Belize

INTRODUCTION

Belize lies on the east coast of Central America’s Caribbean Basin, just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras. You may recognize it by its former name of “British Honduras.”

The east coast of Belize is lined by the Caribbean Sea and hundreds of island Cayes, which support one of the world’s most diverse underwater habitats.

The shoreline is bordered by the world’s second largest Barrier Reef, making Belize a popular diving and fishing destination.

The country itself occupies a land mass smaller than most US states. At its broadest point, Belize is 68 miles (109 km) wide and 175 miles (280 km) long.

The northern half of Belize, which contains the Districts of Corozal, Belize and Orange Walk, is low and undulating, gradually rising from the coast to the Guatemalan border in the west, but rarely exceeding 200 feet in elevation. The area is drained by the New River, the Hondo River and the Belize River, which still serves for native transportation from the interior to produce markets in Belize City.

This low-lying country is composed of parallel, jungle-covered ridges and depressions, which are backbones of former coral reefs. Approximately ten to fifteen miles offshore is a string of small islands (cays) some of which possess palm-covered opulence while others are partially or occasionally submerged and mangrove-covered. These islands string out along the entire Belizean coastline The next ridge, just a few miles seaward of this chain of cays, is the famous Barrier Reef whose coral formations appear above the surface of the water only tentatively from time to time and serve to protect the entire 175 mile coastline of Belize from the rough sea. It is the largest continuous reef in the Caribbean.

The shoreward lagoon formed by the barrier reef is 20-25 km wide in the north and close to 40 km wide in the south. The coral reef provides sheltered waters that are teeming with tropical marine life. Reefs are by no means uniform, presenting many different shapes and sizes, caverns, arches and blocks. These features provide ideal habitat and are an important factor in the diversity and distribution of species.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

English is the official language of Belize, though a number of dialects are spoken among the country’s 250,000 citizens. Belize’s rich, historical and multicultural heritage is made up of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Maya and European. English is the official language but Spanish, Creole, German and Garifuna are also spoken.

Formally known as “British Honduras”, Belize continues to be a “melting” pot of immigrant cultures. Originally inhabited by the Maya, other groups have helped shape Belize’s unique culture over the past 300 years. British pirates, former slaves of India, and Yucatan refugees from the Caste War have all had a profound influence on the development of Belize.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BELIZE

Belize can be divided in major four periods. Following is a very brief synopsis of these periods.

Maya Civilization

Archaeologists estimate that at their peak, 1 to 2 million Mayans lived within the borders of present day Belize. Mighty Maya cities such as Caracol, Xunantunich and Lamanai dotted the landscape, with small agricultural communities farming the land between. The Maya civilization is divided into the Pre-Classic (1000 B.C. to A.D. 300), the Classic (A.D. 300 to 900) when the civilization reached its height of development, and the Post-Classic (A.D. 1000 to 1500) when the civilization fell apart and disappeared.

No one knows for certain what caused the disappearance of the Maya. Perhaps it was war, loss of faith, famine or a series of natural disasters.

European Presence

Christopher Columbus sailed along the coast of Central America in 1502, and named the bay, which borders the southern part of the barrier reef Bay of Honduras.

The first settlers in Belize were English Puritans, setting up trading post along the coast of Belize. Various bands of ship wrecked sailors, buccaneers and pirates established permanent bases in Belize, harassing the Spanish galleons carrying gold, silver, and hardwoods from Central America to Europe. It wasn’t long before logging became the dominant occupation.

This band of rugged individuals took to calling themselves “Baymen” after the Bay of Honduras. Spain continually attempted to expel these British buccaneers from then Spanish territory, but finally signed treaties in 1763 and 1786 allowing the British to continue to harvest timber in exchange for protection against pirates preying on the Spanish galleons.

During the 1840’s, Great Britain declared Belize to be the colony of British Honduras. Development of Belize became more organized and multiethnic through a series of cultural changes. The European settlers began to marry freed slaves forming the Creole majority that still is dominant in the population. Mexican citizens began cultivating small farms in northern Belize.

In Southern Belize, the Kekchi and Mopan Maya sought refuge in the hills of the Maya Mountains. A small band of Confederate Civil War veterans settled in what is now Punta Gorda. And from the Bay Islands of Honduras, the Garifuna people migrated and settled along the coast of Belize.

Early Twentieth Century to Present

By the early 1900’s, Belize had grown to nearly 40,000 inhabitants. But a destructive 1931 hurricane destroyed Belize City and by the 1930’s, the economy was so poor that the residents began to call for independence. By 1954 voting rights were extended to all adults, and by 1961, England agreed to begin the process of setting Belize free.

In 1973, the colony’s name was changed from British Honduras to Belize and on September 21, 1981, Belize’s Independence was declared.

MONEY

The exchange rate is two Belize dollars to one U.S. dollar, but there is no need to change your money to Belize dollars from U.S dollars; U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.

TOURISM

The “high season” for tourism is November until April. The “low season” is from May until October. At most hotels, rates begin dropping May 1st and are not raised again until November. The goal is to make travel in Belize accessible to everyone who expresses interest in visiting our shores. You can experience “more for less” and stretch your money further if you choose to travel during the “low season” of the summer months.

WEATHER

Belize is sub-tropical.   Inland conditions can change quickly with afternoon thunderstorms and heavy rainfall common in some parts of the country. Typically, temperatures range from 75 ° to 90 ° F with high humidity during the day, dropping at night to 70 ° to 80 ° F. From December to May conditions are usually clear, sunny and warm with December generally being cooler and moister.

Belize has two seasons, wet and dry. The summer months are in the wet season, but rainfall varies significantly by location in the country. Periodic showers, usually at night, make this the “green season”. The rain showers during the day are usually brief and intermittent and do not normally hamper outdoor activities.

Yes, it is hurricane season from June until mid-November. However, historically, most hurricanes occur between August and October in Belize. Hurricanes form over a period of several days and even weeks. The path of the storm is tracked and predicted using the latest technology that enables the areas to be affected ample time to prepare for the storm. Thanks to NEMO (National Emergency Management Organization), Belize has a thorough emergency plan ready to be enacted in the event of a hurricane.

WILDLIFE

Belize is the home of some of the most fascinating creatures in the world, including an opossum only three and a half inches long, turtles that climb trees, ants that practice agriculture and the “two-snakes-in-one” which is exactly that. You should also know this, though: in Belize jaguars are called “tigers”, jaguarandis are “tiger cats”, howler monkeys are “baboons”, deer are “antelope” and moths are called “bats”. True bats are “rat-bats” and thought to be natives of the same genus as the moth.

The mangrove swamps and rivers, Like Monkey River, are home to frogs and crabs and the Yucatecan Crocodile, locally called “alligator.” Belize also has the boa constrictor, here called “wowla”, and many varieties of lizards and iguanas.

Belize has about 500 species of birds, many of them rare and beautiful. In size, they vary from the minute hummingbirds, seen whirring about every flowering bush in Belize City, to the heron and the jabiru stork, now close to extinction, whose eight-foot wingspan make it the largest stork in America.

REEF ZONATION

As you travel from west to east, there are three distinct zones of ocean floor, flora and fauna. They are the back reef, the reef crest and the fore reef.

In the back reef zone, the lagoon gradually deepens from the mainland into a channel with sea grass beds before becoming shallow again towards the reef crest. As one approaches the reef crest, there are numerous patch reefs often dominated by brain corals, in anywhere from 2 or 3 feet of water to 30 feet of water. This area of the back reef is very rich in species diversity. It can be thought of as the forest edge bordering on a sea grass savannah.

As one moves further towards the reef crest, the very shallow waters are termed the rubble zone. Much of the debris from the surf and storm, as it pounds the reef crest, is deposited in this area. Because of siltation and high mechanical stresses, this area has few living corals. This is the zone that buffers the lagoon side of the reef from the forces of the open sea.

The fore reef zone withstands severe environmental stresses near the reef crest until it grades downwards towards the depths of the ocean floor. This area, to a depth of approximately 80 ft, represents the highest diversity of the reef. The shallow waters adjacent to the reef crest are a region where the branching corals, predominately elkhorn and staghorn corals, thrive. As one moves further seaward, the waters deepen and huge masses of boulder corals, massive brain corals, lettuce corals and large cactus corals grow. The transition from shallow water to the ocean depths is broken with ledges and gullies.

The southern half of Belize is a plateau, dissected by the relatively low-rising Maya Mountain Range running north and south. The Cockscomb Range, an isolated group of peaks, rises close to the irregular seaward edge of the plateau at its northern extreme. The highest of these peaks is Victoria Peak which rises 3,680 feet in elevation and is the highest measured point in Belize.

VEGETATION

Seasonal broad-leaf forest covers a least ninety percent of the country. On the limestone soils of the north, the forest is deciduous; the sapodilla (Achras sapota) which when tapped like a rubber tree gives a white resinous latex called chicle, is the basis for chewing gum. You can find this tree, as well as many others in jungle around Monkey River.   The ancient Mayan people use many of the plentiful trees and vegetation for medicinal purposes.   Grass savannas with scattered oaks, pines and palmetto palms (Paurotis- wright ii) are characteristic of the southern coast and north-central regions. Mangroves fringe the coast’s river inlets and cover many of the cays.

Flaming red blossoms of the slender flamboyant trees (Delonix regia); thickly flowered hibiscus of every color; oleanders; pink, orange and purple bougainvillea; red blooming royal poincianas; and the frangipani (plumarial), whose pink-flowered limbs emit a pungent perfume, all give a fragrant and colorful accent to Belize’s tree-lined roads and vine-choked jungles. Great purple bunches of orchids grow around the wide-spread roots of “bullet” trees, and “cotton” trees, their crowns spreading like open parachutes. There are some 240 species of wild orchids alone, growing in Belize!