I took my first trip to Central America last Christmas (1995) thanks to an ad I placed in Connecting: Solo Travel News. The ad produced a travel companion who suggested Belize for a holiday destination, an idea I found appealing. As companions, however, we weren't as compatible as we had hoped, and now I realize that Belize is a country I could easily have done on my own. And so could you, providing you are easy-going and adaptable. Schedules and service are informal: Belizeans do not hurry.
Belize is a little jewel of a country on the Caribbean Sea sharing borders with Mexico and Guatemala. Prior to achieving independence in 1981, it was known as British Honduras. Unlike most of Central America, Belize reflects a British rather than Latin influence. Although the people here are of Spanish, Mayan, Creole, Caribe as well as British descent, English is the official language. The country is a democracy; it has no regular army, and there has never been a military coup. The culture is relaxed, food cheap by Canadian standards, the water safe, and there is no need to avoid salads and other foods. All in all it's an easy destination for independent travel.
A barrier reef stretching 280 km along Belize's Caribbean coast accounts for hundreds of offshore cayes and coral atolls. Ambergris Caye and a few others are the usual destinations for tourists, but I found the beaches unsuitable for swimming and sand flies made life miserable in the evening. Instead, I recommend Placencia, a village of 600 friendly Belizeans, the best beach in the country and, some say, the best diving reef in the world. At night a refreshing breeze blows inland from the water, eliminating both sand flies and the need for air-conditioning. Situated at the southern tip of a 25-km long, narrow, sandy peninsula, Placencia started as a fishing village, and there was no use for streets. Now, a narrow, concrete footpath winds among simple wood frame houses on stilts scattered under the coconut palms.
Laid-back is the best term for a holiday in Placencia. That became evident the moment I landed at the airstrip, 2 km from the village. There were benches sheltered by a grass roof but no telephone. An amiable but unofficial taxi driver named Dido was waiting there in his old Ford Galaxy, hoping to nab fares from among the arriving tourists. Dido's car sported a license plate from Smith's Falls, Ontario...sent to him by a happy customer. He helped us find a place to stay, carried our luggage and pointed out essentials – like Daisy's Ice Cream – on the way to the village.
I spent ten days in Placencia and could have stayed longer. The place has almost no shopping, and except for a disco open until midnight, the main evening pastime is conversation and reading. Everyone lends books, and you can sit at the beach bars without obligation to buy a drink. It's easy to drift into conversation; world travellers go to Placencia. Evenings in the village are the best time to meet like-minded people and arrange to share activities such as a snorkeling trip to the reef or Laughing Bird Caye.
Placencia has a variety of accommodation both in the village itself and at resorts dotted along the shore. Singles are better off staying in the village, the social centre. I was very happy at the Westwind Hotel where a double room with a private bath was US$70 per night. I spent many happy hours rocking and gazing at the turquoise water from one of the hammocks strung under the palapas.
If you prefer to rent a small cabin (cabaña) with a kitchenette and a screened porch strung with hammocks, Mother Ocean's Tropic Hotel (US$98) is a reasonable walk along the beach to the north of the village. Cabaña rentals usually require a 3-night minimum and full payment 30 days in advance, although you can sometimes get a 20% discount by booking direct. The restaurant here serves tasty, low-fat California fare and fresh-baked muffins every morning.
Over breakfast I'd decide what to do: book an excursion for the following day, or maybe take a 20-minute stroll up the beach to Kitty's Resort, a 20-minute walk from the village, and rent a kayak by the day or half-day.
The government of Belize is committed to sustainable tourism and working with rural villages to create protected areas. From Placencia you can take day tours to the unspoiled coral reef, the rainforest, and a Mayan ruin. I chose the six-hour Monkey River Magic excursion with Placencia Industry Tours, run by David Dial. David runs guide training sessions for the local village men besides guiding tourists.
The US$40 cost was worth every penny. The Monkey River teems with life: butterflies and birds flit from the banks, turtles sun themselves on logs, crocodiles pretend to be logs, and spiky iguanas drape themselves over branches in the treetops. I saw herons, flycatchers, kingfishers, swallows, ibis, and a vulture. I wished I had taken binoculars.
Up-river we left the boat to walk in the jungle. David cautioned us not to touch anything and to walk right behind him as he led the way along a narrow trail while explaining the interdependent relationships between plant and animal life. The fer-de-lance, he said, is one of the most poisonous snakes and common in Belize. Deeper into the forest we watched a group of howler monkeys (also called baboon in Belize) in the tree tops. A bone in the monkey's throat acts as an amplifier. An adult male roars at the top of his lungs to intimidate, and he does!
We had a good lunch at the only restaurant in the village, run by Miss Lucy. That's the way it is in Belize: small, charming, personal touches everywhere you go. Another day a restaurateur made coconut bread at my request then refused payment for it.
In Belize you get tourism with a small "a". If that's what you like go to Belize, and by all means, go alone.
The coast is bordered by spectacular coral reefs and scores of offshore islands and cayes where snorkeling, scuba diving and sports fishing enthusiasts exploit an extremely rich ecosystem. Offshore waters are clearest in late spring and summer.
Inland, the country ranges upward over rolling farmlands to a mountainous high point at Victoria Peak (1,120 metres).
Belize City is the commercial hub and main international gateway to the country. About 50 km west of Belize City, Belmopan, the capital city, was established in 1970, after Hurricane Hattie devastated Belize City.
The climate is sub-tropical, warm and humid year round with a cooler, dryer period between December and April. Rainfall averages range from 50 inches a year in the north to 170 inches in the south near Guatemala and Honduras. Hurricanes seem to hit about every 15 years during the season from August to November.
Belize is a paradise for nature lovers. The Belizean Barrier Reef is rated second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef for size and richness. Eight government and at least a dozen private wildlife sanctuaries are home to jaguar and smaller hunting cats, tapir, monkeys and hundreds of rare birds.
The Western Highway between Belize City and the Guatemalan border, and the Northern Highway between the Mexican border and Belize City are the only well-maintained highways. Other roads are generally rough and may become impassable in rainy season.
Most visitors move about the country by plane or boat. Buses service the country's main towns, and also between Belize City and Chetumal, Mexico, and between Belize City and Benque Viejo at the Guatemala border.
A passport, sufficient funds and onward ticket, are specified for entry, but the last two are seldom enforced except when a traveller's appearance is questionable.
Health conscious travelers spending time in forest regions should contact their local health departments for current precautions against malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, cholera, typhoid and tetanus, hepatitis and tuberculosis.