Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)
airstrip in Cayo District.
To Belizeans in 1927, flying was a far-fetched idea when American hero Charles Lindbergh paid a dramatic visit to the small Caribbean nation as part of his ongoing effort to promote and develop commercial aviation. At the time Lindbergh had just completed his famous nonstop flight across the Atlantic. On his visit to Belize, the Barracks Green in Belize City served as his runway, and the sound of his well-known aircraft, Spirit of St. Louis, attracted hundreds of curious spectators.
Today, dozens of daily international flights fly in and out of the country, served by a growing number of major carriers. In general, airfares to Belize are more expensive than your average Central American destination, although rates occasionally dip throughout the year.
Most travelers to Belize arrive at Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE, tel. 501/225-2045, www.pgiabelize.com), 10 miles west of Belize City, located outside the community of Ladyville. The airport is named after Philip Stanley Wilberforce Goldson (1923-2001), a respected newspaper editor, activist, and politician. The midsize airport offers gift shops, currency exchange, and two restaurants; Internet access is available in the Sun Garden Restaurant upstairs from the American terminal. Check out the “waving deck” upstairs by the other bar-restaurant for exciting farewell and hello energy. The airport’s ongoing runway and apron expansion is hoping to attract new carriers from farther away, particularly from Europe.
When it’s time to leave, don’t forget to carry enough U.S. dollars for your US$36 departure fee (if it’s not already included in your ticket).
After clearing customs, you’ll be besieged by taxi drivers offering rides into town for a fixed US$25; split the cost with fellow travelers if you can. If you are not being picked up by a resort or tour company and you choose to rent a car, look for the 11 rental car offices, all together on the same little strip, across the parking lot from the arrival area.
CONNECTIONS WITHIN BELIZE
If you’re continuing to the cayes, you can fly directly to Caye Caulker or San Pedro via the domestic airlines Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) or Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140 or 501/223-1362, www.mayaislandair.com). You could also take a taxi into town and get on a boat for about half the price and just a few hours longer. If it’s your first time in Belize, flying is worth it, with gorgeous aerial views of the water, surrounding cayes, and Barrier Reef.
Because airfares to Belize are so high, a few travelers choose to fly into the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula, especially to Cancún, where discounted airfares are common. By bus from Mexico is a cinch; many daily buses travel from the main terminal in Chetumal all the way to Belize City and back. You’ll have to get out to wait in various customs and immigration lines, and it’s a longer journey, but just follow the crowd and you’ll be fine. There are also several Mexican bus lines that run daily between Chetumal, Belize City, Cayo (Benque), and Guatemala. Belize’s Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) now offers direct service (Mon.-Fri., US$155 each way) between Cancún and Belize City’s international airport.
Boats travel to Punta Gorda back and forth daily from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. There are two boat services to Puerto Cortés, Honduras (one leaves from Placencia, the other from Dangriga). Vessels traveling to the area must have permission from the Belizean Embassy in Washington DC.
After passing through customs at the airport, you will find service desks for shuttle transportation and the ADO bus ticket agent. You want to go Playa del Carmen, an hour south, where you will make a connection to Chetumal. It costs about US$23 for a shared shuttle to Playa del Carmen; private shuttle service is US$70-80, depending on group size. Visit the airport’s website (www.cancun-airport.com) to search for rates and reserve shuttle transportation. The airport personnel are very helpful in directing you where you need to go and ensuring you have transportation from the airport; shuttle vans are immediately outside, and buses are located to the right.
A bus to Playa del Carmen (about US$10) is the most economical route. Riviera buses are comfortable and air-conditioned; if you’re the type of person who packs a sweater for your tropical vacation, it may be useful. After arriving at the station, a few blocks from an amazing beach, you have two options: continue immediately to Chetumal near the Belize border, or overnight in Playa del Carmen. Playa del Carmen has two bus stations: Terminal Alterna on Calle 20 and Terminal Turística (also called Terminal Riviera, 5th Ave. and Ave. Juárez); you can buy tickets for any destination at either station, so always double-check where your bus departs from when you buy a ticket.
If you continue directly to Chetumal, check the bus schedule; you may need to take a taxi (US$2.50) to Terminal Turística. Buses to Chetumal (US$13.50-20) depart every hour until 5:15pm; the trip takes five to six hours and has a few stops in between if you need to grab a snack or use the restroom. Chances are you’ll arrive in Chetumal later in the evening, and public transportation options to Belize may not be available.
If you’d rather linger in Playa del Carmen, you won’t be sorry; find a hotel, head to the beach, or stroll along 5th Avenue. You can book a morning bus to Chetumal, and most likely, it will be departing from Terminal Turística.
The main ADO bus terminal in Chetumal is not too far from the Nuevo Mercado, where local buses to Belize depart. Outside the station you can find a taxi or continue walking across the plaza to Avenida Insurgentes. Continue left toward the Pemex gas station on the corner and turn right onto Avenue Héroes. Continue two blocks to Calle Segundo Circuito Periférico and turn left. You’ll see the repainted school buses waiting at Nuevo Mercado Lázaro Cárdenas, in a parking lot on the right side of the street.
FROM THE UNITED STATES
The road from Brownsville, Texas, to the border of Belize is just under 1,400 miles. If you don’t stop to smell the cacti, you can make the drive in three days, especially now that there is a toll-road bypass around Veracruz and the Tuxtla mountains. The all-weather roads are paved, and the shortest route through Mexico is by way of Tampico, Veracruz, Villahermosa, Escárcega, and Chetumal. There is often construction on Mexican Highways 180 and 186. Lodging is available throughout the drive, although it is most concentrated in the cities and on the Costa Esmeralda, a beautiful strip of mostly deserted beach near Nautla (prices start at around US$20 for a very simple double). If attempting this trip, be sure you have a valid credit card, Mexican liability insurance, a passport, and a driver’s license—all original documents and one set of photocopies.
One very important detail when entering Mexico from the United States is to request a “doble entrada” on your passport to avoid steep fees. This should only cost about US$10, if it’s available. Returning to Mexico from Belize, you’ll pay a US$19 pp Belizean exit tax.
It is possible to rent a car in Cancún and continue south on a Belizean adventure, but it’ll cost you both money and patience. Still, with the money you save with the cheaper airfare into Cancún, the mobility may be worth it. Cancún is 229 miles from the border at Santa Elena, roughly 4.5 hours in a car on Highway 307. Corporate international rental companies will not let you take their vehicles across the border, so you’ll have to find a more accommodating Mexican company, like J. L. Vegas, with one office near the airport and another in the Crystal Hotel. Next, you’ll need to “make the papers,” as the car guy will surely remind you. Another company that says they’ll let you drive into Belize is Caribbean Rent A Car (U.S. tel. 866/577-1342, Mexico tel. 52/800-212-0750, www.cancunrentacar.com).
The most crucial part of driving into Belize from Mexico is having a letter of permission from the car’s owner; customs will scrutinize this document. Next, to avoid being turned back at the border, be sure to get the vehicle sprayed with insecticide (US$5) from one of the roadside sprayers near the border—it’s tough to pick them out, but look for a little white shack past the bridge after leaving Mexico and keep your receipt for when you reach customs and immigration. After passing through Mexican immigration (have your passport stamped and hand in your tourist card), you will cross a bridge welcoming you to Belize. On the right hand side, you will see two unsigned buildings where you must purchase insurance. The tire fumigation is near the fork in the road before the free zone. You will likely be greeted when you first pull over by men offering to help you through the stations, but their services are unnecessary. Still, it can be wise to befriend these touts, as many of them are related to the officers at the border. Give a small tip and ask them to clean your windows while you are getting insurance at the Atlantic house (you must have insurance before you enter immigration).
Although in Mexico proof of registration suffices as proof of ownership, in Belize you may be asked to show a title. You will not need a Temporary Vehicle Importation permit if entering for one month or less; for more time, you may need to post a bond on your vehicle (in greenbacks, to be refunded in Belizean dollars later).
It is very reasonable and common to get around the country in puddle-jumper planes. Some Belizean airstrips are paved and somewhat official looking (Belize City and San Pedro, for example); the rest are more like short abandoned roadways or strips of mowed grass, but they work just fine. Because such small planes are used, you not only watch the pilot handling the craft, you may also get to sit next to him or her if the flight is full (which is easy in a 12-seater). Best of all, flying low and slow in these aircraft allows you to get a panoramic view of the Belize Barrier Reef, cayes, coast, and rainforest (keep your camera handy).
Two airlines offer regularly scheduled flights to all districts in Belize, from both the international and municipal airports: Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, email@example.com, www.tropicair.com) and Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.mayaislandair.com). Daily flights are available from Belize City to Caye Caulker, San Pedro, Dangriga, Placencia, Punta Gorda, and a handful of other tiny strips around the country. New routes include flights linking San Pedro to the Cayo District. The Maya Island Air and Tropic Air flights usually combine several destinations in one route, so if you’re traveling to PG, you may have to land and take off in Dangriga and Placencia first. Ditto for Caulker and San Pedro, the two of which are linked together. There are also regular flights to Flores, Guatemala, and you can fly between Corozal and San Pedro. If your scheduled flight is full, another will taxi up shortly and off you go.
Several charter flight companies will arrange trips to remote lodges like Lighthouse Reef Resort, Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge, and Gallon Jug airstrip near Chan Chich. Javier’s Flying Service (municipal airport, tel. 501/824-0460 or cell 501/610-0446, www.javiersflyingservice.com) is one such charter, offering local and international flights, air ambulance, and day tours.
Charter a chopper for a transfer, adventure tour, filming or photography assignment, aerial property survey, search and rescue mission, or medevac with Astrum Helicopters (Mile 3½, Western Hwy., near Belize City, tel. 501/222-5100, www.astrumhelicopters.com); expect to pay around US$1,000 per hour (US$250 pp for most sightseeing tours). Astrum is a modern, professional outfit with new aircraft and a very skilled father-son pilot team.
Save money, meet Belizeans, and see the countryside in an unrushed trip between towns. The motley fleet of buses that serves the entire country ranges from your typical run-down recycled yellow school bus to plush, air-conditioned luxury affairs. Belize buses are relatively reliable, on time, and less chaotic than the chicken-bus experience in other parts of Central America and Mexico. Even so, buses make many extra stops, including a requisite break in Belmopan for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for all buses traveling between Belize City and points west and south; it’s a good restroom and taco break.
Your best up-to-date resource for all Belize bus schedules and information is www.belizebus.wordpress.com, an independent website that pays impressive attention to travel details. Another website with bus schedules is www.guidetobelize.info. Travel time from Belize City to Corozal or San Ignacio is about 2 hours, to Dangriga 2 to 3 hours, and to Punta Gorda 5 to 6 hours. Fares average US$2-4 to most destinations, US$7-12 for the longer routes.
In Belize City, nearly all buses still begin and end at the Novelo’s Terminal (tel. 501/207-4924, 501/207-3929, or 501/227-7146; it’s still called that even though the company no longer exists), located on West Collett Canal Street in Belize City. Reach it by walking west on King Street, across Collett Canal, and into the terminal—definitely use a taxi when departing or arriving at night. Another walking route from the downtown area and water taxi is to go west along Orange Street, a busy shopping area, cross over the canal, then turn left and continue a short distance to the terminal.
James Bus runs the most reliable daily Punta Gorda service, using the block in front of the Shell station on Vernon Street (two blocks north of the Novelo’s) as its terminal.
There are at least a dozen booths to buy a ticket on the various international express bus services to Guatemala and Mexico. All are located inside or in front of the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal and Swing Bridge. Boat-bus connections are convenient and easy to make, but it all happens in the middle of one of Belize’s busiest intersections.
Driving Belize’s handful of highways gives you the most independence when traveling throughout the country, but it is also the most expensive. Rental fees were running US$75-125 per day and gasoline was approaching US$6 per gallon at press time. You’ll also have to be adept at avoiding careless drivers and obstacles like pedestrians, farm animals, cyclists, iguanas, and the occasional moped-riding cruise ship passenger.
In some areas, like the Mountain Pine Ridge and other hinterlands, there is no public transportation, and a sturdy rental car is a good way to go if you’re into traveling on your own schedule.
✵ Drive defensively! Expect everyone out there to make sudden passes and unexpected turns—it’s your job to stay out of their way.
✵ Valid U.S. or other foreign driver’s licenses and international driving permits are accepted in Belize for a period of three months after entering the country.
✵ Try not to drive at night if you can avoid it. Besides the additional hazards of night driving in general, some Belizean drivers overuse their high beams, and many vehicles have no taillights.
✵ Watch out for unmarked speed bumps. No matter how slow you drive, on some you may bottom out.
✵ Driving rules are U.S.-style with one very strange exception: Sometimes a vehicle making a left-hand turn is expected to pull over to the right, let traffic behind pass, and then execute the turn.
✵ Tires frequently pop, so make sure you have a good spare to get you to the nearest used-tire dealer. New tires may be hard to come by, but Belizeans are geniuses with a patch kit. A decent used spare can be had for around US$30, a patch job about US$5.
✵ If you plan on traveling during the rainy season or without a 4WD vehicle, make sure you are prepared in the event you get stuck in the mud.
✵ In general, road conditions may dictate where you can and cannot go, and it is always best to ask around town if you plan to go off the beaten path. Watch out for speed bumps, even on the highways.
Speed bumps in Belize are called “sleeping policeman.”
✵ If you’re going to the cayes and leaving a vehicle on the mainland, be sure to seek out a secure pay parking lot in your city of departure, especially if it’s Belize City (the municipal airport is probably the best choice).
✵ Expect police checkpoints anywhere around the country: They’ll check your seat belt, car papers, and driver’s license, and, courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, dogs will sniff the vehicle for any drugs.
Distances from Belize City
Orange Walk Town
One of the first things you’ll see on walking out of the arrival lounge at the international airport is a strip of about a dozen car rental offices offering small, midsize, and 4WD vehicles. Vans and passenger cars are also available, some with air-conditioning. Insurance is mandatory but (like taxes) not always included in the quoted rates. If you know exactly when you want the car, it’s helpful and often cheaper to make reservations. Note the hour you pick up the car and try to return it before that time: A few minutes over could cost you another full day’s rental fee. Also take the vehicle inspection seriously to make sure you don’t get charged for someone else’s dings. And don’t forget to fill the tank up before giving it back.
Crystal Auto Rental (Goldson International Airport; and Mile 5, Northern Hwy., tel. 501/223-1600, www.crystal-belize.com) has the largest, newest, most reliable fleet of cars in Belize. It is also the only company that will allow you to drive across the border into Guatemala or Mexico, but you won’t be insured. Budget Rent a Car (tel. 501/223-2435, www.budget-belize.com) offers new cars that are well maintained. You’ll find a few other international brands with local Belizean branches, including Avis.
If you plan on traveling in the Cayo region, it’s cheaper to use one of the San Ignacio-based car rental options. Start with Cayo Auto Rentals (at the UNO station at the top of the hill, 81 Benque Viejo Rd., tel. 501/824-2222, www.cayoautorentals.com); US$75 per 24 hours includes taxes and insurance. Also in Cayo, Matus Car Rentals (18 Benque Viejo Rd., tel. 501/824-2005, www.matuscarrental.com) is another option with a handful of sturdy cars, and there is a Land Rover rental place in Central Farm, just east of San Ignacio, if you’re really planning on going off-road.
Travel Specialists and Tour Companies
BELIZE TRAVEL SPECIALISTS
More than travel agents, not quite tour operators, Belize country specialists are small, independent operations that work directly with their clients to arrange all kinds of niche, group, and solo travel within Belize. There is usually no charge for their services, so you really can’t go wrong by letting them handle some of the planning and booking.
Belize Trips (tel. 501/610-1923, U.S. tel. 561/210-7015, www.belize-trips.com) helps you arrange active itineraries, weddings, and honeymoons and can book you at the best mid- to upscale accommodations in the country.
Barb’s Belize (U.S. tel. 888/321-2272, www.barbsbelize.com) is another small operation that offers custom itineraries for any budget, from backpacker to decadent. Barb’s specializes in unique interests such as traditional herbal medicine, rainforest survival, and extreme adventure expeditions. She charges US$50 for her planning services and advice, which she credits to your invoice if you book through her.
Dangriga- and Vancouver-based Island Expeditions (U.S. tel. 800/667-1630, www.islandexpeditions.com) has been leading exciting sea kayaking, rafting, ruins, nature, and snorkeling adventures in Belize since 1987. It’s a very experienced and professional outfit, and they have stunning island camps in Glover’s Reef and Lighthouse Reef Atolls with canvas-wall platform tents. They also offer popular lodge-to-lodge sea kayaking and paddleboarding trips and inland river adventures, and can help you outfit your own kayak expedition.
Slickrock Adventures (U.S. tel. 800/390-5715, www.slickrock.com), based on their primitively plush camp on a private island in Glover’s Reef Atoll, offers paddling trips of various lengths and specializes in sea kayaking, windsurfing, and inland activities like mountain biking.
With decades of experience as a premier land operator in Belize, International Expeditions (U.S. tel. 800/633-4734, email@example.com, www.ietravel.com) has a full-time office in Belize City. They offer group and independent nature travel in sturdy, comfortable vehicles and are staffed by travel and airline specialists, naturalists, and an archaeologist. Trips run 7 to 14 days with 2- and 3-day add-ons available.
You’ll also find an interesting menu of tours offered by Intrepid Travel (U.S. tel. 800/970-7299, http://intrepidtravel.com), an Australian company that runs trips around the world and has a dozen trips that include Belize, some Maya-themed.
For those interested in letting someone else do the driving (and planning, booking, etc.), various tour operators are reliable. In Belize City, Sarita and Lascelle Tillet of S & L Travel and Tours (91 N. Front St., tel. 501/227-7593 or 501/227-5145, www.sltravelbelize.com) operate as a husband-and-wife team. They drive late-model air-conditioned sedans or vans and travel throughout the country, with airport pickup available. The Tillets have designed several great special-interest vacations and will custom-design to your interests, whether they be the Mayan archaeological zones (including Tikal), the cayes, or the caves and the countryside.
InnerQuest Adventures (U.S. tel. 800/990-4376, www.innerquest.com) has over 14 years of experience leading wildlife-viewing trips with local guides around the country. They’ve been featured in dozens of magazines. Minnesota-based Magnum Belize Tours (U.S. tel. 800/447-2931, www.magnumbelize.com) is one of the biggest, longest-standing tour operators, with an extensive network of resorts across the country; the staff is very experienced and can customize every aspect of your trip.
Sea & Explore (U.S. tel. 800/345-9786, www.seaexplore.com) is run by owners Sue and Tony Castillo, native Belizeans who take pleasure and pride in sharing their country with visitors by means of customized trips. They know every out-of-the-way destination and make every effort to match clients with the right areas of the country to suit their interests. Susan worked with the Belize Tourism Board before coming to the United States.
Mary Dell Lucas of Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural Trips (U.S. tel. 800/552-4575 or 415/482-8400, www.farhorizons.com) is known throughout the Mayan world for her excellent archaeological knowledge and insight. Her company provides trips into the most fascinating Mayan sites, regardless of location. Although Mary is an archaeologist herself, she often brings specialists along with her groups.
Also check Jaguar Adventures Tours and Travel (4 Fort St., tel. 501/223-6025, www.jaguarbelize.com), located in Belize City and offering night walks at the Belize Zoo, cave tubing trips, visits to Mayan ruins, snorkeling the reef, and diving the atolls, to name a few adventures.
Belize Travel Representatives (U.S. tel. 800/451-8017, www.belizetravelrepresentatives.com) specializes in tour packages to the cayes, Placencia, and most of the mainland resorts and lodges. They also have some of the most extensive archaeologically themed tours in Belize. Contact The Mayan Traveler (www.themayantraveler.com, U.S. tel. 888/843-6292 or 281/367-3386); they can satisfy even the most serious temple junkie, going to some of the most spectacular sites in the region.
Accommodations and Food
HOTELS AND HOMESTAYS
Of the 716 licensed hotels in Belize, the vast majority are very small boutiques. Large foreign-owned hotel chains are rare in Belize, although the very first Four Seasons is soon to come on Caye Chapel.
The Belize Hotel Association (BHA, 13 Cork St., Belize City, tel. 501/223-0669, www.belizehotels.org) is a nonprofit industry organization of some of the country’s most respected resorts and lodges. They work with the Belize Tourism Board and handle much of the global marketing for Belize; they also have a helpful listing of accommodations on their website.
Budget accommodations are ample in Belize, with nightly rates under US$25. In Belize, US$10-15 is the bottom line for low-cost lodging. Guesthouses and budget hotels sometimes offer a shared dormitory or bunkroom, often with shared baths and cold water.
Some villages around the country try to emulate the guesthouse and homestay networks available in the southern Toledo villages. Such options are usually primitive accommodations, often lacking electricity, running water, and flush toilets.
Exact hotel rates are an elusive thing in Belize; seasonal pricing fluctuations are compounded by various hotel taxes and service charges, sometimes as much as 25-30 percent above the quoted rate. Using a credit card can add another 3-5 percent. Universal standards for presenting prices are absent in Belize’s hotel industry. Always make sure the rate you are quoted is actually the same amount you will be asked to pay.
High season is loosely considered to be mid-December through the end of April and is marked by a rise in both the number of visitors and the price of most accommodations. Some places kick their rates up even higher during Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, calling these “holiday” or “peak” rates. A minority of hotels keep their rates the same year-round, but it’s rarely that simple.
Great deals are abundant in the low season (May-Nov.), when room rates plummet across the board, and walk-in specials can save you as much as 50 percent off normal winter (high-season) rates.
Belizean cuisine reflects its diverse population, and the very idea of a national cuisine is quite recent. Since the times of the Baymen, Belize has been an import economy, surviving mostly on canned meats like “bully beef” and imported grains and packaged goods. With independence, however, came renewed national pride, and with the arrival of travelers seeking “local” food, the word “Belizean” was increasingly applied to the varied diet of so many cultures. Anthropologist Richard Wilk wrote about the process in his book, Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists. A more recent book on Belizean cuisine made its appearance in 2012—Flavors of Belize, highlighting major cultural groups’ staple dishes, and Belize’s top chefs.
The common denominator of Belizean food is rice and beans, a starchy staple pronounced as one word with a heavy accent on the first syllable: “RICE-’n’-beans!” Belizeans speak of the dish with pride, as if they invented the combination, and you can expect a massive mound of it with most midday meals. Actually, Belizean rice and beans is closer to the Caribbean version than the Latin: They use red beans, black pepper, and grated coconut, instead of the black beans and cilantro common in neighboring Latin countries. The rest of your plate will be occupied by something like stew beef or stew chicken, fry chicken, or a piece of fish, plus a small mound of either potato or cabbage salad. Be sure to take advantage of so much fresh fruit: oranges, watermelon, star fruit, soursop, mangoes, and papaya, to name a few.
For breakfast, you should try some fry jacks (fluffy fried-dough crescents) or johnnycakes (flattened biscuits) with your eggs, beans, and bacon.
One of the cheapest and quickest meal options, found nearly everywhere in Belize, is Mexican “fast-food” snacks, especially taco stands, which are everywhere you look, serving as many as five or six soft-shell chicken tacos for US$1. Also widely available are salbutes, a kind of hot, soggy taco dripping in oil; panades, little meat pies; and garnaches, which are crispy tortillas under a small mound of tomato, cabbage, cheese, and hot sauce.
Speaking of hot sauce, you’ll definitely want to try to take home Marie Sharp’s famous habanero sauces, jams, and other creative products. Marie Sharp is an independent Belizean success story, and many travelers visit her factory and store just outside Dangriga. (Her products are available on every single restaurant table and in every gift shop in the country.) Her sauce is good on pretty much everything.
Then, of course, there’s the international cuisine, in the form of many excellent foreign-themed restaurants. San Pedro and Placencia, in particular, have burgeoning fine-dining scenes.
Many restaurants in Belize have flexible hours of operation, and often close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. The omnipresent Chinese restaurants provide authentic Chinese cuisine of varying quality. Most Chinese places sell cheap “fry chicken” takeout and are often your only meal options on Sunday and holidays.
One of the favorite Belize specialties is fresh fish, especially along the coast and on the islands, but even inland Belize is never more than 60 miles from the ocean. There’s lobster, shrimp, red snapper, sea bass, halibut, barracuda, conch, and lots more prepared in a variety of ways.
Conch has been a staple in the diet of the Mayan and Central American communities along the Caribbean coast for centuries. There are conch fritters, conch steak, and conch stew; it’s also often used in ceviche—uncooked seafood marinated in lime juice with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a host of spices. In another favorite, conch is pounded, dipped in egg and cracker crumbs, and sautéed quickly (like abalone steak in California) with a squirt of fresh lime. Caution: If it’s cooked too long, it becomes tough and rubbery. Conch fritters are minced pieces of conch mixed into a flour batter and fried—delicious. On many boat trips, the crew will catch a fish and some conch and prepare them for lunch, either as ceviche, cooked over an open beach fire, or in a “boil-up,” seasoned with onions, peppers, and achiote, a fragrant red spice grown locally since the time of the early Maya.
Many ocean waters are overfished, due in large part to increasing demand from tourists. These helpful tips will ensure you eat seafood responsibly.
✵ Don’t order seafood out of season. The once-prolific lobster (season closed Feb. 15-June 15) is becoming scarce in Belizean waters, and conch (season closed July 1-Sept. 30) is not nearly as easy to find as it once was. Most reputable restaurateurs follow the law and don’t buy undersize or out-of-season seafood; however, a few have no scruples.
✵ Small snappers are great fish to eat. Not only are they delicious, but they are one of the most sustainably caught fish in Belize (often caught locally with a hook and line).
✵ When dining out, don’t patronize any restaurant offering shark fin soup or panades made with shark meat. Not only are sharks critical to a functional marine ecosystem, but the meat is high in methyl mercury, so it’s bad for you too.
✵ Avoid any restaurant that displays endangered reef fish, like the Nassau grouper or goliath grouper, in tanks as meal choices. In fact, stay away from grouper in general, especially goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara, locally known as jewfish), a critically endangered species that is also high in methyl mercury.
✵ Lastly, don’t buy marine curios such as shark teeth or jaws, starfish, or coral.
Perhaps the most important legacy left by nearly three centuries of British imperialism is a national affinity for dark beer. Nowhere else in Central America will you find ale as hearty and dark as you do in any bar, restaurant, or corner store in Belize, where beer is often advertised separately from stout, a good sign indeed for those who prefer more bite and body to their brew.
At the top of the heap are the slender, undersize 280-milliliter (9.5-ounce) bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, known affectionately by Belizeans as “short, dark, and lovelies.” Yes, Guinness—brewed in Belize under license from behind the famous St. James’s Gate in Dublin, Ireland, and packing a pleasant 7.5 percent punch of alcohol. No, this is not the same sweet nectar you’ll find flowing from your favorite Irish pub’s draft handle at home, but you’re in Central America. Enjoy.
Asking for a “beer” will get you a basic Belikin, which, when served cold, is no better or worse than any other regional draft. Brewed in Belize since 1971 by Bowen & Bowen Limited, it’s the only beer in the Caribbean and Central America that uses a high percentage of malt, very close to Germany’s 100 percent. Belikin Stout weighs in with a slightly larger 342-milliliter (11.5-ounce) bottle and distinguishable from a regular beer bottle by its blue bottle cap. Stouts run 6.5 percent alcohol and are a bit less bitter than Guinness, but still a delicious, meaty meal that goes down much quicker than its caloric equivalent of a loaf of bread. Belikin Premium (4.8 percent alcohol) boasts a well-balanced body and is brewed with four different types of foreign hops; demand often exceeds supply in many establishments, so order early.
Lastly, the tiny green bottles belong to Lighthouse Lager, a healthy alternative to the heavies, but packing a lot less bang for the buck with only 4.2 percent alcohol and several ounces less beer (often for the same price).
All beer is brewed and distributed by the same company, Bowen and Bowen, in Ladyville, just north of Belize City; they also have the soft-drink market cornered. Most Belizeans vigorously wipe the open bottle mouths with the napkin that comes wrapped around the top—you’d be smart to do the same. Beers in Belize cost US$1.50-3 a bottle, depending on where you are.
Belikin Beer is the “beer of Belize.”
Of all the national rums, One Barrel stands proudly above the rest. Smooth enough to enjoy on the rocks (add a bit of Coca-Cola for coloring if you need to), One Barrel has a sweet, butterscotchy aftertaste and costs about US$8 for a one-liter bottle, or US$3 per shot (or rum drink). The cheaper option is Caribbean Rum, which is fine if you’re mixing it with punch, cola, or better yet, coconut water in the coconut. Everything else is standard white-rum gut rot.
The Panty Ripper is Belize’s national cocktail—a perfect blend of coconut rum and a splash of pineapple juice. Don’t underestimate it as a girly drink; a couple of well-made panty rippers can get you very tipsy.
Bitters are made by soaking herbs like palo del hombre (man-root) and jackass bitters in 80-proof white rum or gin. They are available under the counter of many a bar and corner store and are known in Garífuna as gífit. Bitters are a cure-all used to treat everything from the common cold to cancer, sometimes taken as a daily shot to keep your system clean.
Belizean Garífuna expats used to bring bitters back to the United States by the gallon. The most famous bitters maker in the country was Doctor Mac (also known as “Big Mac”), a formidable man who used to make a “fertility” version of bitters for women, with the bottles labeled either “boy” or “gal.” The latest bitters-making wonder is “Kid B,” a spry 76-year-old from Silk Grass Village, who spent 36 years as a welterweight prize fighter in Chicago.
In addition to curing what ails you, however, bitters can get you quite wasted. Be careful with any usage—both for your liver’s sake and because some say the ingredients carry trace amounts of arsenic. Talk about a hangover.
There are wonderful natural fruit drinks to be had throughout Belize. Take advantage of fresh lime, papaya, watermelon, orange, and other healthy juices during your travels—they are usually made with purified water, at least in most tourist destinations.
VISAS AND OFFICIALDOM
U.S. citizens must have a passport valid for the duration of their visit to Belize; citizens of the United States, British Commonwealth countries, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, and Uruguay do not need a visa. They are automatically granted a 30-day tourist pass and technically must have onward or return air tickets and proof of sufficient money (though I’ve never heard of anyone checking this). Visitors for purposes other than tourism, or who want to stay longer than 30 days, need to visit an immigration office of the government of Belize.
If you are planning on staying more than 30 days, you can ask for a new stamp at any immigration office in the country—there’s one in every district, including in San Pedro, Belize City, and Dangriga—or you can cross the border and return, but this technique is no guarantee of readmission, particularly if you’re gone only for a few days. The fee to extend for a month is US$25.
Make a photocopy of the pages in your passport that have your photo and information. When you get the passport stamped at the airport, it’s a good idea to make a photocopy of that page as well, and store the copies somewhere other than with your passport. This will facilitate things if your passport ever gets lost or stolen. Also consider taking a small address book, credit cards, a travel insurance policy, and an international phone card for calling home. A separate passport pouch can be used for documents, but make sure it’s waterproof so it won’t get soggy when you sweat.
Only a handful of countries have embassies in Belize. The U.S. Embassy (Floral Park Rd., Belmopan, tel. 501/822-4011, fax 501/822-4012, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://belize.usembassy.gov) is open for U.S. citizen services 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Monday-Friday in its brand-new US$50 million fortified building. The after-hours emergency number for American citizens is tel. 501/610-5030. For inquiries pertaining to American citizens, email ACSBelize@state.gov.
U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged by the U.S. State Department (www.travel.state.gov) to register their trip online, no matter how short, so that the local embassy has emergency contact information on file.
The British High Commission (Embassy Square, P.O. Box 91, Belmopan, tel. 501/822-2146, email@example.com, www.ukinbelize.fco.gov.uk/en) is open 8am-noon and 1pm-4pm Monday-Thursday and 8am-2pm Friday. El Salvador and India also have embassies in Belmopan.
Countries with consulates in Belize City include Canada, China, Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Holland, Sweden, and Taiwan.
CONDUCT AND CUSTOMS
Cameras can be a help or hindrance when trying to get to know the locals. When traveling in the backcountry, you’ll run into folks who don’t want their pictures taken. Keep your camera put away until the right moment. Always ask permission first, and if someone doesn’t want his or her picture taken, accept the refusal with a gracious smile and move on. Especially sensitive to this are Mennonites and Maya, who often specifically request that you not take their photos. Many Internet cafés have readers for your digital camera card, so you can make backups as you go. To be safe, travel with extra cards, readers, and cables.
WHAT TO TAKE
Pack for hot weather (80-95°F, both humid and dry), as well as the occasional cool front (60-80°F), which has become more frequent. At least one pair of pants and a light shell jacket are recommended, as rainy season can push all the way into February, and it’s guaranteed to be damp June through November. Long sleeves are helpful for avoiding mosquito bites and sunburn. Cayo and the Mountain Pine Ridge can drop to sweater weather in any part of the wet season and even in December. Bring a small first-aid kit, a flashlight or headlamp, and waterproof plastic bags for protection during rain or boat travel.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDY AND EMPLOYMENT
There are many opportunities for voluntourists to get their feet wet in the world of international development and resource conservation work throughout Belize. Some regional chapters listed throughout this book offer local volunteer opportunities or ways to help the community. For those interested in spending some time lending a hand, sharing their expertise, or supporting community efforts, there’s plenty to choose from. Some of these programs cost money and some don’t; be sure you know exactly what you’re getting into when you sign up. Also, be clear on what kind of work your position will entail, as well as your host organization’s expectations and Belizean legal requirements. Speaking of which, Belizean immigration officially requires long-term volunteers to apply for special visas, a process that takes months and is not cheap. Some NGOs get around this (for short-term assignments, anyway) by calling their volunteers “interns.”
The Belize Audubon Society (BAS, tel. 501/223-5004, 12 Fort St., Belize City, www.belizeaudubon.org) accepts qualified volunteers and interns for a variety of land and marine projects, with a three-month minimum (less for marine projects). Past skilled BAS volunteers have worked in community education; helped create trail signs, brochures, and management guidelines for protected areas and wardens; and analyzed the effectiveness of BAS gift shops. Habitat for Humanity Belize (tel. 501/223-2929), a world leader in providing low-income housing, operates in Belize City and beyond and accepts qualified volunteers and church groups to help erect home projects.
The Belize Botanic Gardens (tel. 501/824-3101, www.belizebotanic.org) sponsors a program where volunteers pay US$550 for room and board while working on various garden projects.
The Cornerstone Foundation (tel. 501/824-2373, www.cornerstonefoundationbelize.org) is a humanitarian NGO, based in the Cayo District, whose volunteer opportunities include HIV/AIDS education and awareness, special education, adult literacy, working with youth or women, and teaching business skills.
Trekforce Belize (8 St. Mark St., Belize City, tel. 501/223-1442, www.trekforce.org.uk) offers challenging conservation, community, and research trips from two weeks to five months, including “jungle survival,” Spanish school in Guatemala, and a teaching assignment in a rural Belizean school.
Aspiring organic farmers will want to check up on the few Belize listings for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org) network, which at last check had five independent host opportunities in Belize. You can often work on the farm in exchange for room and board, but conditions vary from site to site.
Sustainable Harvest International’s Smaller World Program (U.S. tel. 207/669-8254, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sustainableharvest.org) has an office in Punta Gorda, where they coordinate sustainable agriculture projects with 100 area farmers. SHI offers service trips for groups, staying in rustic homestays or the relatively upscale Cotton Tree Lodge. Typical service trips for volunteers are 10 days long and include side trips to natural and cultural sites. Some projects they’ve done include organic gardens, multistory cacao and coffee plots, composting latrines, organic fertilizers and pesticides, bio-digesters, and wood-conserving stoves. In Belize, the trips include sustainable chocolate tours and family voluntourism trips.
Field Research and Educational Travel
Belize shines in this category. There are many opportunities to learn, teach, and volunteer at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center (tel. 501/220-8004, www.belizezoo.org). The Oceanic Society (U.S. tel. 800/326-7491, www.oceanic-society.org), a nonprofit conservation organization, maintains a field station in the Turneffe Islands Atoll and invites curious travelers to participate in educational marine ecotourism activities, such as snorkel and kayak programs to learn about coral reef ecology and whale shark research projects (about US$2,000 includes everything for eight-day trips). The family program includes interaction with Belizean and American researchers.
Belize’s nonprofit TIDE offers a conservation expeditions program called Ridge to Reef Expeditions (tel. 501/722-2129, www.fromridgetoreef.com, US$2,529 per week for individual placement with scuba training), whereby paying volunteers receive training and experience in real-world conservation on land and sea. Team expeditions (8 weeks) or individual placements of a week or more are available. Activities include scuba diving surveys of coral reef health, patrolling turtle nesting beaches, teaching at children summer camps, and hunting invasive lionfish.
Get involved with ACES/American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (tel. 501/666-3871 or 501/631-6366, email@example.com, www.americancrocodilesanctuary.org), a nonprofit conservation organization licensed by the Belize Forest Department to protect Belize’s critical habitats and protected species, especially crocodilians, through scientific research and education. Anyone wishing to learn, observe, or help biologist Cherie Chenot-Rose collect data and conduct research is welcome, including students; 100 percent of their donations and proceeds go to croc care, croc rescues, research, and education.
Volunteer opportunities are also available at Wildtracks (tel. 501/650-6578, www.wildtracksbelize.org), which hosts both Belize’s Manatee Rehabilitation Centre and Primate Rehabilitation Centre, in partnership with the Belize Forest Department. Volunteer placements are normally for one month or more, and volunteers need to apply in advance through Global Nomadic or Global Vision International.
The St. George’s Caye Research Station & Field School was founded in 2009 by ECOMAR (17 Princess Margaret Dr. LF, P.O. Box 1234, Belize City, tel. 501/223-3022, www.ecomarbelize.org), which hosts archaeology students and also high school teachers and university professors interested in bringing their students to study marine ecosystems in the area. Other groups stay on St. George’s Caye to participate in the Coral Watch Program and learn how to identify coral bleaching.
Want to be a behavioral ecologist or marine mammal biologist? Join Caryn Self-Sullivan (U.S. tel. 540/287-8207, www.sirenian.org, firstname.lastname@example.org), and her research team for two intense weeks of total immersion in the world of animal behavior, ecology, and conservation of Antillean manatees, bottlenose dolphins, coral reefs, mangrove forests, and sea grass beds in Belize. Earn up to four credit hours during this total immersion field course where you will live, work, and study from a marine science field station on a pristine private island off the coast of Belize, the Spanish Bay Conservation & Research Center at Hugh Parkey’s Belize Adventure Lodge (www.belizeadventurelodge.com). The course is generally held in May of each year.
In the Toledo District, the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE, tel. 501/671-1299, www.bfreebz.org) offers student programs from one week to a whole semester, with lots of activities and cultural immersion programs available. BFREE has spearheaded amphibian research and monitoring in the Maya Mountains as a participant in the Maya Forest Anuran Monitoring Project, among other things. There is a huge array of research and educational programs at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (tel. 501/820-3032, www.monkeybaybelize.org), which specializes in groups and classes.
Look up the summer workshops and other educational trips offered by International Zoological Expeditions (U.S. tel. 800/548-5843, www.ize2belize.com); they’ve got bases and considerable experience in South Water Caye and the Toledo District.
Programme for Belize (1 Eyre St., Belize City, tel. 501/227-5616, www.pfbelize.org) is the group that manages the 260,000-acre Río Bravo Conservation Area and has a full menu of ecology and rainforest workshops.
Two miles upriver from the village of San Pedro Columbia, in southern Belize, the Maya Mountain Research Farm (www.mmrfbz.org) is a registered NGO and working demonstration farm that promotes sustainable agriculture, appropriate technology, and food security using permacultural principles and applied biodiversity, and it offers hands-on coursework in all of the above.
Maya Study and Archaeological Field Work
For Mayaphiles and archaeology students, the Belize Valley Archaeology Reconnaissance Project (BVAR, www.bvar.org, email@example.com) conducts research and offers field schools at several sites in western Belize. The Maya Research Program (U.S. tel. 817/831-9011, www.mayaresearchprogram.org, US$1,750) has been running every summer from June to August since 1992 and offers two-week long archeological fieldwork—including lab techniques. The Blue Creek project is open to all ages, both students and nonstudents, regardless of experience.
U.S. Peace Corps
The Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov) is a U.S. government program created by John F. Kennedy in 1961 whose original goal was to improve the image of the United States in the Third World by sending volunteers deep into the countryside of developing countries. Fifty years later, some 8,000 volunteers are serving in more than 70 countries around the world. Accepted participants serve a two-year tour preceded by three months of intensive language and cultural training in the host country; they receive a bare-bones living allowance and earn a nominal “readjustment allowance” at the completion of their service.
The first group of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Belize in 1962. Since that time, more than 1,700 volunteers have worked in Belize in a variety of projects. Currently, there are about 70 volunteers providing assistance in education, youth development, rural community development, environmental education, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Pre-service training is conducted in rural Creole and mestizo villages and includes Spanish, Q’eqchi’, and Garífuna language classes, depending on where the volunteer is being sent. Volunteers are placed throughout the country’s six districts to work with government agencies and NGOs.
Galen University (tel. 501/824-3226, www.galen.edu.bz), based in the Cayo District, offers a Semester Study Abroad program (tuition, room, board, transportation, and field-trip fees US$10,065) of 15 credit hours, accredited through the University of Indianapolis. Students get to immerse in Belizean life and engage in community service, field trips, and regular classes of their choice, taught by local and international faculty members. Summer Abroad courses are also available from June through July, with options such as animal science, land-ocean interface, protected areas practicum, and forensic anthropology.
ACCESS FOR TRAVELERS WITH DISABILITIES
There are probably about as many wheelchair ramps in all of Belize as there are traffic lights (three); disabled travelers will generally be treated with respect, but expect logistics to be challenging in places. Experience Belize Tours (tel. 501/601-9890, U.S. tel. 205/383-2921, www.experiencebelizetours.com) offers wheelchair-accessible tours for seniors, slow walkers, and disabled travelers. Hok’ol K’in Guest House (in Corozal, tel. 501/422-3329, www.corozal.net) has nice wheelchair-accessible suites and facilities. There is also a “Belize disabled travel holiday” listed on ResponsibleTravel.com.
TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN
Children love Belize, and Belizeans love children: It’s very much a family-oriented society. While a select few romantic resorts do not allow children, most do. Any place offering a special “family package” is a place to start your research. Always check in advance and tell the staff the ages of your children. You’ll find most resorts are quite experienced at dealing with all ages.
For babies, be prepared with your own travel kit, but don’t stress it too much if you forget something. There is a modern selection of jarred food, diapers, bottles, formula, and the like at Brodie’s supermarkets in Belize City. If you’re short on jars, or if baby wants more than breast milk, you’ll find enough fresh fruit and fish to keep your baby growing the whole time you’re in Belize. A few resorts can provide a crib in your room if you want one, but make sure you verify this in advance; otherwise bring your own fold-up contraption, which can be great for the beach too, especially since you can easily drape a mosquito net over the top.
Once in Belize, a visit to the zoo is a must. There are a few kid-friendly cave trips, and, of course, scrambling on the pyramids at any of the archaeological sites is heaven for young explorers. Just be extra careful about covering them up with loose, long clothing against the sun and mosquitoes, and make sure they stay hydrated while they rage through the rainforest. Also, during the rainy season, it’s best to steer clear of river activities like cave tubing, since rivers can be unpredictable when they swell with rain.
WOMEN TRAVELING ALONE
For the independent woman, Belize is a great place for group or solo travel. Its size makes it easy to get around, English is spoken everywhere, and if you so desire, you won’t be lacking for a temporary travel partner in any part of the country. You’ll meet many fellow travelers at the small inexpensive inns and guesthouses. Belizeans are used to seeing all combinations of travelers; solo women are no exception.
That said, sexual harassment of females traveling alone or in small groups can be a problem, although most incidents are limited to no more than a few catcalls. Just keep on walking; I’ve found that usually, some minor acknowledgment that you have heard them will shut harassers up more quickly than totally ignoring them. If they persist and follow to talk to you, tell them you’re “on a mission,” i.e., rushing to your next stop; don’t feel obligated to stop and respond. Although violent sexual assault is not a common occurrence, it does occur (like anywhere in the world). Several American travelers were the victims of sexual assaults in recent years. At least one of these rapes occurred after the victim accepted a ride from a new acquaintance, while another occurred during an armed robbery at an isolated resort. Never give the name of your hotel or your room number to someone you don’t know.
Tying the Knot and Honeymoonin’
Belize’s reputation for romance is growing, and an increasing number of resorts cater to exotic weddings and honeymoon packages, including ceremonies conducted underwater, atop Mayan pyramids, or in caves. (Actually, I don’t think anyone’s been married in a cave yet, but someone’s bound to do it.) Most couples, however, are quite content with a barefoot beach ceremony.
For a US$50 marriage license, the couple must arrive in Belize three business days before submitting marriage paperwork to the Registrar General’s office on the fourth business day. A rush job costs US$250 and allows you to obtain your marriage license before arriving in Belize, in which case you can get married on your first day in country, if you so wish. For this service, you’ll need a travel agent or wedding planner to act on your behalf in Belize.
The Registrar General of Belize (tel. 501/227-2053, www.belizelaw.org) handles marriage licenses. You’ll need to show proof of your citizenship (i.e., a valid passport), proof that you’re over 18, and, where applicable, a certified copy of a divorce certificate or death decree to annul a previous marriage. Forms can be obtained at two locations: the General Registry, Supreme Court Building, Belize City, and the Solicitor General’s Office, East Block Building, Belmopan. No blood test is required.
A few select Belize wedding specialists can help you facilitate the paperwork, find ministers, and handle your party’s flowers, accommodations, receptions, and everything else. Contact Belize Weddings (www.belizeweddings.com) in San Pedro or Lee Nyhus (www.secretgardenplacencia.com) in Placencia.
Wearing revealing clothes will attract lots of gawking attention, possibly more than you want. Most of the small towns and villages are safe even at night, with the exception of Belize City—don’t walk anywhere there at night, even with friends.
A few international tour companies specialize in trips for independent, active women. For “uncommon advice for the independent woman traveler,” pick up a copy of Thalia Zepatos’s A Journey of One’s Own (Eighth Mountain Press), a highly acclaimed women’s travel resource.
Active seniors enjoy Belize. Some like the tranquility of the cayes, others the bird-watching in the Mayan ruins. Many come to learn about the rainforest and its creatures or about archaeology. Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel, U.S. tel. 800/454-5768, www.roadscholar.org) has a number of tours to Belize, including dolphin and reef ecology projects.
GAY AND LESBIAN TRAVELERS
Although there are plenty of out-and-about gay Belizean men (in Kriol, “batty-men”), particularly in San Pedro, there is no established community or any gay clubs, per se. The foreign gay travelers we’ve seen were totally accepted by both their fellow lodge guests and Belizean hosts. Still, the act of “sodomy” (between men) is officially illegal in Belize, so a bit of discretion is advised.
Health and Safety
For up-to-date health recommendations and advice, consult the Belize “Mexico and Central America” page of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, wwnc.cdc.gov/travel) or call their International Travelers Hotline (U.S. tel. 877/394-8747). Another excellent resource is the Belize page of www.mdtravelhealth.com. You can also call the Belizean embassy in your country for up-to-date information about outbreaks or other health problems.
Ultimately, your health is dependent on the choices you make, and chief among these is what you decide to put in your mouth. Expect your digestive system to take some time getting accustomed to the new food and microorganisms in the Belizean diet. During this time (and after), use common sense: Wash your hands with soap often; alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less effective at removing germs from your hands. Eat food that is well cooked and still hot when served. Be wary of uncooked foods, including shellfish and salads. Most importantly, be aware of flies, the single worst transmitter of food-borne illnesses. Prevent flies from landing on your food, glass, or table setting. You’ll notice Belizeans are meticulous about this, and you should be too. If you have to leave the table, cover your food with a napkin or have someone else wave a hand over it slowly.
Drinking the Water
Even though most municipal water systems are well treated and probably safe, there is not much reason to take the chance, especially when purified bottled water is so widely available and relatively cheap. Canned and bottled drinks, including beer, are usually safe, but should never be used as a substitute for water when trying to stay hydrated, especially during a bout of traveler’s diarrhea or when out in the sun.
If you plan on staying awhile in a rural area of Belize, check out camping catalogs for water filters that remove chemical as well as biological contamination. Alternatively, six drops of liquid iodine (or three of bleach) will kill everything that needs to be killed in a liter of water—good in a pinch (or on a backcountry camping trip), but not something you’ll find yourself practicing on a daily basis. Also, bringing any water to a full boil is 100 percent effective in killing bacteria.
Oral Rehydration Salts
Probably the single most effective preventative and curative medicine you can carry is packets of powdered salt and sugar, which, when mixed with a liter of water (drink in small sips), is the best immediate treatment for dehydration due to diarrhea, sun exposure, fever, infection, or hangover. Particularly in the case of diarrhea, rehydration salts are essential to your recovery. They replace the salts and minerals your body has lost due to liquid evacuation (be it from sweating, vomiting, or urinating), and they’re essential to your body’s most basic cellular transfer functions. Whether or not you like the taste (odds are you won’t), consuming enough rehydration packets and water is very often the difference between being just a little sick and feeling really, really awful.
Sports drinks like Gatorade are super-concentrated mixtures and should be diluted with water to make the most of the active ingredients. If you don’t, you’ll pee out the majority of the electrolytes. Rehydration packets are available from any drugstore or health clinic. They can also be improvised, according to the following recipe: Mix a half teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon baking soda, and four tablespoons of sugar in one quart of boiled or carbonated water. Drink a full glass of the stuff after each time you use the bathroom. Add a few drops of lemon juice to make it more palatable.
Belize is located a scant 13 to 18 degrees of latitude from the equator, so the sun’s rays strike the earth’s surface at a more direct angle than in northern countries. The result is that you will burn faster and sweat up to twice as much as you are used to. Did we mention that you should drink lots of water?
Ideally, do like the majority of the locals do, and stay out of the sun between 10am and 2pm. It’s a great time to take a nap anyway. Use sunscreen of at least SPF 30, and wear a hat and pants. Should you overdo it in the sun, make sure to drink lots of fluids—that means water, not beer (or at least water and beer). Treat sunburns with aloe gel, or better yet, find a fresh aloe plant to break open and rub over your skin.
DISEASES AND COMMON AILMENTS
There is moderate incidence of hepatitis B in Belize. Avoid contact with bodily fluids or bodily waste. Get vaccinated if you anticipate close contact with nature or plan to reside in Central America for an extended period of time. Get a rabies vaccination if you intend to spend a long time in Belize. Should you be bitten by an infected dog, rodent, or bat, immediately cleanse the wound with lots of soap, and get prompt medical attention.
Tuberculosis is spread by sneezing or coughing, and the infected person may not know he or she is a carrier. If you are planning to spend more than four weeks in Belize (or plan on spending time in the Belize jail), consider having a tuberculin skin test performed before and after visiting. Tuberculosis is a serious and possibly fatal disease but can be treated with several medications. No cases of cholera have been reported in Belize since 2000.
This is a toxin occasionally found in large reef fish. It is not a common circumstance, but it is possible for groupers, snappers, and barracuda to carry this toxin. If, after eating these fish, you experience diarrhea, nausea, numbness, or heart arrhythmia, see a doctor immediately. The toxin is found in certain algae on reefs in all the tropical areas of the world. Fish do nibble on the coral, and if they happen to find this algae, over a period of time the toxin accumulates in their systems. The longer they live and the larger they get, the more probable it is they will carry the toxin, which is not destroyed when cooked.
Dengue, or “bone-breaking fever,” is a flulike, mosquito-carried illness that will put a stop to your fun in Central America like a baseball bat to the head. Dengue’s occurrence is extremely low in Belize, but a few dozen cases are still reported each year. There is no vaccine, but dengue’s effects can be successfully minimized with plenty of rest, acetaminophen (for the fever and aches), and as much water and hydration salts as you can manage. Dengue itself is undetectable in a blood test, but a low platelet count indicates its presence. If you believe you have dengue, you should get a blood test as soon as possible, to make sure it’s not the hemorrhagic variety, which can be fatal if untreated.
Diarrhea and Dysentery
Generally, simple cases of diarrhea in the absence of other symptoms are nothing more serious than “traveler’s diarrhea.” If you do get a good case, your best bet is to let it pass naturally. Diarrhea is your body’s way of flushing out the bad stuff, so constipating medicines like Imodium A-D (loperamide) are not recommended, as they keep the bacteria (or whatever is causing your intestinal distress) within your system. Save the Imodium (or any other liquid glue) for emergency situations like long bus rides or a hot date. Most importantly, drink lots of water! Not replacing the fluids and electrolytes you are losing will make you feel much worse than you need to. If the diarrhea persists for more than 48 hours, is bloody, or is accompanied by a fever, see a health professional immediately. That said, know that all bodies react differently to the changes in diet, schedule, and stress that go along with traveling, and many visitors to Belize stay entirely regular and solid throughout their trips.
Pay attention to your symptoms: Diarrhea can also be a sign of amoebic (parasitic) or bacillary (bacterial) dysentery, both caused by some form of fecal-oral contamination. Often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and a mild fever, dysentery is easily confused with other diseases, so don’t try to self-diagnose. Stool-sample examinations are cheap, can be performed at most clinics and hospitals, and are your first step to getting better. Bacillary dysentery is treatable with antibiotics; amoebic dysentery is treated with one of a variety of drugs that kill off all the flora in your intestinal tract. Of these, Flagyl (metronidazole) is the best known, but other non-FDA-approved treatments like tinidazole are commonly available, cheap, and effective. Do not drink alcohol with these drugs, and eat something like yogurt or acidophilus pills to repopulate your tummy.
By all official accounts, malaria is present in Belize, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody—Belizean or expat—who has actually experienced or even heard of a case of it. Still, many travelers choose to take a weekly prophylaxis of chloroquine or its equivalent. The CDC specifically recommends travelers to Belize use brand-name Aralen pills (500 mg for adults), although you should ask your doctor for the latest drug on the market. A small percentage of people have negative reactions to chloroquine, including nightmares, rashes, or hair loss. Alternative treatments are available, but the best method of all is to not get bitten by mosquitoes, which transmit the disease.
BITES AND STINGS
Thousands of people dive in Belize’s Caribbean and hike its forests every day of the year without incident. The information on possible bites and stings is only to let you know what’s out there, not to scare you into remaining in your resort. Know what you’re getting into and be sure your guide does as well, and then get into it.
Also known as torsalo, screw-worm, or Dermatobia hominis, this insect looks like the common household fly. The big difference is that the botfly deposits its eggs on mosquitoes, which then implant them in an unsuspecting warm-blooded host. Burrowing quickly under the skin, the maggot sets up housekeeping. To breathe, it sticks a tiny tube through the skin, and there it stays until one of two things happen: You kill it, or it graduates and leaves home (to witness this, Google “botfly removal” and get ready for an eyeful).
A botfly bite starts out looking like a mosquito bite, but if the bite gets red and tender instead of healing, get it checked out. Though uncomfortable and distasteful, it’s not a serious health problem if it doesn’t get infected. A tiny glob of petroleum jelly or tobacco over the air hole often works to draw out or suffocate the creature; just make sure you squeeze all of it out.
Mosquitoes and Sand Flies
Mosquitoes are most active during the rainy season (June-Nov.) and in areas with stagnant water, like marshes, puddles, and rice fields. They are more common in the lower, flatter regions of Belize than they are in the hills, though even in the highlands, old tires, cans, and roadside puddles can provide the habitat necessary to produce swarms of mosquitoes. The mosquito that carries malaria is active during the evening and at night, while the dengue fever courier is active during the day, from dawn to dusk. They are both relatively simple to combat, and ensuring you don’t get bitten is the best prophylaxis for preventing the diseases.
First and foremost, limit the amount of skin you expose—long sleeves, pants, and socks will do more to prevent bites than the strongest chemical repellent. Choose accommodations with good screens, and if this is not possible, use a fan to blow airborne insects away from your body as you sleep. Avoid being outside or unprotected in the hour before sunset, when mosquito activity is heaviest, and use a mosquito net tucked underneath your mattress when you sleep. Consider purchasing a lightweight backpackers’ net, either freestanding or to hang from the ceiling, before you come south—mosquito nets are more expensive in Belize than at home. Some accommodations provide nets; others are truly free of biting bugs and don’t need them. If you know where you’re staying, ask before you arrive whether you’ll need a net. Once in Belize, you can purchase mosquito coils, which burn slowly, releasing a mosquito-repelling smoke; they’re cheap and convenient, but try to place them so you’re not breathing the toxic smoke yourself.
Sand flies don’t carry any diseases that we know about, but, man, do they suck! Actually, these tiny midges, or no-see-ums, bite. Hard. They breed in wet, sandy areas and are only fought by the wind (or a well-screened room). Don’t scratch those bites! If you do, you’ll not only have massive red bumps on your skin, it will itch for days, even in the middle of the night, and you risk infection. For prevention, any thick oil is usually enough of a barrier—most people like baby oil or hempseed oil, and some swear that a hint of lavender scent in the oil keeps sand flies away too.
Scorpions, Spiders, and Snakes
Scorpions are common in Belize, especially in dark corners, at beaches, and in piles of wood. Belizean scorpions look nasty—black and big—but their stings are no more harmful than that of a bee and are described by some as what a cigarette burn feels like. Your lips and tongue may feel a little numb, but the venom is nothing compared to that of their smaller, translucent cousins in Mexico. Needless to say, to people who are prone to anaphylactic shock, it can be a more serious or life-threatening experience. Everyone has heard that when in a rainforest, never put on your shoes without checking the insides—good advice—and always give your clothes a good visual going-over and a vigorous shake before putting them on. Scorpions occasionally drop out of thatched ceilings.
Don’t worry; despite the prevalence of all kinds of arachnids, including big, hairy tarantulas, spiders do not aggressively seek out people to bite and do way more good than harm by eating things like Chagas bugs. If you’d rather the spiders didn’t share your personal space, shake out your bedclothes before going to sleep and check your shoes before putting your feet in them.
Of the 59 species of snakes that have been identified in Belize, at least nine are venomous, most notably the fer-de-lance (locally called a “Tommy Goff”), considered the most dangerous snake in Central America, and the coral snake. The chances of the average visitor being bitten are slim. Reportedly, most snakebite victims are children. However, if you plan on extensive rainforest exploration, check with your doctor before you leave home. Antivenin is available, doesn’t require refrigeration, and keeps indefinitely. It’s also wise to be prepared for an allergic reaction to the antivenin—bring an antihistamine and epinephrine. The most important thing to remember if bitten: Don’t panic and don’t run. Physical exertion and panic cause the venom to travel through your body much faster. Lie down and stay calm; have someone carry you to a doctor. Do not cut the wound, use a tourniquet, or ingest alcoholic beverages.
Anemones and sea urchins live in Belize waters. Some can be dangerous if touched or stepped on, so always look where you are placing your foot when entering shallow water. The long-spined black sea urchin can inflict great pain, and its poison can cause an uncomfortable infection. Don’t think that you’re safe in a wetsuit, booties, and gloves. The spines easily slip through the rubber, and the urchin is encountered at all depths. If you should run into one of the spines, remove it quickly and carefully, disinfect the wound, and apply antibiotic cream. If you have difficulty removing the spine, or if it breaks, see a doctor—pronto! Local remedies include urinating on the wound if nothing else is available.
Tiny brown gel-encased globules called pica-pica produce a horrible rash; look for clouds of these guys around any coral patch before getting in. Avoid the bottom side of a moon jellyfish, as well as the Portuguese man-of-war (usually only in March). Sea wasps are tiny four-tentacled menaces that deliver a sting. In addition, many varieties of fire coral will make you wish you hadn’t. Cuts from coral, even if just a scratch, will often become infected. If you should get a deep cut, or if bits of coral are left in the wound, see a doctor.
Although there are hospitals and health clinics in most urban areas and towns, care is extremely limited compared with more developed countries. Serious injuries or illness may require evacuation to another country, and you should consider picking up cheap travel insurance that covers such a need—otherwise, you’re looking at US$12,000 just for the medevac transportation.
Many Belizean doctors and hospitals require immediate cash payment for health services, sometimes prior to providing treatment. Uninsured travelers or travelers whose insurance does not provide coverage in Belize may face extreme difficulties if serious medical treatment is needed. International Medical Group (www.imglobal.com) is one reliable provider that offers short-term insurance specifically for overseas travelers and expats for very reasonable rates. Another is World Nomads (www.worldnomads.com).
Belize Medical Associates (5791 St. Thomas St., tel. 501/223-0302, www.belizemedical.com) is the only private hospital in Belize City. They provide 24-hour assistance and a wide range of specialties. Look under “Hospitals” in the BTL yellow pages for an updated listing of other options. In Santa Elena, La Loma Luz Hospital (tel. 501/824-2087 or 501/804-2985, www.lalomaluz.org) offers primary care as well as 24-hour emergency services and is one of the best private hospitals in the country.
At the very minimum, consider the following items for your first-aid kit: rehydration salts, sterile bandages or gauze, moleskin for blister prevention, antiseptic cream, strong sunblock (SPF 30), aloe gel, some kind of general antibiotic for intestinal trouble, acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain and fevers, eye drops (for dust), and antifungal cream (clotrimazole).
Medications and Prescriptions
Many medications are available in pharmacies in Belize. Definitely plan on the conservative side: Bring adequate supplies of all your prescribed medications in their original containers, clearly labeled and in date; in addition, carry a signed, dated letter from your physician describing all medical conditions and listing your medications, including their generic names. If carrying syringes or needles, carry a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity. Pack all medications in your carry-on bag and, if possible, put a duplicate supply in the checked luggage. If you wear glasses or contacts, bring an extra pair. If you have significant allergies or chronic medical problems, wear a medical alert bracelet.
Female travelers taking contraceptives should know the generic name for the drug they use. Condoms are cheap and easy to find, but be sure to buy the highest quality you find. Any corner pharmacy will have them, even in small towns of just a few thousand people.
Most of the crime in Belize (besides drug possession and trafficking) is petty theft and burglary, although gang-related violence in Belize City is a worsening problem. It’s best not to wear expensive jewelry when traveling. And don’t carry large amounts of money, your passport, or your plane tickets if not necessary; if you must carry these things, wear a money belt under your clothes. Most hotels have safe-deposit boxes. Don’t flaunt cameras and video equipment or leave them in sight in cars when sightseeing, especially in some parts of Belize City. This is a poor country and petty theft is its number-one crime.
It is not wise to wander around alone on foot late at night in Belize City or anywhere. Go out with others if possible, and take a taxi. Most Belizeans are friendly, decent people; however, as in every community, there are a small percentage of unscrupulous thieves who will steal anything given the opportunity. To many Belizeans, foreigners come off as “rich,” whether they are or not. Local hustlers are quite creative when it comes to conning you out of some cash. Keep your wits about you, pull out of conversations that appear headed in that direction, don’t give out your hotel name or room number or mention them where they can be overheard by strangers. If you’re a woman riding a bike at night, don’t put your purse in the basket in plain sight or hide your cash and valuables on your person.
In emergencies, dial 911 or 90 for police assistance. The number for fire and ambulance is also 90.
If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting it to local police, contact your embassy or consulate as soon as possible. The embassy or consulate staff can assist you in finding appropriate medical care, contacting family members or friends, and will explain how funds can be transferred to you. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed. Belize police detectives and tourism police respond quickly and take these matters—even near misses—seriously.
Belizean police can hold somebody for 48 hours with no charges (one U.S. embassy warden called prison conditions in Belize “medieval,” though this situation is improving). Some police officers have been arrested for rape and routinely beat and torture detainees (usually Belizeans). On the whole, though, most officers are good folks, making the best of a poorly paid job with very few resources. Don’t try to bribe them if you’re in trouble—you’ll only contribute to a more corrupt system that does not need any encouragement.
Belize’s modern history began with law-breaking pirates hiding out among the hundreds of cayes, lagoons, and uninhabited coastlines of the territory. The same natural features have made Belize a fueling stopover for Colombian cocaine traffickers. The drug runners’ practice of paying off their Belizean helpers with product (in addition to sums of cash) has created a national market for cocaine and crack with devastating effects, especially in Orange Walk Town and numerous coastal communities.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is active in Belize—as it is throughout Central America—to battle the flow of cocaine and other illegal drugs; the agency provides boat patrols, overflights, drug war technology and herbicides, and sniffing dogs at roadside checkpoints.
Cannabis sativa grows naturally in the soils and climate of Belize, although the country is no longer the major producer it once was. In the early 1980s, the DEA put an end to that with chemical-spraying programs, seizing and destroying 800 tons of marijuana in one year. Today, small-scale production continues, primarily for the domestic market. Some argue that the job vacuum created by marijuana suppression led directly to Belize’s role in the trafficking of cocaine and the subsequent entrance of crack into Belizean communities.
Foreign travelers will most likely be offered pot (locally known as “ta-boom-boom”) at some point during a visit. Legally, marijuana prohibition is alive and well in Belize, despite widespread use throughout the population. The policy allows harsh penalties for possession of even tiny quantities for both nationals and visitors alike.
Although illegal in Belize, prostitution is alive and well at a handful of brothels throughout the country (usually on the highways outside major towns). Prostitutes are rarely Belizean and are often indentured sex slaves unwittingly recruited from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador with false promises of legitimate employment.
Information and Services
The currency unit is the Belize dollar (BZD), which has been steady at BZD$2 to US$1 for some years. While prices are given in U.S. dollars in this book, travelers should be prepared to pay in Belizean currency on the street, aboard boats, in cafés, and at other smaller establishments. Everyone else accepts U.S. dollars.
When you buy or sell currency at a bank, be sure to retain proof of sale. The following places are authorized to buy or sell foreign currency: Atlantic Bank, Scotiabank, Barclays Bank, Belize Bank of Commerce and Industry, and Belize Global Travel Services. All are close together near the plaza in Belize City and in other cities. Most banks are open until 1pm Monday-Friday and until 11am Saturday. You can also change money, sometimes at a rate a bit better than 2:1, at Casas de Cambio. But because Casas de Cambio must charge the official rate, many people still go to the black market, which gives a better rate.
At the Mexico-Belize border, you’ll be approached by money changers (and you can bet they don’t represent the banks). Many travelers buy just enough Belizean dollars to get themselves into the city and to the banks. Depending on your mode of transportation and destination, these money changers can be helpful. Strictly speaking, though, this is illegal—so suit yourself. The exchange rate is the same, but you’ll have no receipt of sale. If selling a large quantity of Belizean dollars back to the bank, you might be asked for that proof.
Many banks are only open until 1pm or 2pm Monday-Thursday (staying open a bit later on Friday) and are often closed for lunch. Banks are always closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Automated teller machines (ATMs) are available in nearly all major Belizean towns, but they may operate on different card networks (Plus, Cirrus, etc.). You may have to try a few to get your card to work; it’s best to check before traveling. They’re also often out of cash, particularly close to the weekends or major holidays.
Make no mistake: Belize vies with Costa Rica for being the most expensive country in Central America, and backpackers entering Belize from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras can expect some serious sticker shock after crossing the border. This was true even before the advent of tourism because of the import-reliant economy and whatever other invisible market hands guide such things. Shoestring travelers squeaking by on US$25-50 pp per day in Belize are most likely stone sober and eating street tacos three times a day; they are not paying for tours or taxis, and they are surely not diving in the Blue Hole. They can still have a grand old time, though, camped out in the bush (or in a US$10 room), doing lots of self-guided hiking, paddling, and cultural exploring. It’s possible to travel on this little—but it depends on your comfort zone and definition of a good time.
If you’ve only got a seven-day vacation, you won’t have to stretch your dollars over as many weeks or months as Jimmie Backpacker and his dog, Dreddie, and can thus spend more on lodging and activities. Figure at least US$100 pp per day if you want to pay for day trips and don’t want to share a bath; serious divers or anglers should add a bit more. Weeklong packages at many dive and rainforest resorts run US$1,000-1,600 and go up from there.
There are usually low-budget, decent quality exceptions to the rule across Belize, and I’ve tried to point all of those out in each region. In general, though, prices are high and getting higher. Many mid- and upscale accommodations have raised their rates by as much as 20 percent—and not all have increased the quality of their service to match. Alcohol is always a good indicator: A bottle of One Barrel Rum is peaking at US$12 in most stores; a six-pack of Belikin beer can go for US$10.
Be prepared for some additional taxes and service charges on your bill, which sometimes are and sometimes are not included in quoted rates:
✵ General sales tax (GST): 10 percent
✵ Hotel tax: 9 percent
✵ Service charge (often placed on bill): 10-15 percent
✵ Airport departure tax: US$20
If you use your credit card, it will cost you a little more at most businesses, sometimes an extra 3-5 percent of the bill.
Most restaurants and hotels include a 10-15 percent service charge on the bill; if they don’t, you should pay this amount yourself. It is not customary to tip taxi drivers unless they help you with your luggage. Always tip your tour guide 10-15 percent if he or she has made your trip an enjoyable one.
MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS
Posting a letter or postcard is easy and cheap, costing well under US$1, and the stamps are gorgeous. If you visit the outlying cities or cayes, bring your mail to Belize City to post—it’s more apt to get to its destination quickly. Post offices are located in the center of (or nearby) all villages and cities in Belize, although they usually don’t look too post-officey from the outside. You can receive mail in any town without getting a P.O. box—just have the mail addressed to your name, care of “General Delivery,” followed by the town, district, and “Belize.”
local post office
FedEx, DHL, and other international couriers are widely available, and the Mailboxes, Etc. in Belize City (on Front St., just up from the Water Taxi Terminal) can take care of most of your mailing and package needs. Sending mail within Belize, you can use either the post office system, or hand your package to a bus driver or go through the bus station office.
Some car rental companies offer a free cell phone; always ask. If not, they’ll rent you one. Otherwise, DigiCell (www.digicell.bz) offers prepaid temporary service to travelers. Get it at BTL’s Airport Service Center, or bring your own GSM 1900 MHz handset and purchase a SIM pack from any DigiCell distributor nationwide. There are several local cellular services, both analog and digital, and coverage along roadways and in major towns is decent but still improving. You’ll need your passport or ID with you when visiting a BTL store to purchase a SIM card—by law all cell numbers must now be registered.
Smart Phones (Mile 2½, Northern Hwy., Belize City, tel. 501/678-1010, www.smart-bz.com) is more user-friendly and cheaper than BTL and the rest, offering roaming service on your CDMA 800 MHz phone from home (including Verizon and Sprint). Activation fee is US$20, then you use prepaid cards available throughout the country.
To call out of Belize, find a phone with international direct dialing service, then dial the international access code 00, followed by your country code, and then the city or area code and the number. The country code for Canada and the United States is 1, Britain is 44, and Australia is 61. BTL’s telephone directory has a complete listing of country codes. An (often cheaper) alternative is to dial 10-10-199 instead of 00, followed by the country code, etc. Although they are not toll-free from Belize, 800 numbers are dialed as they are written, preceded by the 00.
Belize’s country code is 501. To receive a call in Belize from the United States, for example, tell the caller to dial 011 to tap into the international network, followed by 501 and your seven digit number. To call collect to Belize from other countries, dial the MCI operator at U.S. tel. 800/265-5328.
Buy a prepaid phone card from Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL, www.btl.net) and punch in the card’s numbers every time you borrow a phone or use a pay phone. All towns also have a local BTL office, usually identified by a giant red and white radio tower somewhere very nearby; they can place calls anywhere in the country or the world for you and will assign you to a semiprivate booth after they’ve dialed the number. They can also connect you to your homeland phone carrier. Note: According to one BTL employee, credit-card calls made through hotel phones are expensive because the touch-tone “international operator” charges US$16 per minute.
Skype and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) are finally available in Belize, unrestricted and—believe it or not—only a recent development. Free VoIP services (like Skype) offer dirt-cheap rates on international calls and are getting better to use by the day. Prior to 2013, BTL blocked full and open access to VoIP-based services and applications. You can now use Skype freely wherever you get free Wi-Fi access, and save on international calls.
Web access is widely available throughout the country and is improving all the time. Crappy dial-up connections are now the exception rather than the norm, and broadband (DSL, cable, and satellite) is springing up everywhere. If you’re in town for a while, many Internet businesses have monthly memberships that include unlimited access. You are welcome to sign up for a BTL account if you don’t have your own ISP (Internet service provider), but that may lead to more headaches then you need, and there are many other options.
Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) access is increasingly available in Belize’s accommodations, bars, and restaurants. I won’t go so far as to tell you to expect wireless access yet, but if it’s a concern for you, definitely inquire whether your hotel has it or not. Most of these connections are free—with the exception of BTL Hotspots, which are US$16 per 24-hour period (plus tax!), and it’s your only option at a handful of upscale hotels, including the Radisson and the Inn at Robert’s Grove.
Newspapers and Magazines
Four weekly, highly politicized Belizean newspapers come out on Friday, with occasional midweek editions, and you’ll find many a Belizean conducting the weekly ritual of reading his or her favorite over a cup of instant coffee, and then going to happy hour to yap away about the latest scandal. Amandala and the Reporter seem to be the most objective and respected of these rags. The other two are The Belize Times and The Guardian. There are also publications in San Pedro and Placencia.
The Image Factory (91 N. Front St., tel. 501/223-4093, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) in Belize City is a good place for books and periodicals, and there are only a couple of other bookshops in the country. In most hotel gift shops, you’ll find at least a few colorful Belizean history and picture books put out by Cubola Productions, a local publisher specializing in all things Belize, including maps, atlases, short stories, novels, and poems written by Belizeans. Cubola’s publications give great insight into the country.
You will not find the International Herald Tribune on every newsstand like in other destinations. In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Check with the Radisson Hotel or Fort Street Guest House in Belize City, where you can sometimes find the Miami Herald, a relatively recent Newsweek, or if you’re lucky, the New York Times or the Times of London. Brodie’s (Albert St.) and The Book Center (North Front St.) also carry American magazines.
✵ Police, fire, ambulance: 90 or 911
✵ Hyperbaric chamber: 501/226-2851 or 501/226-3195
✵ Directory assistance: 113 or 115
✵ To report crimes: 0/800-922-8477
✵ To report child abuse: 0/800-776-8328
✵ Operator assistance: 114 or 115
✵ Date, time, and temperature: 121
MAPS AND VISITOR INFORMATION
The most readily available and up-to-date map of Belize is published by International Travel Maps, whose 1:250,000 map of Belize makes a useful addition to any guidebook (or wall). The best, biggest country map to hang on your wall at home, or in your classroom (it’s way too big to use as a travel guide) is a physical-political 1:265,000 scale, distributed by Cubola Productions and available at Angelus Press in Belize City for US$40. All of Belize’s most heavily touristed areas create updated town maps, found most often at visitor information booths and car (or golf cart) rental places.
The Government of Belize Land Department in Belmopan has detailed topographic maps for the entire country—spendy at US$40 per quad, but vital if you’re doing any serious backcountry travel. The British Army and United Kingdom Ordinance Survey have created a number of map series of various scales, but tracking them down will be a challenge.
The Belize Tourism Board (BTB, 64 Regent St., tel. 501/227-2420, U.S. tel. 800/624-0686, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.travelbelize.org) has a central office in Belize City, near the Mopan Hotel. The Belize Tourism Industry Association (10 N. Park St., tel. 501/227-1144, www.btia.org) can also answer many of your questions and give you lodging suggestions. The Belize Hotel Association (BHA, 13 Cork St., Belize City, tel. 501/223-0669, www.belizehotels.org) is a nonprofit industry organization of some of the country’s most respected resorts and lodges. The BHA can help you decide where to stay.
You’ll find more information at the Embassy of Belize (2535 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, U.S. tel. 202/332-9636, www.embassyofbelize.org) in the United States and also the Caribbean Tourism Association (80 Broad St., Suite 3302, New York, NY 10004, U.S. tel. 212/635-9530, www.onecaribbean.org).
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
The local time is Greenwich mean time minus six hours year-round, the same as U.S. central standard time; Belize does not use daylight saving time. Electricity is the U.S. standard 110 volts, 60 cycles, and uses U.S. two-prong plugs. Most distances are measured in inches, feet, yards, and miles, although there is some limited use of the metric system.
As in many other Central American and Caribbean cultures, “Belizean time” is not as rigidly precise as it is in other parts of the world. “Nine o’clock am” is not necessarily a moment in time that occurs once a morning, as it is a general guideline that could extend an hour or two in either direction (usually later). Creoles say, “Time longa den da roop, mon” (“time is longer than the rope”), which means the same as the Spanish “Hay mas tiempo que vida” (“there is more time than there is life”)—both of which boil down to the unofficial motto of Caye Caulker: “Go slow!”
A great deal of patience is required of the traveler who wishes to adapt to this looser concept of time. Buses generally leave when they are scheduled, but may stop for frustratingly long breaks during the journey. Don’t use Belizean time as an excuse to be late for your tour bus pickup, and don’t get angry when your taxi driver or server stops to briefly chat and laugh with a friend.