With a population of about 80,000, Belize City is the major hub into Belize. All international travelers arrive and depart from nearby Philip S.W. Goldson Airport. A separate municipal airport in Belize City is used for domestic flights to the south and to the cayes. The largest city in the country, Belize City was the capital of British Honduras, until it was moved about 48 miles inland after Hurricane Hattie struck in 1965. The former British colony gained its independence in 1981, and was renamed Belize. Belmopan, with a population of about 7,000, is now the smallest national capital in the world.
Belize City remains the gateway to Belize’s historical and cultural points. On the north side of Belize City is the world’s only manual swing bridge, still in use. Located on the Belize River, next to the swing bridge, is the Maritime Museum, which introduces visitors to a history of Belize’s fishing and boat building industries. The Bliss Institute in Belize City is the cultural center of Belize, and the National Handicraft Center is an outlet for crafts. The oldest Anglican Cathedral Church in Central America, St. John’s Cathedral, was built in 1812 from bricks brought as ballast from European sailing ships.
Originally built as a colonial prison in the mid 1800s, the Museum of Belize features displays that include a reflection of Belize’s rich Maya history. Tourism Village, located on the Belize River mouth about 15 minutes away from cruise ship anchorage, is specifically designed for cruise lines, with courtyard shops, restaurants, snack bars, and entertainment on cruise ship days.
The Cayo District
Following the Western Highway, travelers to Cayo will find the adventure center of Belize, rich with tropical foliage, wildlife and waterfalls. Cayo is home to the largest Maya site in Belize, Caracol, and the most photographed ruin of Xunantunich. It also offers some of the best canoeing, river rafting, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking in Belize.
The Thousand Foot Falls, occasionally referred to as Hidden Valley Falls, is actually 1,600 ft. (480 meters) high, and is believed to be the highest waterfall in all of Central America. Located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, the Falls include a small store and picnic tables at the public viewpoint, which is open daily to visitors.
Tropical islands cooled by ocean breezes, the cayes are the most popular destinations for visitors to Belize. At approximately 25 miles long, Ambergris Caye is the largest and most developed of all the 200 islands, or cayes (pronounced “keys”) in Belize. The island itself is situated about 20 miles east of the mainland on the northern portion of the country. Ambergris Caye actually is the far southern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The only thing separating the island from Mexico is a channel that was hand dug by the Maya to facilitate trade and transportation.
The cayes are a diver’s, snorkeler’s, birder’s, and fisherman’s paradise. The amazing coral reef system, the second largest in the world, lies one-half mile length of the island. This has made San Pedro Town the dive and water sport capital in the western Caribbean. The Great Blue Hole, Turneffe Islands, Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Mexico Rocks, Lighthouse Reef and many other dive areas, some of which are only a short boat ride away, are just a few of the possibilities.
The Belize mainland is a short boat or plane ride from Ambergris Caye, allowing a visitor to stay in the Cayes yet visit Belize national parks, reserves, Maya ruins, and other rainforest attractions.
South of Belize City, the flavor is distinctly Caribbean. Palm trees sway, white sand soothes the feet, and seawater laps the shores. A tranquil tropical setting as well as unpopulated diving and snorkeling await, and the Garifuna culture, a mixture of African and Indian, thrives here. Enjoy reef and rainforest activities from one location: snorkel and dive the uncrowded pristine reef. Fish the rivers, flats, lagoons and the open sea. Kayak the mangroves, and explore an abundance of wildlife. Hike the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve. Visit the Maya ruins of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, or just grab a hammock and relax on the beach.
Placencia is about 15 miles north of the mouth of Monkey River, and is a good place from which to take the Monkey River Tour. The Monkey River flows from the Maya Mountains at the Guatemala border through southern Belize to the Gulf of Honduras, and plays a key role in supporting area wildlife, as well as the nearby reef system.
The Northern Highway, one of the best in Belize, connects Belize City with the border of Mexico 90 miles to the north. The two largest towns in the north, Orange Walk and Corozal, have economies based on sugar cane production and populations of Mexican descent. Orange Walk also has a large Mennonite community. Fishing and archaeological ruins are the main tourist activities in this largely undiscovered area of Belize.
According to the Belize Tourism Board, northern Belize actually provides more variety of nature, history, and culture than any other district of Belize. Indeed, the north is a bonanza of natural wealth and archaeological wonder. Spectacular ancient cities, highlighted by the temples at Lamanai and Altun Ha, evidence the ancient Maya’s affinity for the area. Remains of an estimated 600 Mayan settlements lie scattered throughout the two northern districts of Belize, most neither excavated nor mapped. With jungles, rainforests, coastal lagoons, and rivers, the region is home to an amazing array of animal and plant life that includes the jaguar, manatee, and howler monkeys.
Orange Walk is the second-largest district in Belize. This northwest section of the country is full of contrasts, from the ancient Maya sites to the modern-day Orange Walk Town; from Old Order Mennonite farmers to large scale sugar cane plantations; from the flat, dry plains to thick rainforests and lagoons. For travelers who love adventure and desire to get off of the beaten path, Orange Walk District is an ideal destination.