A new country for me is all about the people and the culture. Although I love seeing major iconic sights—they are popular for a reason, after all!—my conversations with locals, immersive traveling, and off-the-path volunteering have proven my most transformative travel experiences.
Perhaps it’s this very reason why Belize caught me off guard; my expectations regarding the country’s culture, food, and tourism value have been overturned and surpassed in every way. They speak English in Belize, for starters, and the Queen herself graces the face of their coins and dollars. Though I knew all of this going in, I still had expectations that the culture would more closely align with the rest of Central America.
Well, that’s just not quite the case. Yet, for all that they are a British Commonwealth, there’s something more to Belize—something I discovered only once I cast aside expectations and stripped myself preconceptions. When you travel in Belize, you have to take the country for itself, not as a piece or model of anything else. And while that can be said of most countries, when you travel through a region of the world where war and politics have continually redrawn boundaries, there is often a good deal of overlap in food, culture, and history.
What Makes Belize’s Culture So Unique?
Belizeans exude friendliness, for starters. After traveling around the world all last year, I have earned a certain level of travel savvy when it comes to touts and hustles. But Belize surprised me. Locals followed me through the streets offering advice and recommendations, as often happens in developing countries, but with no expectation of tip (which does not often happen!).
At first, I didn’t trust any offers of genuine kindness—there had to be a catch, I thought.
After our debacle of a border crossing, my new friends and I arrived in Corozal, a transient town light on infrastructure. The sun had set hours before and with no streetlights, we used a flashlight to follow our map and locate a guesthouse.
Along the way, no fewer than four Belizeans offered their help, showing us to our hostel, the exact one that we had picked. Often in this situation, a tout bombards me with other choices—telling me the one I want is bad/closed/far/etc. Or, they offer to show me the way and carry my luggage—for a fee. It’s almost always something. It’s cynical to say this, especially because I have overwhelming received help along the way, too, but not often in situations where tourists are known to be vulnerable (like those riding the last chicken bus of the day across the border in the dark, into a new culture and currency). Yet, the Belizeans in Corozal seemed to have no ulterior motive, they merely wanted to ensure I made it to my hostel safely.
This was not an isolated incident.
Over the next several days, once I made it to the Cayes (islands located just off the coast and sitting nearly on top of Belize’s Barrier Reef), the characteristic friendliness intensified once it mixed that laid-back island culture you find on nearly every island in the world. Belize is a small country, it has a fair number of tourists, but it’s not overwhelmed with them, and many locals seem to genuinely enjoy extending a friendly welcome to newcomers.
It’s likely more than the islands alone, however, and has a fair bit to do with the fact that Belize has an eclectic cultural mix calling the country home. The multiethnic hodgepodge here includes: Africans, Amerindians, Europeans, and Asians. That doesn’t begin to truly illuminate the various ethnic subgroups within those populations. Subgroups like the Creole Baymen, Garifuna people, Mestizos, indigenous Maya, and the well-established Mennonite community, to name just a few. These cultures have lived side-by-side, and often intermixed, creating a unique culture you can find nowhere else in all of Central America. They just beat to a different drum there, and they revel in it.
One day, a local man called me over to his shady tree stump, interrupting my rapid walk down the beach. He absolutely insisted that I come over to hear what he had to say. Miffed by what could be so important (and growing wary, despite the kindnesses I had been show), I sauntered over to a friendly distance.
He nodded at me and eyed me under the rim of his sunhat, casually drawling, “Slow down my friend. You’re on Belize time, what’s the hurry?”
He was right—where did I truly need to be when the white sand of Caye Caulker gave way underfoot and the lapping Caribbean waters beckoned for a swim?