Although part of the Central American mainland, Belize looks, feels, and acts like its Caribbean cousins. While it borders Guatemala and Mexico, thick jungle and mountainous terrain have isolated Belize from its Spanish-speaking neighbors. Instead, Belize looks outward on the Western Caribbean with a relaxed, laid-back worldview.
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The diversity of Belize's population reflects the country's history as a crossroads. The Spanish laid claim to what is now Belize during their conquest of Central America. Spain, however, never governed the territory. Rather, the coast of Belize was dotted with trading outposts and pirate havens that were beyond the reach of any colonial power. When Spain's empire in the Americas collapsed in the early 1800s, the British moved in to establish control. Belize was generally known as British Honduras before gaining independence in 1981.
During the colonial era, Belize was settled by Africans (including fugitive slaves), a mix of Europeans, and migrants from Central America and Mexico. Descendants of the indigenous Mayans also retained their presence. Today, English is the official language of Belize, but Spanish is also spoken widely, especially in the west.
What Belize is best known for, however, is its array of natural attractions. The numerous islands off the coast of Belize guard one of the longest barrier reef systems in the world. The pristine waters vary in color from turquoise to cobalt blue. Divers and snorkelers will attest to the undersea beauty. Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye are Belize's two most popular islands. San Pedro started as a fishing village at the southern end of Ambergris Caye and has emerged as the largest tourism destination in Belize.
Inland Belize is just as magnificent. Forest covers almost two-thirds of the country, and much of it is protected by government nature preserves. If you've ever considered cave tubing, Belize is one of the best spots in the world to do it.
Belize's unspoiled natural beauty means that travelers must make due without a few creature comforts. The country's network of paved roads is limited. If you're heading inland, you should expect a few bumps along the way. Likewise, Belize boasts few large hotels. Most of its visitors arrive as cruise ship passengers for the day.
While Belmopan is Belize's new capital, the country's main commercial hub is Belize City. Generally overlooked by tourists, Belize City is in fact a bustling, colorful town that features Victorian architecture from the British colonial era. If you don't mind the tropical heat, it's well worth a visit.
Today's Belize faces the same challenges confronting many new-found tourist destinations. Travelers have flocked to Belize in recent years to enjoy the splendor of its natural treasures. At the same time, the tourism boom threatens the very environment that has attracted so many visitors in the first place. Fortunately for Belize, the people have learned from the mistakes of their neighbors and are determined to protect their little corner of paradise.