Rocking to a Different Beat in Belize

Article excerpt

I knew Belize was going to be something different as soon as we got to the remote border crossing in southern Mexico.

As we got off our bus to get our passports stamped by a sweating, chain-smoking Mexican customs official, a family of blond Mennonites waited to board. Wearing overalls and bonnets, they added their Low German to the cacophony of languages already on the bus.

My wife and I passed into the Free Zone, a no man's land between Mexico and Belize that's home to some dingy hotels, a broom factory and a large casino advertising Russian showgirls. Blasting country music, our bus finally passed through Belizean customs and into the country proper.

As soon as we entered Belize, everything felt different. Houses were made of clapboard wood, not painted concrete, the distances marked in miles instead of kilometers, the signs in jaunty English. As we rolled through the countryside, hugging the Caribbean Sea in some places, an amazingly diverse group filled the bus: in addition to the American and European tourists, Mexican vacationers and the Mennonites, there were Mayan villagers, Chinese kids and black Belizeans, all speaking English with a distinctive Caribbean lilt.

Most visitors to Belize speed directly to Belize's main draw: its postcard-perfect islands, called cayes (pronounced KEYS), that feature some of the world's best diving and snorkeling. And while a vacation featuring turquoise waters, colorful reefs and grilled lobster sounds hard to beat, island hoppers risk missing out on Belize's unique diversity and intriguing history.

Belize is a rollicking melting pot that grooves to a reggae beat in the middle of Central America. It's unlike anywhere else you've ever been.

For inveterate people-watchers like myself, it was impossible to pull away from the bus window. Teenagers blasted dancehall music from car stereos, Mennonite farmers sold wooden furniture, Rastafarians hung out in front of Chinese supermarkets.

In the north Belizean town of Orange Walk, a vendor got on the bus urging us to "warm up your engines" with his "smoking' hot tamales," before translating his pitch into expert Spanish.

Belize is part of Central America, but feels more like a Caribbean island. Its unique history has set it apart from its neighbors and its small size - just 300,000 residents - belies the racial diversity within its borders.

Belize was a British colony and was called British Honduras until 1973. Given its location along the Caribbean Sea and its many strategically placed islands, Belize was long a haven for British pirates terrorizing Spanish galleons. Later, its forests of mahogany attracted legions of British prospectors.

The country didn't achieve independence until 1981, and despite being a majority black country for most of its existence, only elected its first black leader in February. More recently, immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras, drawn by the strong Belizean dollar, have made mestizos the majority.

The country is geographically diverse, too. In the flat, fertile north, Mennonites and British descendants live from farming. Southern Belize, with its perfect beaches is home to the Garifuna, descendants of African slaves and indigenous people who came to Belize in 1832. In the mountains and jungles of western Belize, Mayan ruins rival the best Mexico has to offer. And in the middle of the country, teaming, boisterous Belize City hugs the coast, where it has weathered devastating hurricanes and absorbed generations of migrants for centuries.

Our bus arrived at the chaotic terminal in Belize City, a place most guidebooks urge tourists to depart immediately. But the city offers an unparalleled, if gritty, glimpse into Belizean culture.

After taking a taxi across the Swing Bridge, which since colonial times has separated the city's poor and wealthy sections, we made our way along clogged streets to our hotel, the Great House. …