Background - Lesson 2 - Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma

Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)



canoeing on Barton Creek River, Mountain Pine Ridge.

The Landscape


Belize lies on the northeast coast of Central America, above the corner where the Honduran coast takes off to the east. Belize’s 8,866 square miles of territory are bordered on the north by Mexico, on the west and south by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea and the Belize Barrier Reef. From the northern Río Hondo border with Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala, Belize’s mainland measures 180 miles long, and it is 68 miles across at its widest point. Offshore, Belize has more than 200 cayes, or islands. Both the coastal region and the northern half of the mainland are flat, but the land rises in the south and west to over 3,000 feet above sea level. The Maya Mountains and Cockscomb range from the country’s backbone and include Belize’s highest point, Doyle’s Delight (3,688 feet). Mangrove swamps cover much of the humid coastal plain.

In the west, the Cayo District contains the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. At one time a magnificent Caribbean pine forest, it has, over the decades, been reduced by lumber removal, fires, and the pine bark beetle. Despite vast beetle damage, the upper regions of Mountain Pine Ridge still provide spectacular scenery, with sections of thick forest surrounding the Macal River as it tumbles over huge granite boulders (except where the river was dammed at Chalillo). Thousand Foot Falls plunges 1,600 feet to the valley below and is the highest waterfall in Central America. The Río Frio cave system offers massive stalactites and stalagmites to the avid spelunker. The diverse landscape includes limestone-fringed granite boulders.

Over thousands of years, what was once a sea in the northern half of Belize has become a combination of scrub vegetation and rich tropical hardwood forest. Near the Mexican border, much of the land has been cleared, and it’s here that the majority of sugar crops are raised, along with family plots of corn and beans. Most of the northern coast is swampy, with a variety of grasses and mangroves that attract waterfowl and wading birds. Rainfall in the north averages 60 inches annually, though it’s generally dry November-May.

Cayes and Atolls

More than 200 cayes (pronounced “keys” and derived from the Spanish cayo for “key” or “islet”) dot the blue waters off Belize’s eastern coast. They range in size from barren patches that are submerged at high tide to the largest two, Ambergris Caye—25 miles long and nearly 4.5 miles across at its widest point—and Caye Caulker, five miles long. Some cayes are inhabited by people, others only by wildlife. The majority are lush patches of mangrove that challenge the geographer’s definition of what makes an island (that’s why you’ll never see a precise figure of how many there are).

Most of the cayes lie within the protection of the 180-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, which parallels the mainland. Without the protection of the reef—in essence a breakwater—the islands would be washed away. Within the reef, the sea is relatively calm and shallow.

Beyond the reef are three of the Caribbean’s four atolls: Glover’s Reef, Turneffe Islands, and Lighthouse Reef. An atoll is a ring-shaped coral island surrounding a lagoon, always beautiful, and almost exclusively found in the South Pacific. The three types of cayes are wet cayes, which are submerged part of the time and can support only mangrove swamps; bare coral outcroppings that are equally uninhabitable; and sandy islands with littoral forest, which is the most endangered habitat in Belize due to development pressure. The more inhabited cayes lie in the northern part of the reef and include Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye, St. George’s Caye, and Caye Chapel.

Belize Coral Watch

Belize’s world-class reefs are impacted by overfishing, coastal development, sewage, sedimentation, coral bleaching, and inappropriate or uninformed marine tourism practices. Linda Searle, Belize Coral Watch Program Coordinator and founder of ECOMAR, says that when you touch coral, you are destroying the thin layer of living tissue that keeps the coral healthy. It’s like when people get a cut on their skin, she explains; the area becomes more susceptible to invasion by bacteria and disease. When a “cut” on a coral does not heal, this space can become invaded by a disease that can spread to the rest of the coral head, killing the entire colony. Divers and snorkelers can be strong and effective advocates for coral reef conservation. Experienced divers know the best way to enjoy a reef is to slow down, relax, and watch, leaving the reefs undisturbed. Follow these guidelines developed by the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL, to be a coral-friendly diver.


✵ Give diver orientations and briefings.

✵ Hold buoyancy-control workshops.

✵ Actively support local marine protected areas.

✵ Use available moorings (anchors and chains destroy fragile corals and sea grass beds).

✵ Use available wastewater pump-out facilities.

✵ Make sure garbage is well stowed, especially light plastic items.

✵ Take away everything brought on board, such as packaging and used batteries.


✵ Never touch corals; even slight contact can harm them, and some corals can sting or cut you.

✵ Carefully select points of entry and exit to avoid walking on corals.

✵ Make sure all of your equipment is well secured.

✵ Make sure you are neutrally buoyant at all times.

✵ Maintain a comfortable distance from the reef, so that you’re certain to avoid contact.

✵ Learn to swim without using your arms.

✵ Move slowly and deliberately in the water.

✵ Practice good finning and body control to avoid accidental contact with the reef or stirring up the sediment.

✵ Know where your fins are at all times, and don’t kick up sand.

✵ Stay off the bottom, and never stand or rest on corals.

✵ Avoid using gloves and kneepads in coral environments.

✵ Become a Belize Coral Watch Volunteer.

✵ Take nothing living or dead out of the water, except recent garbage.

✵ Do not chase, harass, or try to ride marinelife.

✵ Do not touch or handle marinelife except under expert guidance, and following established guidelines.

✵ Never feed marinelife.

✵ Use photographic and video equipment only if you are an advanced diver or snorkeler; cameras are cumbersome and affect a diver’s buoyancy and mobility.


As a Belize Coral Watch Volunteer, you’ll learn how to identify coral species, coral reef ecology, coral disease, and coral bleaching. After attending a training session, you will be equipped with the knowledge needed to help identify resilient reefs in Belize. Divers and snorkelers are asked to monitor sites and submit reports online. Look for a dive or snorkel center or resort that participates in “Adopt a Reef” with ECOMAR, and help them complete surveys. For more information on becoming a Coral Watch Volunteer, contact ECOMAR (


The polyps of reef-building corals deposit calcium carbonate around themselves to form a cup-like skeleton or corallite. As these small creatures continue to reproduce and die, their sturdy skeletons accumulate. Over eons, broken bits of coral, animal waste, and granules of soil contribute to the strong foundation for a reef that will slowly rise toward the surface. In a healthy environment, it can grow one to two inches per year.

Reefs are divided into three types: atoll, fringing, and barrier. An atoll can be formed around the crater of a submerged volcano. The polyps begin building their colonies on the round edge of the crater, forming a circular coral island with a lagoon in the center. Thousands of atolls occupy the world’s tropical waters. Only four are in the Caribbean Sea; three of those are in Belize’s waters.

A fringing reef is coral living on a shallow shelf that extends outward from shore into the sea. A barrier reef runs parallel to the coast, with water separating it from the land. Sometimes it’s actually a series of reefs with channels of water in between. This is the case with some of the larger barrier reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of the greater Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which extends from Mexico’s Isla Mujeres to the Bay Islands of Honduras. The Belizean portion of the reef begins at Bacalar Chico in the north and ends with the Sapodilla Cayes in the south. At 180 miles long, it is the longest reef in the western and northern hemispheres.


Coral is a unique limestone formation that grows in innumerable shapes, such as delicate lace, trees with reaching branches, pleated mushrooms, stovepipes, petaled flowers, fans, domes, heads of cabbage, and stalks of broccoli. Corals are formed by millions of tiny carnivorous polyps that feed on minute organisms and live in large colonies of individual species. Coral polyps have cylinder-shaped bodies, generally less than half an inch long. One end is attached to a hard surface (the bottom of the sea, the rim of a submerged volcano, or the reef itself). The mouth at the other end is encircled with tiny tentacles that capture the polyp’s minute prey with a deadly sting. At night, coral reefs really come to life as polyps emerge to feed. Related to the jellyfish and sea anemone, polyps need sunlight and clear saltwater not colder than 70°F to survive. Symbiotic algal cells, called zooxanthellae, live within coral tissues and provide the polyps with much of their energy requirements and coloration.


The marshy areas and bays at the mouths of rivers where salt water and fresh water mix are called estuaries. Here, nutrients from inland are carried out to sea by currents and tides to nourish reefs, sea grass beds, and the open ocean. Many plants and animals feed, live, or mate in these waters. Conchs, crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish thrive here, and several types of jellyfish and other invertebrates call this home. Seabirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl of all types frequent estuaries to feed, nest, and mate. Crocodiles, dolphins, and manatees are regular visitors. Rays, sharks, and tarpon hunt and mate here. During the wet season, the estuaries of Belize pump a tremendous amount of nutrients into the sea.


The doctor on Christopher Columbus’s ship reported in 1494 that mangroves in the Caribbean were “so thick that a rabbit could scarcely walk through.” Mangroves live on the edge between land and sea, forming dense thickets that act as a protective border against the forces of wind and waves. Four species grow along many low-lying coastal areas on the mainland and along island lagoons and fringes. Of these, the red mangrove and the black mangrove are most prolific. Red mangroves in excess of 30 feet tall are found in tidal areas, inland lagoons, and river mouths, but always close to the sea. Their signature is arching prop roots, which provide critical habitat and nursery grounds for many reef fish. The black mangrove grows to almost double that height. Its roots are slender upright projectiles that grow to about 12 inches, protruding all around the mother tree. Both types of roots provide air to the tree.


mangroves on the Old Belize River


Red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) specialize in creating land—the seedpods fall into the water and take root on the sandy bottom of a shallow shoal. The roots, which can survive in seawater, then collect sediments from the water and the tree’s own dropping leaves to create soil. Once the red mangrove forest has created land, it makes way for the next mangrove in the succession process. The black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) can actually outcompete the red mangrove at this stage, because of its ability to live in anoxic soil (without oxygen). In this way, the red mangrove appears to do itself in by creating an anoxic environment. But while the black mangrove is taking over the upland of the community, the red mangrove continues to dominate the perimeter, as it continuously creates more land from the sea. One way to identify a black mangrove forest is by the thousands of dense pneumataphores (tiny air roots) covering the ground under the trees.

Soon, burrowing organisms such as insects and crabs begin to inhabit the floor of the black mangrove forest, and the first ground covers, Salicornia and saltwort (Batis maritima) take hold—thereby aerating the soil and enabling the third and fourth mangrove species in succession to move in: the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) and the gray mangrove (Conocarpus erectus), also known locally as buttonwood.


Each of the three primary mangrove species lives in a very salty environment, and each has its own special way of eliminating salt. The red mangrove concentrates the salt taken up with seawater into individual leaves, which turn bright yellow and fall into the prop roots, thereby adding organic matter to the system. The black mangrove eliminates salt from the underside of each leaf. If you pick a black mangrove leaf and lick the back, it will taste very salty. The white mangrove eliminates salt through two tiny salt pores located on the petiole (the stem that connects the leaf to the branch). If you sleep in a hammock under a white mangrove tree, you will feel drops of salty water as the tree “cries” on you. The buttonwood also has tiny salt pores on each petiole.


Mangrove islands and coastal forests play an essential role in protecting Belize’s coastline from destruction during natural events such as hurricanes and tropical storms. Along with the sea grass beds, they also protect the Belize Barrier Reef by filtering sediment from river runoff before it reaches and smothers the delicate coral polyps. However, dense mangrove forests are also home to mosquitoes and biting flies. The mud and peat beneath mangrove thickets is often malodorous with decaying plant matter and hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria. Many developers would like nothing better than to eliminate mangroves and replace them with sandy beaches surrounded by seawalls. But such modification to the coastline causes accelerated erosion and destruction of seaside properties, especially during severe storms.

Birds of many species use the mangrove branches for roosting and nesting sites, including swallows, redstarts, warblers, grackles, herons, egrets, ospreys, kingfishers, pelicans, and roseate spoonbills. Along the seaside edge of red mangrove forests, prop roots extend into the water, creating tangled thickets unparalleled as nurseries of the sea. Juveniles of commercial species, such as snapper, hogfish, and lobster, find a safe haven here. The flats around mangrove islands are famous for recreational fisheries such as bonefish and tarpon.

The three-dimensional labyrinth created by expanding red mangroves, sea grass beds, and bogues (channels of seawater flowing through the mangroves) provides the home and nursery habitat for nurse sharks, American crocodiles, dolphins, and manatees.

Snorkeling among the red mangrove prop roots is a unique experience where you can witness the abundant marinelife that grow on prop roots and live between the roots. It is within the algae, plants, corals, and sponges that grow on the roots that juvenile spiny lobsters and sea horses can be found.

Destruction of mangroves is illegal in most of Belize; cutting and removal of mangroves requires a special permit and mitigation.

Sea Grass

Standing along the coast of Belize and looking seaward, many visitors are surprised to see something dark in the shallow water just offshore. They expect the sandy bottom typical of many Caribbean islands. However, it is this “dark stuff” that eventually will make their day’s snorkeling, fishing, or dining experience more enjoyable. What they are noticing is sea grass, another of the ocean’s great nurseries.

Sea grasses are plants with elongated ribbon-like leaves. Just like the land plants they evolved from, sea grasses flower and have extensive root systems. They live in sandy areas around estuaries, mangroves, reefs, and open coastal waters. Turtle grass has broader, tape-like leaves and is common down to about 60 feet. Manatee grass, found to depths of around 40 feet, has thinner, more cylindrical leaves. Both cover large areas of seafloor and intermix in some areas, harboring an amazing variety of marine plants and animals. Barnacles, conchs, crabs, and many other shellfish proliferate in the fields of sea grass. Anemones, seahorses, sponges, and starfish live here. Grunts, filefish, flounder, jacks, rays, and wrasses feed here. Sea turtles and manatees often graze in these lush marine pastures.

These beds and flats are being threatened in some areas by unscrupulous developers who are dredging sand for cement and landfill material (especially on Ambergris Caye).


The climate in Belize is subtropical, with a mean annual temperature of 79°F, so you can expect a variance between 50°F and 95°F. The dry season generally lasts from December-ish through May, and the wet season June through November, although it has been known to rain sporadically all the way into February.

Rainfall varies widely between the north and south of Belize. Corozal in the north receives 40-60 inches a year, while Punta Gorda averages 160-190 inches, with an average humidity of 85 percent. Occasionally during the winter, “Joe North” (a.k.a. cold fronts) sweeps down from North America across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing rainfall, strong winds, and cooling temperatures. Usually lasting only a couple of days, they often interrupt fishing and influence the activity of lobsters and other fish. Fishers invariably report increases in their catches several days before a norther.


The “mauger” season, when the air is still and the sea is calm, generally comes in August; it can last for a week or more. All activity halts while locals stay indoors as much as possible to avoid the onslaught of mosquitoes and other insects.


Since record keeping began in 1787, scores of hurricanes have made landfall in Belize. In an unnamed storm in 1931, 2,000 people were killed and almost all of Belize City was destroyed. The water rose nine feet in some areas, even onto Belize City’s Swing Bridge. Though forewarned by Pan American Airlines that the hurricane was heading their way, most of the townsfolk were unconcerned, believing that their protective reef would keep massive waves away from their shores. They were wrong.

The next devastation came with Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Winds reached a velocity of 150 mph, with gusts of 200 mph; 262 people drowned. It was after Hurricane Hattie that the capital of the country was moved from Belize City (just 18 inches above sea level) to Belmopan. Then, in 1978, Hurricane Greta took a heavy toll in dollar damage, although no lives were lost. More recent serious hurricanes affecting Belize include Mitch in 1998, Keith in 2000, Iris in 2001, and Dean in 2007. There have also been a number of less serious “northers.” In the summer of 2008, Tropical Storm Arthur caused severe flooding throughout the country, and major bridges were washed out. In 2010 Hurricane Richard did an unexpected two-step into the Cayo District, destroying the Belize Zoo and a swath of forest canopy in the center of the country.


Because of the country’s impressive network of protected areas and relatively low population density, the widespread deforestation that occurs in other parts of Central America is not nearly as big a problem in Belize. However, Belize faces its own set of challenges. Perhaps the biggest problem is improper disposal of solid and liquid wastes, both municipal and industrial, particularly agro-wastes from the shrimp and citrus industries.

Mining of aggregates from rivers and streams has negative impacts on local watersheds and the coastal zones into which they empty, where sedimentation can be destructive to reef and other marine systems. Unchecked, unplanned development, especially in sensitive areas like barrier beaches, mangroves, islands, and riverbanks, where changes to the landscape often have wide and unanticipated effects, is another problem.

Energy—or lack thereof—is a major issue for Belize, which historically has had to buy expensive electricity from neighboring Mexico. The controversial construction of the Chalillo Dam on the upper Macal River brought all of Belize’s energy and environmental issues to the forefront (the saga of Chalillo is told in The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott).

The discovery of oil in 2005 near Spanish Lookout fueled a market of foreign prospectors hoping to tap into new petroleum resources. Oil exploration concessions have been granted for most of Belize’s land and marine areas—including, recently, to US Capital Energy Limited to drill in the Toledo District on ancestral Mayan lands—which has caused much concern among environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was added to the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2009 due to concerns over mangrove cutting and excessive development—and efforts to begin offshore oil drilling.


Plants and Animals

Belize’s position at the biological crossroads between North and South America has given it an astonishingly broad assortment of wildlife. Belize’s wide-ranging geography and habitat have also been a primary factor in the diversity and complexity of its ecosystems and their denizens.


Belize is a Garden of Eden. Four thousand species of native flowering plants include 250 species of orchids and approximately 700 species of trees. Most of the country’s forests have been logged off and on for more than 300 years (2,000 years, if you count the widespread deforestation during the time of the ancient Maya). The areas closest to the rivers and coast were the hardest hit because boats could be docked and logs easily loaded to be taken farther out to sea to the large ships used to haul the precious timber.


Flying over the countryside gives you a view of the patchwork landscape of cleared areas and secondary growth. Belize consists of four distinct forest communities: pine-oak, mixed broadleaf, cohune palm, and riverine forests. Pine-oak forests are found in sandy dry soils. In the same areas, large numbers of mango, cashew, and coconut palm trees are grown near homes and villages. The mixed broadleaf forest is a transition area between the sandy pine soils and the clay soils found along the river. Often the mixed broadleaf forest is broken up here and there and doesn’t reach great height; it is species-rich but not as diverse as the cohune forest. The cohune forest area is characterized by the cohune palm, which is found in fertile clay soil where a moderate amount of rain falls throughout the year. The cohune nut was an important part of the Mayan diet. Archaeologists say that where they see a cohune forest, they know they’ll find evidence of the Maya.

The cohune forest gives way to the riverine forest along river shorelines, where vast amounts of water are found year-round from excessive rain and from the flooding rivers. About 50-60 tree varieties and hundreds of species of vines, epiphytes, and shrubs grow here. Logwood, mahogany, cedar, and pine are difficult to find along the easily accessible rivers because of extensive logging. The forest is in different stages of growth and age. To find virgin forest, it’s necessary to go high into the mountains that divide Belize. Because of the rugged terrain and distance from the rivers, these areas were left almost untouched. Even today, few roads exist. If left undisturbed for many, many years, the forest will eventually regenerate itself.

Among the plantlife of Belize, look for mangroves, bamboo, and swamp cypresses as well as ferns, bromeliads, vines, and flowers creeping from tree to tree, creating dense growth. On the topmost limbs, orchids and air ferns reach for the sun. As you go farther south, you’ll find the classic tropical rainforest, including tall mahoganies, campeche, sapote, and ceiba, thick with vines.


In remote areas of Belize, one of the more exotic blooms, the orchid, is often found on the highest limbs of tall trees. Of all the orchid species reported in Belize, 20 percent are terrestrial (growing in the ground) and 80 percent are epiphytic (attached to a host plant—in this case trees—and deriving moisture and nutrients from the air and rain). Both types grow in many sizes and shapes: tiny buttons, spanning the length of a long branch; large-petaled blossoms with ruffled edges; or intense, tiger-striped miniatures. The lovely flowers come in a wide variety of colors, some subtle, some brilliant. The black orchid is Belize’s national flower. All orchids are protected by strict laws, so look but don’t pick.

Keeping Wildlife Wild

You are guaranteed to see wildlife in Belize, whether in the wild or in captivity. However, in Belize some poached birds and wildlife are often sold on the international market, while others end up in Belizean homes or in businesses who want to add “color” to attract tourists. Belize Bird Rescue (, a nonprofit organization, reports that 65 percent of all wild-caught captive birds die before they reach sale. Of those that make it, most are sold to people who have no idea how to raise a baby bird.

This is particularly a big a deal for the yellow-headed Amazon parrot (Amazona oratrix), a gorgeous species under serious threat of extinction in the world. Its numbers have plummeted from 70,000 to 7,000 in the last two decades. Human encroachment on their habitat fuels nest-robbing for the illegal pet trade.

In order to discourage the illegal trade in parrots and other animals:

Don’t have your photograph taken with captive indigenous wildlife. By encouraging the keepers of the wildlife, more will be taken from the wild.

Don’t patronize establishments with captive wildlife on display unless they are government sanctioned as a breeding or educational facility such as a zoo. There is no educational value to a single monkey or bird in a restaurant.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that they “rescued” an orphan animal or bird, unless they are licensed rescue facility. The vast majority of these animals were captured from the wild or bought from dealers. If people really want to rescue a bird or animal, they will turn them over to a proper rescue or rehab facility.

Don’t buy goods made from animal hides, skins, teeth or claws, or exoskeletons such as bugs and corals. Some leather goods are OK but exotic ones (crocodile, snake, etc.) normally are not. Jewelry made from jaguar teeth has also appeared on the streets being offered to tourists. Buying them contributes to the decline of the remaining jaguar population. In Belize it is also prohibited to sell any products made out of sea turtles.

Do contact the Belize Forest Department (tel. 501/822-2079, if you observe any conditions where endangered terrestrial animals are being held in captivity or offered for sale. If you observe the sale of turtle meat or jewelry, report the location and date immediately to the Belize Fisheries Department (tel. 501/224-4552,


A walk through the rainforest brings you close to myriad animal and bird species, many of which are critically endangered in other Central American countries—and the world. Bring your binoculars and a camera, and be vewy, vewy quiet.


If you’re a serious birder, you know all about Belize. Scores of species can be seen while sitting on the deck of your jungle lodge: big and small, rare and common, resident and migratory—and with local guides aplenty to help find them in all the vegetation. The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize and is often seen perched on a bare limb in the early morning.


Seven species of felines are found in North America, five of them in Belize. For years, rich adventurers came to Belize on safari to hunt the jaguar for its beautiful skin. Likewise, hunting margay, puma, ocelots, and jaguarundis was a popular sport in the rainforest. Today, hunting endangered cats (and other species) in Belize is illegal, and there are many protected areas to help protect their wide-ranging habitats.

The jaguar is heavy-chested with sturdy muscled forelegs, a relatively short tail, and small rounded ears. Its tawny coat is uniformly spotted and the spots form rosettes: large circles with smaller spots in the center. The jaguar’s belly is white with black spots. The male can weigh 145 to 255 pounds, females 125 to 165 pounds. Largest of the cats in Central America and the third-largest cat in the world, the jaguar is about the same size as a leopard. It is nocturnal, spending most daylight hours snoozing in the sun. The male marks an area of about 65 square miles and spends its nights stalking deer, peccaries, agoutis, tapirs, monkeys, and birds. If hunting is poor and times are tough, the jaguar will go into rivers and scoop fish with its large paws. The river is also a favorite spot for the jaguar to hunt the large tapir when it comes to drink. Females begin breeding at about three years old and generally produce twin cubs.

The smallest of the Belizean cats is the margay, weighing in at about 11 pounds and marked by a velvety coat with exotic designs in yellow and black and a tail that’s half the length of its body. The bright eye-shine indicates it has exceptional night vision. A shy animal, it is seldom seen in open country, preferring the protection of the dense forest. The “tiger cat,” as it is called by locals, hunts mainly in the trees, satisfied with birds, monkeys, and insects as well as lizards and figs.

Larger and not nearly as catlike as the margay, the black or brown jaguarundi has a small flattened head, rounded ears, short legs, and a long tail. It hunts by day for birds and small mammals in the rainforests of Central America. The ocelot has a striped and spotted coat and an average weight of about 35 pounds. A good climber, the cat hunts in trees as well as on the ground. Its prey include birds, monkeys, snakes, rabbits, young deer, and fish. Ocelots usually have litters of two kittens but can have as many as four. The puma is also known as the cougar or mountain lion. The adult male measures about six feet in length and weighs up to 198 pounds. It thrives in any environment that supports deer, porcupines, or rabbits. The puma hunts day or night.


In Creole, the black howler monkey (Alouatta caraya) is referred to as a “baboon” (in Spanish, saraguate), though it is not closely related to the African species with that name. Because the howler prefers low-lying tropical rainforests (under 1,000 feet of elevation), Belize is a perfect habitat. The monkeys are commonly found near the riverine forests, especially on the Belize River and its major branches. The adult howler monkey is entirely black and weighs 15 to 25 pounds. Its most distinctive trait is a roar that can be heard up to a mile away. A bone in the throat acts as an amplifier; the cry sounds much like that of a jaguar. The howler’s unforgettable bark is said by some to be used to warn other monkey troops away from its territory. Locals, on the other hand, say the howlers roar when it’s about to rain, to greet the sun, to say good night, or when they’re feeding. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is the best place to see howler monkeys in the wild in Belize, though they are very common in the forests around many jungle lodges throughout the country.

Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) are smaller than black howlers and live in troops of a dozen or more, feeding on leaves, fruits, and flowers high in the rainforest canopy. Slender limbs and elongated prehensile tails assist them as they climb and swing from tree to tree. Though not as numerous in Belize as howler monkeys because of disease and habitat loss, they remain an important part of the country’s natural legacy.


A relative of the rabbit, the agouti or “Indian rabbit” has coarse gray-brown fur and a hopping gait. It is most often encountered scampering along a forest trail or clearing. Not the brightest of creatures, it makes up for this lack of wit with typical rodent libido and fecundity. Though it inhabits the same areas as the paca, these two seldom meet, as the agouti minds its business during the day and the paca prefers nighttime pursuits. The agouti is less delectable than the paca. Nonetheless, it is taken by animal and human hunters and is a staple food of jaguars.

The paca, or gibnut, is a quick, brownish rodent about the size of a small dog, with white spots along its back. Nocturnal by habit and highly prized as a food item by many Belizeans, the gibnut is more apt to be seen by the visitor on an occasional restaurant menu than in the wild.

A member of the raccoon family, the coatimundi—or “quash”—has a long, ringed tail, a masked face, and a lengthy snout. Sharp claws aid the coati in climbing trees and digging up insects and other small prey. Omnivorous, the quash also relishes rainforest fruits. Usually seen in small troops of females and young, coatis have an amusing, jaunty appearance as they cross a rainforest path, tails at attention.


The national animal of Belize, the Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is found from the southern part of Mexico through northern Colombia. It is stout-bodied (91 to 136 pounds), with short legs, a short tail, small eyes, and rounded ears. Its nose and upper lip extend into a short but very mobile proboscis. Totally herbivorous, tapirs usually live near streams or rivers in the forest. They bathe daily and also use the water as an escape when hunted either by humans or by their prime predator, the jaguar. Shy, nonaggressive animals, they are nocturnal with a definite home range, wearing a path between the rainforest and their feeding area.



Found all over Central America, lizards of the family Iguanidae include various large plant-eaters, in many sizes and typically dark in color with slight variations. The young iguana is bright emerald green. The common lizard grows to three feet long and has a blunt head and long flat tail. Bands of black and gray circle its body, and a serrated column reaches down the middle of its back, almost to its tail. During mating season, it’s common to see brilliant orange males on sunny branches near the river. This reptile is not aggressive, but if cornered it will bite and use its tail in self-defense.

Though hawks prey on young iguanas and their eggs, humans still remain its most dangerous predator. It is not unusual to see locals along dirt paths carrying sturdy specimens by the tail to put in the cook pot. Iguana stew is believed to cure or relieve various human ailments, such as impotence. Another reason for their popularity at the market is their delicate white flesh, which tastes so much like chicken that locals refer to iguana meat as “bamboo chicken.”


Though they’re often referred to as alligators, Belize has only crocodiles, the American (Crocodylus acutus, up to 20 feet) and the Morelet’s (Crocodylus moreletii, up to 8 feet). Crocodiles have a well-earned bad reputation in Africa, Australia, and New Guinea for feeding on humans, especially the larger saltwater varieties. Their American cousins are fussier about their cuisine, preferring fish, dogs, and other small mammals to people. But when humans feed crocs, either intentionally or by tossing food waste into the water, the animals can acquire a taste for pets, making them extremely dangerous. When apex predators become fearless of people, they are more prone to attack, especially small children. The territories of both croc species overlap in estuaries and brackish coastal waters. They are most abundant in the rivers, swamps, and lagoons of Belize City and Orange Walk Districts. Able to filter excess salt from its system, only the American crocodile ventures to the more distant cayes, including Turneffe Islands. Endangered throughout their ranges, both crocs are protected by international law and should not be disturbed. Often seen floating near the edges of lagoons or canals during midday, they are best observed at night with the help of a flashlight. When caught in the beam, their eyes glow red (LED flashlights make white eye-shine).


Of the 59 species of snakes that have been identified in Belize, at least nine are venomous, notably the infamous fer-de-lance (locally called a “Tommy Goff”), the most poisonous snake in Central America, and the coral snake.


Belize is world-famous for the diversity of its rich underwater wildlife, primarily due to its unique geology, the barrier reef lagoon system, and a government that actively works to protect marine habitat. There is also a great deal of marine research in Belize, often with opportunities for visitors to get involved. While all the standard Caribbean species are found in Belizean waters, there are a few animals in particular worth noting.


These “gentle giants of the sea” are large and bulky—weighing 600 to 1,200 pounds. Manatees belong to the taxonomic order Sirenia, a group of four species that represents the only herbivorous marine mammals living today. There are three species of manatees: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis), and the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). The two subspecies of the West Indian manatee are the Florida manatee (T. m. latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (T. m. manatus). Belize has long been considered the last stronghold for West Indian manatees in Central America and the Caribbean. West Indian manatees are also found year-round in Florida and are sparsely distributed throughout Central America and the Caribbean; they live as far south as Brazil. The Antillean subspecies (which excludes the Florida animals) is red-listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as endangered, in continuing decline, with severely fragmented populations.


a manatee in the North Channel of the Barrier Reef during the summer mating season

With a relatively short coastline extending from the Gulf of Honduras in the south to Chetumal Bay in the north, Belize reports the greatest density of Antillean manatees in the Caribbean region, perhaps because of the extensive sea grass, mangrove, coastal, and riverine habitat within the Belize Barrier Reef Lagoon system, or perhaps because manatees have been protected by local laws since the 1930s and are currently listed as endangered under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1981.

Belize has designated several wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas for the benefit of manatees and other marinelife, including Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, Southern Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary, Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Burden Canal (part of the Belize River system), and Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Many foreign researchers, including Caryn Self-Sullivan, and James A. “Buddy” Powell, as well as Belizean biologists, including manatee researcher Nicole Auil of EcoHealth Alliance and Jamal Galves, and manatee tour guide and advocate Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia of Caye Caulker, who was instrumental in the creation of Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, have dedicated years of work to a countrywide research program, aerial surveys, and the stranding network through Coastal Zone Management Institute ( Orphaned manatees in Belize are cared for by Wildtracks in Sarteneja, where volunteer positions are often available. For more information about manatees, visit


There are at least 42 species of sharks and rays in the waters of Belize. Most people get a good close glimpse of nurse sharks and southern stingrays on their trip to Hol Chan, and divers occasionally spot other species as well, such as the Caribbean reef shark or the great hammerhead, especially on trips to the farther atolls, particularly Lighthouse Reef. (The only recorded shark attacks in Belizean waters were due to sheer stupidity: a spear fisherman who refused to give up a fish to a curious shark, and a tour guide who pulled a nurse shark by the tail and wouldn’t let go.) To learn more about sharks in Belize and how you can help them, check out

Although Belize is home to many species of sharks, the biggest and most notable is the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Like all sharks it has a cartilaginous skeleton and visible gill slits, yet it feeds on zooplankton like a whale. It is the largest fish in the sea (up to 66 feet in length and weighing over 15 tons). Whale sharks bear live young (up to 300 have been found in one female), are believed to be long-lived—living more than 60 years—and may require up to 30 years to mature. According to biologist Rachel Graham, who has been studying whale sharks since 1998, Belize hosts the only known aggregation of whale sharks that feeds on the eggs of large schools of reproducing snappers. Although this must occur elsewhere in the world, to date Belize is the only known site where it has been observed.


Early recorded comments following Columbus’s fourth voyage to the New World led the Spaniards to hastily conclude that the swampy shoreline of what is now Belize was unfit for human habitation. Someone should have told that to the Maya, who had been enjoying the area for quite some time. The pre-Columbian history of Belize is closely associated with that of its nearby neighbors: Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Maya were the first people to inhabit the land. They planted milpas (cornfields), built ceremonial centers, and established villages with large numbers of people throughout the region.


Around 1000 BC, the Olmec culture, believed to be the earliest in the area and the predecessors to the Maya, began to spread throughout Mesoamerica. Large-scale ceremonial centers grew along Gulf Coast lands, and much of Mesoamerica was influenced by the Olmec religion of worshipping jaguar-like gods. The Olmec also developed the New World’s first calendar and an early system of writing.

The Classic Period

The Classic Period, beginning about AD 250, is now hailed as the peak of cultural development among the Maya. For the next 600 years, until 900, the Maya made phenomenal progress in the development of artistic, architectural, and astronomical skills. They constructed impressive buildings during this period and wrote codices (folded bark books) filled with hieroglyphic symbols that detailed complicated mathematical calculations of days, months, and years. Only the priests and the privileged held this knowledge and continued to learn and develop it until, for some unexplained reason, the growth suddenly halted. A new militaristic society was born, built around a blend of ceremonialism, civic and social organization, and conquest.

Maya Society Collapses

All evidence points to an abrupt work stoppage. After about AD 900, no buildings were constructed and no stelae, which carefully detailed names and dates to inform future generations of their roots, were erected. What happened to the priests and nobles, the guardians of religion, science, and the arts, who conducted their ritual ceremonies and studies in the large stone pyramids? Why were the centers abandoned? What happened to the knowledge of the intelligentsia? Theories abound. Some speculate about a social revolution—the people were tired of subservience and were no longer willing to farm the land to provide food, clothing, and support for the priests and nobles. Other theories include population pressure on local resources, that there just wasn’t enough land to provide food and necessities for the large population. Others believe drought, famine, or epidemics were responsible.

Whatever happened, it’s clear that the special knowledge concerning astronomy, hieroglyphics, and architecture was not passed on to Mayan descendants. Why did the masses disperse, leaving once-sacred stone cities unused and ignored?


In 1530, the conquistador Francisco de Montejo y Álvarez attacked the Nachankan and Belize Maya, but his attempt to conquer them failed. This introduction of Spanish influence did not have the impact on Belize that it did in the northern part of the Caribbean coast until the Caste War.

Hernán Cortés

After Columbus’s arrival in the New World, other adventurers traveling the same seas soon found the Yucatán Peninsula. Thirty-four-year-old Cortés sailed from Cuba in 1519 against the will of the Spanish governor. With 11 ships, 120 sailors, and 550 soldiers, he set out to search for slaves, a lucrative business with or without the approval of the government. His search began on the Yucatán coast and eventually encompassed most of Mexico. However, he hadn’t counted on the resistance and cunning of the Maya. The fighting was destined to continue for many years—a time of bloodshed and death for many of his men and for the Maya. Anthropologists and historians estimate that as many as 90 percent of Maya were killed by diseases such as smallpox after the arrival of the Spaniards.


Cave Archaeology and the Maya

Large populations of Maya were concentrated in the limestone foothills, where water supplies and clay deposits were plentiful. Caves were a source of fresh water, especially during dry periods. Clay pots of grain were safely stored for long periods of time in the cool air and, thousands of years later, can be seen today. Looting of caves has been a problem for decades, and as a result, all caves in Belize are considered archaeological sites.

The Maya used caves for utilitarian as well as religious and ceremonial purposes. The ancient Maya believed that upon entering a cave, one entered the underworld, or Xibalba, the place of beginnings and of fright. They believed there were nine layers of the underworld, and as much as death and disease and rot were represented by the underworld, so was the beginning of life. Caves were a source of water—a source of life—for the Maya. Water that dripped from stalactites was used as holy water for ceremonial purposes. The underworld was also an area where souls had hopes of defeating death and becoming ancestors. As a result, rituals, ceremonies, and even sacrifices were performed in caves, evidenced today by many pots, shards, implements, and burial sites.


The Maya used caves for religious and ceremonial purposes

Caves were important burial chambers for the ancient Maya, and more than 200 skeletons have been found in more than 20 caves. One chamber in Caves Branch was the final earthly resting spot for 25 individuals. Many of these burial chambers are found deep in the caves, leading to speculation that death came by sacrificing the living, as opposed to carrying in the dead. Some burial sites show possible evidence of commoners being sacrificed to accompany the journey of an elite who had died—but who really knows?

The first written accounts related to cave archaeology began in the late 1800s. A British medical officer by the name of Thomas Gann wrote of his extensive exploration of caves throughout the country. In the late 1920s, he was also part of the first formal study of some ruins and caves in the Toledo District, and his papers provide insight no one else can give to modern-day archaeologists.

Little else was done until 1955, when the Institute of Archaeology was created by the government of Belize. Starting in 1957, excavations were organized throughout the years under various archaeologists. Excavations in the 1970s led to many important archaeological discoveries, including pots, vessels, and altars. In the 1980s, a series of expeditions was undertaken to survey the Chiquibul cave system. Other finds during this period include a burial chamber and one cave with over 60 complete vessels and other ceremonial implements.

Today, projects are underway in many caves around the country. The Institute of Archaeology does not have a museum—yet. They’ve been talking about one for years. In the meantime, you may have to get a little wet and dirty to go visit some of these artifacts yourself. Start by calling up a cave tour guide in Cayo, like Pacz Tours (tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536,

Roman Catholicism

Over the years, the majority of the Maya were baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. Most priests did their best to educate the people, teach them to read and write, and protect them from the growing number of Spanish settlers who used them as slaves. The Maya practiced Catholicism in their own manner, combining their ancient beliefs, handed down throughout the centuries, with Christian doctrine. These mystic yet Christian ceremonies are still performed in baptisms, courtship, marriages, illness, farming, house building, and fiestas.

Pirates and the Baymen

While all of Mesoamerica dealt with the problems of economic colonialism, the Yucatán Peninsula had an additional problem: harassment by vicious pirates who made life in the coastal areas unstable. In other parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, the passive indigenous people were ground down, their lands taken away, and their numbers greatly reduced by the European settlers’ epidemics and mistreatment.

British buccaneers sailed the coast, attacking the Spanish fleet at every opportunity. These ships were known to carry unimaginable riches of gold and silver from the New World back to the king of Spain. The Belizean coast became a convenient place for pirates to hole up during bad weather or for a good drinking bout. And although no one planned it as a permanent layover, by 1650 the coast had the beginnings of a British pirate lair and settlement. As pirating slacked off on the high seas, British buccaneers discovered they could use their ships to carry logwood back to a ready market in England (logwood is a low-growing tree that provided rich dyes for Europe’s growing textile industry until artificial dyes were developed). These early settlers were nicknamed the Baymen.

For 300 years the Baymen of Belize cut the logwood, and then, when the demand for logwood ceased, they starting cutting down mahogany trees from the vast forests. For three centuries the local economy depended on exported logs and imported food.

Agreement with Spain

In the meantime, the Spanish desperately tried to maintain control of this vast New World across the ocean. But it was a difficult task, and brutal conflicts continually flared between the Spanish and either the British inhabitants or the Maya. The British Baymen were continually run out but always returned. Treaties were signed and then rescinded. The British meanwhile made inroads into the country, importing enslaved Africans (beginning in the 1720s) to cut and move the trees.

Politically, Belize (or, more to the point, its timber) was up for grabs, and a series of treaties did little to calm the Ping-Pong effect between the British and the Spanish over the years. One such agreement, the Treaty of Paris, did little to control the Baymen—or the Spanish.

In 1763, Spain “officially” agreed to let the British cut logwood. The decree allowed roads (along the then-designated frontiers) to be built in the future, though definite boundaries were to be agreed on later. For nearly 150 years the only “roads” built were narrow tracks to the rivers; the rivers became Belize’s major highways. Boats were common transportation along the coast, and somehow road building was postponed, leaving boundaries vaguely defined and people on both sides of the border unsure. This was the important bit of history that later encouraged the Spanish-influenced Guatemalans to believe that Belize had failed to carry out the 1763 agreement by building roads, which meant the land reverted back to Spain. Even after Spain vacated Guatemala, Guatemalans tried throughout the 20th century to claim its right to Belizean territory.

The Battle of St. George’s Caye

The Baymen held on with only limited rights to the area until the final skirmish on St. George, a small caye just off Belize City. The Baymen, with the help of an armed sloop and three companies of a West Indian regiment, won the battle of St. George’s Caye on September 10, 1798, ending the Spanish claim to Belize once and for all. After that battle, the British Crown ruled Belize until independence was gained in 1981.

History in a Nutshell

The peaceful country of Belize is a sovereign democratic state of Central America located on the Caribbean. The government is patterned on the system of parliamentary democracy and experiences no more political turmoil than any other similar government, such as that of Great Britain or the United States.


✵ 1798: Battle of St. George’s Caye

✵ 1862: Became a British colony

✵ 1954: Attained universal adult suffrage

✵ 1964: Began self-government

✵ 1973: Name of the territory changed from British Honduras to Belize

✵ 1981: Attained full independence

Land Rights

In 1807 slavery was officially abolished in Belize by England. This was not agreeable to the powerful British landowners, and in many quarters it continued to flourish. Changes were then made to accommodate the will of the powerful. The local government no longer “gave” land to settlers as it had for years (British law now permitted the formerly enslaved and other “coloureds” to hold title). The easiest way to keep them from possessing land was to charge for it—essentially barring the majority in the country from landownership. So, in essence, slavery continued.

Caste War

It was inevitable that the Maya would eventually revolt in a furious attack. This bloody uprising in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1840s was called the Caste War. Although the Maya were farmers and for the most part not soldiers, in this savage war they took revenge on European men, women, and children by rape and murder. When the winds of war reversed and the Maya were on the losing side, the vengeance wreaked on them was merciless. Some settlers immediately killed any Maya on sight, regardless of that person’s beliefs. Some Maya were taken prisoner and sold to Cuba as slaves; others left their villages and hid in the rainforest, in some cases for decades. Between 1846 and 1850, the population of the Yucatán Peninsula was reduced from 500,000 to 300,000. Guerrilla warfare ensued, with the escaped Maya making repeated sneak attacks on the European settlers. Quintana Roo, adjacent to Belize along the Caribbean coast, was considered a dangerous no-man’s-land for more than 100 years until, in 1974, with the promise of tourism, the territory was admitted to the United Mexican States. The “war” didn’t really end on the peninsula until the Chan Santa Cruz people finally made peace with the Mexican federal government in 1935, more than 400 years after it had begun.

Restored Mayan Pride

Many of the Maya who escaped slaughter during the Caste War fled to the isolated rainforests of Quintana Roo and Belize. The Maya revived the religion of the “talking cross,” a pre-Columbian oracle representing gods of the four cardinal directions. This was a religious-political fusion. Three determined survivors of the Caste War and all wise leaders—a priest, a master spy, and a ventriloquist—knew their people’s desperate need for divine leadership. As a result of their leadership and advice from the talking cross, the shattered people came together in large numbers and began to organize. The community guarded the location of the cross, and its advice made the Maya strong once again.

They called themselves Chan Santa Cruz (“People of the Little Holy Cross”). As their confidence developed, so did the growth and power of their communities. Living very close to the Belize (then British Honduras) border, they found they had something their neighbors wanted. The Chan Santa Cruz Maya began selling timber to the British and in return received arms, giving the Maya even more power. Between 1847 and 1850, in the years of strife during the Caste War in neighboring Yucatán, thousands of Mayan, mestizo, and Mexican refugees who were fleeing the Spaniards entered Belize. The Yucatecans introduced the Latin culture, the Roman Catholic religion, and agriculture. This was the beginning of the Mexican tradition in northern Belize, locally referred to as “Spanish tradition.” The food is typically Mexican, with tortillas, black beans, tamales, squash, and plantains. For many years, these mestizos kept to themselves and were independent of Belize City.

They settled mostly in the northern sections of the country, which is apparent by the Spanish names of the cities: Corozal, San Estevan, San Pedro, and Punta Consejo. By 1857 the immigrants were growing enough sugar to supply Belize, with enough left over to export the surplus (along with rum) to Britain. After their success proved to the tree barons that sugarcane could be lucrative, the big landowners became involved. Even in today’s world of low-priced sugar, the industry is still important to Belize’s economy.


In 1862 the territory of British Honduras was officially created, even though it had been ruled by the British crown since 1798. The average Belizean had few rights and a very low living standard. Political unrest grew in a stifled atmosphere. Even when a contingent of Belizean soldiers traveled to Europe to fight for the British in World War I, the black men were scorned. But when these men returned from abroad, the pot of change began to boil. Over the next 50 years the country struggled through power plays, another world war, and economic crises, but always the seed was there—the desire to be independent. The colonial system had been falling apart around the world, and when India gained its freedom in 1947, the pattern was set. Many small undeveloped countries began to gain independence and started to rely on their own ingenuity to build an economy that would benefit their people.

What’s in a Name?

No one knows for sure where the name Belize originated or what it means. The country was called Belize long before the British took the country over and renamed it British Honduras. In 1973 the locals changed it back to the original Belize as a first step on the road to independence. There are several well-known theories about its meaning. Some say it’s a corruption of the name Wallis (wahl-EEZ), from the pirate (Peter Wallace) who roamed the high seas centuries ago and visited Belize. Others suggest that it’s a distortion of the Mayan word belix, which means “muddy river.” Still others say it could be a further distortion of the Mayan word belikin, the modern name of the local beer.

Even though Belize was self-governing by 1964, it was still dominated by outside influences until September 1981, when it gained its independence from the British crown. In September 1981 the Belizean flag was raised for the first time—the birth of a new country. Belize joined the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Non-Aligned Movement. The infant country’s first parliamentary elections were held in 1984. You can see that original Belizean flag at the George Price Centre in Belmopan.

Government and Economy


The Government of Belize (, or “GOB,” as you’ll see it referred to in the newspapers, is directed by an elected prime minister. The bicameral legislature, or National Assembly, comprises an appointed senate and an elected house of representatives. Belize has two main political parties, People’s United Party (PUP) and United Democratic Party (UDP). As in most democracies, the political rhetoric can get very animated, but political-based violence is unheard of.

The current prime minister, Dean Barrow of the UDP, took the post from longtime PUP front man Said Musa in 2008. Barrow’s party had been gaining ground in recent years, especially as PUP rulers became increasingly implicated in various corruption scandals. The country’s constitution, judicial code, and other legal documents are explained and can be downloaded from the Ministry of the Attorney General (


The economy of Belize was traditionally based on the export of logwood, mahogany, and chicle (the base for chewing gum, from the chicle tree). Today, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture (shrimp farming), and small manufactured goods give the country an important economic boost, but it is still dependent on imported goods to get by. The main exports are sugar, citrus, bananas, lobster, and timber. Overall, domestic industry is severely constrained by relatively high labor and energy costs, a very small domestic market, and the “brain drain” of Belize’s most qualified managers, health professionals, and academics to the United States and Europe.

In general, and despite books by PUP economists declaring that all is well, Belize’s economy is a mess, and the GOB has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years. In 2004, the government was rocked by a scandal over the use of millions of dollars of pension funds to pay the foreign debts of bankrupt companies controlled by government insiders. This led to the collapse of the overextended Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the effects of which are still being felt and evaluated today.

Thanks to tax concessions given to foreign investors, Belize has attracted new manufacturing industries, including plywood, veneer, matches, beer, rum, soft drinks, furniture, boat building, and battery assembly.


Belize is now a common destination for North American and European travelers. Tourism is one of the most critical economies in the country, responsible for about one in seven jobs and 22 percent of the country’s GDP. The Belize Tourism Board (tel. 501/227-2420, has gotten the word “Belize” buzzing on the lips of millions of potential visitors who, only a few years ago, had never even heard of the tiny country. Today, roughly 250,000 overnight visitors come to Belize each year; the majority (about 150,000) are from the United States.

In 2011 there were 716 registered hotels providing jobs to nearly 5,000 Belizeans, and that’s not counting restaurant employees, guides, and transportation services. Tourism has encouraged the preservation of vast tracts of forests and reefs; it has helped the Institute of Archaeology enhance and develop Belize’s archaeological sites as destinations, making possible astounding excavations and discoveries at the Caracol, Xunantunich, Lamanai, Altun Ha, and Cahal Pech ruins.

Of course, tourism can be a double-edged sword, and Belize’s founding father, George Price, warned against it; Price said tourism would make Belizeans indentured servants to rich foreigners.

George Price

George Price was Belize’s first prime minister on independence in 1981, then served the position again 1989 to 1993. Born in 1919, Price entered politics in 1944 and never looked back. He did not step down from the leadership of the People’s United Party, which he founded in 1950, until 1996 when he retired in Belize City. Price also served as the mayor of Belize City several times. He was the most respected and loved individual in Belize, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t admire him. George Price died on September 19, 2011, just two days shy of the country’s 30th anniversary of independence. Belize held its very first state funeral that year, which I had the privilege of attending, and I witnessed the most spectacular display of love and unity all across the country. Belizeans were lined up for hours in the hot sun along the highways and streets of Belize City and Belmopan, waving flags, banners, and personal thank-you messages to their national hero. The George Price Centre for Peace and Development ( in Belmopan is a must-see to learn more about Price’s central role in Belizean history.

Cruise Ships

The image of numerous hulking cruise ships on the watery eastern horizon of Belize City is striking. The arrival of the cruise industry to Belize’s shores in the 1990s was both much hailed and a highly contentious event. It happened quickly, and Belize soon recorded the highest growth in cruise ship arrivals in the entire Caribbean region: Annual cruise visitor arrivals grew from 14,183 in 1998 to a peak of more than 851,000 in 2004. The year 2010 saw 767,000 cruise visits, according to the Belize Tourism Board, with a slight 3.7 percent drop in 2012.

The Belize Tourism Board officially promotes visits by cruise ships. There are approximately 2,000 people in Belize City who rely on cruise ships for their livelihoods, most of whom work in Tourism Village shops and restaurants. The Board acknowledges the need to balance cruise ship tourism with overnight tourism, making sure that one does not take over the other.

In Belize City, cruise ship arrival days are boom days for taxi drivers, tour operators, and shopkeepers. But critics say that’s not enough. Stewart Krohn, an esteemed Belizean journalist, writes that inviting cruise ship tourism is the equivalent of selling Belize cheaply. In one editorial, he wrote, “Tourism, at its heart, is a cultural encounter. Long, relaxed, unhurried stays by visitors who have time to meet, interact with, and understand Belizeans and Belize not only means more money in our pockets for beds, food, drinks, and tours; it produces the kind of relationships that small countries in a highly competitive world find increasingly necessary.” Such meaningful encounters are impossible with hurried busloads of day-trippers, he argues. “Cruise tourism at best produces a few pennies for a few people; at worst a negative impression born of an impersonal encounter.”

Other critics cite the impact on Belize’s tiny, fragile infrastructure—damage to roads by cruise bus traffic, maxed-out septic systems, trash on the trails and in the caves. Passengers don’t spend much onshore, and few of their dollars trickle very far from the pockets of those who own Tourism Village.

One thing is certain: Bring up cruise tourism at a Belizean barbecue, and you’ll hear some fiery opinions (especially if you mention the expansion of cruise ships into Placencia and southern Belize). Despite resistance from Placencians, including many small business owners, the go-ahead was given, and it’s a done deal. Many fear this upcoming cruise ship tourism will destroy the responsible tourism Placencia has worked so hard to build, as well as the natural resources surrounding the area.

Keeping the “Eco” in Tourism

The word ecotourism was created in the 1980s with the best of intentions—ostensibly, to describe anything having to do with environmentally sound and culturally sustainable tourism. It was the “business” of preventing tourism from spoiling the environment and using tourism as an economic alternative to spoiling the environment for some other reason.

The success of the concept—and its marketing value—led to a worldwide surge in the usage of that prefix we know so well, even if its actual practice may sometimes fall short of original intentions. Indeed, eco has been used and abused all over the world, and Belize is no exception. Some word-savvy tourism marketers have tried to freshen things up by using “alternative” or “adventure” tourism; when trying to describe an operation that practices the original definition of ecotourism, better terms are “sustainable,” “responsible,” “ethical,” or even “fair-trade” tourism.

Belize is generally acknowledged as one of the world’s most successful models of ecotourism. In 2009 Belize hosted the Third Annual World Conference for Responsible Tourism, featuring experts from around the world speaking on local economic development through tourism, the impact of mass tourism on local communities, and climate change.

The Belize Audubon Society (BAS, is the main organization concerned with keeping the “eco” in tourism—and in keeping pressure on the government of Belize to do the same.

People and Culture

The extraordinary diversity of Belize’s tiny population (about 320,000) allows Belizeans to be doubly proud of their heritage—once for their family’s background (Maya, Creole, Garífuna, Mennonite, and more) and again for their country. The mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) population has risen to about 50 percent of the country’s total, with Creoles making up about 25 percent, Maya 10 to 12 percent, Garinagu 6 percent, and others 9 percent (in the 2000 census). Here’s a bit of background about Belize’s diverse demography, but keep in mind that every one of these groups continues to mingle with the others, at least to some extent, ensuring continuing creolization.


Creoles are a mix of two distinctive ethnic backgrounds: African and European, and they use the local English-Creole dialect. Many Creoles are also descended from other groups of immigrants. The center of Creole territory and culture is Belize City. Half of Belize’s ethnic Creoles live here, and they make up more than three-quarters of the city’s population. Rural Creoles live along the highway between Belmopan and San Ignacio, in isolated clusters in northern Belize District, and in a few coastal spots to the south—Gales Point, Mullins River, Mango Creek, Placencia, and Monkey River.

Cheap labor was needed to do the grueling timber work in thick, tall rainforests. The British failed to force it on the maverick Maya, so they brought Africans whom they enslaved, indentured laborers from India, and Caribs from distant Caribbean islands, as was common in the early 16th and 17th centuries. “Creolization” started when the first waves of British and Scottish began to intermingle with these imported enslaved people and servants.


Also referred to as “Ladinos” or just “Spanish,” mestizos make up the quickest-growing demographic group in Belize and encompass all Spanish-speaking Belizeans, descended from some mix of Maya and Europeans. These immigrants to Belize hail from the nearby countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. Once the predominant population (after immigration from the Yucatecan Caste War), mestizos are now the second-most-populous ethnic group of Belize. They occupy the old “Mexican-mestizo corridor” that runs along New River between Corozal and Orange Walk. In west-central Belize—Benque Viejo and San Ignacio—indigenous people from Guatemala have recently joined the earlier Spanish-speaking immigrants from Yucatán.


Small villages of Maya—Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’—still practicing some form of their ancient culture dot the landscape and make up roughly 10 to 12 percent of Belize’s population. After the Europeans arrived and settled in Belize, many of the Maya moved away from the coast to escape hostile Spanish and British intruders who arrived by ship to search for people to enslave. Many Mayan communities continue to live much as their ancestors did and are still the most politically marginalized people in Belize, although certain villages are becoming increasingly empowered and developed, thanks in part to tourism (although some would argue at a cultural cost). Most modern Maya practice some form of Christian religion integrated with ancient beliefs. But ancient Mayan ceremonies are still quietly practiced in secluded pockets of the country, especially in southern Belize.


The, Garífuna people, in plural Garinagu, came to exist on the Lesser Antillean island of San Vicente, which in the 1700s had become a refuge for escaped slaves from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Jamaica. These displaced Africans were accepted by the native Carib islanders, with whom they freely intermingled. The new island community members vehemently denied their African origins and proclaimed themselves Native Americans. As the French and English began to settle the island, the Garífuna (as they had become known) established a worldwide reputation as expert canoe navigators and fierce warriors, resisting European control. The English finally got the upper hand in the conflict after tricking and killing the Garífuna leader, and in 1797 they forcefully evacuated the population from San Vicente to the Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. From there, a large proportion of the Garífuna migrated to mainland Central America, all along the Mosquito Coast.

On November 19, 1823, so the story goes, the first Garífuna boats landed on the beaches of what is now Dangriga, one of the chief cultural capitals of the Garinagu. They landed in Belize under the leadership of Alejo Beni, and a small Garífuna settlement grew in Stann Creek, where they fished and farmed. They began bringing fresh produce to Belize City but were not welcome to stay for more than 48 hours without getting a special permit—the Baymen wanted the produce but feared that these free blacks would help the enslaved escape, causing a loss of the Baymen’s tight control.


jankanu dancer in Dangriga

The Gulisi Primary School

The Garinagu in Belize have been struggling to keep their culture alive, particularly with the younger generation. English and Creole dominate the language scene, and with a diverse population, as well as a young population influenced by mainstream American pop culture and media, a significant number of Garífuna youth are not learning their native tongue, which isn’t taught in most schools.

Enter the Gulisi Primary School. Established in 2007 and located adjacent to the Gulisi Garífuna Museum in Dangriga, it’s unique in its genre: In addition to a regular primary school academic curriculum, it has a mandatory trilingual system which requires students to take Garífuna language classes, along with English, the main language of instruction, and Spanish. The goal is to keep Garífuna children rooted in their culture and thus preserve their heritage, but not at the expense of a good education.

Teachers are required to speak fluent Garífuna (government-assisted funding covers their salaries), and the 185 students wear Garífuna-colored uniforms. The school accepts children up to the 8th grade, including those from other cultures who are willing to learn Garífuna alongside everyone else. So successful is the school that it now faces overcrowding. Occasionally, classes are held in part of the museum next door.

For more information, contact Mrs. Phyllis Cayetano (, the school’s founder and general manager.

The Garífuna language is a mixture of Amerindian, African, Arawak, and Carib, dating from the 1700s. The Garinagu continued to practice what was still familiar from their ancient West African traditions—cooking with a mortar and pestle, dancing, and especially music, which consisted of complex rhythms with a call-and-response pattern that was an important part of their social and religious celebrations. An eminent person in the village is still the drum maker, who continues the old traditions, along with making other instruments used in these singing and dancing ceremonies that often last all night.

There are a number of old dances and drum rhythms still used for a variety of occasions, especially around Christmas and New Year’s. If you are visiting Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight, Punta Gorda, or Barranco during these times (or on Settlement Day, November 19), expect to see, and possibly partake in, some drumming. Feel free to taste the typical foods and drinks. If you consume too much “local dynamite” (rum and coconut milk) or bitters, have a cup of strong chicory coffee, said by Garinagu “to mek we not have goma” (prevent a hangover).


From 1844 to 1917, under British colonialism, 41,600 East Indians were brought to British colonies in the Caribbean as indentured workers. They agreed to work for a given length of time for one “master.” Then they could either return to India or stay on and work freely. Unfortunately, the time spent in Belize was not as lucrative as they were led to believe it would be. In some cases, they owed so much money to the company store (where they received half their wages in trade and not nearly enough to live on) that they were forced to “reenlist” for a longer period. Most of them worked on sugar plantations in the Toledo and Corozal Districts, and many of the East Indian men were assigned to work as local police in Belize City. In a town aptly named Calcutta, south of Corozal Town, many of the population today are descendants of the original indentured East Indians. Forest Home near Punta Gorda also has a large settlement. About 47 percent of the ethnic group lives in these two locations. The East Indians usually have large families and live on small farms with orchards adjacent to their homes. A few trade in pigs and dry goods in mom-and-pop businesses. Descendants of earlier East Indian immigrants speak Creole and Spanish. A few communities of Hindi-speaking East Indian merchants live in Belize City, Belmopan, and Orange Walk.


Making up more than 3 percent of the population of Belize, German-speaking Mennonites are the most recent group to enter Belize on a large scale. This group of Protestant settlers from the Swiss Alps wandered over the years to northern Germany, southern Russia, Pennsylvania, and Canada in the early 1800s, and to northern Mexico after World War I. The quiet, staid Mennonites and their isolated agrarian lifestyle conflicted with local governments in these countries, leading to a more nomadic existence.

Most of Belize’s Mennonites first migrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. A few came from Peace River in Canada. In contrast to other areas where they lived, the Mennonites bought large blocks of land (about 148,000 acres) and began to farm. Shipyard (in Orange Walk District) was settled by a conservative wing; Spanish Lookout (in Cayo District) and Blue Creek (in Orange Walk District) were settled by more progressive members. In hopes of averting future problems with the government, Mennonites made agreements with Belize officials that guarantee them freedom to practice their religion, use their language in locally controlled schools, organize their own financial institutions, and be exempt from military service.

Over the 30-plus years that Mennonites have been in Belize, they have slowly merged into Belizean activities. Although they practice complete separation of church and state (and do not vote), their innovations in agricultural production and marketing have advanced the entire country. Mennonite farmers are probably the most productive in Belize; they commonly pool their resources to make large purchases such as equipment, machinery (in those communities that use machinery), and supplies. Their fine dairy industry is the best in the country, and they supply the domestic market with eggs, poultry, fresh milk, cheese, and vegetables.


More than eight languages are commonly spoken in Belize. English is the official language, although Belizean Creole (or “Kriol”) serves as the main spoken tongue among and between groups. There are an increasing number of Spanish speakers in Belize, as Central American immigrants continue to arrive. Spanish is the primary language of many native Belizean families, especially among descendants of Yucatecan immigrants who inhabit the Northern Cayes, Orange Walk, and Corozal Districts. As a tourist, there are only a few areas of Belize, mainly rural outposts in northern and western Belize, where knowing Spanish is essential to communicate. The Garinagu speak Garífuna, and the various Mennonite communities speak different dialects of Old German. Then there are Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’ Mayan tongues. Still other immigrant groups, like Chinese and Lebanese, also often speak their own languages among themselves.

The Arts

Belize has a fairly rich arts scene for such a small country. Several painters and visual artists from Belize have made a name for themselves internationally. Start your research by looking up the work of Gilvano Swasey, Pen Cayetano, Michael Gordon, Benjamin Nicholas, Carolyn Carr, Chris Emmanuel, and Yasser Musa, to name only a few. The government ministry responsible for the arts is the National Institute for Culture and History (NICH,, which comprises four organizations: The Institute of Creative Arts (in Belize City), Museum of Belize and Houses of Culture (locations in Belize City, Orange Walk, Benque Viejo del Carmen, and San Ignacio), the Institute of Archaeology (in Belmopan), and the Institute for Social and Cultural Research (in Belmopan).


You’ll have a selection of Belizean and Guatemalan crafts to choose from when visiting any archaeological site, as vendors typically set up rows of stalls with similar gifts, crafts, textiles, and basketwork. You’ll also see slate carvings, a recently resurrected skill of the Maya. Among the leading slate carvers are the Garcia Sisters, Lesley Glaspie, and the Magana family. Their work can be found in several Cayo shops as well as elsewhere in the country (especially Aurora’s shop near the entrance to Cockscomb). The Garcia sisters helped revive the slate craze, and their quality has always been high. Mennonite furniture pieces like hardwood chairs and small tables make possible take-home items. Orange Gifts (in Cayo) has the best selection of crafts for sale in the country.


The music of Belize is heavily influenced by the syncopated beats of Africa as they combine with modern sounds from throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America. The most popular Belizean music is punta, a fusion of traditional Garífuna rhythms and modern electric instruments. The “Ambassador of Punta Rock” was Andy Palacio, a prolific musician from the southern village of Barranco, who died in 2008 and was honored as a national hero. While Andy Palacio revived interest in paranda and punta, the creator of the punta rock genre was actually Pen Cayetano, another renowned Garífuna musician, artist, and advocate. The newer form of punta is characterized by driving, repetitive dance rhythms and has its acoustic roots in a type of music called paranda. A recent PBS special described paranda as “nostalgic ballads coupling acoustic guitar with Latin melodies and raw, gritty vocals … which can feature traditional Garífuna percussion like wood blocks, turtle shells, forks, bottles, and nails.” A few of the original paranda masters, like Paul Nabor in Punta Gorda, can still be found in their hometowns throughout Belize. Several excellent compilation albums of Belizean and Honduran punta and paranda music are available from Stonetree Records.

Brukdown (or “Bruckdong”) began in the timber camps of the 1800s, when the workers, isolated from civilization for months at a time, would let off steam by drinking a full bottle of rum and then beating on the empty bottle—or the jawbone of an ass, a coconut shell, or a wooden block—anything that made a sound. Add to that a harmonica, guitar, and banjo, and you’ve got the unique sound of brukdown. This is a traditional Creole rhythm kept alive by the legendary Mr. Peters and his Boom and Chime band until Mr. Peters died in 2010 at the age of 79. Over the last five years, dub-poetry has emerged as an important format for musical expression in Belize. The most popular artist of this is Leroy “The Grandmaster” Young, whose album Just Like That is a wonderful listening experience and has been acclaimed by numerous international reviewers.

In the southern part of Belize, you’ll likely hear the strains of ancient Mayan melodies played on homemade wooden instruments, including Q’eqchi’ harps, violins, and guitars. In Cayo District in the west, listen for the resonant sounds of marimbas and wooden xylophones—from the Latin influence across the Guatemala border. In the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts in the north, Mexican ranchera and romantica music is extremely popular. Of course reggae is popular throughout the country, especially on the islands (Bob Marley is king in Belize).

Stonetree Records ( has the most complete catalogue of truly Belizean music, covering a wide range of musical genres and styles. This author’s favorites include Wátina, a soulful album featuring traditional paranda music by the renowned, deceased Andy Palacio and the Garífuna Collective, and Belize City Boil-Up, a funky collection of remastered vintage Belizean soul tracks from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, featuring The Lord Rhaburn Combo, Jesus Acosta and the Professionals, The Web, Harmonettes, Nadia Cattouse, and Soul Creations.

In addition to recording and marketing dozens of albums, Stonetree, based in the town of Benque Viejo in Cayo, western Belize, is also very active in encouraging new Belizean musicians to experiment and develop their individual sounds. Buy albums online, or pick up a couple of CDs at any gift shop or music store during your visit.


When a public holiday falls on Sunday, it is celebrated on the following Monday. If you plan to visit during holiday time, make advance hotel reservations—especially if you plan to spend time in Dangriga during Settlement Day on November 19 (the area has limited accommodations). Note: On Sunday and a few holidays (Easter and Christmas), most businesses close for the day, and some close the day after Christmas (Boxing Day); on Good Friday most buses do not run. Check ahead of time.

Sunday: A Day of Rest

Belize is serious about its Sundays. Expect businesses in most parts of the country (even restaurants and cafés) to close on Sunday. The streets are empty as well, giving a ghost-town feel to places like downtown Belize City. Usually, the only stores and eateries open are Chinese shops and maybe a few taco stands on the street.

National Heroes and Benefactors Day

On March 9, this holiday is celebrated with various activities, mostly water sports. English sportsman Baron Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss, who remembered Belize with a generous legacy when he died, designated a day of sailing and fishing in his will. A formal ceremony is held at his tomb below the lighthouse in the Belize Harbor, where he died on his boat. Fishing and sailing regattas begin after the ceremony.


Easter weekend in Belize is big: there are concerts, parties, and plenty of dancing and libation flowing all weekend from Belize City to the Northern Cayes and the South Coast. But the most unique cultural celebration in the country takes place in the devoutly Roman Catholic historic western town of Benque Viejo del Carmen. The town celebrates Semana Santa (Holy Week) with events starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Good Friday with a reenactment of the Passion of Christ (crucifixion). The weeklong events include alfombras, a 12-year tradition of creating colorful sawdust carpets on the streets in town to mark the route of the Santo Entierro procession, which represents carrying the body of the crucified Christ to the tomb.

Maya Dances

If you’re traveling in the latter part of September in San Antonio Village in the Toledo District, you have a good chance of seeing the deer dance performed by the Q’eqchi’ Maya villagers. Dancing and celebrating begins around the middle of August, but the biggest celebration begins with a novena, nine days before the feast day of San Luis.

Actually, this festival was only recently revived. The costumes were burned in an accidental fire some years back at a time when (coincidentally) the locals had begun to lose interest in the ancient traditions. Thanks to the formation of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the Maya once again are realizing the importance of recapturing their past. Some dances are now performed during an annual Cacao Festival in Toledo District during the last weekend in May.

San Pedro Day

If you’re wandering around Belize near June 26-29, hop a boat or plane to San Pedro and join the locals in a festival they have celebrated for decades, El Día de San Pedro, in honor of the town’s namesake, Saint Peter. This is good fun; hotel reservations are suggested. Carnaval, one week before Lent, is another popular holiday on the island. The locals walk in a procession through the streets to the church, celebrating the last hurrah (for devout Roman Catholics) before Easter. There are lots of good dance competitions.

St. George’s Caye Day

On September 10, 1798, at St. George’s Caye off the coast of Belize, British buccaneers fought and defeated the Spaniards over the territory of Belize. The tradition of celebrating this victory is still carried on each year, followed by a weeklong calendar of events from religious services to carnivals. During this week, Belize City feels like a carnival, with parties everywhere. On the morning of September 10, the whole city parades through the streets and enjoys local cooking, spirits, and music with an upbeat atmosphere that continues well into the beginning of Independence Day on September 21.

The city also celebrates its very own Belize Carnival, usually held in mid-September, following St. George’s Caye Day, and consisting of a full-blown Caribbean-style costume parade and dancing in the streets and along Central American Boulevard, with hundreds of themed floats blasting soca or punta music.

National Independence Day

On September 21, 1981, Belize gained independence from Great Britain. Each year, Belizeans celebrate with carnivals on the main streets of downtown Belize City and in all the district towns, as well as on the main cayes of Ambergris and Caye Caulker. Like giant county fairs, they include displays of local arts, crafts, and cultural activities, while happy Belizeans dance to a variety of exotic punta, soca, and reggae rhythms. Again, don’t miss the chance to sample local dishes from every ethnic group in the country. With this holiday back-to-back with the celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye and Belize Carnival, Belize enjoys two weeks of riotous, cacophonous partying, known nationwide as the September Celebrations.


The month of September is the most festive time in Belize.

Garífuna Settlement Day

On November 19, Belize recognizes the 1823 arrival and settlement of the first Garífuna people in the southern districts of Belize. Belizeans from all over the country gather in Dangriga, Hopkins, Punta Gorda, and Belize City to celebrate with the Garinagu. The day begins with the reenactment of the arrival of the settlers and continues with all-night dancing to the local Garífuna drums and live punta bands. Traditional food—and copious amounts of rum, beer, and bitters—is available at street stands and local cafés. November 19 in Dangriga is one of the most unique and memorable celebrations I’ve experienced in Belize, and anywhere in the Caribbean, for that matter.

Christmas and New Year’s

Christmas is celebrated around the country, shops stay open late pre-Christmas Day, and there is a surge in visitors until just after Christmas, with hotels booked weeks ahead. Belizeans celebrate the eve, day of, and day after Christmas (Boxing Day). Prepare for two full days when stores are closed and everyone is home with family. New Year’s is more festive, with various options for parties, concerts, and indoor parties across the country. San Pedro, Caye Caulker, and Placencia Village are known to have the liveliest New Year’s bashes. In Belize City, the Radisson Fort George often puts on a New Year’s Eve Gala with live music, food, and drinks.


buses in Belize