Central and South America

Belize: Central American Jewel

By Joe Volz and Cissie Coy

Belize, a nation just smaller than Massachusetts, is a tiny jewel bathed by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It boasts the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, remote white sand beaches, Mayan temples towering over rainforest canopies, sandy streets in colonial towns, and an incredibly colorful array of marine and land wildlife.

What to Expect

On the eastern coast of Central America, bordering Mexico to the northwest and Guatemala to the west and south, Belize was a British colony (known as British Honduras) for more than a century until 1973. It became an independent nation in 1981. English is the official language, but Spanish, Creole and Mayan dialects are just as common if not more so.

The local climate is tropical and generally very hot and humid. The rainy season lasts from June to November. Occasional natural hazards include hurricanes and flooding, but generally Belize is a safe, friendly and exciting destination that you can make as pampered or as rough as you prefer.

Underwater visibility can reach 150 feet; water temperature hovers around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the barrier reef makes for calm water most of the year. In many places, you can walk hundreds of feet out and the water still feels as calm, warm, and shallow as bath water.

Because of the country's small population (around 280,000) and lack of industry, much of Belize has remained virtually undisturbed. About 66 percent of the country is still forested, which means it's a wonderland for birders. The country has recorded more than 500 species of birds within its borders.

The Belize Zoo

And it doesn't end with birds. In Belize's borders lies one of the world's most fascinating and diverse species--pacas, tapirs, jaguars, coatimundis and much more.

There is no way, unfortunately to see all the bounty of animals--but a stop at the Belize Zoo is a good first step.

Located 30 miles west of Belize City, The Belize Zoo is 29 acres of tropical savanna and exhibits of native Belizean animals. Begun as a refuge for animals abandoned after a nature documentary, the zoo features only animals that were orphaned, born at the zoo, rehabilitated, or acquired as gifts from other zoos.

The Barrier Reef

Take your pick of fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving. Second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Belize's Barrier Reef runs for 186 miles along the coast.

About a two-hour boatride from the reef is one of the feature attractions for divers, the Blue Hole, made famous by world-renowned diver Jacques Costeau. Located inside one of Belize's three atolls, the Lighthouse Reef, the Blue Hole is about 60 miles off the mainland out of Belize City. It is one of the most astounding dive sites to be found anywhere on earth.

Right in the center of the reef is a large, almost perfectly circular, hole approximately one-quarter of a mile across. Inside this hole, the water is 480 feet deep and it is the depth that gives the deep blue color. It's like a giant pupil in a turquoise sea. Diving the Blue Hole is not for beginners, although anyone can complete a shallow dive.

The Cayes

Whether you're looking for water sports and beach bars to dance the night away, or just some sunny relaxation, Belize's cayes (pronounced "keys") have it.

At 25 miles long, Ambergris is the largest caye, with the charming Mestizo town of San Pedro as its "hub." Here you'll find friendly locals, island dogs trotting down sand streets and plenty of delicious cafes to enjoy rice and beans and a Belikin beer.

A quieter haunt is the fishing village of Caye Caulker, where bare feet are not just welcome but expected, and life slows to "Belize Time."

The Jaguar Preserve

In southern Belize, The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as "The Jaguar Preserve," was originally established in 1984 as a reserve to protect a large jaguar population. Wildlife is elusive, but bird and animal watchers are well rewarded. The sanctuary encompasses some 100,000 acres of tropical moist forest that rises from 300 feet above sea level to approximately 3,675 feet at the summit of Victoria Peak.

The Mayans

The Maya civilization spread over Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 900. Altun Ha, the most extensively excavated Mayan ruin in Belize, was a major ceremonial center, consisting of two main plazas with 13 temples and residential structures. Caracol, in the Cayo District, is the largest Belizean Mayan site, but less excavated. Howler monkeys and toucans fill the broadleaf jungle surrounding the temples.

There are also day tours from Belize to Tikal in Peten, Guatemala. It is the largest Mayan site of all.


You are advised not to explore caves on your own. Many are closed to public exploration because they have archaeological significance and some are subject to sudden flooding. Fortunately, a number are safe.

We chose Actun Tunichil Muknal, and it was "challenging," as advertised. To reach the cave, we hiked 45 minutes, fording three streams and passing through the 6,700 Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.

Discovered in 1989, this Mayan burial cave has not been looted.It was mind boggling to find cultural artifacts literally underfoot along with calcified skeletons. If you are up to a challenging hike, this is well worth the effort.

Getting There

It's possible to get to Belize by road (1,350 miles through Mexico and a sturdy car and strong heart are recommended) or by boat, but most tourists opt to fly in (US Airways, Continental and American have daily flights via Houston or Miami). With the exception of cruise ship passengers, all visitors must present a valid passport before entering the country.



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