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Once home to pirates, Mayans, and European explorers, Belize is culturally unique and diverse. As of 2017, this Central American country had about 389,000 residents. Belize's population density is the lowest of any country in Central America, and its growth rate is one of the highest. Belize lies on the eastern shore of Central America. Both Caribbean and Latin American influences are apparent in its culture. Festive celebrations and punta music are a part of Belize's identity. Nature is also an important part of daily life. Belize has some of the world's largest coral reefs, which sustain some of the rarest and most endangered marine species on the planet. Belize has been an independent country since 1981, when it was freed from British rule. It has a parliamentary constitutional monarchy that is based on the government structure of Great Britain. The capital city is Belmopan, and the largest city is Belize City.
Belize's history dates back many years, and its first inhabitants were the Mayans. The Mayans initially inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula about three million years ago. Along with Belize, the Mayans lived in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The peak of Mayan civilization was about 250 A.D. As the Mayan kingdom grew, complex institutions and a sophisticated economy developed. The Mayan empire flourished up to the time of Spanish conquest, which began in the 16th century. In the 17th century, commandeering pirates, including the fearsome pirate Blackbeard, hid out on the remote islands off Belize's coast. European settlers discovered the continent at about the same time, and they quickly established colonies on the mainland. Britain took control of Belize in 1862, and it finally relinquished power in 1981. Belize has remained independent since then, and it is divided into six administrative districts.
In the wake of its independence, Belize has faced some challenges to its economic stability. Exchange rates are a source of ongoing concern for the nation, and it depends heavily on cooperation from large trade partners including Mexico, the United States, and countries across Central America. The same natural resources that make Belize a prime vacation destination also play a key role in its economic development. Belize is rich in fossil fuels such as crude oil and petroleum, which are its main source of economic revenue. Agriculture is also an important part of the country's economy. Tourism is catching up quickly, and fishing accounts for a good portion of economic activity in the coastal towns. Sugar is one of Belize's top crops, and the banana industry also plays a vital role in its economy.
Belize's climate is primarily tropical. It has two distinct seasons, which are a dry season and a rainy season. Micro-climates influence the weather around the country too. With snow-capped mountains, sandy shorelines, coral reefs, and lush rainforests, Belize's natural beauty is a source of pride for its citizens. The varied geography also provides critical habitat to thousands of plant and animal species. One of the country's key natural areas is the Belize Barrier Reef. The reef is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means that human activities are heavily restricted to conserve delicate ecosystems. The country's shoreline contain more than 450 islands, which attract tourism in the form of scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing. Eco-resorts welcome overnight visitors, and helicopter tours are becoming quite common. In 2012, Belize had over 915,000 tourists. Tourism in that year alone pumped over $1 billion into its economy. Despite the steps that Belize takes towards environmental preservation, hurricanes, coral bleaching, and rising sea levels are a constant threat to its wildlife.
Between the sky, water, and ground, there are multiple transportation choices for getting to and around Belize. For international travelers arriving by air, the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport is the primary port of entry. There are regularly scheduled flights on Southwest, United, Delta, and other major airlines to the United States and other international airports. Travelers should be aware, however, that the airport does not have public transportation. This means that you'll have to arrange for pickup by a rental car, cab, or hotel shuttle. A second (and generally less expensive) option for getting to Belize is to fly to Cancun, Mexico first, and then take a bus to Belize. This is an overnight journey that takes about eight to ten hours.
After getting to Belize, it's easy to get around the country by plane, boat, and car. A number of local airlines provide service to and from the country's outlying islands. Air travel within Belize is the fastest way to travel, but also usually the most expensive. Tropic Air and Maya Island Air are the two largest airline companies that fly within Belize. Both airlines provide public transportation to popular destinations such as Corozal, the cays, and Placencia. Travelers should note, however, that these airlines use smaller planes, which limits the amount of luggage passengers can carry. Water taxis are another way to get from the mainland to the outlying atolls. Water taxis are often a less expensive way to travel through the country than plane. However, they often take longer. For locals and visitors, water taxis are the primary method of traveling between the mainland and outer islands. Service is regularly scheduled between Belize City, San Pedro, and Cay Caulker.
Belize also has a modern roadway system that connects its villages, towns, and cities. Multiple rental agencies rent out cars to drive around the country, and road travel is generally safe. People considering renting a car should be aware that most rental agencies have a minimum age limit of 25. Virtually any type of car is fine to use on the highways, but most secondary roads are not paved and require a 4x4 vehicle to navigate. Roads can also become treacherous after heavy rains. Bus is another option for road travel. Tour buses, which are run by several agencies, make regular stops at Belize's top tourist destinations. In the smaller villages, horses are the primary means for transportation.