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For an adventure off the beaten path, Belize is a refreshing journey through boundless nature, incredible cultural diversity, and a spectacular story. Home to Creole, Mestizo, Spanish, and descendants of the Maya, Belize is a cultural mosaic certain to enthrall.
Unlike most Central American nations, Belize was controlled by three empires—the Maya, Spanish, and British—before becoming fully independent in 1981. Belize is a land in many ways spared development which has destroyed natural environments all over Central and South America. The Belize Barrier Reef—home of the aptly named Yellow Brain Coral among hundreds of others—is only about ten percent cataloged. With a low population density and about 60 percent of the country covered in forest, treasured animals such as the majestic jaguar can roam far from the damaging impacts of man.
Outside of the main corridor of Central American tourism, Belize offers a particularly high-definition look into the day-to-day life of a diverse people successfully living hand-in-hand with nature and each other. Travelers to Central America must be ready to see the region a bit differently—on its own terms.
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While many major cities in Central America try to cater to the desires of tourists, Belize City is proud of the wide economic and cultural spectrum of its people. From charming bright colonial houses to the ramshackle refuges of the poor, the city is unapologetically itself.
Nearly destroyed by a hurricane in 1961, much of the city is either newly-built or refurbished. Yet, the city’s idiosyncratic identity was never lost—amid palm trees and beating sun, the almost 200-year-old St. John’s Anglican Cathedral could have been lifted from colonial New England.
While many paths have crossed in Belize over the centuries, a harmonious relationship with nature is paramount to its identity. The Eco-Museum provides an intimate exploration of this relationship, constructed from recycled natural materials. Delicate orchids, Belize’s world-famous mahogany, and an exotic butterfly exhibit provide curious travelers with a smorgasbord of the country’s naturalistic offerings.
Belize City is not visited by many tourists, in part because its people have nothing to hide. When it comes to understanding the life of a country’s people, you have to walk among them. The only question left to ask is "Are you ready?"
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Flanking the pristine New River Lagoon, the Lamanai Ruins hold archaeological treasures beyond the wildest of dreams. Nestled deep within the jungle of northern Belize, the site still holds hundreds of buildings and artifacts yet to be discovered.
The first settlers of Lamanai—an ancient Mayan word for “submerged crocodile”, many of which lived in the nearby lagoon—arrived around 1600 BC and remained for about 3,000 years. One of the longest-held bastions of Maya culture amid Spanish colonization, the people of Lamanai erected several prodigious temples, including the towering High Temple and haunting beauty of the Mask Temple. Yet, it’s the snarling, almost menacing visage on the Jaguar Temple which is most arresting.
The Maya held out in Lamanai even with interaction from both Spanish and British colonists. Yet, like much of Belize, it was their ability to adapt that led to their longevity. Even though views of the lagoon are awe-inspiring, the testament left behind by the Maya is their enduring architecture—such as the 13-foot mask at the Mask Temple—that tell a deeper story.
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Most Popular Film
Films featuring Belize from international, independent filmmakers
Discover the jungles and Maya ruins of Belize on horseback.Produced by Darley Newman
Immerse yourself in Guatemala with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
The Mayan empire fell centuries ago, but their legacy is still felt throughout Central America.
The ancient group painted human sacrifices head to toe in “Mayan blue.” Discover more about the Mayans.
Bring Latin American flair into your kitchen with this easy and delicious empanada recipe.
From Ancient Empire to Contemporary Culture
The Maya then and now
Although the Mayan Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America ...
When Hammurabi ruled Babylonia and the ancient Egyptians were under Hyksos influence in the 13th Dynasty, another great empire was forming in the Americas. The ancient Maya began as farmers but went on to develop some of the most advanced forms of architecture, mathematics, language, and religion known to the Americas at the time. Even after the end of their 2,700-year reign of power in the region, the Maya continue to wield their influence on contemporary Central American culture, particularly in Guatemala, where modern Maya people comprise approximately 40% of the population.
Using glyphs to understand the past
It is through ancient Maya monuments, art, and architecture that scholars learned about the system of Maya writing, which many suspect is ancient Mesoamerica’s first writing system and the only ancient language in this region to be comprehensively translated. One of the landmark examples of Maya writing is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, consisting of 1,800 ascending glyphs in Copán, an ancient Maya city in western Honduras. While ancient Maya scribes created glyphs both in stones and in paper texts, the Spanish conquistadors burned most of the paper texts in the 16th century while converting the Maya to Christianity, and discouraged the use of Maya script. After the last of the Maya scribes died out, the text remained untranslated until Western explorers in the 1880s renewed interest in the glyphs.
The glyphs themselves were not fully translated until the 1980s—and a world of dynastic succession and a society beset with violent conquest and gruesome religious sacrifice came to life. The texts and stone carvings also illustrate vivid mythologies, the most seminal of which involves mortal twin brothers fighting gods in the underworld, eventually going on to feed the Maya and then transforming into the sun and moon.
Uncovering the world of everyday Maya
While ancient cities like Copán and Tikal harken to a golden age of architecture, art, and ideology in Maya civilization, our understanding of ancient Maya life greatly improved with the 1976 discovery of the village of Cerén, located in western El Salvador. Called “the Pompeii of the New World” because it was enveloped in volcanic ash in AD 590, the site serves as a time capsule for daily life in a small village of that era. Though it appears the residents had time to escape the eruption, they left behind an impeccably preserved village. Excavations revealed that cassava was widely grown. Some archaeologists have posited that this hardy, nutritious tuber—which remains a staple to this day—may have enabled the Maya Empire to accommodate up to two million subjects at its peak.
Although the Maya Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America—and their cultural heritage still lives on today. Throughout Spanish conquest, they maintained the spoken language of their ancestors, of which there are dozens of dialects spoken in Guatemala alone. Maximón, the ancient Maya god of the underworld, was reincarnated as San Simón after hundreds of years of forced conversion of the Maya people to Roman Catholicism. In addition to a name change, Maximón also got a bespoke makeover and is usually seen in 18th-century European clothes. Many handcrafts produced in the region today reflect the art of their ancient ancestors, such as jade carvings and intricate textiles. The historic and contemporary legacy of the Maya serves as a window to their civilization at its peak, a haunting reminder of the impermanence of great empires, and a reminder of how the roots of the past give shape to a vibrant modern existence.
The Maya then and now
7 Things You Never Knew About the Maya
Shedding light on an ancient empire
by David Valdes Greenwood, for O.A.T.
Between 250 and 900 AD, the Maya reigned in Central America. But by 1000 AD, they had vanished—taking many of the keys of their culture with them.
Still, some fascinating facts have been gathered, and below, you can test your knowledge of this once-thriving civilization:
1. They had their own Farmer’s Almanac
You probably knew the Maya created a written language (the only one in Mesoamerica), but did you know they wrote books, too? These codices—one of which was 122 pages long—included predictions for the tides, eclipses, weather patterns, and sun cycles. Sadly, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they burned all but four of these books.
2. They were never satisfied with their looks
From an early age, the Maya tried to change their features: They hung little balls close to babies’ faces to make them cross-eyed, attempted to flatten their children’s foreheads by strapping boards upon them, and modified adult teeth to keep up with local beauty notions—adding inset gems and precious stones for personal style.
3. The Mayan underworld was literally under foot
The underworld was known as Xibalba, and it could be entered easily: A massive waterway flowed beneath Mayan territory, with 2,500 natural entrances (known as cenotes) leading to subterranean cave networks. The Maya believed they could feel the pull of the underworld by standing in a cenote–which explains why it was a site for human sacrifices.
4. They lost their minds over sports
At Copán and elsewhere, they built massive courts for a game similar to racquetball—only the ball they used was much heavier. And depictions of the game are disturbing: Decapitation is a common element, leaving experts unsure if the hefty ball could knock the players’ heads off, or whether actual skulls were used in game play.
5. “Mayan Blue” was a color to die for
The Maya created a blue pigment that was almost indestructible—in fact, it’s still visible in pottery and murals more than 1,500 years later. But some uses of the color were intended to be literally perishable: at Chichen Itza, human sacrifices were painted Mayan Blue head to toe before being offered to the gods.
6. Pregnancy earned women spa days
The Maya loved spending time in a zumpul-ché, a vented stone chamber where water was poured over hot rocks, yielding steam to bask in. Similar to a modern sauna and used for restorative purposes, they were popular with expectant mothers in need of a boost.
7. Some cherished traditions live on
In Hetzmek, the ancient Maya version of a christening, a child of three or four months was carried on a godparent’s hip, the infant’s legs straddling either side. The open legs symbolized the community preparing the child to walk through life. Hetzmek was being practiced when the Spanish arrived, and the tradition is still observed by many of the seven million Maya who still live in the region today.
Shedding light on an ancient empire
Empanadas Offer Savory & Sweet Meats and Treats
from Harriet's Corner
Delicious and satisfying empanadas are a portable meal unto themselves—which is why they've become ubiquitous throughout Latin America. Derived from the Spanish empanar, meaning “to coat with bread,” there are myriad versions, both savory and sweet. Using raisins, allspice, and beef, this empanada recipe features the best of both savory and sweet. Because they include pre-made pie crust, they’re relatively easy to make—the hardest part of cooking empanadas is waiting for them to cool down so you enjoy them! Try your hand at cooking them soon for a taste of Latin America.
½ lb. ground beef
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
¼ c. black olives, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. allspice
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1/3 c. raisins
1 (15 oz.) package refrigerated pie crust
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
flour (for rolling surface)
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat olive oil over medium heat, and add onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook until the vegetables have softened (about 5 minutes).
- Add ground beef, and cook until just browned.
- Add olives, flour, allspice, cumin, and cayenne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture has begun to thicken (5 or 6 minutes). Season with salt and pepper.
- On a lightly floured board, roll out pie crust and cut into circles about 3 inches in diameter (you can use a drinking glass as a “frame”).
- On one half of each circle, place one level tablespoon of cooked filling. Sprinkle with a few raisins and chopped egg.
- Brush the other half of the circle with egg wash (the beaten egg). Fold over and press to seal. Crimp edges with a fork.
- Brush top with egg wash and place on a large baking sheet. Repeat until filling is depleted.
- Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
Serves: Makes 20 empanadas
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Small Group Adventure
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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