Belize is a gorgeous country located on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. To the north and northwest of Belize lies Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula while the western and southern border of the country is with Guatemala.
As a former British colony, Belize is distinctly different than its other neighbors in Central America. For more than 150 years, Belize was known as British Honduras, not because it borders present-day Honduras but because the country’s southeast maritime waters are adjacent to the Bay of Honduras.
The mainland of Belize measures approximately 170 miles (280 km) north to south and just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from east to west. The southern border with Guatemala is delimited by the Sarstoon and Moho Rivers. The northern border with Mexico is marked by the Hondo River which flows into Chetumal Bay. Belize’s western border is a perfectly straight line that follows no natural landmarks as it was artificially created by a treaty. Guatemala has an ongoing dispute with Belize about the border, and there is a buffer zone which is administered by the Organization of American States.
The eastern coast of Belize lies along the Caribbean Sea. Just a few miles offshore, Belize has hundreds of atolls and islands, known locally as cayes (pronounced “keys”). These islands form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the largest in the western hemisphere and the second-largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Coral reefs compose just 1% of the ocean’s surface but are home to approximately one-quarter of all marine species, making Belize’s reef one of the most eco-diverse marine habitats on the planet.
There are approximately 450 islands, islets, and atolls located on the reef. The reef under Belize’s jurisdiction measures approximately 270 square miles (690 square km) in size, much of it in the form of protected marine conservation areas. The offshore reef is also home to three atolls, the only coral atolls found outside of the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the pristine nature of the reef and the abundance of marine life, Belize is a mecca for sportfishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sea kayaking, windsurfing, and stand-up paddling.
Much of Belize’s mainland is composed of semi-tropical rainforest and dense jungle. In higher elevations, Belize has large broadleaf forests. Along the eastern seaboard, Belize has flat wetlands and coastal plains that are home to much of Belize’s agricultural product. In the west of the country, Belize is home to the Maya Mountain range that slopes down towards the coast. The highest point in Belize is Doyle’s Delight, part of the Maya Mountain range. Measuring 3,688 feet (1,124 meters) high, it was named for the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Belize is the least densely populated country in Central America, and the total population is just under 400,000 people. Due to the country’s long history, several different cultures can be found in Belize, including the Creole (descendants of enslaved Africans), Mestizos (indigenous people from Mexico who fled wars in the 19th century), the Garifuna (an Afro-Caribbean people), Chinese, East Indians, Mennonites, and even a small community of Americans who fled the Confederacy in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War.
The official language of Belize is English, but much of the population is equally conversant in the local Creole dialect. Spanish is also widely spoken across Belize, particularly near the borders with Mexico and Guatemala. Other languages spoken in Belize include Garifuna, three Mayan dialects, Chinese, Arabic, and Plattdeutsch.
The largest city in Belize is Belize City with a population of around 75,000 people. For centuries, Belize City was the capital, but following a devastating hurricane in the 1960s, a new capital named Belmopan was constructed in the country’s western Cayo District.
History of Belize
Long before the arrival of the Europeans, Belize was the heartland of a vast Maya empire that stretched from El Salvador in the south to what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the north. With an estimated 1-2 million people at its zenith, the ancient Maya built impressive city-states with soaring temples, majestic temples, and vast squares in locations like Lamanai, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, and Caracol.
Historians now categorize the ancient Maya civilization into three periods. The earliest period, running from around 1000 BC to the year 300 in the Common Era is known as the Pre-Classic era. During this time, the Maya built some of their most impressive monuments and impressive irrigation systems that were used to water enormous fields of corn (maize) and other staple crops.
The Classic Period of the Maya civilization ran from around 300 to 900 of the Common Era and is marked by impressive dynasties and additional massive construction at sites like Tikal (now in Guatemala), Caracol, and Xunantunich. The Post-Classic period (AD 1000 to around 1500) saw a rapid decline in Maya civilization, ending with almost all of their impressive cities being abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle. Archeologists are still divided as to the causes for the rapid decline of the Maya but believe a combination of frequent warfare, climate change, and civil unrest are to blame.
On his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sailed down the coast of Belize and claimed the Bay of Honduras (off the southern part of Belize) in 1502. Initially focusing on more lucrative areas for sourcing gold, Spanish forays into the area were brief, and no permanent settlements were built.
The earliest permanent European residents were English sailors who used the offshore reef as a base of operations for buccaneering, piracy, and shipping valuable hardwoods logged from Belize’s coast. The first settlements in what was to become Belize were logging camps along the Bay of Honduras. Today, these pioneers are referred to as “Baymen” and this heritage is reflected on modern Belize’s national flag with a picture of an English logger.
As the English presence became more permanent, numerous skirmishes with the Spanish were a constant source of tension. After a monumental naval battle offshore of St. George’s Caye in 1798, Spain completely relinquished the territory to the British.
Belize rapidly began to grow once it was secure as Britain’s westernmost territory in the region. English settlers intermarried with freed slaves to form the Creole population, the largest ethnic group in modern Belize. Other groups began emigrating to Belize, including the Mestizos from Mexico and the Garifuna from Caribbean islands.
In 1954, voting rights were extended to all adults in the colony, and Britain agreed to a path of full independence for Belize in 1961. In 1973, the colony was renamed from British Honduras to Belize. On September 21, 1981, Belize gained full independence and is now a prosperous country with a democratic parliamentary form of government.
Belize is a relatively small country (only 8,866 square miles, about the size of Massachusetts, USA), with a total population of approximately 321,115. Bordered on the north by Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west and south by Guatemala, it is the only country in the world able to boast that in a single day it’s possible to go from tropical forest to the longest barrier reef (185 miles) in the western hemisphere. The barrier reef is comprised of more than 170 Cayes and Atolls as well as numerous mangrove systems both offshore and along the cost. A tremendous wetlands environment exists here offering homes and refuge to many birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and other marine life. The mainland of Belize combines a great variety of landscapes, terrains and vistas. More than 500 Mayan ruins dot the country. With Caves Branch centrally located just 12 miles south of Belmopan, we are located in close proximity to most of the Mayan sites.
Weather & Climate
Belize enjoys a pleasant subtropical climate. The prevailing breezes from the Caribbean Sea nicely temper the humidity, averaging 85%. With an annual average temperature of 79F, ranging from a low of 60F in winter to 96F in the summer, Belize welcomes you to a land with a practically perfect climate year round. The ocean temperature ranges from 75F to 84F. Belize enters its rainy season at the end of June, and anywhere from light rain showers to heavy storms can be expected through the middle of February. Annual rainfall ranges from a low of 50 inches in the northern sections to a high of 170 inches in the rainforests of the south.
Belize is steeped in Caribbean culture and the lifestyle here is very casual. The Belizean people are a unique cultural combination. Maya, Creole, British, Spanish, Garifuna, and Mennonite, all share the rich lands that make up Belize. These myriad cultural and racial backgrounds have succeeded in maintaining their distinct heritages, while managing to live harmoniously. The influence of all these cultures have made Belize a remarkably integrated society.