Belize is great, and everyone should go. OK, not everyone, but everyone who is at all intrigued. I hope to lead a trip down there next year during my Spring Break (last week of February). If you meet the qualifications, you’re invited.
The trip included a boat trip up the Monkey River, with a jungle hike led by a native guide, where we got to see and hear howler monkeys. Then two days camping on a small island, where we snorkeled, tried our hand at traditional line-fishing (no pole) and barracuda fishing (definitely use a pole–alas, no barracuda lost their lives to sate our appetites). We then camped for a night in the jungle (primitive conditions) and went spear-fishing in a river in a cave.
The last three nights were at Cave’s Branch Jungle Lodge (lodging ranging from rustic to luxurious, depending on your wallet). The price includes one adventure per day. Our first adventure involved tubing through a river cave, with side treks to see ancient Mayan artifacts, including a rare fertility god carved from one of the cave formations, and an astoundingly large and intact pottery bowl. We also had a great picnic lunch inside the cave. (Note: Belizean caves are about 20 degrees warmer than caves in the U.S.) The last adventure was an excursion into a sinkhole, which is actually situated directly above that prior cave, filled with bits and pieces of ancient Mayan pottery. There’s so much that you have to watch where you step so you don’t step on some. It’s barely been mapped by archaeologists, and very few people go there, so it’s almost unknown territory. It was discovered just twelve years ago by the head guide at Cave’s Branch while rambling around on his day off, and to me it was a thrill to meet a guy who’d discovered such a phenomenal place.
Belize is very serious about promoting tourism, as it’s a major part of their economy. To be a licensed tour guide you have to take a series of classes developing your relevant knowledge. As much as I dislike regulation, I think this one is legitimate enough because most tourists who want a tour guide will be one-timers, without much opportunity to rely on either past personal experience or reputation. If you’re buying a pair of shoes, that may be no big deal, but if you’re spending a lot of money on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it is. (Of course it would be better if reputations were broadcast widely enough to allow people to choose on that basis, without the need for regulation, but that’s not the case, at least at this point in time.) The tour guides we had didn’t just take the basic set of courses but were wilderness medical first responders and well-trained in search-and-rescue. At least once a year they participate in real-time/condition search and rescue exercises, which include things like a “victim” (played by a real person) lost and injured in a cave, so they have to go in and find and evacuate the person just as they would if it were a real operation. Not all guides are at that level, but that’s the advantage of going with someone who’s gone before–my friend who led the trip has made contacts with some of the best people down there.
The differences between the coast and the inland territory was striking, even though the actual distance was not significant (30 miles or so). The coast is dominated by Kriols (Creole) , with a distinct dialect of English, which is both lyrical to listen to and mostly understandable. Inland they are mostly Mestizo with a sizable portion of Mayan ancestry. Here the primary language is Spanish, but most schooling is in English so they are truly bilingual. Belize also has a small, but economically significant, population of German speaking Mennonites and Beachy Amish.
Oil was discovered a few years ago in the uplands of Belize, which may potentially contribute significantly to it’s GDP, although at present the benefits are very narrowly realized. But the fields are near the disputed border with Guatemala (which has long-claimed Belize as its territory), which adds to the urgency of that particular dispute. The people seem to think their government is corrupt, but not especially bad. Up in the highlands, though, they seem to mostly try to avoid contact with it, which supports James Scott’s argument about SE Asia in The Art of Not Being Governed.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I look forward to returning.