Belize City sits on the tip of a peninsula facing the Caribbean Sea, and it was here that the country was founded. British pirates originally used it as a hideout, but quickly realized that exporting logwood and mahogany was better worth their time. So they settled around the mouth of the Belize River. As the settlement grew, England eventually granted it colonial status as British Honduras. African slaves were brought in to work in the logging camps while civil wars in neighboring countries caused an influx of refugees. Eventually, an anti-colonialism began brewing among the people ultimately leading to it’s independence in 1981. Today, the city carries nearly one third of the country’s entire population of 270,000, representing all of its different ethnic groups. Originally the capital, Hurricane Hattie forced a relocation inland to Belmopan in 1961. However, the city still remains the country’s center of commerce, culture and transportation. Called just Belize by locals, it’s where it all starts and ends for most travelers who pass through the International Airport.
The country’s colonial past, as well as its present efforts to modernize, are evident throughout the city. The Swing Bridge arches over Haulover Creek, which empties into the sea and is usually cluttered by old Belizean sailboats and seagulls. It connects the commercial downtown area with the residential north section, and is a good starting point to explore the city. Historical buildings, all within walking distance, include the former Governor General’s home, which has been converted into a House of Culture; and St. John’s Cathedral (built from bricks used as ship ballast) the oldest Anglican Cathedral in Central America. Take in a cultural show at the newly renovated Bliss Institute or an art exposition at the Image Factory. Or visit the Museum of Belize, formerly Her Majesty’s Prison built in 1857. The city has many good restaurants and a vibrant nightlife as well. The Tourism Village on Fort Street caters to the new cruise ship industry. Though they have brought a great deal of money into the economy, many criticize the strain they put on natural attractions which often receive hundreds of their passengers a week. The city’s reputation has been tarnished by reports of crime and drugs. While the city does have its share of problems, taking the same precautions as you would in any other city should keep you out of harms way.
The many nearby sites, as well as the history of the city, make a 2 or 3 day stop-over during your travels worthwhile. Altun Ha, one of the most extensively excavated Mayan ruins in the country, is just an hour drive away. A visit to The Community Baboon Sanctuary (in Bermuda Landing), almost guarantees sightings of howler monkeys, the largest monkey in the Americas. Birders should not miss Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, home of hundreds of resident and migratory birds, including the jabiru stork. The mangrove lined rivers are renowned for snook and cubera. The reef is good for snapper and barracuda while bigger game fish like marlin and tuna can be hooked in the deep sea. Goff’s Caye, a deserted island with very nice beaches, is a good place to snorkel and relax. Attractions further away, but still accessible on day trips, include Mountain Pine Ridge, Lamanai and Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The Aubisque catamaran and the Aggressor III live-aboard both dock in the city for sailors or divers interested in spending a few days on the water.
About 25 miles south of Belize City lays a small peninsula nestled between the Southern Lagoon and the Caribbean Sea. Here you’ll find the small vilalge of Gales Point, also called Manatee Village. Thistraditional Creole village and is a great place to visit if you are interested in culture. Stoll into town and enjoy a traditional meal and some Creole drumming. It is also an area rich in nature and wildlife. It is surrounded by a large estuary system of several rivers, creeks, lagoons and channels. To the west, you can see the Maya Mountains across the lagoon. This healthy ecosystem is home to the largest population of the endangered Manatees in the Caribbean, as well as many birds and wildlife in the surrounding jungle. There are secluded beaches where several species of turtles come to nest, including the endangered Hawksbill.