Beating around the bush would be pointless. The truth is that Belize City is more than rough around the edges. Between British colonization, hurricanes, a flaccid economy, a less than effective police force, and a well-entrenched drug problem the city has a reckless vibe which reminds us (in smaller measure) of Phnom Penh. Odds are you will fly into and out of Belize City, however, so check out our Belize City travel guide to make the most of that time.
What to do in Belize City
Yes, Belize City is struggling with a big ugly drug problem and the violence that comes with it. But, we spent a few days in Belize City and we saw absolutely no evidence of violence. Belize City even has some charms.
There’s lovely architecture, a welcoming waterfront area (though the seawall seems nowhere near high enough given the area’s hurricane history), and the world’s only working hand-operated swing bridge.
The city radio station is called LOVE FM and the streets are full of British-accented leftovers from the country’s days as a colony, indigenous Garifunas, and hard-charging students and professionals who seem hell-bent on bettering their city and their country.
Belize City is grungy but gratifying with a perpetual party atmosphere even though there’s nothing obvious to celebrate.
What to do around Belize City
The Belize Zoo, about 30 miles (50 km) outside of the city, is not what you expect. Opened to provide loving homes for abandoned, illegally poached, or injured animals which are indigenous to Belize, the zoo is your only sure-bet chance to see some of the country’s wildlife superstars including jaguars and harpy eagles. Toss in handmade signs that playfully impart warnings, information, and a gentle eco message and the US$10 entrance fee is a bargain. We were inspired to double that as a donation.
It was great to see toucans, endangered harpy eagles (which grow up to 3.5 feet or 1 meter tall and have flamboyant head feathers that can stand up like a crown), essentially free-range spider monkeys, and lumbering tapirs (the national animal of Belize which is like a cross between a pig, an anteater, and a small pony). However, it was Junior Buddy who won our hearts.
Born at the zoo to a female jaguar that was rescued after the owner of the livestock she was hunting threatened to kill her, Junior Buddy is not a wild animal. The three-year-old was extremely comfortable around humans and we sat quietly on a bench just a few inches from the fence around his large enclosure.
Junior Buddy seemed to think we were on display as well as he sauntered back and forth right next to the fence in front of us, showing off his sexy sleek self and sneaking sideways glances at us. It was hard to leave.
Where to sleep in Belize City
The Great House is a boutique hotel in a lovely restored Colonial home on the waterfront with 24-hour staffing and a very secure approach to hospitality.
Another plus: The Great House is right next door to Le Petit Cafe which opens early and dishes out good coffee and great pastries at awesome prices (don’t miss the rich, cinnamon-y powder buns). The Great House is also directly above Belize City’s only wine bar.
Where to eat in Belize City
It all started at Carmita’s, a BBQ and beer joint on the edge of Haulover Creek just down from the swing bridge. The fragrant smoke from a cobbled-together cooker full of pork and chicken is what drew us in around 6 pm. That’s early for dinner, but we’d planned to eat and, quite literally, run in order to be back in our hotel room before dark as we’d been advised.
However, we were weary of hiding and anxious to see something of the real Belize and Carmita’s was filled with Belizeans drinking Belikin beer, eating BBQ, playing music, dancing, talking and enjoying the breeze off Stann Creek.
Check out the Garifuna band in our video below. Yes, that woman is using a turtle shell as a drum.
We soon started talking to a group of locals at Carmita’s and before we knew it the sun was down (gasp!) and we were off with Alex, a Fulbright Scholar who took us to two absolutely dire karaoke bars. To a relentless soundtrack of Guns ‘n Roses and more Guns ‘n Roses we continued to drink beer and talk about what ails Belize and the rest of the world. It was unspeakably better than hiding in our hotel room, which we returned to around 2 am courtesy of the perma-taxi driver who seems to shadow Alex around town when he’s on these jags.
Here’s more about travel in Belize
See all of our City Travel Guides