A small country of roughly 8,000 square miles (20,000km sq), Belize rests on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala: an exotic, English-speaking, adventurer's paradise, just a couple of hours away from three major United States cities. Almost half the country has been preserved as nature parks and reserves, including tropical forests teeming with wildlife and hiding mysterious Mayan ruins, and 174 miles (280km) of coastline featuring the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
The reef and the country's numerous offshore cayes, or atolls, have made this one of the world's most desirable destinations for scuba divers and marine researchers. They come to explore unique features like the famous 'Blue Hole', a collapsed submerged cave 1,000 feet (305m) in diameter and 412 feet (126m) deep.
Archaeologically Belize is fascinating too, having been the site of mighty Mayan cities from around 1,000 BC until the inexplicable disintegration of that great civilisation around 900 AD. There are believed to be thousands of Mayan ruins in Belize, of which about 600 have been discovered and excavated, many now open to tourists.
Like most Caribbean countries Belize was occupied by British and Spanish colonialists over the centuries before gaining independence (only lately recognised by neighbouring Guatemala which laid claim to the territory) in 1981. Today it is a happy-go-lucky multi-ethnic nation of warm, friendly people, very welcoming of the tourists on whom the country's economy relies heavily.
The main urban city (although not the capital) is Belize City, which offers some attractions like a zoo, museum, historic buildings and the Maya site of Altun Ha. Basically, though, Belize is a destination for the outdoor enthusiast and active traveller and visitors should not expect urban adventure. There are not many nightclubs, expensive shopping venues or fancy restaurants, but there is plenty of scope for diving, snorkelling, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, kayaking and exploring.
The unit of currency is the Belize Dollar (BZD), which is fixed
against the US$ as BZ$2 = US$1. Most tourist resorts, hotels,
restaurants and tour operators accept US currency and travellers
cheques. Credit cards are also accepted, and most banks in Belize
City and Belmopan will advance cash against Visa or MasterCard.
When using credit cards most establishments will add a 5% service
charge to the bill. First Caribbean International Bank has several
ATMs in Belize City. Always make sure you understand which dollar
rate is being quoted, either Belize Dollars or US Dollars.
|BZD 1 =||US$ 0.50||Â£ 0.33||C$ 0.51||A$ 0.48||R 4.22||EUR 0.39||NZ$ 0.63|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
No vaccinations are required for entry to Belize. Travellers arriving from a yellow-fever infected area require a vaccination certificate. Cases of dengue fever have occurred, and seem to be on the increase, so insect repellent is strongly advised. Malaria prevention is recommended for those travelling outside Belize City. Potable water is available in most areas of Belize but it is advisable, if in doubt, to drink bottled or boiled water. Medical facilities are poor in the city, and almost non-existent elsewhere. Cases of severe illness or injury usually require expensive medical evacuation. Adequate medical insurance is therefore vital. For divers there is a hyperbaric chamber at Ambergris Caye.
All visitors to Belize (except cruise ship passengers) must produce a passport valid for at least the period of their intended stay. We recommend, however, that passports be valid for six months after departure from holiday destinations. All visitors should also have return tickets and documents for onward travel, and funds amounting to US$50 per person per day.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Belize Tourism Board, Belize City: +501 223 1913 or www.travelbelize.org
Foreign Embassies in Belize
In Belize nearly all journeys begin and end in Belize City, the country's biggest urban enclave and port of entry, although in truth not a very enticing tourist destination in itself. Belize City sits in a swamp that stretches across Haulover Creek at the mouth of the Belize River, criss-crossed with narrow streets and rather smelly canals which are lined with a jolly jumble of buildings, some little more than dilapidated shacks and others attempts at rather pretentious modern stores. In between are some pretty wooden houses and colonial landmark buildings.
The city has clung tenaciously onto its muddy roots since it was abandoned as a Mayan fishing camp in the 1600s and taken over by pirates and buccaneers as a logging camp. Late in the 17th century, along came the Spanish, who cut down the mahogany upriver, floated the logs downstream and exported them from the motley little encampment at the river mouth. Later the British established Belize Town, which began the city's formal, rather tragic, passage into modern times. Three times devastated by fires, scourged by disease epidemics, flattened by hurricanes and tidal waves, the city somehow survived and today, in the new millennium, it subsists on tourism and fishing, remaining the cultural, commercial and social centre of Belize despite the capital having been moved to Belmopan in 1969.
Most visitors to Belize City come ashore on tenders from dozens of luxury cruise liners which include the city in their itineraries, mainly to allow passengers to take adventure excursions to see and experience the wonderful natural attractions of the interior and coastline of Belize. Cruise passengers are welcomed at the showpiece Belize Tourism Village, where courtyards and attractive buildings contain a variety of restaurants, souvenir shops, craft stalls and other facilities to cater for their needs. It is the departure point for numerous land and marine tours.
Independent visitors to Belize also generally start their exploration of the country in Belize City, and can find some sights of interest to fill a few days layover in the town, including the world's only manually operated swing bridge, some colonial architectural treasures like the Paslow Building, the novel St John's Cathedral built by slaves from bricks brought as ballast in ships from Europe, and the art gallery at the Bliss Institute, bequeathed to the city by British Baron, Henry Bliss, who died on his yacht in the harbour. Also well worth a visit are the Maritime Museum and Museum of Belize.
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