Belize: enjoy it while you can

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

By Bartley Kives

ORANGE WALK, Belize -- Stroll across a market in the only English-speaking country in Central America, and the last language you'll actually hear is English.

Kriol dudes in hip-hop clothes share a joke in a sing-song tongue that marries Afro-Caribbean grammar with English and French. Mestizo ladies working behind breakfast stalls converse in Spanish as they roll up shredded chicken tacos.

And Mennonite men in traditional white garb, many descended from Manitoban émigrés in the 1950s, speak to each other in hushed Low German as they wait for a rickety bus to return them to their farming colonies.

Everyone in Belize understands English, the official language in this Caribbean coastal nation of 280,000 people. But this complex little country -- which also boasts sizable populations of unassimilated Mayan Indians, self-exiled North Americans and a unique Afro-Amerindian group known as the Garifuna -- feels more exotic than other Latin American destinations, where a Hispanic monoculture prevails.

Belize, which is hardly unknown to tourists but still largely underdeveloped, is just weird enough to visit for the people alone.

Only independent from the U.K. for 25 years, Belize has managed to resist the worst of the cultural homogenization that has transformed so much of the world, thanks in part to its small population, small size (you can fit the whole country into Lake Winnipeg) and relative lack of easily exploitable natural resources.

But huge changes are coming to this relatively poor but generally quiet place. For starters, the Spanish-speaking population is booming, thanks to immigration from neighbouring Guatemala and Honduras, displacing the historically dominant Kriol as the nation's most populous ethnic group.

As well, tourists are arriving in numbers that have started to shock the locals. The main attractions in Belize are natural, including one of the largest coral reefs in the world, thousands of tiny islands known as cayes, and relatively untrampled tropical forests. There are also dozens of Mayan archeological sites in various states of excavation in the jungle.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Belize's tourists have headed straight for the cayes to snorkel, dive and chill out in island towns like San Pedro or its slightly more laid-back cousin, Caye Caulker. A neo-hippie esthetic dominated in the '70s, as the cayes weren't easy to reach in the days before speedboat service made transit from the mainland easy and relatively cheap, at least for foreigners.

Today, Belizean tourists still tend to be independent travellers, but the secret is definitely out. Luxury lodges are sprouting up in the mountainous backcountry, resort chains have their eyes on oceanfront real estate and cruise ships are beginning to muscle out small, independent tour boats in some of the most fertile shark- and ray-watching spots amid the cayes.

In 2000, about 150,000 people visited Belize on cruise ships. That number ballooned to more than 800,000 cruise-ship passengers in 2005, an increase of roughly 500 per cent in five years, the Los Angeles Times reported in March.

That's a serious influx of humanity for a country where much of the population still relies on subsistence agriculture. And although tourist dollars benefit the entire country, it's clear the average Belizean -- and especially the average Kriol -- has mixed feelings about the sudden influx of camera-toting Canadians, Americans and Western Europeans.

Like Costa Rica in the 1990s, Belize is in the process of gentrification, so go soon if you want to take advantage of the country's quaint charms. The main attraction is the cayes, where a bewildering array of snorkel-and-dive outfitters offer to whisk you to a fertile corner of coral reef, hopefully unknown to the cruise ship companies.

Island-to-island sea-kayaking tours and wildlife-watching excursions -- most notably to the Swallow's Caye, a manatee preserve accessible from Caye Caulker -- are also popular, often for a fraction of the price you'd pay in Costa Rica and parts of Mexico. In season, conch and spiny lobster are also relatively inexpensive in restaurants along the keys.

On the less-visited mainland, Mayan archeological sites have become the biggest tourist attractions, although the crowds cramming into the jungle as part of package tours have yet to approach the mobs in Mexico. One of the most popular sites is Lamanai, accessible via riverboat from the northern Belizean town of Orange Walk. The more impressive Caracol lies deep within the mountains of western Belize, near the Guatemalan border.

To the south of Belize, beach towns along the coast offer most of the laid-back attractions common to the cayes. But the bulk of the mainland tourism boom involves ecotourism, especially out of southwestern luxury lodges beyond the means of ordinary travellers.

Non-movie stars can sign up for birdwatching and wildlife-watching tours or take river-rafting trips through caves. Belize also has a strong indigenous canoe culture, but outfitters for mainland river trips remain rare.

Extended hikes through the tropical forests, which still contain sizable populations of howler monkeys and jaguars, are also not easy to arrange. One of the rare exceptions is a three-day jaunt along the Indian River in central Belize, which includes spectacular treks through limestone caves. Since the trails are unmarked, you must hire a guide from the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the oldest ecotourism outfits in Belize.

On the mainland, you have two choices to get around the country: Expensive but convenient shuttles, or dirt-cheap but sometimes hilariously crowded buses. The buses, which invariably feature cracked windshields, run reliably despite their appearance. Car rentals, however, are prohibitively expensive -- and pointless, to boot, as you'll be forced to leave your vehicle behind when you visit the cayes.

And although Belize is not a desperately poor country -- the vast majority of the locals have more than enough to eat -- it remains undeveloped enough to demand a bit of street smarts. Canadian visitors should not flash big wads of money, especially in Belize City.

It's hard to look like a local in this country, given the varied and unusual culture. But if you dress down and chill out, you'll have no problem getting along with the people.

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A six-point primer for independent travellers:

What the heck is Belize? For starters, the only English-speaking country in Latin America, although very few Belizeans actually speak English as a first language. This little nub of a nation, slightly smaller than Lake Winnipeg, boasts a spectacular stretch of the world's second-longest coral reef, relatively undisturbed tropical forests, millennium-old Mayan ruins and a unique modern ethnocultural makeup.

What's so unique about the people? Nowhere else on Earth will you find a society like Belize, where Kriol-speaking Afro-Americans dominate politically and culturally while Spanish-speaking Mestizos (Spanish and Native American, if you go back far enough) make up the majority of the population. Other significant ethnic groups are full-blooded Mayans, a fascinating Afro-Amerindian group known as the Garifuna and a small but visible number of German-speaking Mennonites, the latter descended in part from émigrés from Manitoba in the 1950s.

Why else should I go? For now, Belize remains one of the few places on the planet unspoiled by fast food franchises and hotel chains. Tourists, however, come in droves for the diving, snorkelling and sea-kayaking out on a coastal strip of islands ("the cayes," in local parlance) as well as laid-back beach communities in the south. Smaller numbers of travellers head into the inland forests for ecotourism purposes or to check out Mayan archeological sites such as Caracol and Lamanai.

Is Belize expensive? Yes, compared to most places in the developing world, especially neighbouring Guatemala. Street food and restaurant meals are relatively cheap, but basic hotel rooms average around $60 US and car rentals are astronomical (and pointless). However, most tours are a fraction of the price of the ripoffs in ecotourist-trampled Costa Rica -- by a factor of 500 per cent, in some cases.

OK, I'm sold. How do I get there? Annoyingly, there are no direct flights from Canada to Belize. The fastest, but certainly not cheapest, way to reach this place from Winnipeg is to fly United or Northwest to Houston (via Chicago or Minneapolis, respectively) and then fly Taca, a Central American carrier, direct to Belize City, the largest centre in the country.

Since this will cost $1,300 or more, a much saner option is to book the cheapest charter you can find to Cancun, Mexico, and then make your way south to Belize via a 3.5-hour drive in a rental car (as cheap as $33 a day, including taxes and insurance, but you won't be allowed to take the vehicle across the border) or six-hour bus ride (about $20 from Cancun to the Belize border, changing buses at the border city of Chetumal).

And when should I go? You're a Manitoban, right? Wait for the fall, winter or spring, high-season crowds and prices be damned.

-- Bartley Kives