Belize, The Jewel - in a Nutshell

  • Belize has a diverse society which reflects its rich history. It is the only Central American country where English is the official language. This is because it's the only one with British colonial heritage. It became British Honduras after the British saw off the Spanish claim at the Battle of St. George's Caye. Belize eventually became independent in 1981, but the British monarch is still Head of State and it is still a member of the Commonwealth.
  • Belize's main attraction is the second largest barrier reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef, beloved of Jacques Cousteau. It stretches around 700 miles, up to Mexico and south to the Honduran Bay Islands and is based around 450 cayes (pronounced keys). These small, mainly uninhabited islands stretch out along its eastern shore. Seven of its dive areas hold UNESCO status and perhaps the most famous is the Great Blue Hole, the world’s largest sea sinkhole So, it's an incredibly popular diving destination. There are also jungle landscapes and Mayan ruins and tourism is steadily increasing. As a result, it's known as the 'Jewel in the Heart of the Caribbean Basin'.
  • But Belize also has heavy foreign debt, high unemployment, and huge problems with inequality. Over 40% of the population (Belizeans) currently live in poverty.
  • Belizeans consider it bad luck to swim on Good Friday. 'If you do, you will turn into a fish'.

Belmopan, Capital of Belize

My car arrives safely at Belmopan Airport after navigating more jungle roadways from Tikal in Guatemala. Belmopan is the capital city of Belize. It's a new and relatively unexciting place. The idea of Belmopan was initiated after 75% of the buildings in Belize City were wiped out by a hurricane, in 1961. It was deemed sensible to re-establish national buildings elsewhere. It's the smallest capital city in the continental Americas by population and the third-largest settlement in Belize, behind Belize City and San Ignacio.

Ambergris Caye

From there I’m soon winging out to the largest of the Belize cayes - Ambergris. This popular caye once served as a hideaway for British ships waiting to attacking the Spanish Fleet during the 1600s. This would explain the many shipwrecks in the area.

The main town, San Pedro, is very American. The exchange rate in Belize is pegged at $2 Belizean dollars to every $1 USD and most places in the country will directly accept American currency. San Pedro is packed with people driving golf carts through streets thronging with tourists, dipping in and of out the many restaurants, cafes and bars. Not so long ago, it was a sleepy fishing village, only granted the status of a town in 1984. San Pedro's inhabitants are known as San Pedranos and most of them originally came from Mexico. The town claims that it was the inspiration for Madonna's song La Isla Bonita, which begins with the line "Last night I dreamt of San Pedro.'

My hotel is a very American self-catering apartment too. A couple, of nights there (rather too many loud families with children). Then I’m off to more peaceful climes, via a motor boat taxi.

Matachica Resort

Now I have a cottage (casita) on the beach at Matachica, five miles north of San Pedro. It has a thatched roof and gaily tiled bathroom. Matachica boasts that its one of the top ten resorts in Central America. I even have my own personal hammock hammock, to enjoy the sea views.

This is a blissful end to the trip. Snorkelling trips to tentatively stroke the rays in Sting Ray Alley (they tickle when they waft past) and marvel at the tropical fish. Pressganged into kayaking cautiously out to the local coral by some (fortunately) energetic fellow sunbathers, who don’t mind doing most of the paddling. Eating in the renowned Mambo restaurant - they ferry diners in every day from San Pedro. Lounging in the sun on the whitest of sand. And a massage or two.

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