Belize Study Abroad
Area: 8,886 sq. miles (22,968 sq. km)
Coastline: 174 miles (386 km)
Population: Approximately 300,000
Official language: English
People: Mestizo (49%), Creole (25%), Maya (10%), Garifuna (6%)
Languages: English, Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna, Creole
Religions: Roman Catholic (50%), Protestant (27%)
Government type: Parliamentary, Democracy
History & Culture of Belize
For such a small country, Belize is a melting pot that combines histories of many different peoples. Although the primary language is English, throughout the country you can find Spanish, French, and many native dialects spoken from indigenous Maya. Its people demonstrate that Belize truly is a land of diversity and beauty.
The Spanish were the first to lay claim, having colonized the area now know as Belize in the 16th and 17th centuries. However the British were the first to actually settle in the territory. Pirates sheltered inside the reef, using the small cayes as a base for attack against Spanish ships. By the late 1600’s many British settled along the coast, making their living cutting logwood. These British settlers came to depend on slave labor for the harsh logging work in Belize.
Many skirmishes between the British Baymen and the Spanish arose, for the Spanish still claimed control of the area. The showdown came on September 10, 1798, at St. George’s Caye when Baymen chased Spanish ships away from what had come to be known as British Honduras. The date is still celebrated as a national holiday in Belize.
In the days of the Baymen, work crews of slaves accompanied their owners to the logging camps in the interior of Belize. According to a 1790 census, 75 percent of the territory’s residents were slaves, 10 percent were whites, and the rest were free blacks. Ignored by the census were the Mayan Indian communities.
The Maya were the first to inhabit the land referred to as La Ruta Maya, whose territory also included Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. From as early as 9000 B.C.E. they flourished as a master civilization, constructing impressive ceremonial centers and villages, until their mysterious disappearance in 1000 C.E. Today, about 10% of the population of Belize are of Mayan heritage. At the peak of the vast Mayan empire, archeologists estimate that between 1 to 2 million Mayans lived within the borders of Belize.
Mayan communities are found in many parts of Belize. The Mopan Maya, of the southern districts, were historically a lowland group that inhabited Guatemala. Culturally, these Maya have much in common with the traditional Maya of northern Belize. Their economy is a mixture of subsistence crops and cash crops. The Kekchi Maya also migrated to Belize from Guatemala to escape enslavement by German coffee growers. Clustered in the south, they are Belize’s poorest and most neglected ethnic group. Their language has few similarities with that of other Mayans. The Kekchi maintain contact with their ancestral communities in Guatemala
Creoles & Garifunas
Belize society today is ethnically diverse and culturally rich. Historically it is a country of immigrants, with even most of the Mayan tracing their roots to Mexico or Guatemala. The ancestors of the mestizo population lived at one time in the Yucatan. Both groups of Belizeans – the Creoles and the Garifunas – trace their origins to Africa by way of the Caribbean.
During most of this century Creoles were the largest ethnic group, followed by mestizos, Garifunas, and Mayas. As of the 1991 census mestizos outnumbered the Creoles. This multi ethnic country is also home to communities of German Mennonites, Chinese, East Indians, and immigrants from the Middle East.
Belizean Creoles are the descendants of slaves brought from Africa and the West Indies. Generally to be Creole means to have some African ancestry, but is now used primarily to identify non-Indian, non-mestizo ways of life, with a set of social values derived from the Anglo-Saxon countries.
In the early 19th century the Garifuna created a niche in Belizean society. Scattered along the Caribbean coast, the Garifuna people initially came to Belize from Honduras. The Garifunas are a cultural and racial fusion of African slaves, Carib Indians, and a sprinkling of Europeans. It is traditionally claimed that they arrived on the shores of British Honduras on November 19, 1802.
Garifuna drumming and dancing
Maya people of Blue Creek
Portrait of a Mayan child
Blue Creek kid riding his bicycle
Garifuna & Creole kids
Blue Creek kid
Traditional Maya House at Blue Creek
Blue Creek kid
Belize’s combination of neo-tropical rainforest and marine environments supports the greatest density of species to be found in the earth’s biosphere and are an endless reservoir of genetic and evolutionary information. The degree of specialization and the fascinating adaptations of the flora and fauna found in this region have intrigued naturalists for generations. It is truly one of the best examples in the New World Tropics of a species rich, biologically diverse country and is a leader in conservation initiatives. The varied habitats within Belize are host to a tremendous variety of organisms, from the solitary jaguar, giant tapir, and miniature silky anteater, to leaf cutting ants and the rare fungus they work so hard to cultivate.
Belize is one of the regional leaders in environmental protection. Forty percent of Belize’s land mass is designated as protected areas, the highest percentage in the world, and almost sixty percent of the country remains covered with biologically diverse forests. Belize is one of the most extensive systems of terrestrial protected areas in the America.
Some 13% of Belize’s territorial waters – home to the Belize Barrier Reef System – are also protected. The Belize Barrier Reef System both constitutes a UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Site and the second largest barrier reef in the world, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We at IZE enforce a strict “Catch and Release” policy when we leave South Water Caye to fish around the Great Barrier Reef.
Belize is known for its cats, including the endangered nocturnal Jaguar; the beautiful striped and spotted ocelot; the Jaguarundi; the puma or mountain lion; and the margay, the smallest of the Belizean cats (weighing in at about 11 pounds). In addition, you’ll find monkeys such as the black howler monkey and the smaller spider monkey, as well as the ant-eating tamandua, the omnivorous coati, and the piglike collared pecarry.
Belize is home to more than 500 species birds. Many exotic, rarely seen birds than almost any other location in Central America. From the spectacularlly hued keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) – the national bird of Belize – to the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), orinthologists and nature-lovers alike will thrill at the brilliant colors and diversity of birds in Belize.
Along the shores of South Water Caye you can spot the magnificent black frigate bird (Fregata magnificens) peacefully sharing nesting space with rare red-footed boobies (Sula sula), laughing gulls, nestling ospreys, brown pelican flying in formation riding low and close to the water. In the rainforest at Blue Creek Rainforest the jabiru stork (Jabiru mycteria) and keel-billed toucan can be seen high up in the trees in open areas above the rainforest.
The tropical jungles of Belize have literally tens of thousands of insects and arachnids. Throughout Belize there are many species of lizards, snakes, turtles and even crocodiles. From beautiful moths and butterflies such as the blue morpho (Morpho menelaus) and the orange-barred sulphur (Phoebis philea) to interesting lizards such as the basilisk lizard (Basiliscus basiliscus) – also known as the “Jesus Christ lizard” for it’s ability to run across swampy areas and creeks using its webbed hind feet – Belize will fascinate you with its colorful biodiversity.
Despite its small size, Belize supports a relatively diverse range of plants and forest habitats. It is home to an estimated 4,000 species of flowering plants, including over 730 tree species and some 280 orchid species. For these reasons, Belize has been called “a Garden of Eden,” and it is one of the few countries where thousands of acres of forest are still in semi-pristine condition.
Due to its somewhat northerly latitude (15º to 19º N), Belize is considered sub-tropical, with varying rainfall, temperatures, and humidity throughout the country effecting even the growth of the common mangrove. Among the plantlife of Belize you’ll find mangroves, bamboo, palms, and swamp cypresses, as well as ferns, vines, and flowers creeping from tree to tree, creating a dense growth.
Further south in the Toledo district at IZE’s Blue Creek Rainforest field station you’ll encounter classic tropical rainforest species, including tall mahoganies, campeche, sapote, and ceiba, one of the tallest trees in the jungle. In this remote area you’ll also find exotic orchids in many sizes, shapes and colors. Of the 71 orchid species reported in Belize, 20% are terrestrial (growing in the ground) and 80% are epiphytic (attached to a host plant – in this case trees – and deriving most of it’s moisture and nutrients from the air and rain).
Many exotic fruits and nuts can also been found in Belize, from the edible tamarind pod to tropical bananas, pineapples, passion fruit and sapodilla fruit, a sweet, granular fruit prized by the locals. Cacao and cashew nuts are also part of this amazing tropical diversity.
Belize is host to the extraordinary Meso-American Barrier Reef, the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere – A designated World Heritage Site! IZE’s South Water Caye Marine Field Station sits perched directly on the reef within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the largest marine reserve in Belize.
In the magnificent clear waters of the Belize Reef lives an amazing world of colorful limestone corals and incredible variety of fish and sea mammals. There are shy, colorful queen angelfish; coral-eating rainbow parrotfish (Scarus Guacamaia); schools of bluestripped grunt; curious Nassau grouper; handsome yellowtail snapper; as well as large green moray eels; sluggish nurse sharks; territorial barracuda; and the ever-graceful stingrays, eagle rays, and mata rays. Bottlenosed dolphins, manatee, and sea turtles can be found while snorkeling right from the beach at our private cabanas and dorms.
Map of Belize
Epiphytes are abundant in Belize
Biodiversity & Conservation
GDP: $1.28 billion
Industries: Sugar, citrus, bananas, fish products, tourism
Climate: Tropical, average temperature 84 F (29C)
Seasons: Dry – January to May, Wet -June to December
Currancy: Belize dollar (BZD)
Time Zone: Central Standard Time (no daylight-savings)
Taxes: 9% government/hotel tax – general sales tax 12.5%
Tipping/Gratuity: Voluntary 10% is acceptable with 15% for exceptional service. Gratuity may be added to check, this practice varies with each establishment be sure to ask