A cultural and natural exception in Central America

Sitting at the bottom of a canoe silently gliding over the subterranean river of Barton Creek, how could you not tremble when the beam of the lamp stopped upon a petrified skull between two stalagmites? Human sacrifices were common in Mesoamerica before the Columbian Era. Like the Mayas of the Yucatan who, to invoke the gods of rain and corn, offered their martyrs to the abyss called cenotes, those of Blaise made blood flow in the half-light of the caves.

El Castillo is 40 meters high and dominates the Xunantunich archaeological site in western Belize. – Jean-Claude Urban

These disturbing rituals are not the only mysteries that this people poses to modern visitors. Architects of genius, obsessed with the cycle of the seasons, the Maya raised their temples on the hills, not to approach the gods (whose domain is the underworld), but to observe the heavenly vault and keep their calendar updated.

This civilization flourished in the west of the country. During the “classical” period, which ran from the third century AD until about the year 900, the city of Xunantunich flourished near the Belize River. Drenched in an ocean of greenery, the site still impresses with its pyramidal mansions, such as the emblematic El Castillo. The achievements are more than wonderful, as this society did not know the attractiveness of iron or animals!

To fend off climatic difficulties at the end of the first millennium, 36 individuals were sacrificed at Barton Creek Cave.
To fend off climatic difficulties at the end of the first millennium, 36 individuals were sacrificed at Barton Creek Cave. – Jean-Claude Urban

We do not know why at the end of the first millennium this civilization that had mastered writing, mathematics and astronomy suddenly collapsed. However, the rural mass of this people did not disappear with the fall of its elites. Their descendants still live on the borders of Guatemala, preserving their traditions and language. They would be about 36,500 Maya in Belize, or 11% of the population.

In San Antonio, women from the Mayan community still grind corn for tortillas by hand.
In San Antonio, women from the Mayan community still grind corn for tortillas by hand. – Jean-Claude Urban

Young and diverse country

In a typical Caribbean atmosphere, Belize publishes an extraordinary array of ethnic groups. It was annexed by the English crown in 1862, and was called British Honduras until its independence in 1981. This influence British It is still concrete around the Anglican cathedral in Belize City. But on the coast, the villages look more like hideouts for pirates. Belize, in fact, has long attracted pirates who once plundered wrecked Spanish sailing ships on the reef.

St. John's Anglican Cathedral withstood the hurricane that devastated Belize City in 1961. Since then Belmopan has become the new capital.
St. John’s Anglican Cathedral withstood the hurricane that devastated Belize City in 1961. Since then Belmopan has become the new capital. – Jean-Claude Urban

Since then, sea wolves have given way to a very mixed community. If the hybrid and “Creole” descended from European settlers united with the Mayans or blacks, then the Garifunas are the children of the original Africans and Arawaks. The story goes that their ancestors were survivors of a slave ship, who were stranded on the island of Saint Vincent. Thus, the Garifuna are the only blacks on the American continent who have never experienced slavery. In the Arawaks, their name means “cassava eaters”. The true ways of expressing their relationship to the world, their music, their dances and their language are of Amerindian origin declared by UNESCO as the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Papa Joe is cool on the sandy streets of Caye Caulker.
Papa Joe is cool on the sandy streets of Caye Caulker. – Jean-Claude Urban

Two societies stand out radically in this tropical world. The Chinese, who got their hands on the retail business through hard work and discipline. and the Mennonites, who appear to have landed in Central America through an improbable spatio-temporal tunnel. These German-speaking whites left Europe to be able to practice pure and ruthless Protestantism.

Rejecting the comforts of modernity, they found Belize their promised land. Today, the entire production of milk, chicken and mahogany furniture is in their hands. So they are thriving, but they can be recognized by their chariots, their straw hats and dresses inherited from another era…the austerity does not prevent them from being hospitable. Because doing good is their divine message.

bottles by sea

Belize is an essential destination for diving enthusiasts. And for good reason: Central America’s coral reefs are the largest in the world after Australia! Flooded with warm, clear waters, the small mangrove islands are colorful base camps for travelers looking for underwater thrills.

You don’t have to be an experienced diver to experience the adventure. A dizzying spectrum of colors is revealed to swimmers equipped with a mask and snorkel: plentiful corals, propeller fans, corals and algae, as well as manatees, rays, crabs, and an abundance of multicolored fish follow each other in ballets of beautiful flowers.

Nurse sharks and stingrays develop around swimmers at Shark Ray Alley's spot.
Nurse sharks and stingrays develop around swimmers at Shark Ray Alley’s spot. – Jean-Claude Urban

Hol Chan Marine Reserve is accessible from Ambergris Caye (San Pedro) or Caye Caulker, and is an easily accessible conservation site. Its herbs are especially popular among turtles who feed on it without worrying about its curious visitors.

Shark Ray Alley’s website focuses on an astonishing number of nurse sharks. Local guides took a taste of them around the tourists. But you just have to get away from the boats to see them move freely. Returning to Kayi to share their experiences, the divers congratulate themselves on today’s outing. They all, however, only have one fantasy: The Great Blue Hole.

The resort town of San Pedro is the main departure point for reef diving.
The resort town of San Pedro is the main departure point for reef diving. – Jean-Claude Urban

Designated by Commander Cousteau as one of the ten most exciting marine sites in the world, this Great Blue Hole is an absolutely amazing circular hole, with a diameter of 300 meters and a depth of 125. Viewed from the air, this geological miracle looks like an emerald pearl inlaid with coral white. It was formed during the last Ice Age, after a cavity collapse, in the same way that Yucatan rocks were formed. But unlike those, no Maya were sacrificed here. There are only fish there.

going to

It is necessary to pass through North America to reach Belize International Airport. If the country raises its commitment to offer a negative Covid test to fully vaccinated travelers, that is not the case for the United States. It is also required to purchase Belizean travel insurance at 17 EUR.

Small planes of the local Tropic Air allow rapid movement between islands and offer to fly over the Great Blue Hole.

Live

A victim of its success with North American tourists, Belize sometimes lacks hotel infrastructure. It is therefore highly recommended to book your accommodation in advance. Barefoot Caye Caulker Hotel and Ramon’s Village Resort in San Pedro are comfortable properties that are very well located on their respective islands. The second one has a diving center to go to the reef directly from the bungalow.

In the Mayan region of Cayo, the San Ignacio Resort is a haven to recharge your batteries after visiting archaeological sites. This charming hotel, which recently hosted the English royal family, offers services of the highest standard in a protected woodland environment. By opening their windows, guests are likely to see a few toucans or iguanas. The latter also benefits from a care center on the hotel grounds. The San Ignacio Resort is very much involved with its community, offering Mayan cooking workshops, cultural and recreational visits through the area, and nighttime strolls in search of the remarkable arboreal mammal called kinkajou.

Information

Marine activities, cultural visits, natural discoveries … The official Travel Belize website allows you to get acquainted with all aspects of the destination.

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