What You Need to Know – Belize A to Z
Here are the basic facts to get you up to speed on Belize:
Acclimatization: How long does it take the typical expat to acclimatize to Belize? The answer varies from immediately to never. In terms of the weather, it usually takes new residents about six months to get used to the warm, humid subtropical climate, assuming they didn’t come from a similar climate. Belize is superficially similar to the U.S. in many ways – from the use of English in official documents to the same standards of measurement – miles, feet, gallons and ounces rather than kilometers, meters, liters and milliliters. You drive on the right and cable TV offers HBO, CNN and other U.S. channels. But, below the surface, the differences are more subtle and significant.
Bargaining: In general, prices in Belize stores are fixed, and there is no bargaining. At street markets, you may do some light bargaining, but haggling is not a way of life in Belize as it is some other parts of the world. Hotels and other tourist services may offer discounts – it never hurts to ask. Of course, when buying real estate, bargaining is the order of the day in Belize as most everywhere.
Business Hours: Most businesses open around 8 a.m. and close at 5 or 6 p.m. on weekdays. Some close for lunch, usually from 1 to 2 p.m. Many stores are open on Saturday, or at least on Saturday mornings. On Sundays, most stores and other businesses are closed, except in tourist areas like San Pedro. Banks typically are open until 1 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 4 or 5 on Friday.
Capital: Belmopan, a small town (now technically a city) of around 13,500 people in the central part of the country, is Belize’s capital and home to many government offices. The capital was moved from Belize City following the terrific destruction and loss of life caused by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. However, Belize City remains the cultural, social and commercial hub of the country, and many government offices remain in Belize’s only sizeable city.
Cell Phones: In addition to an older analog system, Belize Telemedia Limited now offers “DigiCell,” a digital service on the GSM dual band 850/1900 Mhz technology. As with cell phone service nearly everywhere, cell plans in Belize are complex and change frequently, but currently BTL offers a package for around US$50 a month that includes 250 minutes, and 30 text messages, and a US$100 a month plan that includes 800 minutes and 40 text messages. You can also purchase pre-paid cell service at a higher minute rate – BZ60 cents per minute for the first five minutes of a call, then BZ25 cents per minute. Visitors to Belize can buy a SIM card for their unlocked GSM 850/1900 cell phone for US$25, which includes BZ$10 of air time, or rent a DigiCell phone from BTL for US$5 a day (not including outgoing call usage). SpeedNet is another digital cell service that began operating in 2005 and may offer slightly lower rates than BTL. All charges shown are plus 10% GST. See also Internet and Telephone entries below.
Churches and Religion: Although Belize was a British colony, the Catholic Church, not the Anglican Church, is dominant in Belize. About one-half of Belizeans are at least nominally Catholic; Anglicans represent about 6% of the population. Other religious groups in Belize include Methodist, Church of Christ, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assembly of God and Seventh Day Adventist. Belize has one Muslim mosque. There is no temple, but Jews meet in local homes in Belize City.
Climate: Most of Belize has a sub-tropical climate similar to that of South Florida. Frost-free Belize usually enjoys lows in the 60s to 70s, with highs in the 80s to low 90s. More rain falls as you go south, with average annual rainfall in the north being about 50 inches, similar to Atlanta, Georgia, but increasing to 160 inches or more in the far south. Generally the rainiest months are June through October, with the driest months being February through April. January sees the coolest temperatures of the year, while May has the hottest. In general, daytime temps are higher inland, due to the influence of prevailing winds from the sea on the cayes and coast. The humidity is high year round in all parts of the country.
Drugs: Despite its reputation as a source of marijuana and, more recently, as a transshipment point for cocaine and other drugs from South America, Belize has strict laws on the use of illegal drugs, with prison terms and fines for offenders. Quite a few Belizeans smoke marijuana, some fairly openly, but it is illegal. Unfortunately, crack, heroin and other hard drugs are a fact of life in Belize, as they are in many countries. Much of the crime in Belize City and in other parts of the country is related to drugs.
Economy: Belize’s Gross Domestic Product in 2008 was estimated at US$1.4 billion, or around US$4,500 per capita. By comparison, per-capita GDP in the U.S. in 2008 was US$48,000. Thus, per-capita income in Belize is about one-tenth that in the U.S. Belize’s GDP growth averaged nearly 4% annually between 1999 and 2007 but fell to an estimated 2.4% in 2008. Major concerns include a large public debt relative to government income and GDP, and a sizeable trade deficit. About one-third of the population is below the poverty line. The entire Belize national economy is about the size of the economy of a small U.S. city of 40,000 people.
Tourism and agriculture/marine products are the two major industries, each representing about one-fifth of GDP. Due to recent growth, tourism is now slightly larger. Ambergris Caye, Cayo and Placencia are the major areas developed for tourism. Belize gets about 225,000 international visitors a year, with 61% coming from the U.S. These figures do not include regional travel through Belize’s land borders, the vast majority of which involve short-term visits for business, shopping or family reasons, and it does not include almost three quarter of a million annual day visitors on cruise ships which call on Belize City. The main agricultural crops are sugar cane, citrus, marine products and bananas. Aquaculture, mainly shrimp farming, has grown in importance in recent years. Belize has a labor force of around 113,000. The official unemployment rate in 2007 was around 8.5%, but in many rural areas of Belize it is much higher. With the worldwide recession in 2008-2009, unemployment rate has increased in Belize. Even so, there is a shortage of skilled workers in some areas. Inflation in Belize has been low to moderate in recent years; it was 4.5% in 2007 but increased to over 6% in 2008. The government has been running a large budget deficit in recent years. It has been running about one-fourth of the total government revenues of US$250 million. External debt is over US$1.4 billion. That is high given the small size of the Belizean economy. In 2006, the government reached agreement with most international creditors to restructure its external debt, issuing new bonds at lower interest rates.
Education: Belize's educational system is generally based on the English system. Students move through forms, from first form in primary school to sixth form (a kind of junior college), although some schools, following U.S. and Caribbean Community practices, use the grade system -- grades 1-12. The Catholic Church, through an agreement with the government, operates many of Belize's public schools. Nearly two-thirds of Belize's population are teenagers or younger, so in every part of Belize you'll see school kids in their khaki or blue school uniforms. In Belize City and elsewhere, there are both Catholic and government-run high schools. A few private or parochial schools run by Protestant denominations also exist. The best schools are in Belize City and in larger towns, and many of the worst schools -- with untrained teachers and few books or equipment -- are in the far south. One recent study found that lack of supplies was a major problem for schools in Toledo, and that about one-half of the teachers in the district had no educational training beyond high school. Only one in two Toledo children even finish primary school. In 2004, more than 85,000 students were enrolled in Belize schools and colleges at all levels, including almost 4,000 in preschools, 63,000 in primary schools, and more than 13,000 in high schools. Close to 5,000 students were in post-secondary studies. Primary education is free and compulsory through age 14. However, a sizable minority of Belizean children does not complete primary school. Only about 60% of teachers are professionally trained, though the number if growing. Even teachers with four-year college degrees earn only about US$1,000 a month. Secondary education, consisting of a four-year high school, is competitive, requiring passage of a comprehensive exam. The student's percentile ranking on the admissions test in part determines which school the student can attend. Charges for books and fees at secondary schools are beyond the reach of many Belizean families. About three-fourths of primary school students do go on to secondary schools, though not all graduate. The typical tuition cost for private schools in Belize is around US$15 per month. The Belize government pays this tuition if the student is a child of a citizen or permanent resident. Some expats choose to do home schooling. Private schools are available in a few areas. The Island Academy on Ambergris Caye, as an example, which goes through grade 8, charges US$3,000 a year per student. This school has an excellent reputation. Belize Elementary School in Belize City is one of the best private elementary schools on the mainland. Saint Catherine Academy for girls and St. John's High School for boys, both in Belize City, are recognized as among the best high schools. Belize also has community colleges and junior colleges. Despite the name, community colleges such as Corozal Community College and Toledo Community College, and also some other schools with college in the name, are usually secondary schools (high schools). Junior colleges may have secondary school programs but also offer tertiary, post-high school programs. Most are patterned after the "sixth form" in Britain. They usually offer associate or two-year college degrees. St. John's College in Belize City has educated many of Belize's leaders. Corozal Junior College in Corozal and Muffles College in Orange Walk Town are other examples. Corozal Junior College and St. John's Junior College also offer evening and extension programs directed primarily to adults. Until the 1990s, Belize did not have a true four-year university system. The colleges in Belize City and elsewhere were more like American high schools or two-year community colleges. However, in 2000, provisions were made for the development of the University of Belize, which combines several existing Belize educational facilities. A small private college, Galen University, is in Cayo near San Ignacio. The University of the West Indies also offers courses in Belize. In addition, several small for-profit offshore medical schools have set up base in Belize – currently one in Belize City, one in Corozal Town and one in Belmopan.
A sampling of education costs in Belize. All figures are in US dollars:
Public schools (often run by the Catholic Church) Free except for uniforms & books
Island Academy, San Pedro -- private school $3,000+ a year
Saint Catherine’s Academy, Belize City $500 a year (tuition & fees)
Mount Carmel High School, Benque Viejo $300 a year (tuition)
University of Belize, Belmopan and Belize City $675 a semester (tuition for 15 credit hours)
Electricity: 110 volts AC/60 cycles, same as in the U.S., and outlets are like those in the U.S. and Canada. However, electricity is at least twice as expensive in Belize as in the U.S., at around 21 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour.
Embassies: The U.S. Embassy in Belize moved from Belize City to Floral Park Road in Belmopan in late 2006. The new embassy is a compound constructed at a cost of US$50 million. In 2005, George W. Bush picked Rob Dieter, Bush's former roommate at Yale, as the new ambassador to Belize. Dieter has been a professor at the University of Colorado law school. He went to law school at the University of Denver and before that roomed for four years with W. as an undergraduate at Yale. President Barrack Obama also picked a former college roommate, at Occidental College, Vinai Thummalapally, an Indian-American businessman from Colorado Springs, Colo., as new ambassador.
The embassy’s telephone number is 501-822-4011, fax 501-822-4012, and the web site is www.belize.usembassy.gov. The U.K., Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Taiwan and about a dozen other countries have ambassadors or other representatives either in Belize City or Belmopan.
Family Life: With so many different ethnic groups in Belize, you can’t generalize about family life. However, as in many countries, Belize faces social problems relating to the disintegration of traditional family life. Especially in Belize City and other urbanized areas, a large percentage of babies are born out of wedlock and the traditional nuclear family is becoming less the norm.
Government: Formerly a British colony, and known as British Honduras from 1862 to 1973, Belize became independent from Britain in 1981. It is now a democratic member of the British Commonwealth, with a Westminster-style government system with a prime minister, an elected house of representatives and an appointed senate. The current prime minister is Dean Barrow, a Jamaica- and U.S.-educated lawyer. He heads the United Democratic Party (UDP), which swept national elections in 2008. The opposition party is the People’s United Party (PUP). Both parties are generally centrist. The “George Washington of Belize” is George Cadle Price, an ascetic Creole who helped found the PUP and was Belize’s first prime minister. Politics in Belize is a freewheeling affair and often intensely personal. Belize has strong ties with the United States and Britain, but it also has cultivated ties with Taiwan, Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, Mexico and other countries, often out of the need to seek foreign aid or development funding.
History: The human history of Belize can be divided into four broad periods: the ancient Maya period, the Spanish conquest, the British colonial period and modern Belize.
The ancient Maya, whose ancestors likely came originally from Asia, settled in what is now Mexico at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. The Maya civilization was influenced by and grew out of the Olmec culture farther north. The Maya migrated to what is now Belize about 3,000 years ago. During the height of the Maya empire, called the Classic Period, roughly 300 BC to 900 AD, the area that is now Belize had a civilization that included large-scale agriculture, sizeable cities of up to several hundred thousand people, formalized religion and a sophisticated knowledge of architecture, art, science and mathematics. As many as a million people lived in Belize during the late Classic period, compared to less than one-third that number today. Caracol likely was the largest city-state in Belize, with a population perhaps several times larger than that of Belize City today. Then, rather quickly, in a matter of at most a few hundred years, most of the great Maya cities were depopulated and the Maya civilization went into decline. There are many theories as to why this happened, among them that there was a change in weather patterns that disrupted agricultural, that epidemic diseases swept the region, or that social changes – perhaps revolutions – transformed the society. It could have been a combination of reasons. Whatever the reasons, by around 1000 AD most of the major cities in Belize had been at least partially abandoned, though a few settlements, such as Lamanai in northern Belize, lasted for many more centuries.
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico and Central America began in the first quarter of the 16th Century. Spanish troops and missionaries destroyed much of what was left of the Maya civilization, including burning nearly all of the Maya books they found. Soldiers killed many, and the European diseases they brought such as smallpox killed even more. Belize offered little to the Spanish in the way of gold or other riches, so Spain never paid much attention to it.
By the early 17th Century, Belize drew the attention of a motley group of British loggers and adventurers. The original Brits in Belize sought logwood, a valuable hardwood used to make dyes. These Brits also did a little buccaneering on the side. One of the most fearsome was Edward Teach, called Blackbeard for his huge black beard. According to legend, Blackbeard used Ambergris Caye for his hideout, continuing to terrorize ships of all nations, until he was finally killed off the coast of North Carolina. By around 1700, several hundred British loggers and hangers-on had settled around the mouth of the Belize River, near the bay of what is now Belize City. The Brits were known as Baymen. British logging settlements grew over the course of the next 100 years or so. The loggers imported slaves from Jamaica to help cut logwood and mahogany.
There was continuing conflict between the British and the Spanish. Finally, in early September 1798, a Spanish fleet of 32 ships with about 2,000 men came to settle the score and wipe out the British once and for all. But it didn’t work out that way. A ragtag band of Baymen assisted by a Royal Navy battleship on September 10, 1798, defeated the larger Spanish force in the Battle of St. George’s Caye. That event helped end Spain’s claims to Belize once and for all and is now celebrated as National Day. Spain acknowledged British sovereignty in Belize in the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
Thus began the British era in Belize, which lasted until the mid-20th Century. British Honduras, as it was then known, officially became a British colony in 1862, at the time of the U.S. Civil War. Following the Civil War, about 1,500 Confederate supporters came to British Honduras and established the town of New Richmond. Much of the British period was marked by the traditional colonial approach of exploiting the natural resources of the colony. Though slavery was abolished in Belize in 1838, two decades before it was abolished in the United States, English and Scottish companies employing hard-working Belizean blacks continued to log the native forests, exporting the timber back to Europe.
During this time, Belize began to become a melting pot of races and ethnic backgrounds. The old Baymen families, with names like Usher and Fairweather, married former slaves, creating a kind of provincial Creole aristocracy in Belize City. Some Mayas, fleeing the Caste Wars of mid-19th Century Mexico, intermarried with the Spanish, and were then called Mestizos. Hundreds of Garifuna from Honduras, with African and Caribbean Indian heritage, settled in southern Belize. As the 20th Century dawned, British Honduras was a sleepy backwater of the British Empire. But underneath the sleepiness, things were stirring. Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey helped raised black consciousness in Belize, as he did elsewhere in the Caribbean. The worldwide Great Depression and a terrible hurricane in 1931, which killed some 2,000 people in and around Belize City, both had a great impact on Belize.
The end of World War II sparked anti-colonial feelings, and the first major political movements favoring independence from Britain arose. Of these, the People’s United Party (PUP) under George Price, a Creole educated at St. John’s College in Belize City, was the most important. In 1954, a new constitution for the colony was introduced, for the first time giving all literate adults the right to vote (until then only about 3 in 100 Belizeans were allowed to vote.) In 1964, George Price negotiated a new constitution, which granted British Honduras full internal self-government, although it remained a British colony.
In 1973, the country’s name officially was changed to Belize. On September 21, 1981, Belize became an independent nation, with George Price as prime minister. Small by international standards, unpopulated and undeveloped, modern Belize has struggled to create a viable economy and infrastructure. The country several times faced off with Guatemala, which had long maintained that Belize was simply a province of Guatemala. It was not until 1991 that Guatemala finally recognized Belize as a sovereign state, although even up until today populist flag-wavers in Guatemala occasionally threaten to invade Belice (as it is known in Spanish).
In the 20th Century, agriculture, especially citrus, bananas and sugar, replaced logging as the country’s main industry. More recently, tourism has supplanted agriculture as the primary industry.
Democracy found fertile roots in Belize, and the little country has a dynamic two-party system. The United Democratic Party (UDP), under the former school teacher Manuel Esquivel, first defeated the PUP in the 1984 national elections, and again in 1993, but the PUP under Said Musa regained power in 1998 and held it until 2008. The current UDP prime minister is Dean Barrow, the first black to hold the office.
Important Dates in Belize History
300 BC to 900 AD Classic Maya period, when what is now Belize was the heart of the Maya empire with a population of one million
1508-1511 First Europeans — Spaniards — come to Belize; Maya resist
1798 Baymen defeat Spanish at Battle of St. George’s Caye on September 10, Belize’s National Day
1838 Slaves emancipated
1862 Britain declares British Honduras a colony and a member of British Commonwealth
1931 Worst hurricane in Belize history strikes on September 10, kills about 2,000
1949 Protests against devaluation of British Honduras dollar lead to formation of People’s United Party headed by George Price, sowing seeds of independence
1961 Hurricane Hattie nearly levels Belize City on the night before Halloween, kills more than 250
1973 Name changed to Belize; capital moved to Belmopan from Belize City
1981 On September 21, Belize becomes fully independent member of British Commonwealth, under Prime Minister George Price
1984 UDP wins national elections; Manuel Esquivel becomes PM; for next 14 years, parties alternate election wins
1998 Said Musa becomes Prime Minister
2001 Hurricane Iris hits southern Belize, on October 9, killing 21
2005 Charging corruption and fiscal mismanagement by the PUP, labor unions and the opposition UDP stage strikes and demonstrations
2008 UDP sweeps national elections in February, and Dean Barrow becomes prime minister.
Holidays: The following are legal public holidays in Belize:
New Year’s Day - January 1
Baron Bliss Day - March 9 (date of celebration varies)
Labour Day - May 1
Commonwealth Day - May 24
St. George’s Caye Day - September 10
Independence Day - September 21
Columbus Day - October 12
Garifuna Settlement Day - November 19
Christmas Day - December 25
Boxing Day - December 26
Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters: June through November technically is hurricane season in the Western Caribbean, but the September and October period is the most likely time for tropical storms and hurricanes. The worst hurricane in modern Belize history struck in September 1931, killing as many as 2,000 people in and around Belize City. About two-thirds of all tropical storms that have visited Belize in modern times have struck during those two months.
Since 1889, some 52 tropical storms and hurricanes have made landfall in Belize, an average of about once every 2.3 years. During the last half of the 20th century, only five serious hurricanes struck Belize, with the worst being Hattie in 1961. With the new millennium has come an increase in storm activity. Hurricane Keith hit Ambergris Caye in late September 2000, killing five and doing some US$150 million in damage, mainly on the backside of the island. Hurricane Iris in early October 2001 devastated the Placencia peninsula and rural Toledo District in southern Belize, killing 21 people, all in a dive boat. Hurricane Dean, in August 2007 hit Northern Belize, destroying some crops and homes.
Hurricanes can have a serious economic impact on Belize. For example, the Caribbean Development Bank estimates that in 2000 costs associated with hurricane damage were 13% of Gross Domestic Product and in 2001 6% of GDP. Even without hurricanes and tropical storms, flooding does frequently occur in low-lying areas, especially at the beginning of the rainy season, typically in June or July. Heavy rains from June through September in southern Belize can also cause flooding at any time during this period. Happily, Belize is not much subject to that other scourge of Central America – earthquakes. While earthquakes have occurred in Belize, notably in southern Belize – there were two minor earthquakes in 2009 -- no severe terremotos have occurred in Belize in modern times. Likewise, there are no active volcanoes in Belize. Forest fires are a risk at the end of the dry season, typically April and May.
Internet: There are about 35,000 Internet users in Belize. Internet access in Belize has been greatly improved over the past few years. BTL now offers DSL in most of the country, for either PC or Mac. However, costs are higher than in the U.S. or most other countries. Rates range from US$50 a month for 128 kbps to US$150 for 512kbps to US$250 for 2meg bps. These are download rates, and in practice you may not get these speeds. In addition, there is an installation charge of US$100 (US$500 deposit for non-residents) and a monthly modem rental fee of US$15 (or you can buy a modem for around US$155.) DSL is currently available in the Belize City area, San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Corozal Town, Belmopan, San Ignacio, Benque Viejo, Orange Walk Town, Punta Gorda and Placencia areas, plus in a number of outlying areas. Check www.belizetelemedia.net for current DSL coverage. Note: DSL may not be available in all areas of these cities, towns and villages. Dial-up accounts are also available from BLT. Connection speed is slow, usually 28 to 52 kbps. Internet via digital cable is available in Belize City and San Pedro for around US$50 a month and may soon be available in a few other areas. Some Internet users in Belize go with a satellite service, mainly HughesNet. Setup, installation and activation fees vary but currently are in the US$1,000 range, with monthly fees for unlimited service of around US$60. There are issues with getting import permits for satellite service. Most businesses and nearly all hotels in Belize have Internet access. Internet access is also available at cybercafés in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia, San Ignacio, Punta Gorda, Belize City, Corozal Town and elsewhere. BTL also has installed Internet kiosks for public Internet access in several locations around the country. There are a number of wireless hotspots in Belize.
Language: The official language of Belize is English, and English speakers have little or no trouble communicating anywhere in the country. However, Creole, a combination of mostly English vocabulary with West African grammar, syntax and word endings, is used daily by many Belizeans of all backgrounds. Spanish is widely spoken as well, and tends to be the dominant language in areas bordering Mexico and Guatemala. The Belize government has called on all Belizeans to learn both Spanish and English. Garifuna and Maya languages also are spoken, and some Mennonites speak a German dialect. As many as two-thirds of Belizeans are bi- or tri-lingual.
Largest Cities and Towns: Populated areas in Belize are officially designated as a city, town or village. Belize City is the largest city, with an official population of 60,800, according to the 2005 updates of the Belize Census. Including its outskirts, the city is home to about 80,000 people. Belmopan, the capital, also has been designated a city, although it has a population of only 13,500. San Ignacio and Orange Walk are the country’s largest towns, each with over 15,000 residents, according to 2005 figures. However, the fast-growing San Pedro area of Ambergris Caye may soon surpass these towns in population. Some estimates put the island’s population, officially 8,400 in mid-2005, now at close to 20,000, although that includes temporary workers and some expat snowbirders. The country’s urban areas, in order of population from largest to smallest, as of mid-2005, are:
Urbanized Areas Population
Belize City 60,800
San Ignacio/Santa Elena 16,800
Orange Walk 15,200
San Pedro 8,400
Benque Viejo 7,200
Punta Gorda 5,000
Belize is divided into six political districts, which function a little like U.S. counties. The six districts, from north to south, are Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek and Toledo.
Location, Size and Population: Belize is on the Caribbean Coast of Central America, bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. To the east is the Caribbean Sea. In Belize waters are as many as 400 islands, most unpopulated specks of sand or mangrove. Belize is about the size of the U.S. state of Massachusetts or Wales in the U.K. — 8,866 square miles — with a population estimated at around 310,000 in 2008, about as many people as live in metro Savannah, Georgia. From north to south Belize is less than 200 miles in length, and at its widest point it is less than 70 miles across.
Mail Service: Mail service to and from Belize is reasonably reliable and not too slow. Mail between the U.S. and Belize City usually takes less than a week. To outlying areas, however, it can take much longer – often several weeks. There are post offices in Belize City and in all towns and some villages. Many areas do not have home delivery. Unlike some of its Latin neighbors, Belize’s postal service does not usually suffer from theft and lost mail. To mail an airmail letter from Belize to the U.S. costs 30 cents U.S, and 15 cents for a postcard. For fast, dependable but expensive international express delivery, DHL Worldwide Express is one choice. Federal Express is another.
Maps: The best maps of Belize are these:
Belize Traveller’s Map, ITMB. Scale 1:250,000. The best general map to Belize, last updated as 6th edition in 2005. US$10.95. Available from www.itmb.com , www.amazon.com or at larger bookstores.
Driver’s Guide to Beautiful Belize, by Emory King. This mile-by-mile guide to most roads in Belize is really handy if you are traveling around the mainland. It’s a 40-some page booklet in 8 1/2” x 11” format. It was updated annually until Emory King’s death in late 2007. It also has maps of Belize City and major towns. If you can find a copy, the price is around US$10 in Belize.
Belize Topographical Map, British Ordnance Survey, 1:250,000-scale. Beautiful map, in two flat sheets, with Belize City and town maps on reverse sides. Also, there are 44 individual topo maps to most of Belize, at 1:50,000 scale. These are excellent maps but in most cases haven’t been updated since the early 1980s. Most are now out of print.
Google Earth has satellite images of Belize. Some areas are in fairly high resolution; others, not.
Media: Belize has four television stations, several radio stations and a number of weekly and monthly newspapers. There is no daily newspaper in the country. Cable television companies operate in most populated areas. Most of the weekly newspapers in Belize are based in Belize City, but a few other towns have weekly or monthly newspapers. The two best national newspapers in Belize are Amandala and The Reporter. These two weekly tabloids are independent and outspoken, though coverage runs to strident political and crime news, and since they are based in Belize City both have a Creole, port city orientation that does not fully reflect the views of all of Belize’s diverse society. Both have Web editions: www.belizereporter.bz and www.amandala.bz. The Guardian and the Belize Times are operated by the two leading political parties in Belize. The weekly Belize Times is the United Peoples Party paper, and The Guardian is the United Democratic Party’s organ.
Ambergris Caye has two weekly newspapers. The San Pedro Sun (tel. 501-226-2070, www.sanpedrosun.net) is operated by expats from the U.S. Ambergris Today (tel. 501-226-3462, www.ambergristoday.com) is run by Dorian Nuñez. There also are small newspapers in several outlying towns and villages: Placencia Breeze in Placencia, The Star in San Ignacio, Howler in Toledo and others. None of these newspapers has extensive classified listings for real estate or other items of interest to prospective expats, although the San Pedro Sun usually has a page or so of classified items for sale, and Amandala usually has some Belize City home rental and homes for sale listings.
Two Belize City TV stations, Channel 5 and Channel 7, may also be picked up in a good part of the country, though these stations are not carried on all cable systems. Channel 5 has an informative text version of its nightly news broadcast on-line at www.channel5belize.com. Channel 7, which has more of a UDP political slant, also has an on-line news summary at www.7newsbelize.com. Streaming video versions of the evening newscasts are now also available, though the quality can be spotty. Channel 3 in Orange Walk Town, affiliated with Centaur Cable (www.ctv3belizenews.com) offers some news of Northern Belize and the nation. LOVE-FM radio also has a TV arm. While some of the equipment is primitive, it has some good locally produced programming.
KREM-FM 96.5 and LOVE-FM 95.1 (frequencies vary around the country) are the two most popular radio stations in Belize. KREM-FM has a morning talk and call-in show from 6 to 8:30 a.m., with host Evan Hyde Jr. During the day it broadcasts an eclectic mix of local music, rap, soul and other music, along with Belize news. LOVE-FM offers “easy listening” music during the day, with a morning call-in and talk show hosted by station owner Rene Villanueva from 6 to 8 a.m. This station has three full newscasts at 6:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and news updates frequently. Both stations offer Internet broadcasts (you have to install Real One media player.) Web site for KREM is www.krem.bz, for LOVE www.lovefm.com. Another station, this one with a UDP slant, is WAVE-FM. Belize First Magazine, an on-line magazine about Belize founded by Lan Sluder, has hundreds of pages of articles and archives at www.belizefirst.com. Among its offerings are eBooks on Belize and a news archive going back more than eight years. Most of these media can be accessed from www.belizenews.com. San Pedro Daily is an on-line “newspaper” that mainly runs unedited articles picked up from other media. Cable TV, typically with some 50 channels from the U.S. and Mexico, is available in many areas of Belize, offered by local companies. You pay around US$20 to $30 monthly for cable service. Some Belize residents have satellite TV.
Medical Care: Belize City is the center for medical care in Belize. A number of dentists and private medical clinics are available there. Many serious problems can be treated at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City (Princess Margaret Dr., tel. 501-223-1548), a modern public hospital albeit one plagued by equipment problems and supply shortages. It’s hard to beat the rates, though – under US$50 per day for a hospital room. There are seven other public hospitals in Belize, including two regional hospitals: the Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga, and the Northern Regional Hospital in Orange Walk Town. Altogether, there are about 600 public hospital beds in Belize. The public hospitals provide the four basic medical specialties: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics and OB-GYN. Karl Heusner Memorial also provides neuro, ENT, physiotherapy, orthopedic surgery and several other services.
The quality of these hospitals varies considerably. Karl Heusner Memorial -- named after a prominent Belize City physician -- opened in 1997 and has much modern equipment, such as a CAT-scan, though some Belizeans and expats complain that even this hospital is chronically short of supplies, including at times toilet paper. In 2004-2005, it added new facilities including ones for neurosurgery and trauma care. The Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga, which opened in 2000, is another modern facility, with much of the same medical technologies and equipment as you'd find in a community hospital in an American town. However, other hospitals leave a lot to be desired. The Northern Regional Hospital in Orange Walk, for example, though it is being upgraded, still looks more like a refugee camp than a hospital, with low concrete block buildings and limited equipment. Several small medical clinics, one essentially a small hospital, operate in San Pedro.
Besides these hospitals, Belize has a network of around 60 public health clinics and rural health posts in many towns and villages around the country, providing primary medical and dental care. Most of these suffer from inadequate staffing, too many patients for their available resources and lack of equipment and medicine. Doctors may diagnose health problems accurately, but they may not be able to provide the proper medications to cure them. In addition to these public hospitals and clinics, Belize has two private hospitals -- La Loma Luz, a not-for-profit Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Santa Elena near San Ignacio, and Belize Medical Associates, a for-profit facility in Belize City. Universal Health Services, a third private hospital, is being merged into Karl Heusner Memorial. Altogether these private hospitals have fewer than 50 hospital beds. There also are a number of physicians and dentists in private practice, mostly in Belize City.
Government figures show Belize has less than one physician per 1,000 population, or about 225 practicing physicians for a population of over 300,000, less than one-half the rate in the U.S. Belize has about 475 nurses, or one nurse per 640 population. Altogether there are perhaps 800 trained medical personnel in Belize. They are not distributed evenly around the country, however. More than one-half are in Belize City, which has only about one-fourth of the population. About three-fourths of trained medical people work in the public sector, and the rest in the private sector.
Starting in the late 1990s, health care in Belize got a boost, thanks to the arrival of a group of several dozen medical volunteers from Cuba. Currently almost 100 Cuban nurses and physicians are in Belize. These doctors and nurses were assigned to clinics in areas of Belize that, until then, did not have full-time medical personnel available to the local people. These hardworking Cubans, who exist on stipends of only a few dollars a month, have won many new friends for Fidel in Belize, regardless of what Belizeans may think of his politics. Medical teams from Venezuela also have come to Belize. Medical and dental volunteer teams from the U.S. and Canada also regularly visit Belize to provide short-term care.
Most physicians and dentists in Belize are trained in the U.S., Guatemala, Mexico or Great Britain. There are three so-called offshore medical schools in Belize, but their graduates are unlikely to practice in Belize. A nursing school, affiliated with the University of Belize, trains nurses for work in Belize. While many expats do go to Guatemala, or to Chetumal or Mérida, Mexico, for specialized treatment, others who can afford it go to Houston, Miami, New Orleans or elsewhere in the U.S.
Money: The Belize currency is the Belize dollar, which for many years has been tied to the U.S. dollar at a fixed 2 Belize to 1 U.S. dollar rate. Moneychangers at the borders often give a slightly higher rate than 2 Belize for 1 U.S. dollar, sometimes as much as 2.1 or 2.2 to 1, depending on the current demand for American greenbacks. U.S. dollars (bills, not coins) are accepted everywhere in Belize, although you often will receive change in Belizean money, or in a mix of Belizean and U.S. money. There has been talk for years of dollarizing the Belize economy, similar to what El Salvador, Ecuador and other Latin countries have done, but so far that move hasn’t gotten traction. The Belize dollar is difficult if not impossible to exchange anywhere outside of Belize (except at border areas of Guatemala and Mexico). Paper-money Belize denominations are the 100-, 50-, 20-, 10-, 5- and 2-dollar bills. Belize coins come in 1-dollar, 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 Belizean cent units. The 25-cent piece is called a shilling.
People of Belize: Belize is truly a multicultural society. Mestizos make up about 49% of the population. These are persons of mixed European and Maya heritage, typically speaking Spanish as a first language and having social values more closely associated with Latin America than with the Caribbean. Mestizos are concentrated in northern and western Belize. There is often a distinction made between Mestizos who came to Belize from the Yucatán during the Caste Wars of the mid-19th century and more recent immigrants from Central America. Mestizos are the fastest growing segment of the population.
Creoles, once the dominant ethnic group in the country, now make up only about 25% of the population. These are people usually but not always of African heritage, typically speaking Creole and English and often having a set of social values derived from England and the Caribbean. Creoles are concentrated in Belize City and Belize District, although there are predominantly Creole villages elsewhere, including the village of Placencia.
Maya constitute about 11% of the population. There are concentrations of Yucatec Maya in Corozal and Orange Walk districts, Mopan Maya in Toledo and Cayo districts, and Kekchí Maya in about 30 villages in Toledo. Garifuna (also known as Garinagu or Black Caribs) make up about 6% of the Belizean population. They are of mixed African and Carib Indian heritage. Most came to then British Honduras from Honduras in 1830s. Dangriga and Punta Gorda are towns with large Garifuna populations, as are the villages of Seine Bight, Hopkins and Barranco.
The “Other” group, making up about 8% of the population, includes several thousand Mennonites who came to Belize from Canada and Mexico in the 1950s. Divided into conservative and progressive groups, they farm large acreages in Belize. Conservatives live mostly in Shipyard, Barton Creek and Little Belize, avoid the use of modern farm equipment and speak German among themselves. Progressives live mostly in Blue Creek, Progresso and Spanish Lookout. Belize also has sizable communities of East Indians, who live mainly around Belize City and in Toledo, Chinese, mostly from Taiwan, living in Belize City and elsewhere, Lebanese and “Gringos,” mostly expats from the U.S. and Canada concentrated in San Pedro, Placencia, Cayo and around Corozal Town.
Belize predominantly is a country of the young. More than two out of five Belizeans are under 15 years of age, and the median average age is around 19 years.
Pharmacies: There are drug stores in Belize City and in all towns. Many prescription drugs cost less in Belize than in the U.S., though pharmacies may not stock a wide selection of drugs. In general, in Belize prescriptions usually are not needed for antibiotics and some other drugs that require prescriptions in the U.S., although pharmacies owned by physicians or operated by hospitals (common in Belize) may require or suggest a consultation with the doctor.
Satellite Radio: Yes, satellite radio is available in Belize. Although Sirius and XM Radio have merged, and most of their programming is now shared, the two services use different satellites. Currently, Sirius can be picked up better than XM in most of Belize.
Taxes: The main taxes you’ll face in Belize are:
• National Goods and Services Tax (GST) of 10% on nearly all products and services. The GST replaced a 9% sales tax in mid-2006. A few items are exempt: basic foodstuffs such as rice, flour, tortillas, eggs and beans; some medicines; school textbooks; transportation on buses and airplanes, items being exported and hotel stays taxed under the hotel tax system. Like a value-added tax, the GST is supposed to be included in the final purchase price, rather than added on like a sales tax, but many businesses quote prices without the GST and just add it on at the cash register. Very small businesses, such as street vendors, don’t have to register for the GST and don’t charge the tax. There are additional taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and a few other items. More than one-half the cost of gasoline is due to government tax.
• Import duties of up to 80% on imported items, with some items such as computers and books having no duty (though you pay sales tax) and most having 25% or less duty. The average duty on imported items is around 20%.
• Personal income tax ranges from 25% to up to 45%, with those making about BZ$20,000 or less per year effectively paying no tax. The 45% rate kicks in on an income of about US$47,500. Personal income tax is only on income derived in Belize; there is no Belize income tax on income generated outside Belize.
• Corporate or business tax on gross revenues (without any deductions) rather than earnings, with the percentage tax depending on the category of business. The rate for what is actually a turnover tax ranges from 0.75% to 25%. For most businesses it is 1.5% of gross revenue; for most professions it is 3% of gross revenue. Revenue taxes for several types of businesses were increased in early 2005 and again in 2008.
• Property taxes vary but are about 1% to 1 1/2% of the value of the undeveloped land, payable annually on April 1. Property taxes on homes and other developed land are very low. For example, the property tax on a nice four-bedroom North American-style home would likely be in the range of US$100 to $200. Many people with simple homes pay only US$10 or $20 property tax annually. There is a 5% speculation tax on land of 300 acres or more, payable annually on April 1 based on the value of the land. Since 1999, there has been a move to make property taxes based on the market value of the property, but implementation has been spotty at best.
• Property transfer tax (often called “stamp duty”) of 5% of property value payable at time of closing. This 5% tax applies to existing homes, most lots and land, whether purchased by a Belizean or a foreigner. If you are buying a newly built, or substantially renovated (typically about 80% renovated) home or condo, in addition to the 5% transfer tax you will also owe the 10% GST, for a total of 15% due on closing. This GST also applies, in some cases, to the first sale of lots in a subdivision, but not to their resale.
• No inheritance tax.
• No capital gains tax.
• Hotel tax of 9% on hotel stays.
Belize has signed double taxation agreements with many countries, including: United Kingdom, Bahamas, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Lucia.
Note: This very brief overview of Belize taxation should not be relied on for your actual situation, for which professional tax advice is recommended.
Telecommunications: Belize has one of the best telephone systems in the region, with a combination of fiber optic cable and microwave, plus cell service in most of the country. There are some 100,000 cell phone subscribers and 33,000 landlines. You can dial to or from even remote areas of Belize and usually get a clear, clean line. That's the good news. The bad news is that telephone service in Belize is expensive, both for users and for Belizean taxpayers who are the footing part of the bill.
Belize Telemedia, Ltd. (BTL) is a company with a history dating back to 1956, when a British firm, Cable & Wireless, set up the first telecommunications system in what was then British Honduras. After several changes, it became Belize Telcommunications, Ltd. in 1987. In 2001, majority ownership in BTL was purchased from the Belize government by Carlisle Holdings, Ltd., a U.K. company under the control of Michael Ashcroft, a British lord and Conservative politician. BTL retained a legal monopoly on all types of telecommunications services in Belize until the end of 2002, when its license to operate all forms of telecommunications in Belize expired. It is no longer the monopoly it once was, since BTL now has some limited competition, but it's still the 800-pound gorilla of Belize telcom -- and if you live in Belize, you can't escape its clutches. Lord Ashcroft's Carlisle Holdings sold its interest in BTL back to the Belize government in 2004. Later that same year, the Belize government sold BTL to Innovative Communications Corporation (ICC), an American company based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. ICC added 5,000 new land lines and claims to have brought on thousands of new cell users. Then, BTL/ICC and the Belize government got into a row, culminating in a lawsuit in Miami.
In 2006, Lord Ashcroft, a friend of some top Belizean officials, moved to repurchase some of BTL. However, in 2009 the Belize government under Prime Minister Dean Barrow renationalized Belize Telemedia Ltd. The government has taken over the operations of BTL, pending the sale of company stock to Belizean and other private investors. The amount the government will have to pay Lord Ashcroft and other owners is in dispute. Stay tuned.
In spring 2005, a new Belizean-owned wireless company, Speednet, began offering digital cell service in Belize, with an interconnect to BTL. Speednet, or Smart as its consumer brand is called, now offers wireless voice and Internet service in most of Belize.
It costs about US$50 for BTL to install a telephone in your home, plus a US$100 refundable deposit. If you are not a citizen or official resident, the deposit jumps to US$500. There is a US$10 a month residential service fee. Local calls in Belize are charged by the minute (each local minute costs US5 cents, after some free units.) Costs for calls to other parts of Belize vary from US 10 to 20 cents a minute during the day, and half that at night. A 10-minute daytime call to Belize City from San Pedro is US$1. Costs of direct-dialed long-distance calls to the U.S. currently are US 80 cents a minute, less at night.
With Belize and international long-distance and cell phone rates so high, some Belizeans with personal computers are turning to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, such as Skype. However, BTL periodically attempts to block VoIP. In 2007, BTL began offering its own VoIP service, naturally at much higher cost than most other services.
A new seven-digit dialing system was introduced in 2002. Formerly, telephone numbers in Belize had five digits, plus a two-digit local exchange number in Belize. Now to reach any number in Belize you must dial all seven digits. All numbers begin with a district area code: 2 for Belize District, which includes Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, 3 for Orange Walk District, 4 for Corozal District, 5 for Stann Creek District, 6 for mobile phones, 7 for Toledo District and 8 for Cayo District. The second digit of the phone number is a service provider code: 0 for prepaid services, 1 for mobile services and 2 for regular telephone service. So a number like 22x-xxxx indicates that it is in Belize District and is a regular telephone, not a cell phone and not a prepaid service. When dialing from outside Belize, you must also dial the country code and international calling prefix. The country code for Belize is 501. When dialing from the U.S., add 011. Pay phones in Belize now operate only with a prepaid BTL calling card. These cards are sold in many shops in denominations from US$5 to $25. BTL provides a single telephone directory for Belize, published annually in the spring. Most numbers can be looked up on the online directory on BTL’s Web site, www.btl.net. (See also Internet above.)
Time: Local time is GMT-6 year-round, the same as U.S. Central Standard Time. Belize does not observe daylight savings time.
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