Know Belize - The Land
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Belize lies on the east coast of Central America, right at the corner where the Honduran coast takes off to the east. Belize's 8,866 square miles of territory are bordered on the north by Mexico, on the west and south by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. From the northern Río Hondo border with Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala, Belize's mainland measures 180 miles long, and is 68 miles across at its widest point. Offshore, Belize has more than 200 cayes, or islands. Both the coastal region and the northern half of the mainland are flat, but the land rises in the south and west (in the Maya Mountains) to over 3,000 feet above sea level. Mangrove swamps cover much of the humid coastal plain. The Maya Mountains and the Cockscombs form the country's backbone, rising 3,675 feet to Victoria Peak, Belize's highest point.

In the west, the Cayo District contains the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. At one time a magnificent pine forest, it was destroyed in the lower plains by fires and lumber removal over the decades, and only a few straggler pine trees remain in the arid foothills. However, the upper regions of Mountain Pine Ridge provide spectacular scenery, and thick forest encompasses the Macal River as it tumbles over huge granite boulders. Hidden Valley Falls plunges 1,000 feet to the valley below. The Río Frio cave system offers massive stalactites and stalagmites to the avid spelunker. The diverse landscape includes limestone-fringed granite boulders.

Over thousands of years, what was once a sea in the northern half of Belize has become a combination of scrub vegetation and rich tropical hardwood forest. Near the Mexican border, much of the land has been cleared, and it's here that the majority of sugar crops are raised, along with family plots of corn and beans. Most of the northern coast is swampy, with a variety of grasses and mangroves that attract hundreds of species of waterfowl. Rainfall in the north averages 60 inches annually, though it's generally dry November-May.

Significant rainfall in the mountains washes silt and nutrients into the lower valleys to the south and west, forming rich agricultural areas. In southern Belize, it rains most of the year, averaging 150 inches or more. The coastal belt attracts large farms that raise an ever-expanding variety of crops. A dense rainforest thrives in this wet, humid condition with thick ferns, lianas, tropical cedars, and palms.

The climate in Belize is subtropical, with a mean annual temperature of 79°F, so you can expect a variance between 50 and 95°F. The dry season generally lasts from December-ish through May and the wet season June-November, although it has been known to rain sporadically all the way into February, when cold fronts from the north arrive from time to time.

The amount of rainfall varies widely from north to south. Corozal in the north receives 40-60 inches while Punta Gorda in the south averages 160-190 inches with an average humidity of 85 percent. Occasionally during the winter, "northers" sweep down from North America across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing rainfall, strong winds, and cooling temperatures. Usually lasting only a couple of days, they often interrupt fishing and influence the activity of lobster and other fish. Fishermen invariably report increases in their catches several days before a norther.

The "mauger" season, when the air is still and the sea is calm, generally comes in August; it can last for a week or more. All activity halts while locals stay indoors as much as possible to avoid the onslaught of ferocious mosquitoes and other insects.

Belize lies in a hurricane belt. Since 1787, 22 hurricanes have hit the small country in varying degrees of intensity. In an unnamed storm in 1931, 2,000 people were killed and almost all of Belize City was destroyed. The water rose nine feet in some areas, even onto Belize City's Swing Bridge. Though forewarned by Pan American Airlines that the hurricane was heading their way, most of the townsfolk were unconcerned, believing that their protective reef would keep massive waves away from their shores. They were wrong.

The next devastation came with Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Winds reached a velocity of 150 mph, with gusts of 200 mph; 262 people drowned. It was after Hurricane Hattie that the capital of the country was moved from Belize City (just 18 inches above sea level) to Belmopan. Then, in 1978, Hurricane Greta took a heavy toll in dollar damage, though no lives were lost. The three most recent hurricanes were Mitch in 1998, Keith in 2000, and Iris in 2001. The Belizeans are survivors-they pick up the pieces of their lives and homes, and build again. What else can they do?

Belize has several productive habitats that support a startling variety of life. Each habitat is dependent on the soil and available water.

Marshy Havens Belize is dotted with rivers, lagoons, and swamps. Low forests grow up around these wetlands and provide an environment for insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Bamboo, logwood, red mangrove, and white mangrove are among the species that find footholds in the soggy soil and grow into thickets. Numerous insects, agouti, basilisk lizards, iguanas, paca, and waterfowl are among the many creatures that inhabit these fringe forests. The wetlands themselves play host to many creatures: crocodiles, fish, turtles, and hundreds of bird species. A boat ride into one of the wetlands will give you an opportunity to see a great variety of waterfowl. The lakes of Belize (such as those at Crooked Tree) are wintering spots for many flocks of North American duck species. Among others, you might see the blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and lesser scaup, along with a variety of wading birds feeding in the shallow waters, including numerous types of heron, snowy egret, and (in the summer) white ibis.

We once watched a peregrine falcon hunt at Crooked Tree. First, the wary bird slowly circled high above the lake watching its prey, and then it plummeted to attack a flock of American coots. Seconds before the falcon reached the ducks, the flock spotted it and began squawking loudly-warning the whole family-and diving into the water (where the falcon will not follow). After watching the falcon dive for the ducks over and over again, we moved on in our canoe, feeling more secure about the destiny of these American coots.

Broadleaf Jungle and Cohune Forests
By certain scientific definitions, there is no true "rainforest" in Belize; the quantity of rainfall is insufficient and is not evenly spread throughout the year. Instead, the magnificent broadleaf jungle of Belize is considered "moist tropical forest." Depending on its maturity, this forest may have a single, double, or even triple canopy, triple being the oldest and rarest. Definitions aside, the broadleaf jungles of the Maya Mountains and parts of northern and western Belize create beneath their crowns relatively cool, damp environments that yield an explosion of life. Towering mahogany, ceiba, figs, and guanacaste live here. Bromeliads, orchids, and other epiphytes cover the limbs of these jungle giants. Lianas and vines drip from the branches to the ground. Mushrooms of many varieties and other fungi digest the remains of fallen trees. Leaf cutter ants, termites, butterflies, and spiders abound. Hummingbirds, parrots, toucans, and woodpeckers flit between trees. Anteaters, howler and spider monkeys, squirrels, and margays move among the branches. Jaguars and pumas are plentiful. Boa constrictors, fer-de-lance, and other snakes are common, as are many species of lizards.

Broadleaf forests thrive in clay soils enriched by alluvial runoff from streams and rivers. In places, cohune palms, which are typically scattered throughout the forest, grow in thick concentrations. This cohune forest forms a dense cover or canopy. Even so, many of the jungle giants will penetrate it as they reach upward into the sunlight. Many of the same epiphytes, vines, and animals frequent these areas.

Pine Forests and Savanna
Pine forests grow up around areas of low moisture and sandy soil. These conditions exist in certain lowland areas and the low mountains of western Belize. With its typically open canopy, the pine forest allows much more light to reach the ground. Plant and animal life is less diverse here. Palmetto palms, scrub oak, and various grasses grow in close association with pine forests. In fact, standing pines are frequently surrounded by savanna or grassland. Foxes and jaguarundis, deer, mice, squirrels and other rodents, armadillos, hawks and owls, rat snakes, and fer-de-lance frequent these areas.

Large populations of Maya were concentrated in the limestone foothills, where water supplies and clay deposits were plentiful. Caves were a source of fresh water, especially during dry periods. Clay pots of grain were safely stored for long periods of time in the cool air and, thousands of years later, can be seen today. Looting of caves has been a problem for decades, and as a result all caves are considered archaeological sites.

The Maya used caves for utilitarian as well as religious and ceremonial purposes. The ancient Maya believed that upon entering a cave, one entered the underworld, or Xibalba, the place of beginnings and of fright. The Maya believed there were nine layers of the underworld, and as much as death and disease and rot was represented by the underworld, so was the beginning of life. Caves were a source of water-a source of life-for the Maya. Water that dripped from stalactites was used as holy water for ceremonial purposes. The underworld was also an area where souls had hopes of defeating death and becoming ancestors. As a result, rituals, ceremonies, and even sacrifices were performed in caves, evidenced today by many pots, shards, implements, and burial sites.

Caves were important burial chambers for the ancient Maya, and over 200 skeletons have been found in more than 20 caves. One chamber in Caves Branch was the final earthly resting spot for 25 individuals. Many of these burial chambers are found deep in the caves, leading to speculation that death came by sacrificing the living, as opposed to carrying in the dead. Some burial sites show possible evidence of commoners being sacrificed to accompany the journey with an elite who had died-but who really knows?

The first written accounts related to cave archaeology began in the late 1800s. A British medical officer by the name of Thomas Gann wrote of his extensive exploration of caves throughout the country. In the late 1920s, he was also part of the first formal study of some ruins and caves in the Toledo District, and his papers provide insight no one else can give to modern-day archaeologists.

Little else was done until 1955, when the Institute of Archaeology was created by the government of Belize. Starting in 1957, excavations were organized throughout the years under various archaeologists. Excavations in the 1970s led to many important archaeological discoveries, including pots, vessels, and altars. In the 1980s, a series of expeditions was undertaken to survey the Chiquibul cave system. Other finds during this time period include a burial chamber and one cave with over 60 complete vessels and other ceremonial implements.

Today, projects are underway in many caves around the country. The Institute of Archaeology does not have a museum-yet-they've been talking about one for years. In the meantime, you may have to get a little wet and dirty to go visit some of these artifacts yourself.

Approximately 200 million years ago, the beginning stages of limestone formation occurred, creating what in part gives Belize its extensive cave system. It was during this Cretaceous period that life under the ocean started to create what is now limestone. Millions of sea creatures left a legacy with their deaths: skeletons formed a thick layer (6,000 feet in some areas) of what is now limestone, the backbone of the cave systems. Sea levels fell and the mountains impelled themselves upward. After 120 million years, and with the help of wind, rain, and faulting, the Maya Mountains were created, and flowing underground rivers carved out channels, rooms, and caverns.

Cenotes are created when the constant ebb and flow of underground rivers and lakes erodes the underside of limestone containers. In certain places, the surface crust eventually wears so thin that it caves in, exposing the water below, and at the same time creating steep-walled caverns-natural wells. Around these water sources, Maya villages grew. Some of the wells are shallow-seven meters below the jungle floor; some are treacherously deep at 90 meters underground. In times of drought, the Maya fetched water by carving stairs into slick limestone walls or by hanging long ladders into abysmal hollows that led to the underground lakes. The cave systems of Belize are some of the most extensive in the world and have only begun to be explored. Modern-day mapping and research only began in the 1960s. Since then, more than 300 caves have been explored and probably 150 miles of passages have been mapped, including the Cebada and Petroglyph Caves, two of the largest underground chambers in the world. Caves are found all over the country, but most are centered in the southern and western areas of Belize.

Belize's neighbor, Mexico, is renowned for its cave and cenote diving, but so far this is not an option for the visitor to Belize. Researchers have done very little study of cenote diving, in part due to the remote and difficult locations of the cave entrances (but that is slowly changing).

Notable Caves
The most spectacular cave system in Belize is the Chiquibul, west of the Maya Mountains and close to the Guatemalan border. Miles and miles of passageways riddle this system, including Cebada, the largest in Belize.

The Toledo District has two major cave systems, one near Blue Creek Village and the other north of Blue Creek, Little Quartz Ridge. Located in pristine surroundings, the Blue Creek Cave System includes a large walk-through cave with some passages that force you to crawl through on hands and knees.

In the Cayo District, north of the Maya Mountains, Caves Branch offers tourists easy access to incredible sights. Many hotels and tour operators run trips that include floating on inner tubes in and out of black passageways. Caves Branch is close to the highway, allowing easy access and logistical planning. St. Herman's Cave, Petroglyph Cave, and the (inland) Blue Hole are part of this system, all part of a nature reserve. Many lodges are situated literally on top of these caves and offer outings and various modes of transport through the caves.

Vaca Plateau is partly in the Mountain Pine Ridge area and includes the Río Frio Cave, undoubtedly the most popular cave (due to its easy access) in the Cayo District. Ask at any hotel or at Eva's Cafe in San Ignacio to visit this small cave.

Underwater Caves
Many submerged sinkholes, most notably the Blue Hole, occur in the ocean. Giant Cave, off of Caye Caulker, is believed to be one of the longest underwater caves in the world. Other underwater caves are also found off of Caye Chapel, Ambergris Caye, and Columbus Caye. Diving these caves is highly unlikely for the average diver-local dive shops just are not equipped or trained for this type of undertaking, regardless of how much you are willing to spend to go under.

Environmental Issues
Because of Belize's impressive network of protected areas and relatively low population density, the widespread deforestation that occurs in other parts of Central America is not nearly as big a problem. However, Belize faces its own unique set of challenges it will need to overcome if it is to remain as pristine as it is. Perhaps the biggest problem is improper disposal of solid and liquid wastes, both municipal and industrial, particularly agro-wastes from the shrimp and citrus industries.

Mining of aggregates from rivers and streams has negative impacts on local watersheds and the coastal zones into which they empty, where sedimentation can be destructive to reef and other marine systems. Unchecked, unplanned development, especially in sensitive areas like barrier beaches, mangroves, islands, and riverbanks, where changes to the landscape often have wide and unanticipated effects, is another problem. For more information on Belize's environmental challenges, visit the websites of some of the organizations listed in the Internet Resources later in this section.

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