4 Ways to Experience Culture in Belize
Best known for its barrier reef, Maya sites and dizzying array of outdoor thrills, Belize’s diverse population catches most by surprise. Up to 8 major ethnic groups happily coexist in this small Central American country of about 320,000 inhabitants -- from descendants of the ancient Maya to Afro-Caribbean, Latin and East Indian groups. From one district to the next, this extraordinary mix translates into a slew of cultural experiences. Here are 4 of the best ways to experience Belize and to soak up all of its rich flavors during your visit.
1. Sample Creole Culture in Belize City
Belize City and its surroundings are the hub of Belize’s Creole culture and history. Despite the city’s reputation for crime -- like most urban hubs in Central America -- there is much to be experienced here, from authentic Creole eateries and villages to glimpses of Belize’s former days as a British colony. Start at the waterfront Government House of Culture on Regent Street, with an indoor museum showcasing art, photos and silverware from the colonial period. Directly across the street, marvel at the stained glass and mahogany interior of St. John’s Cathedral -- the oldest Anglican Church in Central America -- built in the early 1800s by enslaved Africans.
Walk north on Regent Street, all the way to Deep Sea Marlin’s Restaurant, a lively and casual riverside favorite where you can get a heaping plate of rice and beans with stew chicken for under $5. Wash it down with a fresh watermelon juice while gazing at fishing boats cruising Haulover Creek and listening to locals chatting in Creole.
An afternoon drive through the surrounding countryside will reveal charming Creole villages. Off the Northern Highway, a mere 45 minutes from Belize City, is Burrell Boom, where roadside vendors display tempting bottles of homemade fruit wine. Stop for a taste -- sample the blackberry flavor -- and look up in the trees for any howler monkeys. Stay overnight at a riverside lodge in this village. Black Orchid Resort is a wonderful, locally-owned retreat.
Another solid option for a Creole cultural experience is to hop on the water taxi to Caye Caulker, an offshore island just 40 minutes from Belize City where cars are non-existent and local experiences are inescapable, from street foods to friendly residents.
2. Visit a Garífuna Village
Along Belize’s south coast, facing its prettiest coastline and beaches, are Belize’s Garífuna towns and villages. They are inhabited by the Garinagu (plural of Garífuna) people, descendants of West Africans and Amerindians who continue to live where their ancestors first settled in 1802.
Head to the fishing village of Hopkins, one of the most authentic despite being the most tourist-ready. Settle into your beachfront guesthouse. Seagull's Nest is an affordable option just a stone’s throw from the sea and on the main village road. Walk north towards Laruni Hati Beyabu Diner for a plate of hudut, or fish soaked in a coconut and okra broth, served with mashed plantains.
You’ll likely need a post-lunch nap; pick a spot on the uncrowded, 6-mile Hopkins Village beach, one of the nicest stretches in the country. Make sure to leave enough time for a stop at the Lebeha Drumming Center, where you can sign up for a group or solo Garífuna drumming lesson. If you crave more African vibes, head to King Cassava’s for a drink and a chat with the locals.
3. Stay with a Mayan Family
The deep southern district of Toledo is the best place to experience the Maya culture. This is where you’ll find a landscape dotted with the thatched huts of up to 10 ancient Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya villages, tucked amid a landscape of hills, forests and rivers running through. Sign up for a village homestay of up to 2 nights through the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA), managing a cooperative of 6 participating villages. You’ll get to experience everyday life with a Mayan family, assisting with daily chores -- including making tortillas by fire hearth -- or relaxing to the sound of the marimba.
Don’t leave without a cacao trail tour in scenic San Pedro Columbia. The cacao bean was once used as currency by the ancient Maya. Hike through cacao orchards and end the day with hot chocolate tastings. Before heading to the Deep South, pick up a copy of the latest Toledo Howler, a local newspaper listing the latest cultural events in the district.
4. Explore Mestizo and East Indian Cultures
Northern Belize, a 2-hour drive from Belize City, is Mestizo country and home to a population of mixed Spanish and Maya descent. In Orange Walk, you can practice your Spanish, eat the best tacos in Belize and dance to Latin beats. In Corozal, facing the lovely Corozal Bay, head to the Town Hall for a stunning mural depicting the history of the area, from the arrival of Spanish colonialists to independence. Walk over to Patty’s Bistro for lunch, serving up the best Latin-inspired dishes in town.
Corozal is also home to a sizeable East Indian population, descendants of indentured workers who arrived in Belize in the 19th century. Visit the only East Indian Museum in the country, off the Northern Highway, named “Window to the Past.” Displays include items collected from residents that have been passed down over centuries like musical instruments, cooking utensils and other household items. Drive to town and make a stop on 5th Street. Visit Venke’s Kabob Corner, a hole in the wall serving the best East Indian curry in town.