Belize is a Central American anomaly, as the only English-speaking country in the region. The breathtaking natural and cultural diversity of this former British colony attract thousands of tourists each year.
Belize was first settled by the Mopan Maya around the 16th century BCE. Although their civilization had been in decline for approximately 500 years when the first Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they still maintained a strong enough presence to resist Spanish colonization attempts. This allowed British settlers to gain a foothold in the country, who built up the local economy on dye and, later, mahogany production. Because Great Britain feared that a heavy hand in Belizean affairs might prompt an attack by the Spanish, Belize long enjoyed a high degree of autonomy; however, following Spanish defeat in the Battle of St. George’s Caye, Britain took an increasingly direct role in the country’s administration, formally colonizing it in 1862. The colony enjoyed a few economic growth spurts in the late 1800s and during World War II, but was largely stagnant due to the effects of the Great Depression, natural disasters, and a monopoly on the mahogany trade by the Belize Estate and Produce Company. These conditions led to a push for independence, which was hampered by Guatemala issuing a claim of sovereignty over Belize. The country finally became an independent Commonwealth monarchy in 1981, and has since normalized relations with Guatemala.
Belize still has a small economy, focused primarily on agriculture; however, the discovery of crude oil could provide hope of a more affluent Belize in the future. Tourism has grown to become an important industry as well. Belize is home to many fascinating Mayan ruins, including Altun Ha and Xunantunich, and cyclists the world over come to participate in the Cross Country Cycling Classic, whose founder, Monrad Metzgen, is regarded as a national hero. Moreover, the country is an ecotourism paradise; hundreds of offshore islands and the world’s second largest coral reef system make for fascinating diving and sailing, and with only 20% of the land used by humans, Belize offers plenty of unspoiled wetlands, savanna, and forest to explore.
Of course, the downside of English being the official language is that, unlike in many other countries, expats won’t be able to rely on English teaching for easy employment. A high unemployment rate makes jobs in other fields equally difficult to land for non-Belizeans. Volunteer opportunities are plentiful, however; the Peace Corps has been active in Belize for over thirty years, and numerous other US organizations are present as well, most of whom work primarily in education.
Although most Belizeans have at least a fair grasp of standard English, it is the first language of only about 5% of the population. Kriol, a mixture of English and African languages, is the lingua franca of Belize, and is a strong component of the national identity. Spanish is the first language of over 40% of Belizeans, and is widely spoken as a second language as well. Minority languages include Maya, Garifuna, and Plautdietsch.