Though it’s only a small slice of the Mesoamerican coast, Belize is an oasis of the unexpected. A longtime conservation leader, its jungles and waters are some of the most extensively protected in the Americas. As a result, the reefs and rainforests teem with bountiful biodiversity and tropical treasures—some of which can even be healing, for those who know their secrets. It’s a place where both the ruins and the roots of Ancient Maya civilizations are ever-prevalent, where indigenous traditions and a conglomerate of modern cultures collide for a wholly unique experience. Here, five little-known, yet amazing allures of this coastal Caribbean country.
It's Known as the "Cradle of Chocolate"
The birthplace of this globally beloved bittersweet treat, Belize’s rainforests have been home to wild cacao trees for the past 3,000 years. And the Mayans have revered their fruits for nearly as long; archaeologists unearthed pots containing chocolate residue dating back to 600 B.C. at the ruins of Colha, Belize! Cocoa wasn’t traditionally consumed as the milky bars we know and love though—it was prepared as a hot and foamy drink that wealthy Mesoamericans favored. Chocolate is believed to have gotten its name from the Mayan “xocolatl,” meaning “bitter water.” This delicious “gift from the gods” was seen as an energy booster and aphrodisiac, and cacao beans were traded as a high-value currency. Today, many of Belize’s cacao farmers keep authentic Maya production methods alive, like granulating harvested beans with a metate, a large grindstone made from volcanic rock.
There's a Whole Pharmacy in the Rainforest
Cacao beans are hardly the only gift nature offers. For thousands of years, Belizeans have practiced “bush medicine,” using the leaves, barks, roots, flowers, and seeds of various tropical plants to treat and prevent ailments. This indigenous knowledge was passed down from the ancient Maya, who relied on the herbal healing properties of the jungle, but it’s still utilized—and celebrated!—today. Take, for instance, the shaggy, peeling bark of the red gumbo-limbo tree which is boiled in water and used to treat sunburn, insect bites, and other skin afflictions. Or the “Hot Lips” plant, whose flowers resemble a glossy pout and make an effective painkiller for headaches, sprains, and ear aches.
Science supports many of these rainforest remedies, too. More than 25% of modern prescription drugs contain plant- derived ingredients, and studies have shown the Mayans’ natural pharmacy treats infections, digestive disorders, skin conditions, and beyond.
Darwin Visited the Belize Barrier Reef
Though Charles Darwin is synonymous with the Galápagos, few know he also visited Belize on the HMS Beagle. In fact, he declared the Belize Barrier Reef “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”—and it’s no less breathtaking today. As the world’s second largest reef system, it’s also one of the healthiest and marks Belize’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. A ban on offshore drilling, shrimp trawling, and gill nets has allowed for immense ecosystem recovery, creating respite for threatened species such as hawksbill and loggerhead turtles and the West Indian manatee as well as endemic and migratory bird colonies. In the reef’s remarkable atolls, cayes and lagoons, more than 500 fish species swirl around over 90 varieties of colorful corals. But even more undersea wonders may await. To this day, only about 10% of the reef has been studied, so researchers hope to discover hundreds more species here.
It’s Home to 6 Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas
BirdLife International recognizes Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) as sites around the world that contribute significantly to the conservation of globally threatened and range- or biome-restricted bird species. Belize has the highest proportion of IBA land coverage in the Americas and an abundance of birdlife to match. Its 500-some species include tropical emblems like keel-billed toucans and scarlet macaws and large seabird colonies, including red-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds. It’s also home to endangered golden-cheeked warblers and yellow-headed Amazon parrots.
In neighboring Guatemala’s Tikal National Park—one of the few UNESCO World Heritage properties inscribed for its natural and cultural criteria—there's a chance to see even more winged wildlife. It's another IBA where more than 400 feathered species on record include the rare and threatened crested eagle and orange-breasted falcon.
It’s an Incredible Melting Pot of Cultures
While it’s the only country in Central America with English as an official language, Belize is also one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse. Throughout history, its Mayan origins met major influence from Spanish and British colonial periods and migrant populations from the Caribbean, Canada, and beyond. Today, a majority of Belizeans are Mestizo (descendants of mixed Maya and Spanish heritage), followed by Creole, Maya, Garifuna, Mennonite, and East Indian—making for a delightfully distinct mix of music, food, art, and language. For one, the Garifuna people, also known as Garinagu, are an Afro-indigenous community who carry on their language through dance and soulful, drum-driven music, which UNESCO honored on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.