A valid passport is required to enter Belize, and the passport should be valid for 6 months beyond the dates of travel. No visas are required for citizens of the United States, the UK, and the European Union. To cross the border into Guatemala to visit Tikal, you will also just need a valid passport, and approximately $19 in cash for the border fee.
For more information, visit the Department of State´s website and choose Belize: http://travel.state.gov/travel/
Belize has a subtropical climate, with wet and dry seasons. The predictability of the dry and wet seasons has changed a bit over the past few years, but traditionally the dry season is from late November through May. The wet season can be a fine time to visit, as it won’t generally rain all day long. Instead it will rain part of the day and be clearer part of the day, and there are fewer people visiting. During part of the year, particularly from September through November, there is a threat of hurricanes. The last major hurricane to hit Belize was Hurricane Iris in October of 2002, which struck the southern town of Placencia particularly hard. Temperatures in Belize are typically in the 70s to mid-90s during the day, cooling off into the 60s or 70s at night. Though the weather is typically on the warm to hot side, please plan to bring a couple pairs of pants and long shirts, for hiking in the jungle (where shorts are not advised), and for evenings. Please see packing list below for more details.
For more detailed information including up to date weather forecasts in all the major cities in Belize, please visit the following website: http://www.accuweather.com/en/bz/belize-weather
Laundry Service: There will be laundry service at the hotels if you need to get anything cleaned while traveling.
Belize is a very casual country, and you can get by with bringing very little.
Other essential gear:
Other very good gear to have:
Medical Kit Suggestions
Photo and Video Equipment
You will receive local contact information, including 24 hour emergency contact numbers, with your Final Itinerary.
U.S. Embassy in Belize City Contact Information
Address: # 4 Floral Park Road, Belmopan, Cayo District, Belize, Central America
Emergency after-hours telephone: 011-501-610-5030
Vaya Adventures Contact Information
Phone: (510) 548-8487
Outside office hours: (510) 809-6261
Bringing your smartphone
If you plan to bring a smartphone to use for making calls while traveling, you should contact your carrier prior to travel to let them know and find out if they have any traveler plans that provide discounted roaming rates in the countries you will be visiting. Without some type of discounted plan, roaming fees can be very high, and the phone settings (specifically whether you have the phone set up just for Wi-Fi or also for roaming) can make a huge difference in the costs you will incur. Your specific carrier should be able to give you detailed information about how to avoid costly roaming rates and how to adjust the settings on your particular smartphone.
Belize has a relatively modern, with payphones found throughout the country. The international country code for Belize is 501. There are no area codes in Belize; wherever you are in the country you have to dial all seven figures of the telephone number. Most payphones only accept phonecards, which can be used on any phone. These are widely available from BTL offices, hotels, shops and gas stations; to use them just scratch off the strip concealing the PIN, dial the access code (printed on the card), the PIN and then the number you’re calling.
The cost of making international calls from your hotel can be very high, often $5 a minute or more. You will get much better rates at the local telephone calling centers (“centro de llamadas” or “cabinas para llamadas internacionales”), which you will be able to find in the larger towns and tourist centers. You can make collect calls back to the U.S. from almost any phone by dialing an international operator. Again, these rates will probably be very high. If you are bringing a laptop or even just a Wi-Fi enabled smartphone, probably the easiest way to call back to the U.S. is via Skype. You should set up your account prior to traveling and be sure you have some credit on it; you can then make calls through any Wi-Fi network. If you don’t have a computer or smartphone with Wi-Fi, probably the best option is to ask at your hotel or in a store where the closest calling center is if you plan to make many international calls. If you speak some Spanish, another good option if you plan to make a lot of international calls is to buy an international pre-paid calling card (rates are generally very low). These can be purchased in many convenience stores or magazine kiosks and then used at payphones to call internationally (though instructions will usually only be in Spanish).
Fax machines are generally available at hotels and businesses. Ask at the front desk if you need to send or receive a fax.
There are internet cafes in the larger population centers of Belize and at some hotels. Rates are on typically $3-$5 for 15 minutes.
The most common ailment to affect travelers to any destination in South or Central America is traveler’s diarrhea. The best way to avoid it is to be careful about what you eat. Some basic rules:
For additional information about health issues in specific places, including recommended vaccinations and inoculations, you can visit www.tripprep.com, a non-governmental site that contains health related information on other nations. You can also visit the website of the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov. Please keep in mind that the CDC errs on the side of caution and that there are varying opinions on the need for specific vaccinations and inoculations. You should consult a travel clinic and travel health specialist prior to traveling if you have any specific questions.
To minimize mosquito and other insect bites, you should use a Deet based insect repellant, and be sure to wear full length pants and shirts (generally cotton) and socks whenever in an area with biting insects. This can make the difference between having an enjoyable walk in the woods or on the beach and being very uncomfortable due to the insects.
Few travelers to Belize take malaria medication, and it is not generally advised, unless you plan to travel to extremely remote parts of the country or spend extended periods of time in the jungle. It is a good idea to be up to date with hepatitis and typhoid vaccinations for travel to developing countries in general, but these are not required. Information is available from your travel health provider and on the above websites.
The tap water in Belize is considered safe to drink, though many people still prefer to drink bottled water.
We strongly recommend that all of our travelers purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance can help cover many things, including baggage loss, missed connections, trip interruption, and medical emergency (including medical evacuation costs), resulting from a wide variety of circumstances, including illness or extreme weather that results in the cancellation of your trip. It can also help protect you in the event of loss of non-refundable trip deposits and payments that result from cancellation or trip interruption. Families traveling together, in particular, can benefit from traveler’s insurance, due to the high investment in the trip and the increased risk of one person’s illness resulting in the entire trip being cancelled. There are many companies that provide trip insurance. We offer insurance through Allianz, and their most popular plan is the Classic Plan. You can view details of this plan by clicking on this link: Allianz Classic Plan, or by visiting the Allianz website at www.allianztravelinsurance.com.
In restaurants, a 10% tip is customary. Cabs do not generally expect tips, but rounding off fares upward is fairly typical.
Guides/drivers: If you have a private guide for a full day, an average tip would be somewhere in the range of $10-$15 per day, per person. It can be less, it can be more, but this is a typical range. If you go on a shorter trip of a half day, the tip would basically be proportional to what proportion of the day you spent with the guide. If half a day, $5-$8 per person would be a typical range. If there are additional people involved, drivers, crew of a boat, etc., you may want to give them something as well. About 1/3 of what you give the guide himself would be an appropriate benchmark for each of these individuals. For families with children, we suggest giving 50% of the normal per person amount for each child. This is completely at your discretion and you should give what you feel comfortable giving.
For drivers who do airport transfers or other short rides, you shouldn’t feel the need to tip every single time you are getting out of a vehicle. It’s not the case that drivers are expecting a tip every time they take you somewhere. If you have a driver in a city who takes you to and from the airport and you have the chance to give him or her a few dollars (maybe $2 per ride) at the end of the last ride, that’s great and will be appreciated.
If you stay at a place where all meals are included, you may also want to leave some type of tip at the end for the service staff (they often have some type of tipping jar or other way to give a tip to the waiters and other staff). Approximately $5 per person per day is a suggested amount. These types of tips are totally discretionary.
The Lords of Tikal, by Peter Harrison. A scholarly handbook about Tikal and what it was all about, with great illustrations.
Jaguar, One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve, by Alan Rabinowitz. The story of the author’s successful crusade to create the world’s first preserve dedicated to the jaguar (what is now the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary).
Snorkeling Guide to Marine Life, by Paul Humann. A compact guide to the different fish, coral, plants, and invertebrates one is likely to encounter in less than 15 feet of water in the Caribbean. Very portable.
13 Chapters of a History of Belize, by Assad Shoman. A politically slanted but very interesting history of Belize, written by a Belizean scholar and focusing on the effects of slavery, colonialism and corporate interests on the country, while also providing a good historical summary; sort of a Noam Chomsky history of Belize. It’s not easy to find locally written books on the area… this is one of them.
Time Among the Maya (Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico), by Ronald Wright. A combination of travel journalism and archeology where the author discusses his travels among the modern Maya. Most of the book takes place in Guatemala and Mexico, but if you’re interested in the region as a whole this is a good choice. It is probably one of the most widely read and interesting books on the region. It’s a good read, covering a lot of the challenging and difficult issues of the region’s history. However, it’s important to keep in mind when reading it that Guatemala is no longer experiencing the kind of civil strife that was taking place when the author wrote the book in 1989 (during the Guatemalan Civil War).
The Art of Mesoamerica, by Mary Ellen Miller. If you are more inclined to the history of art and architecture and the visual side of things, and are interested in the wider history of Mesoamerican culture (of which the Maya were a major part), this is an excellent book. Concise, highly informative and scholarly, yet very readable, with outstanding photos and illustrations.
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan: Volume One, by John Lloyd Stephens, with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood. This is the classic, original Central American travelogue, originally published in 1843. The 127 engravings by Catherwood are exceptional and give the best illustrations available of what the ruins looked like before any restoration was done.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas in the late 1400s, the region of Central America was home to a great number of distinct peoples. They were descendants of the original settlers of the Americas that crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia to the North American continent during the last ice age, approximately 15-20,000 years ago. By 2,500 B.C., the Nahuatl tribe (the ancestors of the Maya) had settled across the habitable areas of Central America and southern Mexico, concentrating themselves near lakes and rivers. During what is called the Pre-Classic Period (1500 B.C. to 300 A.D.) of the Maya, increasingly sophisticated techniques in farming and irrigation were developed. Over time, the existence of a reliable food supply allowed for the development of different classes of citizens, including bureaucrats and artists, and an advanced civilization developed, completely independently of other major civilizations outside the Americas. The entire Mayan civilization included Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico (including the entire Yucatan), and some parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
The Maya originated as a cohesive society as early as 2000 BC, but most of the larger Mayan cities, astronomical facilities, and works of art were created during the Classic Period (300-900 AD). This is the period when Tikal and Caracol, the most significant Mayan cities in Guatemala and Belize, respectively, were constructed.
The Life of the Maya
The Maya were arguably the most advanced of the pre-Columbian civilizations, using a complicated hieroglyphic system for writing, and developing an advanced numerical system that incorporated the concept of zero. They established a calendar system based on astronomical observation that was extraordinarily accurate, and maintained records of their beliefs and stories in books made of bark paper and filled with hieroglyphic writing. (Unfortunately, only four of these books survived the Spanish book burnings of the 1500s, when the new arrivals tried to wipe out any memory of the non-Christian Mayan belief system.) The Maya believed that the world on earth, the heavens, and the underworld (“Xibalba”) were all one unified structure. Many natural places were considered sacred, and mountains, caves, and bodies of water often had special religious significance.
There are many caves throughout Belize, particularly in western Belize, where ritual artifacts from Mayan ceremonies can be found. Caves were considered a gateway between the earth and the underworld of Xibalba. The Maya created beautiful architectural monuments and had great sculptural ability, which you can observe in any of the numerous stelae at the larger Mayan sites.
Mayan glyphs at the site of Xunantunich in western Belize
There is evidence of human presence at Tikal as early as 800 B.C., though the majority of the structures were built from 550 A.D. to 900 A.D. During the 1,700 years of its existence, Tikal rose to become one of the most important Mayan centers in all of the Americas. At its peak, Tikal is said to have had between 10,000 and 40,000 inhabitants. The central part of the Mayan city occupied about 10 square miles and had over 400 structures. One of the other interesting things about a visit to Tikal is the wide variety of wildlife that makes its home in and around the ruins, including many monkeys and many species of tropical birds. (You might want to bring binoculars with you to help observe birds and wildlife.)
Caracol is accessible from the Cayo region, a couple hours drive south from San Ignacio. It is estimated to have been even larger than Tikal in size during its apogee, though the site was not discovered until 1938, and is not as well excavated or understood as Tikal. It is estimated that human habitation began in the Caracol area in approximately 600 BC and continued until 1150 AD. It may have been home to as many as 140,000 people at its height, something that is difficult to imagine now when you visit the ruins. Caracol, Tikal and other major Mayan cities competed with each for dominance across the region. For hundreds of years, the Maya thrived, creating an advanced and remarkable civilization in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world.
The “Collapse” of the Maya
The history of the decline of the Mayan civilization is not particularly well understood, with the most popular theories being long lasting drought or excessive resource depletion due to population growth. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, many of the Mayan cities had been completely deserted for hundreds of years. Unlike the Aztecs in central Mexico and the Incas in South America, the Mayan civilization never had a major confrontation with the Spanish conquistadores. One of the great challenges of Mesoamerican archeology is to try to piece together what happened based on the artifacts left behind.
The Spanish Arrive
The Spanish were the first to colonize Belize, but their interest in the area was never intense, and they never established any kind of effective government over the area. They viewed the area as mainly a source of cheap logwood for producing dye. The wealth that lay in the Belizean hardwoods, particularly mahogany, was never exploited by the Spanish, who largely preoccupied themselves with mining interests in Mexico and Peru.
British Pirates Settle in Belize
The relative lawlessness of the area due to the lack of any Spanish governing authority, and the safety provided by the great reefs just off the coast, attracted many English and Scottish pirates to Belize during the 1600s. Many of these seamen eventually settled in Belize, and moved into the mahogany logging industry as demand for that wood dramatically increased. Over time, Belize developed into a major source of mahogany for the British Empire, making mahogany exports the single most important industry in the region. During the 1600s and 1700s, the Spanish made only half-hearted efforts to reclaim the area, and it came under greater and greater influence from the British as its citizens became settlers.
Belize Becomes British Honduras
Eventually, the Spanish decided that they should defend what they claimed was a rightful Spanish colony. The final attempt by the Spanish to reclaim what is now Belize resulted in the most famous battle in Belizean history, the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. The British naval force routed the Spanish armada that had arrived to reclaim Belize, and the Spanish were permanently driven from the colony. However, the British did not officially take control of Belize for many decades. The colony of British Honduras was only officially declared in 1862, while the United States was distracted with the Civil War and unable to enforce the terms of the Monroe Doctrine.
The 20th Century and Partial Independence from Britain
In the first decades of the 20th century Belize fell on hard times. The mahogany industry declined due to dwindling supply, poor resource management, and dwindling demand (particularly during the global depression in the 1930s), and it took a terrible toll on Belize.
During these years, while Belize was officially a colony of Great Britain, several constitutional changes were enacted to expand representative government. Full internal self-government under a ministerial system was granted in January 1964, after which democratic political parties and institutions were formed. The government decided to build a new capital at Belmopan in 1970, after Hurricane Hattie all but destroyed Belize City in 1961. Full independence was realized in September 1981 when British Honduras officially became Belize, a member of the British Commonwealth rather than a colony.
Belize is the most sparsely populated nation in Central America. Its population is approximately 250,000 people. It is larger than El Salvador and compares in size to the State of Massachusetts. Slightly more than half of the people live in rural areas. About one-fourth live in Belize City, the principal port, commercial center, and former capital.
Most Belizeans are of multiracial descent. About 46.4% of the population is of mixed Mayan and European descent (Mestizo); 27.7% are of African and Afro-European (Creole) ancestry; about 10% are Mayan; and about 6.4% are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remainder, about 9.5%, includes European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and North American groups.
English is the official language and is spoken by virtually everyone except the refugees that arrived during the past decade. Spanish is the native tongue of about 50% of the people and is spoken as a second language by another 20%. The various Mayan groups still speak their original languages, and an English Creole dialect, similar to the Creole dialects of Jamaica and other the English-speaking Caribbean Islands, is also spoken by most Belizeans. About 60% of the population is Roman Catholic, and about 40% Protestant. Mennonite settlers number over 7,000. Many are immigrants from Canada, and started arriving in 1958 as a result of what they considered persecution in their former country. The Mennonites have become very successful farmers in Belize, particularly in western Belize. One group of the Mennonites continues to practice agriculture without the use of modern machinery of any kind, in the same manner as some Amish communities in the U.S.
Belize is a relatively small country (about the size of Massachusetts), but it contains a tremendous variety of wildlife for an area of its size, in a wide range of habitats. Its rainforests are home to tapirs, pumas and numerous tropical birds. The mountainous areas provide an excellent sanctuary for elusive jaguars and other endangered cats. In reality, it is very difficult to personally observe many of these larger animals in the wilderness, but Belize is home to the largest concentration of jaguars in the world, in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. The country’s savannahs and lowlands are home to rare waterfowl such as the jabiru stork and the roseate spoonbill. The best time to observe wildlife is generally very early in the morning or just before sunset, so if you have the chance try to schedule your visits to the wildlife viewing areas for these times.
Approximately 145 species of mammals live in Belize. These include marine mammals such as the manatee and dolphin. There are also 5 different species of wildcat. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s only jaguar preserve, and has a total of 102,000 acres close to and around Belize’s highest mountain, Victoria Peak. This Sanctuary is well worth a visit. The other four species of cats are the ocelot, the puma, the small margay and the mysterious jaguarondi. They can also be found in the preserve and in other parts of the Belize highlands. Other mammals include the black howler monkey, kinkajous and tapirs, the national animal of Belize.
Belize is also home to an impressive array of birdlife, with over 500 species in a wide variety of habitats. One of the most beautiful is the keel-billed toucan, the national bird of Belize. The extremely rare scarlet macaw also inhabits Belize’s forests, and probably the best place to see it is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Other bird species include several different species of parrots, wading birds, eagles and hawks.
Reptiles and Amphibians
There are approximately 140 species of reptiles and amphibians in Belize. They include crocodiles, green iguanas (which can grow as long as 7 feet and look scary, but are actually vegetarians), and red-eyed tree frogs. There are also numerous species of snakes including boa constrictors, vipers, and the beautiful but poisonous coral snake.
Crocodile in the Sittee River, Belize
Hundreds of species of fish inhabit the coral reefs, and there are many species of hard and soft coral. The mangroves are a very important ecosystem that exists along ocean edge on many of the cayes and along the coast. The mangroves are home to a wide variety of birds and play an important part in the purification of water. Kayaking through mangrove areas is a very interesting experience if you get a chance to do it, particularly early in the morning or at dusk, when birds are most active (and there are generally fewer people).
Please see our full list of Belize Tour Packages here.