What a contrast is the district that shares its country’s name! Belize District comprises 1600 sq miles at the heart of the country and includes its largest population center and some of its most pristine tropical bush. Belize City gets a bad rap for its impoverished areas, some of which are plagued by crime and violence. But the seaside city also embodies the country’s amazing cultural diversity, its neighborhoods packed with people, restaurants, and shops that represent every ethnicity. A few miles out of the city center, the gritty Caribbean urbanism crumbles, revealing a landscape of vast savanna that stretches to the north, dense tropical forest to the west, and lush marshland to the south. There is plenty to see and do in Belize District – so much that a week-long visitor could spend their entire vacation here, sampling the country’s Maya heritage, Creole culture, and luxuriant wildlife, all within an hour’s drive of the city.
POINTS OF INTEREST
SIGHTS MUSEUM OF BELIZE
This modern museum in the Fort George district provides an excellent overview of the story of Belize. Housed in the country’s former main jail (built of brick in 1857), the museum preserves one cell in its original state, complete with inmates’ graffiti; if you thought your hotel room was cramped, think again! Fascinating historical photos and documents bear testimony to the colonial and independence eras, and the destruction wrought by hurricanes. The Maya Treasures section, upstairs, is rather light on artifacts (most of Belize’s finest Maya finds were spirited away to other countries) but there are some impressive examples of Maya jade, as well as some ceramics and sculpture. You’ll also find plenty of informative models and explanations of the major Maya sites around the country. Other sections of the museum are devoted to Belize’s highly colorful postage stamps, and its insect life, with full detail on the disgusting manner in which the human botfly uses living human flesh to nourish its larvae. The museum also has a good little gift shop.
This heart and soul of Belize City life, crossed by just about everyone here just about every day, is the only remaining manually operated bridge of its type in the world. Its operators rotate the bridge open, usually at about 6 am and 5:30 pm, Monday to Saturday, just long enough to let tall boats pass, bringing vehicles and pedestrians in the city center to a halt. It’s quite a procedure, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might even get to help out. The bridge, a product of Liverpool’s ironworks, was installed in 1923, replacing an earlier bridge that had opened in 1897.
The Swing Bridge is ground zero for hustlers looking to part tourists from their valuables. You are likely to be approached by seemingly friendly sorts with outstretched hands asking, ‘Where you from?’ Be advised that the chances of that encounter resulting in a mutually beneficial cultural exchange are slim to none. Downstream from the bridge, Haulover Creek is usually a pretty sight, with small yachts and fishing boats riding at anchor.
At the tip of the Fort George peninsula lies the granite Baron Bliss Tomb, the final resting place of Belize’s most famous benefactor, who never set foot on Belizean soil while alive. Next to the tomb stands the Fort George Lighthouse, one of the many benefits the baron’s munificence has yielded the country.
BACAB ADVENTURE & ECO PARK
Part nature preserve, part theme park, Bacab claims to offer ‘Something for Everyone’ – which is no idle boast. The place is set on more than 500 acres of jungle, through which wind hiking trails and waterways. A nature hike will likely reward observers with a glimpse of resident howler monkeys or multiple bird sightings. But adventurers might wish to explore the reserve on horseback (best scheduled a day in advance), by kayak, or even by mountain bike.
The place is perfect for families as it offers a plethora of ‘safer’ activities, including a huge swimming pool with a waterfall. More than 25 native butterfly species inhabit the Wild Wings Butterfly House, while a congregation of rescued crocodiles has laid claim to its own private watering hole. While Bacab is loads of fun, its goal is more complex, as management has undertaken an intensive reforestation effort, planting more than 25 species of native trees.
COMMUNITY BABOON SANCTUARY
No real baboons inhabit Belize but Belizeans use that name for black howler monkeys, an endangered species that exists only in Belize, northern Guatemala, and southern Mexico. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is an amazing community-run, grassroots conservation operation (run by local women’s organizations) that has engineered an impressive increase in the primate’s local population. CBS occupies about 20 sq miles, spread over several Creole villages in the Belize River valley. More than 200 landowners in seven villages have signed pledges to preserve the monkey’s habitat, by protecting forested areas along the river and in corridors that run along the borders of their property. The black howlers have made an amazing comeback in the area, and the monkeys now roam freely all around the surrounding area.
This pristine 5900-acre Spanish Creek Wildlife Sanctuary runs 5 miles along the length of the Spanish Creek, beginning by the small Creole/Maya community of Rancho Dolores. Here you will find the wildlife sanctuary visitors center, the green building between the bridge and the cemetery. Like the Community Baboon Sanctuary, the Spanish Creek Wildlife Sanctuary is run by a grassroots, community-based group; unlike CBS, it is not well organized. In theory, local guides take tourists horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking along the Spider Monkey Trail, which starts about 2 miles downstream from the village; in reality, the visitors center is staffed only sporadically and the wildlife sanctuary does not see enough visitors to keep guides on call – so it might be difficult to make such arrangements.
Altun Ha, the ruins that have inspired Belikin beer labels and Belizean banknotes, stands 34 miles north of central Belize City, off the Old Northern Hwy. During its peak in the Classic Period (AD 250–1000), Altun Ha was a rich and important Maya trading and agricultural town with a population of 8000 to 10,000. The entire site covered some 1500 acres, but what visitors today see is the central ceremonial precinct of two plazas surrounded by temples, excavated in the 1960s and now looking squeaky clean following a stabilization and conservation program from 2000 to 2004.
Altun Ha existed by at least 200 BC, perhaps even several centuries earlier, and flourished until the mysterious collapse of Classic Maya civilization around AD 900. Most of the temples date from around AD 550 to 650, though, like many Maya temples, most of them are composed of several layers, having been built over periodically in a series of renewals.
CROOKED TREE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Between December and May migrating birds flock to the lagoons, rivers, and swamps of the massive Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, which is managed by Belize Audubon. The best bird-watching is in April and May when the low level of the lagoon draws thousands of birds into the open to seek food in the shallows. That said, at any time between December and May bird-watchers are in for hours of ornithological bliss. Boat-billed, chestnut-bellied and Bare-throated tiger herons, Muscovy and black-bellied whistling ducks, snail kites, ospreys, black collared hawks, and all of Belize’s five species of kingfisher are among the 276 species recorded here. Jabiru storks, the largest flying bird in the Americas, with wingspans of up to 12ft, congregate here in April and May, and a few pairs nest in the sanctuary in the preceding months.
OLD BELIZE EXHIBIT
This is the original Old Belize, which manages to pack the country’s entire ecological, archaeological, industrial, and political history into a 45-minute tour. It starts in the rainforest, with reproductions of the tropical trees and limestone caves that you’ll find (for real) just a few miles west. A Maya exhibit has reproductions of some temples and tombs, which you also might see (for real) just a few miles north of here.
The most interesting parts of the museum are the industry exhibits, which display some genuine artifacts, such as a sugarcane press and a steam-powered sawmill. There is also a reproduction of the interior of a Garifuna home, as well as a life-size model of a Belize Town street from the early 20th century.
The story of the Belize Zoo began with filmmaker Richard Foster, who shot a wildlife documentary entitled Path of the Raingods in Belize in the early 1980s. Sharon Matola – a Baltimore-born biologist, former circus performer, and former US Air Force survival instructor – was hired to take care of the animals. By the time filming was complete, the animals had become partly tame and Matola was left wondering what to do with her 17 charges. So she founded the Belize Zoo, which displays native Belizean wildlife in natural surroundings on 29-acre grounds. From these beginnings, the zoo has grown to provide homes for animals endemic to the region that have been injured, orphaned at a young age, or bred in captivity and donated from other zoos.