The first thing you want to do is forget everything you've heard about Belize City. It's really not what many of the guidebooks make it seem, and for the open-minded traveler who's looking for a genuinely fascinating city experience, Belize City delivers.
With the international airport just about 10 miles outside the city in Ladyville, chances are this will be your first taste of Belize. Likelier still is that it will be an assault on your senses initially, at least until you get used to the frenetic pace and the congestion of cars and people that seem to constantly occupy every inch of the place. But Belize City is a storybook of culture and history that definitely can't be appreciated by its cover.
Thought to be built on a foundation of rum bottles, logwood chips and loose coral sitting barely inches above sea level, Belize City gives up ground to the encroaching Caribbean every year. Visited by more than its fair share of natural disasters, one has to admire the persistence with which Belizeans maintain this hub as their commercial and social center, established as such in the early 1700's by the buccaneer Baymen of St. George's Caye.
With a population of 70,000, it's now home to over a quarter of all Belizeans who themselves have a love hate relationship with their erstwhile capital city. Since the hurricane in 1961 the government moved further inland to Belmopan hoping the people would follow, but they didn't. Instead they chose to stay, and though they complain about it constantly they somehow crave its bustle and pace, not to mention the opportunity for commerce and socializing presented by such a large concentration of people.
Mestizo and Maya are here in relatively small number along with the Garifuna who also make up only a small minority. The dominant cultural lean is toward the mixed descendants of the European buccaneers and their African slaves who fall into the Creole classification, while prominent along the street side shops and restaurants are communities of Chinese, East Indians and recent immigrants from other Central and South American countries.
The city is generally divided into north and south by a swing bridge that sits at the mouth of Haulover Creek where the Belize River meets the Caribbean. The old bridge is the only functional manually operated swing bridge left in the world and turns open twice a day to allow high mast boats upriver or out to sea. The evening opening at 5:30 pm is a sight to behold as it causes intense traffic and people jams on either side of the bridge, erupting an assortment of minor crises that are dealt with and accepted as part of the city's daily routine.
The north side's Marine Terminal is a relatively large building where you can catch boats bound for the northern cayes. The same building also houses the Marine and Coastal Zone Museums that offer displays and exhibits of the reef and the cayes along with descriptions of the eco systems that support them. Just opposite sits the colonial style Paslow Building that hosts the post office and further along is an indoor market selling a variety of produce, fresh foods and other goods.
Additional sights to be taken in here include the Fort George Lighthouse and the Baron Bliss Memorial. The latter is a tomb and memorial to Baron Victor Bliss who visited Belizean waters and was so impressed with the fishing and the hospitality he was afforded, he left a trust fund for the Belizean people that amounted to nearly two million dollars. Since 1926 that fund has helped build some of the city's health clinics, libraries and much of its social infrastructure. A national holiday on March 9th commemorates the Baron's death and honors his memory with a yacht regatta.
Also on the north side next to the sprawling U.S. Embassy compound is Belize's newest, and arguably its most compelling attraction, the Museum of Belize. Built in 1857, what was formerly Her Majesty's prison is now an immaculately restored building that will journey you through 362 years of Belizean history and over 3000 years of the Maya legacy. From the people, to the landscape, to the physical city, the stories are covered in pictures, words, and brilliantly delivered displays. The building's second story is an archeological treasury of artifacts and explanations that leaves you with a real sense of the extent and impact of the Maya civilization. A visit to this extraordinary place will give you a fuller appreciation of the citizens, the city and the country that surrounds it.
On the south side along Albert Street, the city's commercial center and its main street houses banks, larger stores, and a variety of gift and souvenir shops including another enclosed marketplace. Next door is a loud little CD and cassette shop where you'll come across hard to find Belizean and Caribbean music. And congregated outside both you'll usually find a colorful gathering of older men who smile greetings at passers by while holding vocal Creole debates on the state of the nation and the price of rum.
Further along Albert Street is Battlefield Park, a small green space with lots of concrete benches that's often the site of political speeches and civil gatherings. On the sidewalks, street corners and around the park vendors gather to sell tropical fruits and hot homemade dishes like the traditional rice and beans. Delicious tamales, tacos and an assortment of desserts are usually on offer here too. For a real taste of Belizean cuisine, skip the expensive restaurants and have lunch on one of the benches at Battlefield Park while you feed your senses on the city.
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There are many other historically significant sites around the city including St. John's Anglican Cathedral and Government House, both testaments to the British occupation. The former, built by slaves in 1812, is the oldest known cathedral in Central America, while the latter is now a museum that once served as the official residence of the appointed governor of Belize. Steeped in colonial history, the museum features exhibits that chronicle the glory days of British Honduras, and its expansive manicured grounds recall the elaborate receptions that were hosted here not so very long ago.
Culturally and historically, Belize City could make a case for being the birthplace of modern Belize. A small but somehow sprawling metropolis, it seems in the midst of an identity crisis that's been around as long as the country itself. Just 21 years since independence, it is in many ways a microcosm for the country as a whole, and its self-acknowledged paradox of culture and custom make it a remarkable place to experience. One of the most appealing things about this frequently misunderstood city is that it doesn't pretend. If you're up for a real understanding of how Belize came to be everything that it is, and everything that it isn't, there isn't a better place to start than Belize City.
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