Did You Say Belize?


Author : Denis Lyonnais

Do you know Belize ? No? You’re not alone… This country, as big as the Gaspé Peninsula, has always been under the tourist radar, overtaken by Costa Rica, prized by nature lovers, or Mexico with its inviting beaches.

Sustainable Tourism

Is Belize a well-kept secret? Surely…except for scuba diving enthusiasts who have found an aquatic paradise in the second largest coral reef in the world after Australia! This 380 km long reef contains hundreds of small, sparsely populated paradise islands that offer unforgettable moments to sports enthusiasts or travelers looking for a break. For the vacationer who wishes to combine diving, fishing and outings without any problem, Ambergris Caye and particularly San Pedro is the place to be. It is the mecca of mass tourism with its souvenir stores and street vendors in a beautiful environment.

On the other hand, there is Caye Caulker, also located in the middle of the coral reef. When we disembarked from the shuttle that brought us to the island, a sign clearly indicates what to expect: No shirt, no shoes… no problem. This tiny island (8km long by…1km wide!) located only 30 minutes by boat from Belize city has always served as a staging port for fishermen and builders of small fishing boats. These fishermen were among the first to found a fishing cooperative in Central America, which allowed them to obtain a reasonable price for their product. In the early 1960’s, the island was “rediscovered” by hippie communities who found it a perfect place to settle down, adding to the island’s sense of peace and serenity. Cayer Caulker breathes tropical paradise. Here, no cars, flashy hotels or noisy speed boats. The main street is made of sand, you can ride a bike or a golf cart and you can stroll slowly among the fruit and vegetable stalls, the friendly cafes and the small restaurants that offer their grilled seafood in front of you.

But Belize is not only a coral reef…

Nestled between Mexico and Guatemala, this small country covered by a lush tropical forest was an ideal hideout for pirates before the British colonized it and named it British Honduras until its independence in 1981. The result? The Mayans make up 11% of the population and are concentrated in the Toledo region near the Guatemalan border. To come into contact with these communities is to experience history first hand.

The Mayans make up 11% of the population and are concentrated in the Toledo region near the Guatemalan border.

To come into contact with these communities is to experience history first hand. The numerous Mayan ruins found throughout the country are a testament to the greatness of this civilization. The city of Punta Gorda is the base camp to visit this region composed of more than thirty Mayan villages. However, making reservations in these accommodations is not easy and it is best to contact in advance the Toledo Ecotourism Association or, better yet, Village Monde to obtain all the necessary information. The villages of Big Falls, Indian Creek and Golden Stream, for example, offer opportunities to live in Mayan communities and share their way of life while being introduced to traditional cuisine…and chocolate.” One cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk a whole day without eating” proclaimed Cortez to Charles V upon his return to Spain in 1528. In doing so, chocolate made its appearance in the ancient continent after being a major cultural element of the Maya for over 1500 years! Drinking a typical chocolate drink with vanilla, corn flour, honey and cinnamon is a pleasure!

The Mayan remains in Belize are numerous and many are very well preserved. There is, of course, the magnificent Altun Ha site, easily accessible from Belize city but very crowded in high season. Xunantunich (pronounced: shoo-nan-too-nik), located near the friendly town of San Ignacio (21,000 inhabitants), is one of the most impressive sites in Belize. Climbing its imposing 50 meter pyramid offers a spectacular view of the entire site and the surrounding rainforest.

The Table Rock Jungle Lodge, located only 20 minutes from San Ignacio, will complete this superb stop in this region. Running almost exclusively on solar energy, this lodge is self-sufficient in organic fruits and vegetables and is very involved in its community. Ask Abe Guiterrez of Savannah Taxi to drive you there from San Ignacio. He is also the best guide in the area! However, it is Caracol that remains the most important site in Belize. Located near the Guatemalan border, this imposing city was home to nearly 150,000 people at its peak, more than twice the current population of Belize city! But its access is rather difficult. Many rental agencies will even refuse to rent a vehicle due to road conditions and security concerns. Indeed, several robberies have been reported in recent years.  It is therefore strongly recommended to visit this site in a group and accompanied by a guide.

Finally, there is the Garifuna community concentrated mainly in the center of the country, a mixture of escaped slaves and indigenous people who have managed to preserve their language, music and culture. It is not surprising that this community has been classified as a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Their feast day, November 19, is celebrated throughout the country, especially in Dangriga and Hopkins. Many activities are scheduled, including a parade that showcases the costumes, traditional Jankunu dances and music largely inspired by African rhythm.

For nature lovers, Belize offers interesting perspectives. Crooked Tree (800 inhabitants), located 50 km from Belize City, is undoubtedly the best base camp for observing the 270 species of birds listed in this sanctuary, including the Jabiku, one of the largest birds in America with a wingspan of up to 2.6 m!

There is also the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS)…which is not quite a sanctuary and does not house baboons. Explanation.

CBS is the result of an association of more than 200 villagers in 7 villages who decided to help a population of monkeys in danger of extinction by establishing a protected territory of about 20 square miles, with the collaboration of the Audubon Belize Society. It was so successful that the monkey population grew to the point where it was no longer considered endangered. Entirely managed by the women of the 7 villages involved, the CBS offers a very interesting interpretation center as well as the possibility to walk through the jungle and see these famous monkeys up close. Attention: essential anti-mosquito cream! To complete this adventure, why not sleep at one of the many villagers who offer lodging? There is no better way to immerse yourself in the culture of this friendly Creole community while providing financial support to this project, perfect example of harmony between the villagers and their environment.

And the “baboons” in all this? No doubt a Belizean whim! In fact, we are talking about the Yucatan black howler monkey which is found almost exclusively in Belize among the 9 species of howler monkeys. It is also one of the biggest. It is necessary to see it and especially to hear it… the roar of the male at dawn, which approaches 130 decibels, is an amazing or even terrifying experience for the uninformed person.

When is the best time to go? From mid-December to April is the dry season and therefore the high tourist season with generally higher costs everywhere. The sun is persistent and invites us to dive or to laze along the coast. From May to October, it is the rainy season, not very favorable to outdoor activities… My favorite time? November. The sun is back, the prices are reasonable and it is still the low tourist season. We can therefore visit the most popular sites in all tranquility. It is not necessary to book in advance, which can leave room for improvisation if you feel like it…except for Dangriga and Hopkins during the Garifuna celebrations in mid-November. Suggestion if you want to go in November: book in advance (at least one month) for the Garifuna celebrations and let your audacity and taste of the moment guide you for the rest. The country is yours! The Lebeha Beach Cabana in Hopkins is the place to be for Garifuna celebrations. Incomes from the cabana rentals support the Lebeha Drumming Center, a Garifuna drumming school founded by Dorothy Pettersen, the owner of the accommodation.

Belize is a country of contrasts, perfect for the traveler who wishes to experience a beautiful balance between nature, history, water activities and relaxation. It is a country that is easily tamed for those who wish to get off the beaten track, reasonably but safely.

You better Belize it !

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