Geography and Sightseeing
Belize (formerly British Honduras), is a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth of Nations, located in the Yucatán Peninsula on the east coast of Central America. Belize is bordered to the north by Mexico (250 km), to the west and south by Guatemala (266 km) and to the east by the Caribbean Sea.
The total area of Belize is 22,965 km2. The mainland of Belize is 288 kilometers long and up to 109 kilometers wide. Belize is the smallest country in Central America after El Salvador. The American cities of Miami, Houston and New Orleans are approximately 1200 kilometers.
Coral reefs and more than 200 so-called "cays", consisting of coral, are sandy palm islands. Ambergris Caye is the largest and is 40 km long and up to 7.2 km wide. Off the coast of Belize is the second largest barrier reef in the world (360 kilometers long) and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Only the Great Barrier Reef off Australia is longer. Three of four major atolls in the Western Hemisphere lie off the coast of Belize.
The coastal region and the northern part of the mainland are flat, but the south and the west (Maya Mountains) rise quickly to an average height of 1000 meters. The highest point in Belize is Victoria Peak at 1120 meters. The Maya Mountains cover a total of approximately one third of the total area of Belize.
Belize is intersected by many rivers, most of which originate from the central mountain range, the Maya Mountains. Some rivers can be navigated and are used, among other things, for the transport of wood, e.g. Blue Creek, Rio Hondo, New River, Belize River, Sibun River, Macal River, Rio Grande, Moho River, Tumex River, and Sarston River. The Belize River divides the country into two halves. Swamps and shallow freshwater lagoons surround most of the rivers, especially in the northern coastal region.
The many caves and cave systems are special. They have been mapped and researched since the 1960s. To date, more than 300 have been explored and more than 150 kilometers of underground passages have been mapped, including the Cebada and Petroglyph caves, two of the largest caves in the world. Caves can be found all over the country but mostly in the south and west of Belize. There are also underwater caves off the coast, including the Blue Hole and the Giant Cave, one of the longest underwater caves in the world. All of these caves played an important role in Mayan mythology.
Tropical jungle covers about 45% of the area of Belize.
The capital of Belize is Belmopan with approximately 40,000 inhabitants. Belmopan was founded in 1970 after Belize City was largely destroyed by Hurricane Hattie. Other important cities are Corozal Town, Orange Walk Town, Belize City, San Pedro Town, San Ignacio, Benque Viejo del Carmen, Dangriga and Punta Gorda.
Climate and Weather
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The climate of Belize is subtropical and divided into a rainy season and a dry season. Broadly speaking, the dry season runs from December to May. February, March, April and May are the driest months. During these months, precipitation only falls on an average of five days. The amount of rain can vary greatly from year to year.
The wettest months are June, July and August. The rainy season has a dry period of about six weeks, called the "mauger" season, in August and September. The rainfall varies greatly from north to south. On average there is 1295 mm in the north and 4445 mm in the south. The north has a dry season that starts in September and lasts three to four months, while the south has no more than one month of dry weather. Yet it can also rain heavily during a dry period. In the morning it is usually dry, after which most rain falls in the afternoon and in the evening.
In the swampy coastal area, the temperature ranges from 10°C on the coldest winter days to 35.5°C on the hottest summer days, but the heat is usually tempered by the easterly trade winds. From January to April the wind blows only slightly; in May and June the wind increases to a light breeze and from August to December the wind blows harder. Especially in November and December it can be very windy from the north, causing the temperatures to drop.
The average daily temperature in all of Belize is 26°C. The temperature fluctuations are much greater inland. The average minimum daily temperature in Belize City is 19°C in January and 24°C from May through August. The average maximum daytime temperature in Belize City is 24°C in January and 31°C in the months of May through August. On the offshore cays, the temperature is tempered year-round by the trade winds.
The humidity on the coast is very high all year round at 87%. In November, December and January it is very unpleasant due to the oppressive weather. This is especially true for the region around the capital Belmopan where it is hard to harden during the day during the summer. In the mountainous region around San Ignacio it cools down to about twelve degrees in the evening.
Belize lies west of the route most hurricanes follow, passing just around or past Belize. A good example is Hurricane "Mitch", which almost literally passed Belize in October 1998 and caused little damage. In the last thirty years, Belize has only suffered from four hurricanes. It is almost certain that Belize will be hit by another devastating hurricane. The most likely months for hurricanes are August through October.
Plants and Animals
Photo:Nicolas Perrault II in the public domain
For the botanist, Belize is heaven on earth. Four thousand species of trees, plants and flowers in such a small area is unprecedented. For example, there are about 250 types of orchids and 700 types of trees in Belize. Belize is also one of the few countries with thousands of hectares of virtually untouched jungle. Four different types of forest can be distinguished: pine forests, mixed deciduous forests, Cohune palm forests and riparian forests. Pine forests can be found on sandy, dry soil. Mango, cashew, and coconut palm trees are also found here, often near homes and villages. The mixed deciduous forests occur in the transition area between the sandy soil and the clay soil along the rivers. There are many other species, but not as many as in the Cohune palm groves, which can be found on fertile clay soil with an average rainfall per year. Riparian forests depend on a lot of rainfall and flooding rivers. Here are also about 55 types of trees and hundreds of types of climbing plants, epiphytes, and shrubs.
Campêche wood, mahogany, cedar and spruce wood is almost impossible to find along the rivers due to logging. Striking appearances are also mangrove forest, bamboo, ferns, swamp cypresses and many types of flowers. Orchids and flying ferns are found on the highest branches of the trees. In the south you will find the classic rainforest with mahogany trees, campêche trees, sapote and ceiba.
Some special types.
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The "bull horn" acacia or cock's spur is named after the large thorns along the trunk and branches. This tree has made a curious alliance with an aggressive ant species. The ants use the tree for food and shelter; in return, birds, insects and even people are attacked who move in or near the tree.
The ceiba with its imposing gray trunk is one of the jungle's largest trees. They normally grow to about 30 meters high, but there are also specimens of more than 60 meters. The "tree of life" is also called cotton or kapok tree.
Guanacaste is a member of the mimosa family. For the Maya, the "pich" was a sacred tree. The tree can reach a height of 40 meters and the trunk can reach a diameter of six meters.
The bark of the gumbo limbo tree has been used by the Mayans for centuries to treat rashes. Young trees are used as posts for fences. What is special is that leaves are starting to grow again on those posts.
The carob tree secretes an aromatic resin. The Maya used this for centuries to make incense.
Palms come in a wide variety. King palm, queen palms, roof palms, and coconut palms. The leaves of the roof palms are used to cover the roofs of houses. The coconut palm produces oil, food, drink and protects from the sun.
Pine forests are not as productive and diverse as the deciduous jungles, but lumber and sap from the trees have been important products since the early 20th century. The Caribbean and the ocarpo are the most common pine species in Belize.
The poison tree (Maya: chechem) is so named because of the highly poisonous sap that the tree secretes. Skin contact causes blisters, itching and swelling.
The family tree is known for its yellow luminous flowers. The name comes from the curassow or quam, a large bird that likes the seeds.
The strangler fig tree entwines other trees that are slowly dying. The fig tree eventually remains and has a hollow trunk.
Central America is, of course, known for its oranges, limes and grapefruit. Avocados are everywhere and the papaya is almost a weed. The sapote or mammee used to provide juice that was used for chewing gum. The guaya is a slender tree, mainly found along the coast, and the fruits contain soft, sweet pulp.
The flamboyant is everywhere and in bloom is beautiful to see with orange-red flowers.
Of the approximately 250 species of orchids in Belize, 20% grow on the ground and 80% live on trees. The black orchid is Belize's national flower. It is strictly forbidden to pick orchids.
Among the many types of flowers we mention: croton, pothos, philodendron, white and red ginger, plumeria, hibiscus and bougainvillea.
Nature lovers will also get their money's worth in Belize when it comes to the animal world. Many animal species hardly or no longer occur in Central America or even the world.
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There are more bird species in Belize than in almost any other country in Central America, with more than 500 species. Forests, lagoons, and savannas are home to a wide variety of birds. A random list: herons, ibises, ducks, vultures, ospreys, hawks, falcons, rails, pigeons, cuckoos, swifts, kingfishers, woodpeckers, ant birds, flycatchers, sparrows, swallows, jays, wrens, thrushes, nightingales, vireos, tanagers , cardinals, blackbirds, finches, pelicans, cormorants, two kinds of rock spiders, 21 kinds of hummingbirds, 10 kinds of owls and 9 kinds of parrots.
One of the most impressive birds is the Yellow-billed Toucan, Belize's national bird. The large, colored beak is of course the most striking. They are related to woodpeckers and hornbills.
The acorn woodpecker is best known for storing acorns in hollows in trees. The females also lay their eggs in a common nest. The young linger around the parental nest for a number of years before starting a family of their own.
The largest flying bird in the Americas is the Jabiru stork which can grow up to 5 feet tall and have a wingspan of 2 to 3 feet. Their nest can be up to three meters in diameter. Although rare in the Western Hemisphere, Belize has a healthy nesting colony.
The king vulture is one of the most beautifully colored large birds in Central America. A white body with black wing feathers, an orange neck and beak, purple head, white eyes surrounded by red and an orange-red warty projection just above the beak.
The large frigatebird steals food from other birds, but a little later it can nest alongside the same bird.
Belize's "peacock" is the spotted turkey, named for the eye-like rings on its tail. Like its North American counterpart, these are the only wild turkeys in the world.
The piebald tern is not the only seabird without waterproof feathers, but it never lands on ships or driftwood. It catches its prey by skimming just above the water and, as it were, plucking it out of the water.
The most impressive bird of prey is the harpy eagle.
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The jaguar is the largest feline in the entire American continent and the third largest cat in the world after the lion and tiger. The jaguar hunts, among other things, deer, tapirs, monkeys and birds, but also fish when other prey animals are scarce. Hunting for these animals is now prohibited and the Cocksomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a reserve where the jaguars can (survive) live in peace.
Belize's smallest feline is the margay, rarely seen and living under the protection of the jungle.
The jaguarundi is somewhat larger than the margay and hunts birds and small mammals.
The ocelot hunts both in the trees and on the ground for birds, snakes, monkeys, rabbits and fish.
The cougar or mountain lion hunts deer, rabbits and porcupines both during the day and at night.
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The black howler monkey lives in the rainforest of Belize up to 300 meters high and often near rivers. The population is about 1500 copies. The roar can be heard up to a mile away. They live in groups of up to 10 individuals and a group consists of one male and the rest of females and young.
The spider monkey is somewhat smaller than the howler monkey and lives in groups of twelve or more individuals. They feed on leaves, fruits and flowers. Due to disease and loss of habitat, they are not as common as the howler monkey.
A relative of the rabbit is the agouti or "Indian rabbit" who lives in the same area as the paca or "gibnut", a fast brown rodent about the size of a rabbit. The agouti lives during the day while the paca is nocturnal.
The anteater or "tamandua" terrorizes termite mounds and ant nests. With its long sticky tongue it gulps down the ants and termites, as it were. The anteater lives both on the ground and in trees.
The coati belongs to the raccoon family and has a long, ringed tail, a mask on its face, and a long snout. It climbs trees and finds insects and other small animals, but also eats fruit.
The Honduran white bat is almost imperceptible in the jungle of Central America. Like most bats, they look for fruit at night. During the day they sleep under the large leaves of the heliconia and thus protect themselves from the hot sun and against enemies.
There are two types of peccary in Belize, the frilled peccary and the white-lipped peccary. This pig-like species lives in desert areas as well as in forests and jungles. They grow up to three feet long and the white-lipped peccary can be a dangerous opponent with its tusks.
Belize's national animal is the South American Baird's tapir native to southern Mexico to southern Brazil. These herbivores live along rivers and their greatest animal enemy is the jaguar.
Belize has a wide variety of lizards, from the small gecko to the chameleon-like black anole, a salamander species. The comb lizard is brown with dark stripes on the side and moves very quickly in case of danger. The common iguana can reach a length of nearly three feet and another species found in Belize can grow up to six feet. The females can lay more than 100 eggs at a time.
Reptiles and Amphibians
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Belize has 51 snake species, nine of which are poisonous. The other species are completely harmless. The common boa constrictor or "wowla" prefers to hunt birds, lizards and small mammals at night both in trees and on the ground. This choke snake never grows longer than two meters and is harmless to humans. Coral snakes are only found in the New World, mostly in Central and South America and there are about 50 species. The coral snakes in Belize grow up to 75 cm in length but can be very poisonous. The poisonous species can be recognized by the red-yellow-black-yellow-red bands across its body. The fer-de-lance or lance point snake is a very aggressive venomous snake and belongs to the same family as the cascabel. It can grow to about 2.5 meters in length and is found everywhere.
The Central American river turtle or "hicatee" is hunted for its meat and its numbers are rapidly diminishing. Food consists of fruits, grasses and other vegetarian foods. Belize has two crocodile species, the American crocodile (up to six meters long) and the Morelet's crocodile (up to 2.5 meters long). Known in Africa as man-eaters, the species in Belize are quite harmless. Both species are protected by international laws.
The green red-eyed tree frog is special. The "marine" toad is the largest species in the entire American continent.
Spiders and insects
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As in any tropical jungle, there are tens of thousands of insects and arachnids in Belize. Some are annoying, mosquitoes and gnats, some are dangerous, scorpions, black widow and tarantulas, others can bite painfully like red ants. Beautiful to see are butterflies and moths.
The horse hornet lays its eggs on mosquitoes, which they transfer back to humans. Not dangerous, but a strange sight when the animal crawls out of the body of its host. Of the 90,000 species of butterflies and moths, many are found in Belize. The most beautiful is the blue morpho and the famous monarch butterfly visits Belize on its wintering trip from Florida to the Central American mountains and Mexican highlands.
The firefly actually has a completely wrong name; it is not a fly and certainly has no fire. It is a beetle whose abdomen starts to glow due to a certain chemical reaction. It has almost no enemies because it doesn't taste so good. The parasol ants use the leaves they transport as "fertilizer" for a particular type of mushroom that they use as food. A nest can be tens of meters in diameter and more than three meters into the depth.
Termites make termite mounds made of wood, mud and body secretions. Wood is the primary food.
Scorpions can grow to about 12 cm in length and have decent claws. The tail is dangerous because it can even fatally injure people.
The tarantula is a large spider that can bite viciously but is not deadly. The spider can reach six inches in diameter and looks dangerous. What is special is that they can go without food and water for a very long time.
Fish and marine mammals
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The underwater life off the coast of Belize is not as spectacular as that around the Caribbean islands, but there is still plenty to enjoy.
The swampy areas and bays at the mouths of the rivers where fresh and salt water is mixed are called estuaries. Many shellfish and crustaceans, crabs and shrimps live here. Crocodiles, dolphins and (manatees) can also be seen here regularly. Rays, sharks and tarpons hunt other fish here.
There are four types of mangrove along the coast of Belize. The red and black mangroves are the most famous. White mangrove grows a bit more inland along the rivers. Mangrove is a breeding ground for many animal species. In addition to a wide variety of shellfish, barnacles, crabs, jellyfish, snails and sponges. Various types of bony fish and tarpons swim around here in search of the richly available food. The branches of the mangrove are used by many birds to rest and nest, including blackbirds, herons, kingfishers, pelicans and pink spoonbills.
Off the coast, various types of sea grass are found underwater, which is also home to many marine animals. Tortoise grass has wide leaves and can be found up to a depth of 20 meters. The narrower manata grass can be found up to a depth of twelve meters. Animals that occur here include barnacles, shellfish, crabs, anemones, seahorses, sponges, starfish, grunts, loaches, rays and wrasses. Sea turtles and manatees feast on the plants here.
Some special types
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The angelfish is a beautiful discus-shaped fish. The colors vary from neon blue and yellow to black with yellow spots. They can be found both inside and outside the barrier reef.
The barracuda is an almost two meter long predatory fish, which is however harmless to humans. Divers can even get close to him.
The blue-striped grouse swims around in schools and prefers shady places. They eat shellfish and make a grunting sound with their molars, which gives them their name.
Sea bass can grow over a meter in length, some species as much as 2.5 meters and weigh hundreds of kilograms. Sea bass species are mainly found around the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and around the atolls.
The green moor eel can grow up to two meters long. It hides in cracks and crevices in the coral during the day and emerges at night to forage for food.
The parrotfish species' beak resembles that of the true parrot and is suitable for eating coral polyps. The color and color patterns of the fish change with age.
Rays "fly" as it were through the sea water. Stingrays, sea devils and devil rays are found in the waters of Belize. The first two types have poisonous spines. They look for their food at the bottom of the sea.
The manatee or sea cow is a large sized marine mammal. They can grow up to four feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds. Belize has one of the largest populations in the world and it is believed that there are only about 2000 specimens left worldwide.
Three species of sea turtle are found in the waters of Belize: the green sea turtle, the hawksbill turtle and the fathead sea turtle. The hawksbill turtle is fully protected, the other species are still on the menus of restaurants.
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Unlike the Aztecs or the Incas, the Maya civilization was ruled by a single ruler. The Maya Empire was divided into rival cities, much like the Greek city-states. But otherwise the whole area of the Maya was one in terms of religion, technology, language and trade.
The Maya believed that everything had its place in the cosmic order and that everything had some form of soul and life force within it. Time, stars, stones, trees and natural phenomena were, according to the Maya, alive and had divine powers.
They believed they lived in the Middle World, below the 13 levels of the Upper World and above the nine levels of the Lower World or Xibalba. They also believed in life after death. The ruler, priests, sacrificial persons, suicides, war victims and stillborn children went straight to paradise. A great number of gods had the same powers as some things and phenomena, but took different forms: they appeared as specific dates, days, colors and often had a good side and a bad side.
Rituals and (human) sacrifices assured the Maya of health and food. A complex process of sacrifices, fasting, feasts and incense rituals was repeated annually and also used to evoke rain and success in hunting, fishing and warfare. The most powerful offering was blood, especially that of the king who was considered some kind of god. During rituals to summon the ancestors or other powers, special dishes were made such as "balche", a mix of fermented honey and bark from the balche tree. Cigars were smoked as well as hallucinogenic agents such as mushrooms, mescaline and water lilies. Frankincense has always been used for ceremonies, usually made of copal, a type of resin, and in the form of small cakes.
The dates of the ceremonies were fixed through the Mayan calendar, which was based on astronomical observations. Their counting system was based on the number 20 and they used two calendars, one for 260 days and one for 365 days, which coincided every 52 years. The Maya also believed that history repeated itself every 20 years.
During the period of ca.800 BC. to 250 AD. the Maya developed systems of agricultural terraces, fields and irrigation channels. The main food for the Maya was corn, with of course its own god, Yum Kaax. The Mayan farmers also made sure that the soil could not be depleted by long-term monoculture. The peak of the Mayan civilization was the Classic Period of 250 BC. to 900 AD. when trade and art flourished. Large cities and pyramids, temples and palaces were built.
At one point, however, the number of human sacrifices increased dramatically, perhaps due to the diminishing of natural resources that required the gods to supply extra blood. Sacrificial persons were brought in from other cities, so that one war followed another. In the period 900-1200 the Mayan civilization disappeared quickly and mysteriously and most of the major cities were abandoned. The how and why is still controversial and ranges from earthquakes, famines and diseases or a combination of these. However, some towns remained intact and inhabited until the arrival of the Spanish.
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In the 17th century, the Spanish ruled all of Central America. However, the area of present-day Belize had hardly been discovered. Some of the reasons for this were the elongated coral reef off the coast of Belize, dangerous to the ships; no gold and silver and only swamps and mosquito-infested jungles; moreover, the local population was very hostile.
The first contact with a number of Spanish castaways dates back to 1511 in Northern Belize, who, however, were killed or enslaved. The Spaniards then focused on present-day Mexico and Guatemala. This did mean that Maya from those areas fled to Belize to stay out of the hands of the cruel Spaniards. The Mayans who survived the massacres awaited slavery, families falling apart and forced relocations. No wonder, then, that efforts by Franciscan monks to convert the Maya in the early 17th century led to rebellion and uprisings; churches were destroyed and set on fire.
The British also appeared on the scene, looking for campêche wood (blue wood) in the Bay of Campêche. They had a much better relationship with the Maya because they had no interest in taxing and had no urge to convert. However, it didn't take long before a very different kind of British entrepreneur appeared on the scene: pirates who found a beautiful hiding place in the reefs in Belize. The booty was transported from there to the Bahamas, Bermuda or Jamaica. One of these pirates was Captain Peter Wallace, who came ashore in 1634 where Belize City is now located. He is also said to have given the name Belize to the country.
In 1670 an anti-piracy treaty was signed between England and Spain. The pirates now realized that the executioner was waiting for them, whoever would capture them. Many now engaged in logging and timber trade and settled at the mouth of the Belize River. The settlement was called "Bay settlement" and the residents "Baymen".
The discovery of the highly sought-after mahogany wood drastically changed the situation. They needed a lot of workers and they used black slaves from Jamaica. Soon, only one in ten residents was white. Slavery in Belize was not nearly as structured as it was on the large plantations in the United States. The slaves each had their own tent, a machete or an ax and some even had muskets and pistols. The use of the whip was also unknown. Furthermore, a working week of five days and they could buy back their freedom. Despite this, slaves had few rights and abuse was also common in Belize.
In the meantime, the Spaniards tried to gain control of the entire area, but kept coming into conflict with the British and the native population, the Maya. Treaties were concluded and then denounced. However, the British continued tirelessly cutting down forests. In 1763, Spain "officially" allowed the British to cut wood. They were also allowed to build roads for the transport of the wood along the borders in force at the time. Until the beginning of the 20th century, however, only "roads" were built towards rivers that transported the wood. So no roads were built at all as agreed, leaving boundaries blurred and rural people living in uncertainty on both sides of the border. This led the Spanish-focused Guatemalans to believe that Belize had failed to honor the 1763 Agreement, and therefore it was their country. This border dispute would last until 1988 and it is still not officially settled.
The conflict between the Spaniards and the British meanwhile continued. Not even the Peace of Paris could resolve this conflict. The Spanish continued to make claims to Belize but never attempted to colonize the country. The "baymen" were sporadically attacked and driven out but they kept coming back. In 1798 the decisive battle of Saint George's Caye followed and the Spanish were defeated on September 10 with the help of a West Indian regiment.
As a result, Belize would be ruled by the British crown until independence in 1981. Slavery was officially abolished in 1807 but continued for some time in Belize. The slaves were also allowed to officially own land but had to pay for it. Of course they could not, so the land simply remained in the possession of the powerful landowners. In essence, slavery continued to exist for a long time. In 1840, a bloody Mayan uprising on the Yucatán Peninsula called the "Caste War" ensued. White men, women and children were widely raped and murdered. When the Maya started losing, the Spanish revenge was sweet. Many Maya were killed and the rest were sold into slavery to Cuba. Others left their villages and settled in the jungle, sometimes for decades. Between 1846 and 1850, the population of the Yucatán Peninsula had been reduced from 500,000 to 300,000. Guerilla warfare ensued, and Quintana Roo in particular was a dangerous no man's land until it was added to Mexico in 1974.
Among the runaway Mayans, the religious movement of the "speaking" cross, a pro-Columbian oracle that represented the gods of the four major cardinal directions, blossomed again. Three survivors of the "Caste War", a priest, a master spy and a ventriloquist, were well aware that the population had a strong desire for "divine" leadership. Because of their leadership and the "advice" of the speaking cross, the people scattered throughout the area came together and organized.
Between 1847 and 1850 thousands of Mayas, Mestizos and Mexicans settled in Belize and introduced, among other things, the Latin culture, Catholicism and new agricultural methods. Belize became British Honduras became an official crown colony of Great Britain in 1871, and ruled by the Governor of Jamaica. In 1884 all ties with Jamaica were broken and British Honduras was given its own governor. But problems of various kinds plagued the country. Mahogany workers rebelled in 1894 as well as Belizean soldiers returning from World War I and found that their reward was just a "kick after with a smile". Many consider the rebellion of the military in 1919 as the beginning of national politics in Belize. In 1931 Belize was hit by a severe hurricane; Approximately 15% of Belize City's population did not survive.
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In the 1950s, the nationalist fire grew, especially after a serious devaluation of the British-Honduran dollar. It was also during this time that the People's United Party (PUP) emerged, whose leader George C. Price, would dominate politics for 34 years. In 1954, the colonial government passed a new, more liberal constitution, which guaranteed that an elected majority would rule, although ultimate power still rested with the governor. The PUP won election after election, and Price became the first British-Honduran prime minister in 1961.
That same year, Belize City was hit by another hurricane, and it was decided to build a new capital, Belmopan. Price also immediately had a new flag, national anthem and even a national prayer made. Meanwhile, Guatemala became increasingly fierce in claiming "Belice," as the Guatemalans called Belize. After British pledges of full self-rule for Belize, Guatemala broke all diplomatic relations and threatened war. Negotiations stalled and in 1972 Guatemalan troops rallied along the border with Belize. Britain sent troops and a fleet, and British Harrier planes were even deployed to protect Belize. A number of Central American countries led by Jamaica also came to the rescue of Belize. And the United Nations also supported Belize through an adopted resolution in 1980. Guatemala then abstained and had to give up the fight.
The name British Honduras was changed to Belize on June 1, 1973. On September 21, 1981, Belize became completely independent. However, until 1994, British troops and aircraft remained present at the request of the Belizeans. In 1984, Manuel Esquivel of the United Democratic Party (UDP) had a surprising election win. In 1989, Esquivel lost the election despite nearly five years of economic growth. George C. Price returned to the plush with a "Belize First" campaign. In 1993 the UDP won again from Esquivel and in August 1998 the election battle was again won by an overwhelming majority by the PUP led by Said Wilbert Musa with 26 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives. In 1991 Belize was finally admitted to the Organization of American States (OAS). In November 1992, Guatemala's parliament recognized Belize's independence after 130 years of conflict. Recent problems have been the drug trade and the friction between the Spanish-speaking immigrants and the indigenous black Creole population. In November 1999, Belize was removed from the US blacklist of drug states. The current Prime Minister Said Musa comes from the People's United Party and has been in office since 1998. The last elections, held in March 2003, won Prime Minister Musa's party again. His party has 22 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives; the other 7 seats are for the UDP. Prime Minister Musa's PUP has lost 3 seats compared to the previous elections. Prime Minister Musa is expected to complete the reign until the new elections in 2008, although according to opinion polls his party could face a severe defeat. There is great discontent among the electorate due to the very high external debt as well as serious crime, often related to drug trafficking.
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In February 2008 the UDP wins the elections and Dean Barrow becomes prime minister. In March 2012 the same party won the parliamentary elections again and in November 2015 for the third time in succession. In 2016 and 2017 there are border disputes with Guatemala. In the 2020 elections, Juan Antonio Briceno will take over from Dean Barrow.
Photo:US Embassy in Belize in the public domain
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In 2017, Belize has approximately 360,346 inhabitants, making it the Central American country with the fewest inhabitants. This means that there are also only about 15.7 inhabitants per km2. A quarter of the population lives in Belize City and another quarter lives in six larger cities. The rest of the population lives in the countryside.
The average population growth is 1.8% (2017). Life expectancy at birth is approximately 68.9 years, 67.3 years for men and 70.6 years for women (2017). Belize is one of the countries in the world with the youngest population: 0-14 years 33.9%, 15-64 years 62.2%, 65+ 3.9% (2017). The birth and death rates are 24 and 6 per 1000 inhabitants respectively (2017).
The population is so mixed that it is very difficult to distinguish according to origin. The main ethnic groups are the Mestizos (53%), the Creoles (26%), the Indians (mainly Mayas; 19%) and Black Caribs (7%); there are only small groups of Europeans, Americans and Asians (including Chinese and Taiwanese). It should be emphasized that all these different groups and cultures live together relatively peacefully.
Belize is home to three distinct Maya groups: the Mopan, the Yucatecs and the Kekchi. Although the languages of these groups are related, the dialects are difficult to understand among themselves. The Maya who still live in Belize today are descended from 19th-century Guatemalan and Mexican Mayan immigrants. The Yucatecs live mainly in Northern Belize and their dialect and culture has almost completely merged with the mestizo culture. The Mopan have mainly settled the districts of Toledo and Cayo. The Kekchi also mainly live in the Toledo district. There are about 40 Mayan villages in Toledo. In the most remote villages people still live like centuries ago.
The Creoles all share two characteristics: they are of African-English descent and almost all speak English and Creole. Three quarters of the residents of the Belize City are Creole. Isolated groups of Creoles still live across the country.
The mestizos or ladinos are the Spanish speaking Belizeans, mostly from Mexico and other Central American areas. They descend from the first Spanish colonists and from the Indians. During the eighties of the 20th century, about 40,000 political and economic refugees, mostly mestizos, arrived in Belize from El Salvador, Guatemala and to a lesser extent Honduras. This relatively large group threatens to cause serious economic and social problems for small Belize. They have also ensured that the mestizos are now the largest population group. This was compounded by the fact that many Belizean Creole immigrated to the United States.
The warlike Caribbean immigrated from South America to the Caribbean islands around 1300. They moved from island to island every few years, often married runaway slaves, and eventually ended up in Belize. This group is now called Garifuna or Garinagu and descends from African slaves and Caribbean Indians. They mainly live in Southern Belize. Purebred Caribs no longer exist in Belize. The Garifuna live mainly in Dangriga and on a smaller scale in Punta Gorda, Hopkins, Georgetown, Seine Bight Village and Barranco. They have their own language, religion, music, dance and food, making them a fascinating ethnic group.
The first Chinese arrived in 1865, but soon moved mostly to Mexico. Just before World War II, a group of Cantonese farmers arrived in Belize City, fleeing the Japanese. Although still a small group, they are notable for the grocery stores, shops and restaurants they often own.
From 1844 to 1917, 41,600 East Indies were brought to the British colonies under British colonial rule, including Belize. Although they had a fixed-term contract, they were often forced to stay longer and eventually did not return to their country. Almost 50% of this population lives in a village called Calcutta and Forest Home. They speak Creole and Spanish, but no longer Hindi. This language is still spoken by a number of emigrants from East India who have not lived in Belize for so long. They have no ties with the first emigrants from that area. At present, about 2% of the population is of Indian descent.
The German-speaking Mennonites are the last major group to migrate to Belize. The first group arrived from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. To avoid problems like in other countries, agreements were signed between the Mennonites and the Belizean government. For example, they were allowed to practice their own religion and were allowed to use their language in self-controlled schools. They were also allowed to establish their own financial institutions and were not required to do military service. Mennonite farmers are the most productive in all of Belize and also use the most modern equipment. Furthermore, the local market provides dairy products, eggs, chicken, cheese and vegetables.
A group of Rastafarians live in Belize City. They can be recognized by their dreadlocks and use ganja (marijuana) during their rituals. They consider Haile Selassie, once Emperor of Ethiopia, as their god.
The small group of Lebanese also often works as a shopkeeper. British forces have returned home since 1994.
The largest city is the former (until 1970) capital Belize City, with approx. 62,000 inhabitants (2017). In the course of the 19th century, the population increased sharply due to the influx of Indians, colored people and Spaniards who found refuge there, and by laborers who were recruited in Jamaica, Barbados and Southeast Asia for the sugar and banana plantations. Even after 1900, the population grew due to immigration and natural growth.
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Belize is the only country in Central America where the official language is English. Spanish is the native language of about 15% of the population and English Creole is the colloquial language, the lingua franca. All Belizeans can communicate with each other via English Creole. This language is based on English but clearly influenced by Maya, African languages and Spanish. Although the differences are obvious, the Creole of Belize is most like that of Jamaica. The spoken Spanish of Belize has a strong Latin American sound. The soft s sound has disappeared and been replaced by a sharp, clear s sound.
In addition, some Indian languages are encountered in isolated regions.
Some Creole sayings and phrases clearly show the English background of this language:
- Bad things never have owners - bad ting neda gat owner
- Cows have no business in a horse race - cow no business a hare gylop
- A chicken shits white and think she has laid an egg - fowl caca white an tink e lay egg
- Why don't you leave me alone an mind your own business - weh mek unu no lef 'me' lone an 'mine unu own business (unu is of African origin)
- What was that little boy eating? - da weh da lee bwai mi di nyam? (nyam is an Afrikaans word for food)
- In the old days, things were different - dis-ya time no tan like befo time
- We all make up Belize - all a we mek Belize
Nobody knows exactly where the name Belize comes from and what the name means. Some say it is a corruption of "wallis" from the pirate Peter Wallace who roamed the area centuries ago. Another theory is that the Mayan word "belix" is the origin: that word means mud river. The Mayan word "belikin", from a local type of beer, is also mentioned as the origin of the name.
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The first Belizeans worshiped a whole arsenal of Mayan gods. British settlers brought the Anglican faith and built the first Protestant church in Central America. However, the majority of Belizeans (about 60%) are Roman Catholic today, thanks to the many immigrants from Mexico in the nineteenth century. About 30% of the population is Protestant, with the majority Anglican and the remainder Methodists, Mennonites, and Pentecostal. For the past twenty years, Belize has been overrun by evangelical and fundamentalist denominations and sects from the United States, such as Assemblies of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Baptists.
In the Mennonite Church of Belize, a split is currently taking place: the modernist "Kleine Gemeinde" and the traditional "Altkolonier" each go their separate ways.
The Garifuna are basically Catholic, but still often practice a mix of African and Caribbean ancestor worship, voodoo customs and Catholic traditions. There are also small groups of Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Bahai followers.
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Belize has only been independent since September 21, 1981, making it the youngest independent state in Central America. Britain initially remained responsible for foreign affairs, defense and internal security. The British monarch, currently Elizabeth II, is the head of state and is represented by a governor-general, who must be of Belizean descent.
The Parliament consists of a House of Representatives, whose 29 members are elected for five years by universal suffrage, and a Senate of eight members appointed by the Governor General (five on the nomination of the Prime Minister, two on the nomination of the opposition and one in consultation with the UK Belize Advisory Council). The Governor General also appoints the Prime Minister and, on his intercession, the members of the Council of Ministers. Legislative power rests with Parliament, executive power with the Council of Ministers. There is universal suffrage for persons over the age of 18. Belize is divided administratively into six districts: Belize, Cayo, Corozal, Orange Walk, Stann Creek, and Toledo.
Belize is a member of the United Nations and a number of its sub-organizations, the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) and the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Commonwealth.
Belize has two political parties: the Peoples United Party (PUP), founded in 1950, and the United Democratic Party (UDP) created in 1974 after a merger of several small parties. The first parliamentary elections in Belize were held in 1984. In 1998, the PUP's Said Wilbert Musa won the election with 25 out of 29 seats. This was because the Esquivel government was forced by the World Bank to tighten government spending; thousands of officials were subsequently fired. In addition, VAT was drastically increased. Both of these measures led to this terrible election defeat.
Like Costa Rica, Belize is an oasis of calm from the often hectic Central American political life.
The current Prime Minister Said Musa comes from the People's United Party and has been in office since 1998. The last elections, held in March 2003, won Prime Minister Musa's party again. His party has 22 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives; the other 7 seats are for the UDP. Prime Minister Musa's PUP has lost 3 seats compared to the previous elections. The current political situation is described in the chapter history.
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Primary education is compulsory for children between the ages of five and fourteen. Both primary and secondary education are free. All schools are denominational schools. Approx. 90% of the population can read and write, which is a very high percentage for this region. The government maintains a school for mentally and physically handicapped children. In 1996 there were 245 primary schools and 31 secondary schools.
Special courses are Belize Technical College and Belize Teachers College. The Belize Vocational Training Center in Belize City provides vocational education to, among others, early school leavers. The Belize Youth Development Center and the Belize College of Agriculture provides agricultural education. In 1996 the University of Belize opened its doors.
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GDP per capita is quite high by Central American standards: approximately $ 8,300 per year (2017). It should be remembered that many Belizeans are financially supported by family members who live and work abroad, especially in the United States. Most development aid comes from the United States.
Belize was long known as a true drug state, but by November 1999 it was no longer on the US blacklist of drug states.
Infrastructure improvement is high on the Belize government's priority list. In a relatively short time, it has been ensured that 98% of the remote villages are supplied with electricity.
The national debt amounts to 99% of the GNP (2017). Average GDP growth of about 1% in the coming years is expected due to investments in agricultural exports, hydroponics and tourism, as well as continued demand for informal sector goods and services. At the moment there is a lot of investment in the "cruise market". For example, an agreement has been reached with the Miami port authorities to strengthen know-how in this sector in Belize. US $ 50 million has also been invested in the construction of a new cruise ship terminal.
Agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, fishing
Photo:Paul Stokstad in het publieke domein
Until well into the 19th century, the production and export of tropical woods (especially mahogany) was the main economic activity. After 1860, commercial agriculture (especially sugar) developed in the north. In 1981 15% of the area suitable for agriculture had been put into production. Agriculture is an important sector of the economy: 10% of the working population is employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing. Exports (especially sugar and molasses - accounting for 40%, bananas, citrus fruits and, illegally, marijuana) are responsible for a lot of foreign exchange.
The annual production of sugar is approximately 80,000 tons per year. The banana plantations on the south coast of Belize (Stann Creek District) seem to be a hit. Fertile soil, a warm climate and adequate rainfall make this area perfect for growing bananas. Cocoa is becoming an increasingly important export product. For the domestic market, agriculture produces rice, beans, corn, tobacco and coffee. Belize was one of the major exporters of marijuana to the United States, but was removed from the US blacklist of drug states in November 1999.
Forestry is relatively much less important; hardwood and chicle are exported; coniferous wood (pine and cedar wood) is primarily exploited for the domestic market.
Animal husbandry is only carried out for domestic use, but is becoming more important because it has only recently been "learned" to put beef on the menu.
Also important is fishing in the Caribbean Sea, including tuna, lobster and shrimp. By working together they could start asking higher prices for the fish products. They are also aware that unlimited fishing is not possible all year round. For example, no more lobsters are allowed to catch between February 15 and June 15. Main export countries are the United States, Mexico and Jamaica. Canada has campaigned to modernize the Belizean fishing industry.
Marine animal farming is a new activity in Belize. For example, there are already several shrimp farms and Taiwan is helping Belize to further develop this economic activity. For example, they are now trying to grow shrimp larvae themselves, so that they no longer have to be bought expensive abroad.
Industry and trade
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The industrial sector is limited and mainly includes processing of agricultural and forestry products, including sawmill, veneer, plywood, furniture, shipbuilding, beer, rum, sugar refining and dairy. Oil was discovered in 1981, but not in commercially viable quantities.
Trade and balance of payments show a chronic deficit. All consumables, machines and energy carriers must be imported. Total exports generated USD 483 million in 2017 and the main export partners were the United States, Great Britain, the countries of the European Union, the Caricom countries, Canada and Mexico. Total imports amounted to $ 944 million in 2017 and the main import partners were the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, the countries of the European Union and the Caricom countries.
GDP was approximately $ 3.2 billion in 2017. Belize remains highly dependent on foreign financial support, particularly from Great Britain and the United States, and to a lesser extent Canada and the EU.
Holidays and Sightseeing
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The only English-speaking country in Central America is Belize, a country with a tropical climate, a rich (Mayan) history and beautiful, largely untouched nature.
Belize is a true underwater paradise for diving enthusiasts, who with a bit of luck will see whale sharks, reef sharks, turtles, manatees and dolphins. But also the tropical jungle and the approx. 280 kilometers long coastline with white palm beaches attract many tourists. Much of the Mayan culture can still be found in the south and west of the country, many caves and underground passages can be visited for the active and the more adventurous people. Off the coast of Belize is the second largest barrier reef in the world and the longest in the Northern Hemisphere, surrounded by a huge number of coral islands. Here is also the UNESCO World Heritage Site 'The Great Blue Hole', a hundred meters deep underwater cave.
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The ruins of the Mayan city of Caracol, located in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, were not discovered until 1938 and are intended to be as much of a tourist attraction as the Mayan ruins (25 temples and palaces) of Xunantunich, now one of the Belize's most famous landmarks. The architectural legacy of the Maya can also be admired at places like Altun Ha and Lamanai. The main tourist centers on the coast are Ambegris Caye, the reggae island of Caye Caulker for a beautiful diving holiday and Plancencia with the famous Garifuña beach and the Cocksomb jaguar reserve.
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Inland it is San Ignacio with the Mountain Pine Ridge nature reserve, an environment with a pine forest, caves, waterfalls (including Hidden Valley Falls with the highest waterfall in Central America, the Thousand Foot Falls), mahogany forests, the newly discovered Maya cave Chechem Ha Mayan and Mayan ruins of the Cahal Pech palace complex.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is ideally suited for bird watchers, with a deluge of migratory birds between November and March. For nature lovers, there are Guanacaste National Park and Barton Creek Cave, where a boat excursion on an underground river can be booked.
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Bradbury, A. / Belize
Eltringham, P. / The rough guide to Belize
Mallan, C. / Belize handbook
CIA - World Factbook
BBC - Country Profiles
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