The first inhabitants in what is now Belize who developed a succinct culture were the Maya. Belize was an important part in the great Mayan Empire. The Maya Empire was possibly the most sophisticated civilization in the ancient Americas. Including modern day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, the Mayas reached their peak in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries AD. However, by the 14TH Century this once great civilization mysteriously declined. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16TH Century, Maya presence was barely felt.
Even though the Spanish ruled Belize since their arrival in the new world, they were never able to truly control the area. For them, Belize was a backwater, good only for cutting dye wood. This lack of control eventually allowed for pirates from England and Scotland to come in and find sanctuary during the 17th century. When pirating became a less popular profession, these former buccaneers turned to cutting log wood in the rich tropical forests of Belize.
From the outset of Colonization, Belize's roots were more British than Spanish. Britain gained full control from Spain in 1798, when they defeated the Spanish Armada off St. George's Caye. While the United States was embroiled in Civil War, Great Britain declared Belize to be the colony of British Honduras, against the terms of the Monroe Doctrine.
As in many other countries, Belize's economy faced decline after WWII. This eventually led for the push for independence. Self-government was granted in 1964, which allowed for the formation of democratic parties and parliamentary style of rule. Belmopan was named the new capital since Belize City was practically destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. In 1981 the country gain full independence, and officially became Belize.
Belize's independence and rule has always been threatened by the neighboring country of Guatemala, which has maintained that Belize has always been their rightful property. In 1972, during Belize's political transition, from colony to an independent nation, Guatemala threatened war. British troops stationed on the border prevented any incident, and now the call to reclaim Belize is an empty political cry in Guatemalan politics.
In recent years, the US government provided additional stability to Belize. In the 1980's the US placed invested large amounts of aid into Belize's economy. For this reason it has remain extremely pro-US. Belize is an extraordinarily peaceful country. It's standing army of 550 soldiers is testament to this stability. Due to civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador, Belize has experienced an influx of refugees from these struggles that have significantly increased the population of Spanish speakers in the country. Still, the country remains peaceful and tolerance prevails with the mix of cultures from Garifuna and British Ex-pats to Mennonites and settlers from Hong Kong. The laid back atmosphere, cultivated since British buccaneers first began hiding out here, invites visitors to slow down, relax, and just soak up the laid back rhythms of this tiny gem.
English speaking and Creole dominated, Belize has more in common with its Caribbean island neighbors than its bordering Spanish-speaking countries. With a laid back ambiance of swinging hammocks, large swaths of impenetrable jungle, and an underwater world of twisted corals, neon fish, and gentle manatees, Belize is a tropical treasure.
Located in the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is bordered by Mexico to the North and Guatemala to the West. Even though small in size (9087 square miles), it arguably offers the best diving in the world. It is also one of the best places in the Americas to see the elusive Jaguar and other large jungle animals. In a single day, visitors can snorkel in the morning and visit ancient Mayan ruins deeper in the interior. Inhabited by the Maya for centuries and Colonized by English buccaneers and escaped African slaves later, Belizean food offers spicy Creole creations, standard English corned beef, and the Mayan delicacy of the fried paca (a small jungle rodent).
A unique aspect of Belize is the fact that it is undeveloped in a way that has allowed for nature to live on in a way that biologists and environmentalists fall in love with. The entire country only contains two paved roads, which can make getting around difficult, but an experience on its own. Prices for food, hotels, and souvenirs are higher as in most out of the way places, but it's worth it! The best idea is to just relax and let yourself fall into the slow rhythm that is Belize.
Religion, Language, and Food
The majority of Belizeans are Roman Catholic, however due to the heavy British influence, Belize has a larger Protestant population than any other country in Central America. The Maya and Garifuna practice their own fascinating mixture of shamanism and Christianity.
The official language of Belize is English, but many other languages are also used. Along the coast, you're most likely to hear Creole spoken. A colorful variation of English, if you listen carefully, you might notice a familiar word or two - maybe! Spanish is the main language in towns that border Guatemala to the west and Mexico to the north, and it's possible to run into several other languages such as Mayan, German, Chinese, Lebanese, and Arabic.
Belize has never really developed a national cuisine. Like many of its neighbors, rice and beans are a staple product. Much of the local dishes have a Caribbean flavor. Cocunut milk, plantains, and hot peppers help spice things up a bit. Sitting down to a tradition Mayan meal can be a treat for the adventurous. Suckling pig roasted underground is a delicious favorite in the countryside!