If you want to get a sense of life in Belize, start by familiarizing yourself with some of its simple pleasures. There are a few highlights that will send you home saying, “Ah mi gat wahn gud guf taim” (I had a good time).
Belizeans frequently talk about “the Jewel.” They say, “Get yourself a piece of the Jewel.” Or, “When are you coming back to the Jewel?” By Jewel, they simply mean Belize. And Belize is a jewel. It’s a place of incredible natural beauty, of mint-green seas and emerald-green forests, of the longest Barrier Reef in the Western or Northern hemisphere, with more kinds of birds, butterflies, flowers, and trees than in all of the United States and Canada combined. Massive ceiba trees and graceful cohune palms stand guard in rain forests where jaguars still roam free and toucans and parrots fly overhead. Rivers, bays, and lagoons are rich with hundreds of different kinds of fish. And Belizeans themselves are jewels. The country is a gumbo of cultures—African, Hispanic, Mayan, Asian, European, and Caribbean—all getting along better than anyone would expect. Belize? It’s a Jewel.
Passing the Time
Nearly every country claims to be full of friendly, smiling, welcoming people, but in the case of Belize it’s really true. The vast majority of Belizeans are open and friendly, and they’re happy, even eager, to spend a few minutes chatting with you about nothing in particular—the weather, the beautiful morning, how you’re enjoying the Jewel. In most cases, they don’t want anything from you, except to pass the time of day. So, let your guard down, relax, smile, and share a few rewarding moments with the shopkeeper, the waitress, the fellow you meet in the bar, or the lady you sit next to on the bus.
Once you see toucans at Tikal or the hard-to-find motmot in the Cayo District, you, too, might get caught up in the excitement of searching for some of Belize’s 600 species of birds. Many Belizeans know all their local birds (although the names they have for them may differ from those in your birding guide) and where the best places are to find them. Crooked Tree, Chan Chich at Gallon Jug, the New River and New River Lagoon near Lamanai, and much of the Toledo District in the Deep South are wonderful areas for bird-watching; keep your eyes peeled to the treetops and don’t forget your binoculars.
Though the ancient Mayan empire—which once occupied much of present-day Guatemala and extended into Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador—began to collapse around AD 900, it still left one of the richest cultural and archaeological legacies in the world. Only a fraction of the thousands of Mayan ruins have been excavated from the jungle that over the centuries has swallowed the splendid temples and sprawling cities. Evidence of the Maya is everywhere in Belize, from the lagoon-side temples of Lamanai to the caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal. All together, Belize has about a thousand Mayan sites, most small and unexcavated, with likely hundreds or even thousands still to be discovered.