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Frommer's Belize

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Belize is a rising star. With all of the natural allure of Costa Rica, it adds to the mix towering ancient pyramids, superb scuba diving and snorkeling (along the world’s second-longest coral reef system), and a culture that’s warm and welcoming. Author Ali Wunderman has been covering the country for years and uses her expertise to help you craft the vacation of your dreams.

Frommer’s Belize contains:

Exact pricing so there’s never any guessing.

A star rating system to make scanning the book quicker and easier.

Opinionated advice, with no-holds-barred reviews of hotels, tours, restaurants, attractions, and nightlife in all price ranges.

In-depth discussions of the history, cultural and wildlife of the country.

Money-saving tips and tricks to help your dollar go further, whether you’re a luxury-seeker or a backpacker.

Maps throughout the book, and a fold-out map in the back to help you better navigate.

Frommer’s has been the most trusted name in travel for 60 years for a reason. Let us help you create an extraordinary adventure in Belize.

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12 Chapters

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1 THE BEST OF BELIZE

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The Best of Belize

Belize proves the cliché that big things come in small packages. This tiny Central American country has the longest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere; the largest known Classic Mayan city, Caracol; and the highest concentration per square mile of the largest new-world cat, the jaguar. It also has one of the most extensive and easily accessible cave systems for amateur and experienced spelunkers alike, as well as a nearly endless supply of some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba-diving opportunities.

The best part about all these world-class places and experiences is that Belize’s compact size makes it easy to sample a wide range of them in a short period of time. The lists below should help you zero in on a few personal bests of your own.

The best Purely Belizean Experiences

Sitting on the Dock of a Caye: One of the most distinctive features of most beachfront hotels in Belize is the private pier jutting out into the sea. Many of these have a thatch-roofed shade structure at the end, often strung with hammocks. This is a great place to read a book, take a siesta, or simply spend an hour or two marveling at the ocean’s amazing shades of blue. See chapters 7 and 8.

 

2 BELIZE IN DEPTH

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Belize in Depth

Belize is the second-youngest nation in the Western Hemisphere, having been granted independence from Britain in 1981. It’s also a decidedly sparsely populated country, with just more than 350,000 citizens and no large cities. Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the official and predominant language.

Originally a major part of the ancient Mayan empire, Belize was next settled by pirates and then colonized by the British, who used slave labor. The descendants of each of these groups are woven into the historical lore and cultural fabric of modern Belize. Add to the mix the independent Garífuna people, who settled along the remote southern shore in the early part of the 19th century, and the more recent waves of Mexican, Chinese, and East Indian immigrants, and you have an idea of the cultural mishmash that constitutes this unique Central American country. Surprisingly, Belizeans of all cultural stripes tend to get along a lot better and with far fewer outward and untoward shows of racism than citizens of most other nations. This is a small country. The sense of community is strong and, even in the big city, people know their neighbors and almost everyone is somehow related.

 

3 PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO BELIZE

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Planning Your Trip to Belize

Belize offers a wealth of vacation options, including sun-and-fun beach time, dedicated scuba diving or fishing trips, and themed vacations exploring the ancient Mayan culture and archaeology. Moreover, given the compact size of the country, it’s very possible to cover a lot of ground in a short time, and to mix and match these options. Whatever your interests, this chapter (as well as chapter 5) will provide you with all the tools and information necessary to plan and book your trip.

When to Go

Belize’s high season for tourism runs from late November to mid-April, which coincides almost perfectly with the chill of winter in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The high season is also the dry season. If you want some unadulterated time on a tropical beach or private island and a little less rain during your rainforest experience, this is the time to visit. During this period (and especially around the Christmas and Easter holidays), the tourism industry operates at full tilt—prices are higher, attractions are more crowded, and reservations need to be made in advance.

 

4 SUGGESTED BELIZE ITINERARIES

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Suggested Belize Itineraries

Don’t be fooled by its size—there’s a lot to see and do in Belize. And the fact that the country is so compact makes it quick to get around and do a lot in a short time. The following itineraries are meant to serve as rough outlines to help you structure your time and get a taste of some of the country’s must-see destinations. Other options include specialized itineraries focused on a particular interest or activity. Bird-watchers could design an itinerary that visits a series of prime bird-watching sites. Cave enthusiasts and spelunkers could design a trip to take in several of Belize’s caves, including both wet and dry cave explorations. In Belize, there’s something for everyone.

The Regions in Brief

Belize City   Belize City is a modest-size coastal port city located at the mouth of the Belize River. It’s Belize’s transportation hub, with the only international airport, an active municipal airport, a cruise-ship dock, and all the major bus-line and water-taxi terminals. Still, Belize City is of limited interest to most visitors, who quickly seek the more beachy and pastoral charms of the country’s various tourist destinations and resorts. Belize City has a reputation as a rough and violent urban center, and visitors should exercise caution and stick to the most popular tourist areas of this small city.

 

5 THE ACTIVE VACATION PLANNER

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The Active Vacation Planner

Belize is a fantastic destination for the active and adventurous traveler. The range of available sport and tour options is wide; the quality of the adventures and local tour operators is high; and the fact that the country is so compact allows travelers to mix and match. Whether their interests are scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, sailing, spelunking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or bird-watching, Belize has terrain and opportunities that are perfect for all active travelers. I hope that the following chapter, combined with the regional and destination chapters that follow it, will help you design and enjoy your dream vacation.

Organized Adventure Trips

Because many travelers have limited time and resources, organized ecotourism or adventure-travel packages are a popular and efficient way of combining several activities. Bird-watching, cave exploring, and hiking can be teamed with, say, visits to classical Mayan ruins and a few days on an outlying caye for snorkeling and diving, sea kayaking, and more bird-watching.

 

6 BELIZE CITY

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Belize City

Long ago stripped of its status as the country’s capital, Belize City remains Belize’s business, transportation, and cultural hub. Sooner or later you’ll spend at least some time here, unless you do all your in-country traveling by air or have a very precisely planned itinerary. As the country’s most urban area, it can be rough around the edges, and doesn’t offer quite the same draw as destinations along the coast or in the jungle, but there are still treasures all their own to be explored here.

With a population of some 50,000, plus another 20,000 in the surrounding area, Belize City is surrounded on three sides by water, and at high tide it is nearly swamped. It’s a strange, dense warren of narrow streets and canals (the latter being little more than open sewers, and pretty pungent in hot weather), modern stores, dilapidated shacks, and quaint colonial mansions, coexisting in a seemingly chaotic jumble.

The city was originally settled by the ancient Mayans, who lived up and down the coast here. By the mid-1600s, pirates were using the current site of Belize City as a hideout and provisioning spot. Soon after, the British arrived and set up a logging base here, fueled by slave labor. Logs were harvested inland and floated down the Belize River for milling and shipping. This logging base soon became a colonial settlement and the seat of Britain’s colonial empire on the Central American isthmus. Belize City itself is said to sit on a foundation of wood chips, discarded ships’ ballast, and empty rum bottles.

 

7 THE NORTHERN CAYES & ATOLLS

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The Northern Cayes & Atolls

The cayes (pronounced “keys”) are a series of small islands strung along the length of the Belize Barrier Reef, set amid waters that are at once crystal clear and brilliantly turquoise. Seen firsthand, there’s something truly mesmerizing and almost unbelievable about the clarity and color of this water. But as they say around here: “You betta Belize it.”

With the reef providing protection from the open ocean, and the government providing protection to the reef, the cayes are literally islands of tranquility in a calm blue sea. Aside from sunbathing and slow strolling, scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing are the main attractions in the cayes. They are all world-class. From the bustling mini-resorts (and one regular resort) of Ambergris Caye to the funky Rastafarian charm of tiny Caye Caulker to the deserted-isle feel of the Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef atolls , it’s the idyllic combination of sun and sea, as well as adventure and relaxation, that attracts and captivates most visitors to Belize. Most of the cayes are small enough to walk from one end to the other in less than 20 minutes. On others, it won’t take you nearly as long.

 

8 SOUTHERN BELIZE

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Southern Belize

Southern Belize has only two small cities, Dangriga and Punta Gorda, and one popular beach village, Placencia. This was once the least developed region of Belize, but that’s changed dramatically. Placencia is one of the hottest and fastest-growing destinations in the country. And the tiny Garífuna settlement of Hopkins Village has also become a trendy destination all its own. Both Placencia and Hopkins Village offer some of the longest and finest sand beaches to be found in the country.

Southern Belize is made up of the Stann Creek and Toledo districts. It is home to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a major breeding ground and reserve for the New World’s largest cat, the jaguar, as well as several other lesser-known and virtually unexplored forest reserves. It is here you’ll find Belize’s highest mountain, Victoria Peak, which stands at 1,122m (3,681 ft.).

Offshore are some of Belize’s most beautiful cayes and its most remote atoll, Glover’s Reef Atoll . The cayes and barrier reef down here are as spectacular as those found farther north, yet far less developed and crowded. You can literally have an island to yourself in this region. Much of the offshore and underwater wonders are protected in reserves, such as the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Marine Reserve, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, and Laughing Bird Caye National Park .

 

9 NORTHERN BELIZE

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Northern Belize

With few exceptions, Northern Belize is overlooked by most tourists who fly into the country and head quickly to the cayes, the Cayo District, the southern beaches, or the Mayan Mountains. Even those who enter by land from Mexico frequently make a beeline to Belize City and bypass this region. Still, northern Belize has its charms, not least of which is its undiscovered and undeveloped feel. It’s here that you’ll find some of the country’s larger biological reserves, including the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, the Shipstern Nature Reserve, and the Río Bravo Conservation Area. With more than 430 species of birds and 250 species of orchids, this region should be especially attractive to naturalists.

The region was also an important and strategic part of the Mayan Empire, and ancient ruins abound. Most notably, it is here that you will find the Altun Ha and Lamanai ruins, two of the country’s most popular and important Mayan sites. Lesser sites such as Cuello, Cerros, Santa Rita, and Noh Mul are also possible stops for true aficionados. Finally, northern Belize is home to three unique and isolated lodges: Belize Boutique Resort and Spa, Chan Chich Lodge, and Lamanai Outpost Lodge, all of which are described in detail in this chapter.

 

10 CAYO DISTRICT & WESTERN BELIZE

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Cayo District & Western Belize

Western Belize, from the capital city of Belmopan to the Guatemalan border, is a land of rolling hills, dense jungles, abundant waterfalls, clear rivers, extensive caves, and numerous Maya ruins. This region was the heart of the Belizean Maya world, with the major ruins of Caracol, Xunantunich, and El Pilar, as well as lesser sites such as Cahal Pech. At the height of the Classic Maya Period, there were more residents in this area than in all of modern Belize.

Today, the area around Belmopan and extending throughout the Cayo District is the center of Belize’s ecotourism industry. There are a host of national parks and protected areas, including the Guanacaste and St. Herman’s Blue Hole national parks, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and the Chiquibil National Park. The pine forests and rainforests here are great for hiking and bird-watching; the rivers are excellent for canoeing, kayaking, and inner tubing; and the dirt roads are perfect for horseback riding and mountain biking.

 

11 TIKAL & GUATEMALA’S PETÉN

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Tikal & Guatemala’s PetÉn

Bordering Belize, Mexico, and Honduras, and occupying the entire northeastern section of Guatemala, the Petén is Guatemala’s largest and least populated province. Most of the Petén is forest—thick tropical rainforest. It is a lush and wild landscape that contains some of Mesoamerica’s richest archaeological treasures. In 1990, the government of Guatemala officially established the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a tract of 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) that includes most of the Petén Province. Moreover, the Maya Biosphere Reserve adjoins the neighboring Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and the Río Bravo Conservation Area in Belize, comprising a joint protected area of more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres).

The Petén Province is home to perhaps the most impressive and best preserved of the ancient Mayan ceremonial cities, Tikal . It also holds numerous other lesser, and less excavated, sites, many of which we have yet to find. In early 2018, scientists announced the discovery of a massive lost Mayan city using aerial mapping techniques that allowed them to see what was hiding beneath the dense jungle, adding to the mysteriously vast network of known ancient civilizations.

 

12 USEFUL TERMS & PHRASES

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Useful Terms & Phrases

English is the official language of Belize, but the country is one of the most polyglot places on the planet. In addition to English, many Belizeans speak Spanish, and among some members of the population, this is the primary language. You will find Spanish prevalent in the northern and western regions, near the borders with Mexico and Guatemala, but given Belize’s long history of immigration, Spanish speakers can be found throughout the country. In fact, conversations among Belizeans are often a mix of English and Spanish (“Spanglish”), with a fair amount of Creole thrown in for good measure.

Creole, or Kriol, is the local patois, a colorful, rhythmic, and often difficult-to-understand dialect. Although based primarily on English, it takes some getting used to before most Westerners can grasp the pronunciations and sentence structures that distinguish Belizean Kriol. While this was originally the language of former black slaves and their descendants, today most Belizeans understand and speak Kriol, and they will often use it among themselves in the presence of foreigners if they don’t want to be understood.

 

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