A History of Poverty
40% of Belizean people live in poverty, which hasn’t always been the case. A diverse country with people of Creole, Mayan, and English origins, it was once a somewhat economically viable British colony, known as British Honduras, where the forestry industry reigned, and Creole businessmen made lucrative connections with U.S. businesses. The Great Depression of the 1930s did largely irreversible damage to the colony, and unemployment was only exacerbated by a 1931 hurricane that leveled towns and killed over 1,000 people. From this time until independence in 1981, the people of Belize were displeased with their sovereign nation across the ocean. But freedom from Britain, though necessary and inevitable, did not solve many problems: between a dispute over land with Guatemala that continues to this day, deforestation dwindling the logging trade, and a consistently problematic infrastructure, poverty — and therefore crime — was incubated.
The Caribbean Development Bank says the average person in Belize lives on little more than $300 USD a year. It makes sense that when many people living in urban areas are technically unemployed and rely on taking construction and labor jobs when and where they can find them, that Belize is now falling prey to the Mexican drug cartels. This furthers gang activity, and interestingly, the U.S. enhances this by deporting Belize-born gang members — even Bloods and Crips — back to their country of origin, after they’ve been thoroughly educated and connected within the U.S. gang system.
Considered the sixth most violent country in the world, Belize recently clocked in a homicide rate of over 40 per 100,000 people. It should be noted that most of these murders took place in Belize City, though other areas of Belize are seeing an increase in violent crime as well, including the capital — Belmopan and the city of Corozal, on the border of Mexico.
While petty theft and fraud is rampant throughout the country, the vast majority of violent crime remains in Belize City. Most of this is due to gang activity. In September of 2014, there was such a spike in gang violence after a string of shootings that the Prime Minister and the police held an emergency meeting to come up with a strategy. The government has essentially begged gang leaders to call truces, but unfortunately this has had little effect. In 2011, a work program was created offering cash stipends to gang members participating in a truce. When funding dried up in 2013, an explosion of violence resulted.
Though the government is making efforts to squash crime in the cities, including legally zoning parts of Belize City “declared crime infested areas” so as to patrol and conduct unwarranted searches, sometimes crime in Belize is perpetrated by those claiming to help. Corruption is one of the country’s most rampant crimes. Belizean newspapers openly acknowledge government “kickbacks” and citizens’ complete distrust of their political leaders. Even the Minister of Police has been quoted regarding the peoples’ total lack of faith in the police force.
Contributing to citizens’ feelings of being unprotected is a general lack of law enforcement: though the legal drinking age in Belize is 18, stores and even bars will sell alcohol to pretty much anyone. It has been reported that local police are often in cahoots with criminals — including drug trafficking and money laundering.
One note about hate crimes: the outdated government of Belize still upholds a statute on homosexuality, making same-sex intercourse illegal throughout the country. While this law is mostly ignored, antiquated laws can nurture antiquated values, creating hatred towards and even crimes against LGBQT people on mainland Belize (this problem remains in several other Caribbean nations as well). A gay man was stabbed to death in Belize City last year, targeted because he was wearing a skirt. The police claimed this was not a crime based on sexual identity, implying an unspoken alliance with the sentiments of the perpetrators and infuriating LGBQT activists around the world. Activists in Belize, however, are forced to be meek, due to the popularity of anti-gay groups and their protest tactics of hanging effigies and making death threats. The threats have even been targeted at the Prime Minister, when he proposed legislation protecting all people regardless of sexual orientation.
Tourism and Crime
Tourism is the top industry of Belize, and many places in the country have an air of respecting and appreciating travelers. Even Belize City can be safely explored with caution, but it is important to know where to go in this city. For these recommendations, please see the upcoming section titled “Where to Go”. As for where to avoid, travelers should stay away from the South Side of Belize City. This area is home to many gangs.
Violent crime in Belize, however, is not typically directed at tourists. Tourists should instead be concerned about theft, including falling prey to scams. While property scams — selling land that is later revealed to be owned by someone else — on expatriates and even native Belizeans are common throughout the country, scams tourists should be wary of include: unregistered taxis overcharging exorbitantly; tour companies that charge lavishly on undelivered promises; taxis driving travelers to places they have arranged with the proprietors to bring business to; “sob story” con artists who stage a reason to pity them and ask for money; and the infamous “exit tax” scam on travelers crossing from Mexico into Belize, where shuttle drivers and officials extort a fee from travelers to leave the country.
Tourists can sometimes be “set up” by police to purchase illegal drugs and then are arrested. Often, the tourist has not tried to make any sort of purchase, only conversing briefly with the person soliciting, before being detained and fined. After paying the fine, they are released.
Road Safety and Health Issues
Road conditions are inconsistent in Belize. Pavement in the cities varies greatly, with scant stretches of freshly-paved road turning into stretches of potholed, decades-old cement. In Belizean towns and in the countryside, the roads are mostly dirt. Major highways like the George Price Highway, Philip SW Goldson Highway, Hummingbird Highway, and Southern highways are in much better condition, although they are unusually narrow and oftentimes lack shoulders. Driving at night is discouraged. Tropical rainstorms can occur; after rains, the roads can become extremely slick due to inconsistent paving.
Since there are few posted signs or partitions on the highways, Belizean drivers often use turn signals to communicate on the road: a left-hand turn signal used on the highway might be a request for the driver behind to pass on the left. Outside of cities, traffic lights are nonexistent. Instead, speed bumps are used to regulate speed, but they are often indicated with confusing signs, or none at all.
Travelers should be highly wary of speed bumps: they can damage vehicles — and their occupants — that hit them too hard, and local drivers are prone to speeding up to the bumps before slamming on their breaks. Travelers may be lulled by a stretch of smooth road before approaching a speed bump unexpectedly, which has caused accidents when the car behind followed too closely. In the cities, traffic lights are often replaced with traffic circles, which travelers should take caution when using. Taxis are known to blast through the circles with little regard to hesitant drivers. Realistically, it is best to simply book your transportation through Anywhere, and leave the driving to local professionals.
Police checkpoints are common. The police will ask for identification, and should be cooperated with as they check for insurance or illegal window tinting.
Travelers should also remember that Belizean drivers do not grant pedestrians the right of way. People walking or biking on the road should be cautious of buses and cars, knowing that they are not expecting to yield to those on foot.
It should be noted that the only hospitals equipped to handle emergencies or major health problems — such as coronary events — are located in Belize City. While 911 can be called to contact the police in an emergency, some places in Belize have a different number for medical emergencies. Travelers should familiarize themselves with all emergency contacts available for their destinations.
Considering this, it is important for travelers to check on the legitimacy of any scuba diving company that they may rent gear from: not all equipment is well-maintained, and some “dive masters” overestimate the skill level of their clients. These practices have occasionally resulted in accidents and deaths. Even a Belizean government website urges visitors to check references and licenses before signing up for scuba diving adventures. It also warns that water taxis and ferries are often not fully equipped with safety gear or life jackets, and may sail in inclement weather.
Water is mostly safe to consume in Belize, but water and food can become contaminated and spread Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Travelers should obtain vaccinations prior to entering Central America, and malaria medication — and protection from mosquitoes — is recommended as a precaution.
If a taxi pulls alongside you and the driver offers a ride to an unfamiliar place, pass up the ride.
Try not to walk alone; walking in a group is far safer. In Belize City, do not walk at night at all.
In cities, do not wander. Know where you are going and how you are getting there.
Carry as little cash as possible.
Do not sign on for any tour or activity without being sure of who is running it.
Do not wear expensive or flashy jewelry. Even in the cayes, there is no reason to dress up.
Listening to headphones while out and about is not recommended. Stay alert, especially when walking on busy streets.
Always travel with a tour group or trusted guide to less-popular or unfamiliar destinations.
Where to Go
In Belize City, one of the safer areas is a “tourism village,” located at the port of entry for cruise ships, but for a more authentic experience, try the following places:
• Old Belize – Once the busy port of the city, this pretty marina hosts a man-made beach, restaurant, and private museum. Sailors from around the world dock their yachts here.
• St. Johns Cathedral and the Government House – The best-preserved colonial architecture of Belize, these impressive buildings host tours and contain small museums.
• The Belize Zoo – Unlike most cruel zoos, the Belize Zoo only homes rescued animals that are native to Belize, and keeps them roaming “freely” in large, natural enclosures. The zoo is wonderful for families, and is an important part of Belize’s conservation efforts.
• Altun Ha - An hour from Belize City, this important archeological site is a well-preserved Mayan Temple, overgrown with bright moss and full of historical mystery. Go with a guide.
• Crooked Tree Village and Wildlife Sanctuary – Just a half an hour from the city, the charming Creole Village provides sanctuary for thousands of birds in its wetlands. A must-see for birders.
• Xunantunich – An hour from the city by hand-cranked ferry — an experience in itself — this breathtaking jungle ruin is one of the most impressive ancient sites in Belize.
• Burmudian Landing – The quaint Creole Village 30 miles (48 km) from Belize City is home to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, where howler monkeys and other wildlife are protected in a beautiful reserve that can be explored on a tour.
• Lamanai – One of the most cherished Belizean day-trips, tours the awe-inspiring archeological site of Lamanai — including a 26-mile boat ride down the New River, where travelers can see all kinds of native wildlife. The spectacular ruins include temples with famous Mayan carvings.
• Actun Tunichil Muknal – The caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal make for an amazing Belizean adventure with a trusted tour group, combining ecotourism with historical exploration: travelers can see Mayan artifacts and even a skeleton down in the caves. The experience calls for hiking and even swimming underground.
The cayes are some of the safest places to visit in Belize. Here are our recommendations for these islands:
• Ambergris Caye - The most visited destination in Belize, Ambergris is the country’s largest island, easy to get to and home to the best hotels and restaurants in the country. The Barrier Reef is just a few hundred yards offshore, creating amazing swimming, diving, and snorkeling. The only real town on the island, San Pedro, is a friendly place with quaint cobblestone streets. Golf carts are a main form of transportation even in the town.
• Caye Caulker – A smaller, less-developed and less-expensive island, Caulker has a laidback tropical atmosphere and is truly relaxing.
• South Water Caye – The 14-acre (6-ha) island has perhaps the most beautiful white sand beaches of Belize. The largest area of protected marine land in the country, the “park” still welcomes visitors to its luxury cabanas and hammocks.
• Laughing Bird Caye – Though overnight stays are not permitted on this mini-atoll, it’s highly recommended as a day trip for snorkeling, swimming, and picnicking.
• Tobacco Caye – Popular with young adventurers, the sparse accommodations of Tobacco Caye are rustic, yet provide access to top-notch snorkeling and a secluded, safe adventure on a budget.
The U.S. Embassy in Belmopan
International: Dial 011 +
Phone: (501) 822-4011
Emergencies Only (After Hours) Dial 011 + (501) 610-5030
For Non-Emergency Issues concerning U.S. citizens: ACSBelize@state.gov.