You know what’s sad?! How many people skip Belize during their Central America travels. Admittedly, the first time we backpacked around this part of the world, we scrapped our plans to travel in Belize, too. We were told it was too expensive, there wasn’t much to do, and that the vibes would be better in its neighbours, Mexico and Guatemala.
We’re calling BS right there. Belize is so so so so so interesting, with fascinating Kriol, Mayan, Garifuna and European cultures all intermingled. The vibes are mega-friendly and the landscapes are stunning – both on Belize’s many islands and inland amongst the mountains. With a population of only 350,000, Belize is the least populated country in Central America. Yes, it’s more expensive than Guatemala or Mexico, but not much more so than Costa Rica, and if you’re coming from Western Europe it will certainly be cheaper than home. As it’s such a small country, you don’t need to make your budget stretch as far in Belize, anyway.
Here are our general tips for travel in Belize; if you’ve been recently, let us know if you have any more in the comments section!
Bus travel in Belize
Most of Belize is served by chicken buses; repurposed school buses from the USA. Due to a lack of infrastructure and routes, travelling on the mainland via bus can be difficult at times, so try to work out your journeys ahead of time instead of winging them. Generally, bus travel in Belize is cheap, at around $3-4 Belize Dollars ($1.50-2 USD) per hour of travel. Check out our survival guide to chicken buses in Belize before you go.
You can fly everywhere – but don’t!
All of the main tourist hang-outs – San Pedro, Caye Caulker, San Ignacio, Placencia – all have small airports, between which you can travel on teeny propeller planes. Some flights are as short as 10 minutes long, such as Caye Caulker to Belize City, all for the sake of saving an extra half an hour that you would have spent in a ferry. It’s not the cheapest nor most environmentally friendly way to travel, plus you miss seeing a lot of the country by flying – and the landscapes in the centre of Belize are pretty epic!
Sunday ghost towns
Due to Belize being 80% Christian, Sundays see the country almost shutting down to allow people to go to worship and spend time with their families. Shops and restaurants are mostly closed, bus departures are changed or reduced and there are much fewer people on the streets, even in the capital. Of course, for cash cows such as Caye Caulker and San Pedro you can expect the show to go on, but if you’re trying to travel in Belize on the mainland, you’ll need a bit of extra planning – and patience. Note that in some parts of Belize, this ghost town treatment can sometimes partially extend into Mondays, with regular bus timetables commencing but fewer restaurants and bars open.
Fixed exchange rates
In order to protect themselves from inflation, Belize have fixed their Dollar to be half the value of a US Dollar at any given time. This makes foreign exchange maths reeeeeally easy, and makes it harder for vendors who accept USD as currency to rip you off on rounding up the rates. USD notes are accepted across Belize, and it’s normal for people to pay or receive change in a mix of Belize Dollars and US Dollars.
Always specify which Dollar
You do still need to be careful when it comes to currencies. Some vendors, especially transport providers that deal with tourists who have clearly just begun to travel in Belize, may use the term ‘Dollar’ to confuse visitors. When they vaguely quote Dollars, you assume they mean Belize Dollars, but upon arrival they’ll tell you they meant USD, at double the value. Always always check which they mean.
Language in Belize
While the official main language in Belize is English (therefore putting the country firmly in our list of places to visit for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish), when you hear locals talking amongst themselves you’ll realise they tend to prefer creole/kriol, which is almost distinguishable as an English-speaker but takes some time getting used to. The vast majority of people also speak Spanish, so you’ll sometimes hear all 3 spoken interchangeably within the same conversation. All tours, information and signage are in English, with the exception of a few billboards trying to appeal to a specific market segment. Towards Guatemala, you will start to notice a larger indigenous population, who speak languages such as K’ichi Maya or Pacbitun, but will also speak English and likely Spanish. Belizeans are skilled polyglots!!
When staying in highly developed areas such as San Pedro, it can be easy to forget that Belize is a country where 43% of the population live under the poverty line, and 16% live in extreme poverty (2017). In fact, many of the locals you see in touristy places are actually from small, struggling towns on the mainland, and they come to tourist destinations to work their arses off during high season. These people won’t see their family for up to 6 months, and they will labour hard to scrape whatever they can in order to earn enough to take home. Wherever you can, try to spend your tourist dollar with Belizeans rather than international businesses. Let the locals feel the benefit of tourism too!
Belize is not a beachy destination
Despite being famous for its Caribbean islands, Belize is not actually a fantastic beach destination. Even on the islands such as Caye Caulker, there’s often more rock than sand, and the coastline tends to either be reinforced with concrete to protect it or covered in mangroves. Any sandy beaches you do find tend to be small, unimpressive strips. From Caye Caulker and San Pedro, you can however take trips to the smaller islands, such as Goff’s Caye, where you will find the paradise white beaches you’re looking for. Trips are expensive though, starting from around 150USD, and you can’t stay there overnight. Down South, Placencia is known as the best beach in Belize, and it’s nice but not out-of-this-world.
If you want to experience white sands in this part of the world, we recommend heading to Tulum in Mexico, the Corn Islands in Nicaragua or Isla de Providencia, part of but nowhere near Colombia.
The friendliness of the Belizean people really is unrivalled. That’s right, the average Belizean is even friendlier than Colombians. No matter whether you’re on a laid-back island or in the dusty, dirty streets of Belize City, you can expect people to say hello to you, ask if they can help and lead you a safer route if there is one. Unlike some other countries, their friendliness is not just a ploy to sell to you, and if they are selling, their demeanour doesn’t change if you say no. In some countries, we’ve come to make a point of ignoring people who strike up a conversation on the street because it’s the best way to stop being hassled, but not here. Since being open and friendly is so ingrained in their culture, it’s rude not to answer, so we find it best to give a little hello back, even if that might go against everything we’ve been taught growing up near London!
To note though, in some parts of Belize you will still find a taste of macho culture when it comes to flirting. We’ve heard of small groups of backpacker girls feeling like local men were getting aggressive when they turned down their advances late at night, and passers-by had to step in. If you feel uncomfortable, don’t be scared to ask/shout for the help of someone else nearby. Always go with your gut!!