Belize (formerly British Honduras), is a country in Central America. Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Although Kriol and Spanish are spoken among the population, Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the official language. It is bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the south and west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
It is a small country, comprised of a mere 8,867 square miles (22,960 km²) of territory, with a population of a little over 350,000 people. The population density is the lowest in the Central American region and one of the lowest in the world. Belize is culturally unique among Central American nations. It is the only nation in Central America with a British-colonial heritage, and is the only constituent nation of the Commonwealth of Nations in its region. Culturally, Belize considers itself to be Central American but keeps ties to the Caribbean Islands.
The origin of the name Belize is unclear, but one idea is that the name is from the Maya word belix, meaning “muddy water”, applied to the Belize River. However Belize came upon its name, it is now widely known as Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret, and is a major tourism magnet, with a magnificent reef system, lush flora and amazing fauna, and friendly people.
BELIZE – Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret
With one foot planted in the Central American jungles and the other dipped in the Caribbean Sea, Belize blends the best of both worlds. Offshore, kayakers glide from one sandy, palm-dotted islet to another, while snorkelers swim through translucent seas, gazing at a kaleidoscope of coral, fish, dolphins and turtles. Inland, explorers investigate ruins of ancient civilizations, and birders aim their binoculars at some 570 species. Between national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and marine reserves, more than 40% of the country’s area is protected in one form or another, creating a haven for countless creatures of land, sea and sky.
Belize attracts more than 850,000 annual visitors eager to explore the mysteries of Maya sites such as Altun Ha or Lamanai, spot a toucan in the bird-watcher’s paradise that is Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, snorkel the reef off Caye Caulker or the Northern Cayes, and otherwise partake of paradise. Tourism is the country’s top source of employment and investment. The irony is that it is also the country’s biggest environmental threat.
Belize does not yet have the infrastructure to support the massive numbers of tourists that arrive, especially by way of cruise ships. It does not have the resources to truly protect its sanctuaries and reserves and their inhabitants. And it does not have the political will to stop the rampant coastal development, which would mean turning down millions in investment dollars. According to sources such as Tropical Conservation Science, as much as 80% of coastal land has already been sold to foreign interests with the intention of building condos and resorts. Fortunately, Belizeans are environmentally aware and indefatigably active. Thanks to a progressive populace, Belize offers myriad ways for travelers to tread lightly, from beach resorts powered by solar energy to jungle lodges built from reclaimed hardwoods. Licensed guides not only direct, but also educate their clients – about the fragility of the reef, the medicinal uses of flora and the threats to the jaguar’s habitat.
It’s never easy to maintain the delicate balance between preserving natural resources and cashing in on economic opportunity. But most Belizeans are proud of their natural heritage and they recognize that the goals of environmental conservation and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive. This is the enlightened approach that has earned Belize its reputation as a paradigm of ecotourism.
Sub Umbra Florero reads the motto on the Belizean flag. It refers to the mighty mahogany tree, and it means ‘Under the shade, I flourish.’ The mahogany may not be as prevalent as it once was, but with its loss has come an understanding of its value. Belizeans recognize that their country’s greatest asset must be respected and protected, and that tourists have an important role to play.
It’s no wonder that Belizeans extend such a warm welcome to travelers. These easy-going people are eager to share – the staggering scenery, the bountiful biodiversity, all that exists in the shade of the mahogany tree.