The term “eco-tourism” is thrown around just as often as “white-sandy beach” and “crystal-clear water.” While admirable, destinations seldom live up to either. But every once in a while, a visit exceeds all three—encompassing a diversity of natural resources deserving of the term. Perhaps a rarity, but Belize’s aquatic and terrestrial palette borders on overwhelming. Archeological reserves, national parks, marine reserves, natural monuments, and forest reserves all combine to be an astonishing backdrop for an intoxicating raft of culture and history. The only caveat? Belize is unlikely to ever be fully experienced in a single visit. If you’re looking for your 2021 bucket list travel destination, then you’re bound to fall in love with Belize’s coral reefs, waterfalls, ancient ruins and more.
Clear-As-Gin Caribbean Waters
Perched at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula and facing the Caribbean Sea to the east, Belize is a bite-sized beauty in the Western Caribbean. While simultaneously being the only English-speaking nation in Central America, the nation pulls on both its strengths of ridge to reef: ancient ruins hidden amidst lush jungle interiors and a UNESCO-attested barrier reef. After all, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS) is perhaps the country’s most remarkable geographical feature and its many cayes that dot between the reef and mainland.
“Going off the beaten path in Belize also means traversing it’s three coral atolls, underwater canyons, dive walls, and reef spurs.”
Endowed with three of the Western Hemisphere’s four total atolls and the second largest continuous coral reef in the world, diving offshore Belize is a brilliant stand-alone phenomenon. After being dubbed “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” by Charles Darwin himself in 1842, Belize does not shy away from its claim to fame. Although with roughly 100 coral species, 500 species of fish and much more, there’s plenty to be discovered in its 370 square miles; intrigue yourself for hours on end with the Belize Barrier Reef—best explored on tank. Find a marine reserve to explore with APAMO Belize’s Membership of nine marine protected areas.
The region of Belize has been inhabited for thousands of years. However, those that left the most indelible mark have been the Maya. This fascinating culture is thought to have arisen about 1000 B.C. and gradually increased its sophistication and architectural grandeur over the next 2,000 years. As a people with a firm grasp of mathematics and astronomy, the Maya created a complex calendar and a high level of artistic expression. By A.D. 900, several main cities in what we know as Belize held as many as 2 million Maya, who had created some of the most spectacular monuments and infrastructures in the world. Although no one can directly pinpoint the cause of decline, the great civilization dispersed during the next 500 or so years.
Today, Belize has a stunning variety of Maya archaeological sites around the country; excavation from the soil and dense tropical growth continues, even now. Take Caracol for example, Belize’s largest Maya archaeological site. Noted not only for its size during the Maya Classic era (A.D. 250-950), but also for its prowess in war; this includes an AD 562 defeat of Tikal (Guatemala) and a subsequent conquest of Naranjo (Guatemala) in AD 631. This is one Maya Site not to miss—be sure to include refreshing dips in one of the nearby waterfalls of Mountain Pine Ridge. Experience the history for yourself by staying at La Milpa Lodge; the lodge is nestled deep in the forests of northwestern Belize, just three miles away from the third largest archaeological site in Belize.
When Columbus finally sailed along the Central American coast, it wasn’t a grand civilization that captivated him. Rather, it was by a beautiful bay that curved along what we know now as Southern Belize. He named this coast the Bay of Honduras; the European settlers that would come later became known as “Baymen.” The first of these settlers was a group of shipwrecked British sailors in 1638, but pirates and loggers added to the mix. The next 150 years in Belize bound conflicts with Indians and nearby Spanish settlements.
Nature has blessed thee with wealth untold, O’er mountains and valleys where prairies roll;
Our fathers, the Baymen, valiant and bold, Drove back the invader, this heritage bold!
Excerpt, lyrics to the National Anthem of Belize
No history of this region is complete without at least one notable battle between the Spanish and British. In 1798, the British drove back Spain in the battle of St. George Caye. Today, Belizeans celebrate this victory annually on September 10. In 1840, the region formally became known as the Colony of British Honduras. By 1964, self-government came into effect and in 1973 the territory’s name officially changed from British Honduras to Belize. Full independence eventually came in 1981. Although, a long-held grudge (apparently dating from that 1798 loss to the British) kept neighboring Guatemala from recognizing Belize until 1992.
Today, tourism is the mainstay of the economy in Belize, accounting for over 40% of total GDP. As awareness grows of its environmental riches, the future looks very bright indeed for this land of Maya heritage. As a beguiling beauty, bound yourself for Belize.