local spins on tried-and-true favorites. Belize produces several varieties of rum, liqueurs, and even wines made with cashews and blackberries.
Belize’s tumultuous history is the basis for the numerous cultural influences that define the country today. Look for important cultural holidays and festivities throughout the year. Events like Carnaval, Costa Maya Festival, and Garifuna Settlement Day pay homage to key aspects of Belizean culture. Important cultural holidays of note include what most refer to as September Celebrations—the Battle of St. George’s Caye (or National Day) on September 10, and Independence Day on September 21.
The Cayes are hot spots for festivals and parties, including global holidays like New Year’s Eve, Easter, and Halloween. Many of Belize’s festivals are centered around important cultural holidays like Ambergris Caye’s Carnaval, akin to a Mardi Gras celebration. The September Celebrations recognize important historic battles and Belize’s independence. And Costa Maya Festival celebrates the region’s Maya roots. You won’t find big-name music artists holding concerts here, but that’s OK. Belize has a thriving local musical scene—musicians like Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective have played a historic role in Belizean culture. Culinary celebrations are also an important part of the scene, with everything from rum and chocolate events to countrywide lobster festivals.
Belizeans are some of the friendliest and proudest people you will encounter—if someone is offering help or suggestions, they usually are doing so with the most genuine of intentions. In many cases, locals dine in the same restaurants tourists do. Absent is the stigma of “tourist traps” you find elsewhere in the world. Expect grocery prices to be higher on the Cayes than on the mainland, especially for Western products. Don’t look for McDonalds, Starbucks, or other chains—Belize doesn’t have them. Most businesses are family-owned, lacking a noticeable corporate influence.
- The exchange rate is pretty much always 2 Belize dollars for 1 U.S. dollar. U.S. dollars are widely accepted, but be advised that some businesses will refuse them if they are torn, wrinkled, or contain any writing. The recent rule has been implemented because local banks won't accept tender of torn and marked bills.
- English is the official language, but expect to hear a variety of unfamiliar words as you travel the country. The most common languages include Spanish, Mayan, Kriol, and Garifuna.
- U.S. citizens traveling to Belize will need a passport that is valid beyond the length of their stay; tourist visas are only required for stays longer than 30 days.
- Belize uses 110 voltage and the same electrical plugs as the U.S., so adapters and converters aren't necessary.
Erin De Santiago is a freelance travel and food writer who splits her time between Belize and the Netherlands. She travels the globe in search of the best food and wine and recently obtained her Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW). Erin was the primary author for Belize’s official visitor magazine, Destination Belize, in 2013 and spoke at the country’s first tourism and marketing conference on creating web content and utilizing social media. Follow Erin’s culinary adventures at Our Tasty Travels and look for her new Belize site, Caye To Belize, to launch later this year.