One of the major cultural influences in Belize is that of the Garifuna people, who's established communities along the coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize in the 1700s.
Tropical rainforests, Mayan ruins and temples, stunning beaches, picturesque mountains and a rich history and culture. This is only the beginning of what you’ll experience in Belize.
Located in Central America, Belize is approximately four hours from both New York City and Detroit, six hours from Seattle, five hours from Los Angeles, three hours from Dallas and two hours from Miami.
Many people believe Belize to be an island, however it is a Central American country bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the south and west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. This mistaken impression is understandable though, given that one of the biggest draws to Belize is for its hundreds of “cayes” (islands, pronounced “keys”) dotted along a spectacular Barrier Reef, the second largest (behind Australia’s) in the world.
Once here, you will find that and so much more, as Belize is home to some of the greatest historical, cultural and ecological diversity in the world.
IN THE BEGINNING
The earliest inhabitants in this area were the Mayans, who were believed to have come here around 1000 B.C., thriving for a millennium in an extensive, very advanced and sophisticated civilization of perhaps more than 2 million people. Even today, Belize is home to one of the largest concentrations of Mayan temples and underground ritual chambers, including Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, Lamanai, Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, just to name a few.
Sometime around 1502, the first European, Christopher Columbus, landed on its shores, with a new settlement following in the mid-1600s.
One of the major cultural influences here is that of the Garifuna people. Around 1796, after losing their fight for independence from French and British forces attempting to colonize their native land in the Lesser Antilles (located in the Caribbean Sea generally from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad and from Margarita to Aruba), the Garifuna were brought to the islands off Northern Honduras. However, unlike Africans who came to the Americas as slaves, they were set free. Many of them migrated, establishing new communities along the coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.
Their language, dance and music remains one of the world’s most influential cultures, including official recognition by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and their official arrival in Belize is celebrated every Nov. 19 as Garifuna Settlement Day.
When the British staked their claim here in 1840, Belize became a colony of British Honduras, remaining that way until 1964, when it attained its own self-governing status, followed by an official name change to Belize in 1973, and full independence in 1981.
Other ethnic groups settling in Belize in the decades to follow have resulted in the uniquely diverse population that you find today—a vibrant fusion of Maya, Mestizo, Kriol/Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite, Arab and Chinese.
THIS IS BELIZE
Belize is approximately the size of Massachusetts and has one of the lowest population densities in the world, with close to 350,000 denizens spread out over 8,868 square miles. The country is divided into eight major cities: Belmopan (the capital), Belize, Corozal, Benque Viejo del Carmen, San Ignacio, San Pedro, Orange Walk and Dangrigia.
Because of the unique amalgamation of its people, you’ll hear several Mayan dialects, Garifuna, Spanish, Mandarin, Kriol (Belizean Creole) and, interestingly, English, the official language. In fact, Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America.
The weather here averages approximately 84 degrees and about 85 percent humidity, with a fairly constant breeze both inland and along the coastal areas. There are both dry (February to May) and wet (June to December) seasons, but neither too extreme, making Belize a comfortable destination year-round.
Each of the over 200 spectacular cayes scattered off the mainland offers its own unique Belizean flavor, and together they have earned Belize a reputation as one of the world’s happiest, most peaceful and most friendly tourist destinations.
After arriving at Philip Goldson International Airport, a 75-foot-wide-runway airport whose entire operation would fit inside one terminal at any U.S. airport, it was an effortless 10 minute Customs process and, literally, five-second walk across the breezeway to catch what I call a “puddle jumper” flight to many of Belize’s cities, islands and cayes, including Ambergris Caye, Kanantik, Punta Gorda, San Ignacio and Caye Caulker, among others.
Taxiing in a Maya Island Air, Cessna C208B Caravan 12-seater took about 30 seconds before it soared up and over miles of dense vegetation and thick banana fields, with expansive views of the shoreline so close at only a cruising altitude of approximately 2,500 feet that we could watch the waves rolling over each other as they hit the beach.
A short 35 minutes later, I gazed forward between the back of the heads of our headset-clad pilot and another passenger who had drawn the front-seat straw (in other words, she weighed the least of us) and saw a tiny airstrip, the pilot hitting it just right and moments later pulling in front of a small office building.
Once here, we unfolded ourselves from the plane, descended a five-step, metal platform and split up between two minivans that were waiting to shuttle us to our respective accommodations.
We had arrived in Placencia!
In our next adventure, we’ll learn about this beautiful, laid-back village and unpack our bags at the first of our Belizean vacation resort destinations.
‘You Betta Belize It!’
The main pedestrian-only drag in Placencia is a boardwalk dotted with jewelry huts, handcraft stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants and the like. (Lysa Allman-Baldwin photos)
It’s cute, catchy and you’ll see it everywhere you look in Belize: “You Betta Belize It!”
In part one of this travel series, we had just arrived at our first destination on this sojourn, the beautiful village of Placencia, located along an 18-mile stretch of the Placencia Peninsula (population 3,458) and encompassing four small villages—Riversdale, Maya Beach, Seine Bight and Placencia, which is home to about half of the denizens here.
Despite its size, there is a great expanse in the topography here, from approximately three feet above sea level to over 3,600 feet a short drive away in the Maya Mountain range. From here you can embark upon numerous short excursions, such as deep sea fishing, whale shark diving (four times a year during full moon), caving, sailing, scuba diving, visiting to the Mayan ruins, going on a Monkey River howler tour or trying an extensive jungle hike through a jaguar preserve, just to name a few.
Surf and sun lovers will enjoy immersing themselves along vast stretches of secluded, coarse, auburn sand beaches while dipping and out of the bathtub-warm, turquoise-hued water that ebbs and flows calmly from the offshore Barrier Reef (more on that later).
Placencia Village itself can be described as burning the candle at both ends but in a good way, in that it has maintained the substance of its traditional fishing village charm while also slowly developing into a more recognized tourism destination.
As the latter, it is evolving with a mix of new, locally owned retail shops, accommodations, restaurants and the like and will never (thankfully!) become an overly Americanized locale with a Starbucks, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donut on every corner. In fact, there are no American chain establishments anywhere in the entire country.
The main pedestrian-only drag here is an almost one-mile stamped concrete “boardwalk” dotted with jewelry huts, handcraft stores, clothing boutiques, excursion offices, bars, restaurants, small hotels, home and apartment rentals and locals selling handmade items on blankets, with pathways jetting out like spokes of a wheel on both sides to either the beach or the main street.
At the far end is a beautiful marina where the fishermen return daily, their boats laden with fresh snapper, shrimp, lionfish, lobster and other fresh seasonal catches of the day. The main thoroughfare running parallel to the boardwalk is where both denizens and tourists alike walk, bike, motorcycle, golf cart and drive along a combination paved-dirt street that’s peppered with oodles of bars, restaurants, alfresco produce vendors, retail boutiques, beauty and massage salons, art galleries, souvenir shops and a few large grocery and sundry stores.
At any of these places you will get the real feel for Belize and its wonderful people, as they greet you like family or close friends at every turn. They genuinely want to know where you are from, how you like their village, if it’s your first time in Belize—lots of questions followed by personal sharing in an attempt to make deep connections that make you feel as if they will last a lifetime.
As we ambled around and talked to folks, we learned that the locals are a diverse mix of native Placencians, Belizeans born in other parts of the country, people from neighboring Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and large numbers of expatriates from the U.S. and Canada, and other tourists we met traveled there from Phoenix, Toronto, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Arkansas, Australia, Santa Barbara, Dallas—you name it and people were loving it!
The ambiance is very warm and welcoming, with a distinctive Caribbean “no rush, island time” vibe, and without the crush of mass tourism.
For a village of this size, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of cafes, bars and restaurants in which to stretch your salivary muscles—and all within walking distance of each other!
Among our favorites were DeTatch Seafood Grill, Restaurant and Bar, situated right on the beach and serving excellent fresh seafood and Belizean specialties for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Tipsy Tuna Beach Bar for their delicious bar food, cocktails, people watching and evening entertainment; and Omar’s Creole Grub & Guesthouse, where you can have their fresh fish, lobster, crab, conch and barracuda cooked in your choice of coconut or Caribbean curry, traditional Creole, or butter and garlic sauces. Other popular eateries include Friends, the Secret Garden, Rumfish y Vino, Barefoot Beach Bar, and Wendy’s Creole Restaurant and Bar.
One of the main reasons we chose to visit in June was for the 17th annual Placencia Lobsterfest, which coincides with the start of lobster season and the annual Fisherman’s Day festivities.
This award-winning festival has at its centerpiece everything lobster: coconut lobster muffins, lobster patties, lobster tacos, lobster burgers, lobster pizza, lobster flatbread, lobster ravioli, risotto with lobster, lobster salad, lobster fajitas—the list of delicious lobster-packed dishes is endless, each one offering its own particular flavor and flair for this crustacean, which we learned, in this part of the world, grows without claws!
Of course, there were other delicious Belizean and Caribbean culinary dishes as well, but during the festival, we didn’t have any of those—we were there for the amazing, succulent lobster! The festival itself lasts three days (the Saturday night fun spilling over until 6 a.m.). One of the things that makes it so unique is that it is put on by, and primarily patronized by, the locals, who come from not only Placencia but also other nearby villages, giving it real “hometown” heart and soul.
The wide array of activities include live entertainment—from marching bands to Garifuna drummers and singers, DJ jams, and other performances—spirited makeshift table carnival games, talented local arts and crafts vendors, fun raffles, a Belikin (the official Belizean beer) drinking contest, a hot wings eating contest, a Mr. & Ms. Physique contest and numerous family friendly activities, including tug-o-war, kayak racing, sand net casting and numerous booths presented by a variety of local social service and educational organizations. The crowning events for the fishermen are the “Biggest Lobstah’” and Lionfish tournament competitions, who vie for these titles and bragging rights for the next year.
SO MUCH MORE TO COME!
In our next adventure, we’re settling into two amazing accommodation options, both on and offshore, that will make you fall even more deeply in love with the wonder and beauty of Belize.
In Belize, paradise found
Guests walk right from the Lionfish Grill Pavilion onto the beautiful white-sand beach.
I'm not going to lie: The voyage to this Belizean island paradise 18 miles off the mainland is not for sissies. It can be a bit choppy and windy and you'll probably get wet.
But during the hour-long ride, you’ll be mesmerized by the numerous picturesque cayes, some large enough to accommodate several homes and other structures, while others held only a single palm tree and a small spot of sand.
Then suddenly it appears—our home for the next several days—the private island of Hatchet Caye.
Located on the protected side of the Meso-American reef, the second longest in the world (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), the island encompasses only seven and a half acres, with spectacular views everywhere you look.
The resort offers an ultra-casual, remote, uncharted territory, off-the-grid island life vacation, but with comfortable accommodations, great amenities and Wi-Fi. And there are a lot of “nos” here: no roads, no vehicles, no phones, no front desk, no need to lock your doors and no worries. And although I’d been told to never to take “no” for an answer, it’s actually everything I wanted to hear.
Its boutique size and maximum 38-guest capacity is one of the major draws here, which, in the only four years it has been open, has attracted visitors from North America, Europe and other parts of Central America and commanded an astounding 46 percent repeat guest relationship, each visitor forming a lasting bond with the 25 staff members who, except for the couple who own the resort and their young daughter, live here 24/7 for three weeks at a time. It’s something very different than what you find on a mainland resort, yet it creates a truly authentic, loving, family ambience.
There is one honeymoon cabana with a king-size bed and six duplex cabanas with one or two queen-size beds, all with a quaint living room area, including a TV and DVD player, air conditioning and ceiling fans, multiple windows on two sides facing the gorgeous oceanfront views, a private deck with oversize cushioned furniture and a table and a hammock and/or cushioned chaise lounge chairs to the side.
In the main house, there are five beautiful, spacious rooms with the same luxury amenities with full or partial ocean views separated on two levels, with a crow’s nest above offering amazing 360-degree views of the island and surrounding ocean environment peppered with coconut trees, natural vegetation, an abundance of coral and beautiful white sand that comes right up to every structure on the island.
Among the unique aspects of Hatchet Caye is that they operate on solar power 18 to 22 hours a day; have their own organic garden, where they source a great deal of the fresh herbs, veggies and fruit used to create the daily fare; and fish daily or buy fresh catches from the local fishermen.
Your stay here also includes full use of everything at their Pirate Reef Dive Shop, including stand-up paddle boards, recreational and fishing kayaks, fishing gear, snorkeling gear, pedal boats, a water trampoline and float launch, inflatable rafts, Hobie cats, a fresh water swimming pool, a sand/grass volleyball court and a football/soccer field.
Also included is a fantastic snorkeling excursion (with just a national park entrance fee), where you swim with sand sharks, sea turtles and a wide array of the largest, most spectacular variety of stingrays you have ever seen. For an additional charge, you can get scuba dive certified and go out on a guided reef tour or arrange for a private, in-cabana crow’s nest or end of the pier spa service.
A TASTE OF THE ISLAND
It doesn’t take long to get into the groove here, especially at meal times, which really impart the meaning of “Island Time”–unrushed and peaceful, allowing you to soak in the ambience, savor the culinary flavors and dream about what life must have been like before mass tourism became the order of the day.
All meals are at the open pavilion Lionfish Grill, highlighted by a wide array of fresh, seasonal specialties. Among the tasty offerings we enjoyed was an “Island Breakfast” with black beans, fry jacks, fried lionfish and their special hash browns; homemade French toast; bacon and eggs Benedict; shrimp and chicken quesadillas; lobster and shrimp risotto; shrimp fettuccine Daviolo; spicy curry shrimp with rice and vegetables; and Greek salads.
But their most interesting entrees included lionfish, an exotic, beautiful and oddly enough invasive, venomous marine fish that when carefully pulled and scaled is absolutely delicious to eat, as evidenced by the numerous delicious lionfish dishes they serve including fish and chips, nachos, burgers, quesadillas and other lionfish creations.
Also under the pavilion is an inviting bar serving a bevy of specialty cocktails, wine, spirits and after-dinner libations, as well as a spacious reading and game area, complete with comfy chairs, benches and play everything from cribbage to dominoes, cards, Jenga, chess, Buzzwords, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and poker.
During our stay we did nothing and everything, and in such an unparalleled island environment that it would be hard to find anything else that comes even close to it, except buying or renting (which they do allow here for family reunions and special groups) your own island paradise.
Hatchet Caye is a true treasure and a unique gem that just has to be experienced at least once a lifetime.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that because of Belize’s location bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the south and west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, it sometimes garners an unfair rap associated with some of the narco-trafficking issues that do happen at times in and between the surrounding countries. But to paint a broad, all-encompassing, speculative brush across this beautiful country would be akin to saying that because there is crime in one major U.S. city (take New York City, for example) that it applies to everywhere and should be avoided.
On the contrary, Belize is overall a very safe, welcoming country where you will find some of the most genuinely, warm and accepting people, who only desire to be accepted as the beautiful souls that they are and who live to share a real exchange of energy and passion. It goes back to what I said before, that once you come here, you will “Belize” it!
The Amsterdam News