Usually I’m a planner. I learn about a new city or an event happening in a country I’ve never been, and add it to my Bucket List for a future visit.
In the case of Belize, I had overlooked it during my Solo Trip to Mexico in 2009 since it was a bit outside of my backpacker budget to do a quick trip there and back from the Yucatan. And I hadn’t really thought about it much since then until I was starting a new board on Pinterest and was intrigued by all of the outdoor adventure activities and beautiful beaches.
So when I had a week open up in May for a trip, I ignored the budget flights to Iceland and Europe and impulsively went in a new direction – Belize!
I only booked my flights two weeks in advance, so it was a bit of scramble to get things planned for my time there and I didn’t have the opportunity to do my typical advance reading to prepare for a trip. Which made the trip even more exciting as I discovered all of these quirks and local sayings and particular history of the region.
Here’s what I discovered:
Belizeans sure love their flag. You’ll see it proudly displayed pretty much everywhere you go.
And Jesus, too. Not only are Christian religious symbols prominently displayed outside homes and businesses, but there are also large signs with the ten commandments written out that you’ll also see in a lot of different spots around the country.
Bus Stations really are an incredible crossroads…
In Belize, the bus station accepted 4 types of currency! To be fair, both the Belizean dollar and US dollar can be used to pay for anything around the country, but you can also use Mexican and Guatemalan currency there if you need to.
Even the bus station vendors have hot sauce available. It really is the universal condiment around Belize, but I was still amazed at its presence next to the pre-cooked food already divided into different take away baggies.
Everyone can tell you where and when next bus is leaving. There was no information booth that I saw (although any tourist office can help with bus schedules). But equally reliable? Asking any Belizean hanging out at the bus stop when the next bus will be. They’ll give you times, tell you whether it’s local or express, how much it will costs, & which area it leaves from. Just incredible!
It’s a small enough country to have some national standards…
Like Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. Marie started her company in Belize back in the early 1980s and she has already been inducted into the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame. And it is her Belizean brand that is the standard that you will see at street food stands and on restaurant tables – unless there is a homemade version.
Or Belikin, Belize’s national beer. If you ask for a “beer,” you’ll get the Belikin standard brew. If you ask for a “stout” or a “lager” you’ll get the Belikin version of those styles. Any other beer you must ask for by name.
Beers are smaller! You’ll notice that Belikin beer comes in 250 mL bottles, which is just small enough compared to the standard 330 mL bottle of beer that you will notice the difference!
You might experience a 4-bath day when you go. If you’ve ever heard of the expression (or musical band) ‘three dog night,’ this is a similar notion. A three dog night refers to a cold night out in the Australian outback, when you have to cuddle up with 3 dingoes (the dogs) to stay warm. A 4-bath day in Belize . . . that’s a hot and sweaty one.
Houses are colorful. There is something about the tropics that lends itself to brightly colored houses. You’ll see plenty of these around Belize, including many in a shade I started calling ‘Belizean blue’ because you’ll see that exact shade in so many places.
Buses are the way to go for some local flavor . . .
Repurposed American schoolbuses are the main mode of transportation. Different companies may paint the outside in different colors, but the inside is the same school bus with benches set up you may know from your childhood. And just like back then, the seats get sticky in the heat and there is no air conditioning. But it’s definitely the most affordable way to travel Belize while getting a taste for how the locals live.
And they’ll play music very loudly. Buses may be the cheapest way to get around, but they’re certainly not the most serene. Most of the ones I traveled on had upbeat music playing quite loudly for most or all of the ride. I wasn’t sure if this was a strategy to keep people happy and quiet, but that certainly seemed to be the effect.
Non-express buses will stop at pretty much any point along the route. This is a great convenience for anyone who lives off-the-beaten-path, but you can imagine how much time all of these stops will add on to your trip. There’s a reason the express buses are a bit pricier.
Some unexpected foods you’ll find everywhere. There are Caribbean and Latin American specialties and their variations, but there’s also an abundance of banana bread and fried chicken. Who knew?
But in general you’ll find the best local specialties at street food stands. Whether it’s seeking out the best rice and beans (look for a giant pot) or getting salbutes fried to order, the flavors you get at the street food stands outpace any brick-and-mortar restaurant I visited.
READ MORE: How to Eat Like a Local in Belize
Expect that you’ll frequently be all by yourself with relics. Sure, there was someone staffing the booth when you bought your admission ticket to the museum or archaeological site. But chances are that as you explore the rooms with the priceless artifacts, or even the pyramids, you’ll be all on your own.
And that there’ll be almost no safety measures for climbing all those Mayan pyramids. I scaled my fair share of pyramids during my week-plus in country, and there were very few handrails or markers for dangerous sections or to prevent you from falling off the top. A local shared that the vast ruins of Xunatunich only had railings put in just last year – and only 2 of them across a huge area! Tread carefully.
Belizeans are genuinely friendly. They’ll chat you up on the street and then share their favorite local spot for a meal. Not for a monetary tip, but just to welcome you to their beautiful country.
Simone Biles is the most beloved athlete. Maybe it was my visiting within a year of the Rio Olympics, but although there are Belizeans who have somewhat “made it” in professional sports, American gymnast Simone Biles (who is of Belizean descent) is the true star if you ask any local.
Belize City is not the capital. I guess I spent my childhood gazing longingly at an outdated globe, because even though the capital city shifted to centrally-located Belmopan back in 1970, I had it in my head that it was Belize City until my visit. Oops.
Cemeteries have above-ground coffins. Like many of the houses and buildings in Belize, cemeteries are colorful places. And instead of burying the dead, I saw plots with elevated coffins where relatives come to pay their respects.
English reigns supreme . . .
More currency with Queen Elizabeth. If you travel a lot, you’ve probably seen her face on quite a lot of currency by now. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is still part of the British Commonwealth.
It’s not just lip service though, the Queen came for a visit! Queen Elizabeth II has visited Belize twice – one in the mid-1980s, another time in the mid-1990s. Of course, the part of her visit that people referenced the most during my trip was when she ate a local rodent whose meat is considered a delicacy, the gibnut, now also nicknamed the ‘Royal Rat.’
Everyone speaks English and takes US dollars. I feel like some travelers harbor fear of foreign countries due to the language barrier. Perhaps a fear of not being able to make yourself understood? In any case, there’s no need to worry in Belize as everyone speaks English. And you can pay with US dollars anywhere, even in small towns or on local buses (although you’ll often get change in BZD, with 2 Belize dollars equaling $1).
Visitors Centers are mostly in English. Although there are quite a lot of Spanish speakers around, interestingly the Visitors Centers I popped into seemed to cater exclusively to English speakers. That said, they were quite helpful.
Some expected groups….
Maya tribes still exist. For some reason I always lumped the Maya in my head with the now-extinct Aztec and Inca Empires. However while the Maya experienced a decline, their culture and traditions continue on across Belize and some nearby countries. I got my most personal experience on a tour of a Mayan chocolate producer, carrying on the traditions of many centuries ago.
And some unexpected ones…
The Chinese. Originally brought to Belize from China as laborers, many of those original Chinese stayed. Today there is also a more recent influx of Chinese looking to build businesses and wealth, or to use Belize as a stepping stone for ultimate relocation to the United States.
Mennonites. It was a surprise when I spotted my first Mennonite family in Belize – the wife in a bonnet and long dress & the husband in denim overalls with a wide-brimmed straw hat. Just like in other places, they also shun technology in Belize and focus on hard work and farming the land.
Belize has the lowest population density in Central America. There are a lot of natural reserves and open, lush swaths of green as you make your way across the country. Enjoy!
And it’s a peace-loving country, one of the few in the region that has not had a civil war. You may associate Central America with some violent conflicts, but it is a point of pride in Belize that handover of power has been a peaceful affair.
Belize also boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The reef system is just off the coast along most of the country, and is so lengthy that even Charles Darwin was impressed. Opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive abound.
Like anywhere I’ve ever visited, Belize has a bunch of quirks that come with any country, along with some pretty impressive products and traditions and diversity for such a small nation.
But Belize also had so many things that surprised me along the way – I was already jotting down some observations on my first taxi ride from the airport to the bus station!
What’s the most interesting thing you learned about a place while visiting? Anything else you discovered about Belize if you’ve traveled there? Or anything else you’d like to know before you go? Share away in the ‘Comments’ below!
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