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Belize City Overview
Bordering on Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America (after El Salvador), with an area of approximately 9,000 square miles that includes numerous small islands off the coast known as cayes. More than half of the mainland is covered with dense forests, and at its longest point Belize is 176 miles long while its greatest width is 88 miles. Long a strong advocate of environmental protection, the government has set aside approximately 20 percent of its land as nature reserves.
Belize has been attracting steadily increasing numbers of U.S. visitors as it has become better known as a reasonably priced destination offering some of the best diving in the Caribbean. It also continues to increase in popularity as a cruise destination and is often included as one of the ports of call on Western Caribbean itineraries.
Diving is Belize's main claim to fame due to an almost unbroken line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles along its coast that make up the longest reef system in the western hemisphere (and the second longest in the world). While many cayes are tiny and uninhabited, some like Ambergris Caye are sufficiently large to have built resorts that attract divers from around the world.
Several important Mayan sites on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich, make for excellent day trips and are included on shore excursions by most cruise ships. As a matter of fact, Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites of all the countries in Central America.
Belize City, with its wooden and brick buildings, exudes some colonial charm, but the downtown area also has many seedy neighborhoods, and tourists should beware of walking around the city after dark. For cruise passengers, Belize City is primarily a jumping off point for tours and excursions to its many natural and historical attractions.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Tampa
Belikin beer at Riverside Tavern, owned by Belize's only brewery. Open for lunch and dinner. (#2 Mapp Street; 501-223-5640)
Bracelets carved of zirticote hardwood, from the National Handicrafts Sales Centre near Tourism Village. Also find an assortment of locally produced mahogany and rosewood carvings, slate carvings, jippi jappa baskets and artwork. (2 South Park Street; 501-223-3636)
English is Belize's official language and is spoken by virtually everyone.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Belizean dollar (exchange rate is roughly $2 Belize to $1 U.S.); all shops and merchants readily accept U.S. dollars (most also accept credit cards) so it is unnecessary to change money. ATM's are plentiful in both the Tourism Village and the rest of the city.
All ships anchor in Belize City harbor and passengers are whizzed from ship to shore via speedy Belizean tenders; takes approximately 20 minutes to tender ashore. All passengers disembark at docks in Belize's Tourism Village.
Taxis are readily available at Tourism Village as well as in the city and at hotels. Taxis do not have meters and although most drivers charge a standard fare, make sure you determine the fare before getting in so as to avoid being burned upon arriving at your destination. Look for the green license plate of licensed taxis. There are also water taxis and ferries that depart from the Marine Terminal to the outlying cayes, including the larger resort cayes such as Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. A trip from Belize City to San Pedro, the largest town on Ambergris Caye, takes around 80 minutes.
Do It Yourself Driving: It's also possible to rent a car although this is not recommended due to the poor condition of many roads. Traffic accidents are common. Rental agencies in Belize City include Hertz-Safari (11A Cork Street; 011-501- 2-235395) and Crystal Auto Rental (Northern Highway mile marker 5; 011-501-223-1600). Crystal offers free shuttle service, use of ice chest, cell phone and child safety seat. Try Airport Car Rental for additional car rental agencies at the airport.
Flights: Tropic Air (800-422-3435 or 011-501-226-2012) and Maya Island Air (800-225-6732 or 501-223-1140) both offer a regular schedule of flights from Belize City to Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Flights to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye leave approximately every 90 minutes until 5 p.m. and take just 20 minutes. These are indeed "very small" planes with some carrying a maximum of five passengers and the pilot.
Watch Out For
When using cash -- particularly with merchants that accept U.S. dollars -- be sure you get change in U.S. currency. Don't buy items that are made from sea turtle shells, black coral or Triton's trumpet shells.
Also, almost all the major attractions are at some distance from the city; so if you're exploring independently and hiring your own transportation, make sure you are back in time at Tourism Village for the last tender departure for your ship.
Diving and Snorkeling: Number one on the hit parade of favorite outdoor activities due to the astounding sites along the barrier reef. Some of the best dive sites lie just off Ambergris Caye. Charter operators offer day trips that include transportation. However you get to Ambergris Caye, head for the main town of San Pedro, where many of the dive operators are clustered. For a list of local dive shops see Diving on Ambergris Caye. A favorite snorkeling area is known as Shark Ray Alley (one hour by speedboat from San Pedro) where it's possible to get "up close and personal" (petting is permitted) with nurse sharks and sting rays. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a three-square-mile dive site.
Mayan Heritage: Among the best of Belize's Mayan sites is Altun Ha, a heavily excavated site that is a convenient day trip out of the city. Once a major trading and ceremonial center, it consists of several impressive temples and tombs highlighted by the Temple of the Masonry Altars. Another important site is Xunantunich, located near the Guatemalan border that can only be reached by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry. Situated here are six major plazas ringed by more than 25 temples and palaces; largest of the remaining temples is Il Castilo which is worth climbing for the spectacular panoramic view from the top.
Wildlife Lovers: Belize City's three major sites containing wild creatures are all located fairly close together. Those who would rather not venture very far from the city can check out The Belize Zoo with its more than 125 animals, all native to Belize. Daily 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Western Highway mile marker 29; 501-220-8004). A little farther out is the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Western Highway mile marker 30.8) and the Community Baboon Sanctuary (across the street; 501-660-3545), which is home to a substantial number of black howler monkeys, called “baboon” in the local Creole dialect.
Birders: Belize is a birder's delight as it is home to more than 500 different species from toucans to egrets. Two highly recommended ways to encounter birdlife is on a guided boat trip to the Little Guana Caye Bird Sanctuary and/or the aforementioned Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
Been There, Done That
For the ultimate in R&R at the beach, head to Caye Caulker, a 45-minute ferry ride from the Marine Terminal. Just five miles long and one mile wide, laid-back Caye Caulker is ideal for sun worshipping on one of its gorgeous beaches. There are no cars here so everyone rides around either in golf carts or on bicycles which can be rented by the hour or for the day. Divers can hop boats that go out to the barrier reef just 10 minutes away.
Explore Belize's caves. In ancient times, the Mayans believed that caves were the "underworld" and were revered as sacred places. Options for exploring the network of caves include tubing or by kayak or canoe. Some of the tubing is at a place known as "Jungle Paw," where the float through a series of caves in an inner tube lasts about two hours.
The menu at The Smoky Mermaid features fabulous lobster and fresh fish dishes. Serves breakfast all day on Saturday. Daily 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (The Great House, #13 Cork Street; 501-223-4759)
Nerie's serves less expensive and more Belizean fare. Try rice and beans, stewed pork or fish burger. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Queen & Daly streets; 501-223-4028; 12 Douglas Jones Street; 501-224-5199)
Eat with the locals at Big Daddy's Diner, a cafeteria-style restaurant. Monday – Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Central Market; 501-227-0932)
Four Fort Street is a great place to soak up local atmosphere and enjoy native cuisine. Monday - Saturday, 7-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (#4 Fort Street; 501-2-30116)
If you're spending the day on Caye Caulker, grab a burger, tacos or sandwich at Marin's Restaurant and Bar on Luciano Reyes Street.
On Ambergris Caye, Ruby's Cafe serves coffee, pastries, tostadas, burritos and sandwiches. Open 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Front Street, San Pedro; 501-226-2063)
Staying in Touch
The Click & Sip Internet Cafe is located inside the Belize Tourism Village. (Fort Street)
The National Handicraft Center (2 South Park; 501-223-3636) has Internet access.
On Caye Caulker, Youngs Internet Cafe is in the center of the island. (Back Street; 501-660-7283)
Best nature lover/history buff combo: An ideal tour for those who want to view creatures in the wild and also explore Mayan ruins is the Altun Ha and River Wallace tour. Travel first up Belize's Wallace River (also known as the Olde Belize River), inhabited by a host of creatures including manatees, crocodiles, iguanas and many species of tropical birds. The second half of the tour is spent at Altun Ha, one of the most important Mayan sites in the country. Duration: 5-6 hours.
Best soft adventurer excursion: Tubing along Belize's Sibun River provides a unique look at limestone caves formed before the dawn of mankind. Duration: 6-7 hours. Old Port Promotions and Belize Cruise Excursions pick up and drop off at the Marine Terminal.
Best for snorkelers: Travel in a snorkel boat to the uninhabited Goff's Caye, a tiny caye 12 miles offshore where there is abundant reef life and magnificent coral formations. Here it's possible to snorkel either from the beautiful beach or directly off the snorkel boat. Duration: 4 hours.
Best "interactive" shark excursion: Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with some of Belize's most "people-friendly" underwater creatures. Speedboats transport passengers directly from the ship to Shark Ray Alley where they can snorkel amidst nurse sharks and stingrays; excursion also includes lunch stop in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Duration: 7 hours.
For More Information
Call 800-624-0686, or visit www.travelbelize.org
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The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
-- Updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.