For such a tiny place, Belize packs a big punch. Few countries fill so much into such a small area, making Belize a great all-in-one destination not only for scenery and adventure, but also for opportunities to contribute something meaningful during your stay. Once you get your bearings, you’ll fall in love with Belize. And once you fall in love, you’re sure to leave a part of yourself behind to live forever in this beautiful country.
Geography & Demographics
Located on the northeastern coast of Central America, Belize enjoys the same lush tropical climate that attracts beachcombers and jungle adventurers to the region throughout the year. Its northernmost territory shares a small section of the Yucatan Peninsula with Mexico. Though it is one of the smallest countries in Central America, it is also the least densely populated with just 334,000 residents. So the typical crowds and chaos of many Central American cities are nowhere to be found in Belize. The culture is very relaxed and welcoming, and the landscape offers wide expanses of beach and dense tropical forests covering rugged mountain ranges.
Like most other Caribbean destinations, Belize’s climate can be broken into two general weather conditions: wet and dry. High/dry season runs from late November through April. Hurricanes are most likely from August through October. The rainy season is from June through mid November, with rainfall amounts varying by region. If you want a “sure bet” for sunshine, plan to visit sometime from March through May.
If part of your stay is in the rainy season, be sure to pack some sturdy shoes, a rain jacket, and maybe a small packable umbrella.
Food & Culture
Belize was formerly a British colony and maintains English as its official language. Spanish is also taught in primary and secondary school. Belize has high literacy rates, and those with some basic Spanish skills will find ample opportunities to practice their phrasing and pronunciation. For those with a zest for language learning, Belizean Creole (or Kriol) is the native language, and is most commonly spoken among Belizeans in casual, conversational settings. Belize also has three indigenous languages, reflective of the rich Mayan history, that are considered endangered.
Most Belizeans are of Spanish/Mestizo or Creole descent. The best of both Latin American and Caribbean cultures can be found here in its friendly pace, rich history, tropical cuisine, and spellbinding landscape. Belizean cuisine reflects all of the savory and spicy elements found in Mexican and other Central American dishes, along with the tangy zest that comes from its Creole influences. Seafood is a no-brainer, but don’t miss out on some of the other national dishes sourced from the country’s abundant fields. No matter what you order, it’s likely to be accompanied by rice and beans cooked in coconut milk. If you want the authentic experience, make sure you don’t order “beans and rice” – that’s different, and will get you a spoonful of beans served next to a spoonful of rice. It probably doesn’t seem like it should make a difference, but rest assured it does. Hearty stews, conch fritters, fresh tropical fruit and – for breakfast – johnnycakes all belong on your “must try” list. For the adventurous types, there are plenty of more exotic cuisine options available such as the gibnut (a lowland rodent) and iguana. Perhaps with enough Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce (found everywhere), even the pickiest eater would venture to try one of these. Green sea turtles are endangered all over the world but they are still available in Belize so travelers are discouraged from ordering them at restaurants or markets.The official currency is the Belize dollar (BZD). You’ll find that merchants prefer trading in US greenbacks when possible. But for small purchases, don’t use bills of US$20 and larger, otherwise merchants may have trouble making change for you. Keep in mind there has been a steady increase in counterfeiting activity in recent years across Central and Latin America. Don’t be offended if merchants take a closer look at your paper money before accepting it.
Things to Do
Once you’ve satisfied your culinary curiosities, you will be fueled for the rest of your Belize adventures. There are more than 85 different ecosystem types across all of Belize, brimming with more than 850 various species of mammals, reptiles, and birds. Accompanied by the rich aquatic life found among the coral reefs, the mere density of Belize’s biodiversity rivals countries with more species spread over greater square miles. This, along with its spectacular scenery, compact size, and developed tourist infrastructure, makes Belize ideal for those wanting to mix a little adventure with some relaxation.
You won’t run out of options for activities; try biking, trekking, and spelunking or snorkeling, fishing, diving, and windsurfing. From mountain ridge to coral reef – and everything in between – Belize makes it all possible even within a limited itinerary. The ultimate beach bum life awaits on one of the cayes, while numerous Mayan ruins dot the interior landscape (including Tikal just across the Guatemalan border).
The country’s main attraction is the Belize Barrier Reef, which is one of the world’s largest barrier reef systems. The largest city and former capital is Belize City, which sets on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the Belize River. The country’s capital was relocated to Belmopan in 1970, after a devastating hurricane destroyed much of Belize City in 1961. Though government offices were moved inland, Belize City still retains the flavor and colonial color expected of a Caribbean nation’s population center.
Volunteering in Belize
The steep rise in conservation interests across Belize, along with the fact that it is still very much a developing country, creates a wide range of options for those hoping to make a meaningful contribution. While the country has vast natural resources, it does not have the same level of economic and public resources necessary to ensure that all of its citizens are thriving.
The same natural beauty that draws so many visitors to its protected areas risks destruction and endangerment due to heavy tourist traffic and development. These risks must be mitigated to ensure that the country’s natural resources remain healthy without turning away the very people who are fueling the country’s economy.
Numerous conservation and research organizations have established a presence in Belize to ensure the sustainability and protection of its natural areas. These organizations commonly need volunteers who can contribute to field operations.
Popular Conservation Placements:
- Trail maintenance
- Wildlife census
- Guiding nature walks
- Providing direct assistance to researchers in the field
Because the balance between conservation and the economy is so critical, some of this work may include working in smaller communities to find a balance between attracting tourism revenue with preserving the natural beauty and rich culture. Volunteers may find themselves in the middle of an ecotourism project that could prove critical to a local community. The perspective of visitors is valued as locals try to better understand the expectations of tourists while balancing other values and priorities of their village.
Teaching positions can be found within existing public school settings or in programs seeking to enhance children’s knowledge in a particular subject. Gaining exposure to different cultures, and having a chance to practice their English, can inject new excitement and enthusiasm into a classroom. You can nurture the education and imagination of the next generation of Belizeans.
- Assist teachers with classroom work
- Creating activities to support lesson plans
- Leading group activities or language tables
- Providing one-on-one tutoring
As a country steeped in Mayan history, Belize continues to unearth artifacts from its ancient past. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and experts of ancient cultures continue to explore the region’s rich history and piece together the stories that have resulted into today’s Belize. These projects often require volunteers who are patient enough to take part in the painstaking search for tiny artifacts and physical clues. Volunteers can discover and contribute to a vast catalogue of human and natural history. You may not discover a chest of gold coins, but you can help fill in the blank for some of the mysteries that remain unearthed.
If you’re more comfortable using a brush to paint rather than dust off artifacts, consider this hands on volunteer option in community development. Since many economic resources are invested in expanding the infrastructure of tourist areas, rural communities often go without the resources needed for maintenance. Projects give volunteers a chance to leave a lasting mark on a village and the lives of its residents, but also provide volunteers a chance to get to know a community on a much deeper level than a day-trip ever will.
- Update a community center
- Repair a school
- Build a family home
- Stabilize areas prone to mudslides
Look for the special, fleeting opportunities to experience a place on its own terms. Belize promises to satisfy every lush tropical vision you can imagine, all surrounded by warm people and a fascinating history. But the surprises are up to you. When you open your mind to things that are genuinely foreign to you, and extend your hand in the true spirit of service, your horizons – and your heart – will widen exponentially.