Belize City is the former capital of Belize and the country’s principal port and industrial, financial, cultural, and tourist hub. Even though it is the largest city in Belize, it is still a small town of only 70,000 people. Geographically, Belize City is surrounded by water from all but one of its sides. Some parts of the city are actually below sea level and swamped at high tide. On a stroll down the city’s narrow streets, you’ll typically see a labyrinth of newly constructed stores as well as dilapidated shacks, wooden houses, and several small canals. There is really not much to see and locals typically joke that the most exciting thing that happens in the city is the opening of the rusty swing bridge on Haulover Creek.
With the country being so small, Belize City is often used quite appropriately as a base for tourists making day excursions into the country’s major inland attractions. However, Belize City itself is a great place to walk around, do some souvenir shopping, and enjoy a nice meal at one of the seaside restaurants.
The most popular attraction of Belize City is probably the manual swing bridge spanning Haulover Creek. This bridge was made in England and opened in 1923. It requires manual hand-winching of the bridge a quarter-revolution in order to allow boats to cross through. It is swung each weekday at 5:30AM and 5:30PM. The bridge has the distinction of being the world’s only swing bridge of its kind still in use.
Belize City also has a number of museums, including the newly opened Museum of Belize. This small museum is located in the city’s former jail used from 1850 to 1993. The museum displays the history and culture of Belize and has a collection of ancient Maya artifacts. There are two other museums: the Coastal Zone Museum, which is a showcase on the coral reef and its marine creatures, and the Marine Museum, which is a ship museum; both museums are located at the Marine Terminal.
There are also various colonial structures left behind by the British, some of them have been restored recently. The Fort George Lighthouse is one of the more iconic of the structures. It towers over the entrance to Belize Harbor and was funded by the famous Baron Bliss, Belize City’s greatest benefactor.This early 20th century Baron Bliss of the Kingdom of Portugal never laid a foot on Belize and was anchored on his ship in the city’s harbor for two months before he died. He was somehow enamored enough by Belize City during his two months off of its shores that he wrote a will, bequesting $2 million to the country.
St. John’s Cathedral is another old colonial building in Belize City. It is the oldest Anglican church in Central America. The church was the site of the crowning of four British kings of the Mosquito Coast from 1815 to 1845.
The Government House, however, is probably the finest colonial structure in Belize City. It was designed by the famous British architect, Sir Christopher Wren, and built in 1812. This building served as the residence of the British governor generals of the colony before the capital was moved to Belmopan. The building’s interior is impressively extravagant and open to the public.
Outside of Belize City, there are several more exciting and interesting attractions. At the city’s Marine Terminal, you can catch a boat ride to the cayes off the coast of Belize and enjoy some scuba diving and snorkeling.
If you are interested in wildlife and animals, you can make a 30-mile trip to the Belize Zoo, which encompasses a 29-acre stretch of rainforests, lagoons, and rivers. You’ll find the rare black jaguars, spotted jaguars, and various wild cats, tapirs, rhinos, and iguanas. The Community Baboon Sanctuary and the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary are also some 30 miles away from Belize City but both sanctuaries offer more opportunities to see various wildlife. They both serve as habitats for howler monkeys, crocodiles, turtles, and unique birds like the snowy egret, snail kite, osprey, black-collared hawk, and the rare nine-feet winged jabiru stork.
Many ancient Maya ruins are located near Belize City as well. The famous ancient city of Lamanai, for example, is only about 40 miles northwest of Belize City. This is probably Belize’s most impressive archaeological ruins. Lamanai is one of Central America’s longest-occupied Maya cities, continually inhabited from 1500 BC to 1700AD. The site has about 60 Maya structures, including a massive stepped temple built into the hillside and several jungle-covered temples and pyramids. Closer to Belize City but less impressive are the ruins of Altun Ha, about 30 miles north of the city. This ancient Maya city was first inhabited around 900 BC but was abandoned by 900AD. The site consists of over 250 structures of plazas, temples, and monuments dedicated to Mayan gods.
Belize City was first inhabited by the ancient Mayans. In the mid-17th century, pirates used the city’s site as a base for their Caribbean looting activities before the British arrived shortly afterwards and established a colonial settlement. For the next three hundred years, Belize City served as the capital of the British Honduras colony, which encompassed the country of Belize. It was even used at various times as a dock for slaves during the era of the slave trade.
The city has suffered a few setbacks in recent years. In 1961, the city was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Hattie, a catastrophe that prompted British authorities to move the capital inland to Belmopan. The lost of Belize City’s status as capital ushered in a period of decline, which has resulted in an increase in street crime. In the mid-1990s, however, the government created a tourism police unit to help cut down crime against tourists, which has largely been effective. Today, the city is much more pleasant as a destination with many damaged colonial buildings restored and a number of cruise ships regularly docking at the terminals and bringing in waves of vibrant travelers.
Aarons, Felice, and Pamela Lee. Fodor’s Central America, 2nd Edition. New York: Fodors LLC, 2006. ISBN 1400015960.
“Belize City.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belize_City>
“Introduction to Belize City.” <http://www.frommers.com/destinations/belizecity/3541010001.html>
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