“If the world had any ends, Belize would certainly be one of them.”
Aldous Huxley, English novelist
Nestled along the eastern coast of Central America is Mother Nature’s best kept secret – a wondrous place called Belize. It is bounded on the north by Mexico, on the west and south by Guatemala and the iridescent Caribbean washes its 174 mile coastline to the east. Its colorful history weaves tails of Mayans, pirates, logging, naval battles, slavery, refugees and peace. This tortuous past has resulted in the country’s rich cultural heritage and the use of the English language. The country’s bountiful lands, which ounce made the Mayan civilization flourish, are now your springboard to countless adventures. Get away from it all and immerse yourself in this little slice of paradise.
Although the country only covers 8,900 square miles, its geography is incredibly diverse. Probably the most striking natural feature, clearly visible from the air, is the seemingly endless barrier reef. At 185 miles long, it is the second largest in the world. Dotting the Caribbean waters along the coastline are over 200 islands, called “cayes”. As you head southwest into the interior of Belize, the land begins to rise dramatically into the enchanting Maya Mountains, blanketed by lush tropical forests and the only pine forest in Central America. The north and central parts of Belize consists of open plains and savannas.
The country enjoys a subtropical climate, cooled by steady Trade Winds from the Caribbean Sea. The sky is clear and the sun is warm practically all year round. The average annual temperature is 27˚ Celsius with summer rarely exceeding 36˚ and winters rarely falling below 16˚ Inland along the Maya Mountains it is generally cooler because of the altitude. The average annual humidity is 85% which is nicely balanced by the cool Caribbean breezes that make for perfect tropical weather. The rainy season is between July and August with the southern region receiving the highest amount of rain. The dry season is between February and May.
The population of approximately 270,000 is a melting pot of cultures. The largest group (44%) is the Mestizos, a mix of Maya and Spanish settlers. The second largest group (40%) is the Creoles, a mix of British settlers and African slaves. The Mayas (11%) are divided into 3 distinct groups: Yucatecan, Mopan and Kekchi. The Garifuna (7%), are a mix of escaped African slaves and Caribbean Indians. Other groups that have immigrated into the country forming prominent communities are the Chinese, East Indians, Lebanese and Mennonites. Add to this mix many Americans and Europeans who now call Belize home and the result is a people of storybook character that are as warm and welcoming as the year-round tropical weather.
The country’s rich cultural heritage has produced an array of colorful languages. The official language is English, on which the educational and legal systems are based. All of the different ethnic groups preserve their native languages. The Garifuna, for example, speak a rhythmic Africanized language. The Mennonites have their unique archaic German. The Maya have preserved the language of their ancestors, although they have lost their writing system. The Mestizos speak Spanish, a result of their Spanish heritage. The Creole language provides the bond for this diverse linguistic landscape, the most common language spoken throughout the country. Mistakenly referred to as an English dialect, it is actually a full-blown language with grammatical rules and a fruity turn of phrase.
Belize gained its independence from England on September 21, 1981. From its British roots, Belize inherited the Westminster parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister (equivalent to the president) and the Cabinet make up the executive branch. The House of Representatives and Senate make up the legislative branch. Each of the towns has a locally elected town board, except Belize City which has a city council. Belize is a member of the British Commonwealth, United Nations, Organization of American States as well as the Caribbean Commonwealth. The two strongest political parties are the PUP (People’s United Party) and the UDP (United Democratic Party). Politics plays an intricate role in the lives of most Belizeans.
Traditionally based on logging, the country’s economy is currently supported by agricultural exports that account for about 30% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – $1.28 Billion US Dollars. These products include sugar cane, citrus fruits and bananas. Timber is still a major export, although it is now pine and cedar rather than the mahogany which ounce formed the base of the economy during Belize’s settlement days. Tourism now provides the second-largest contribution to the economy, nearly 20% of the GDP. There is a light manufacturing industry, accounting for 12% of the GDP, which includes clothing, textiles, plywood, rum and furniture. The country’s main trading partners include the USA, Mexico, United Kingdom and Canada.
Belizeans are proud of their history and cultural heritage. The red, white and blue flag is a symbol of the unity of the nation. Its coat of arms features the national motto: Sub Umbra Florero, latin for “Under the Shade I Flourish”. The “Shade” that is being referred to is that of the national tree, Mahogany. This embodies an important aspect of Belize’s history, as the mahogany industry formed the basis of the economy during the 18th and 19th century. The Black Orchid is the national flower. The Keel Billed Toucan is the national bird, noted for its brightly colored feathers. The Tapir, also called Mountain Cow, is the national animal and the largest land mammal of the American tropics.