Belize City: does it deserve its awful reputation?

The Swing Bridge, Belize City

I’d heard about its reputation before we decided to go to central America. I even read many articles advising those travelling in the country to steer well clear of its largest city. Dirty, seedy and dangerous were just some of the words that painted a very negative picture of Belize City. I had to go; if a place was this awful I needed to see it for myself. It didn’t disappoint.

We arrived on the passenger boat from Caye Caulker at around 9.30am. Our plans were open; we had a place booked for the following night in the west of Belize but for a day and a half we were free to go wherever the delights of the city and beyond would lead us. In the end we didn’t manage two hours.

Leaving the ferry terminal we walked south across the famous swing bridge (famed for its unusual engineering pedigree rather than its aesthetic qualities). While the area immediately around the creek is full of touts offering something or other, once away from the water Belize has the feel of a pleasant sleepy city, albeit one that has seen better days. Faded colours on the exteriors of the wooden houses provide a perfect compliment to the untidy pot-holed streets.

Supreme Court building, Belize City

Half an hour was enough to walk along Regent Street, past the grandeur of the Supreme Court and as far as St John’s Cathedral. A school Christmas concert was under way as we peered through the doors of the attractive church, so we continued on Albert Street, back towards the centre of town.

St John's Cathedral, Belize City

It is to the north side of the creek that all the action takes place. From the swing bridge, along Front Street and onto Fort Street there is a long line of touts who pounce on any passing tourist. Boat trips, taxi rides and horse-drawn carriage tours are the main offerings while you can also buy every type of trinket that you’ll find anywhere else in the tourist world.

Front Street with touts, Belize City

The sellers here are persistent and plentiful rather than unpleasant in any way, but the hassle is relentless. In other parts of the world the traders may beckon tourists just as eagerly but the atmosphere of the surroundings creates a charm to the experience; not here. A line of run-down semi-derelict buildings and an unattractive waterfront beside the optimistically named Tourist Village complex complete the backdrop for the sorry scene.

We headed for a cafe for refreshments and were soon accosted by a young man selling sunscreen. Once we had shown him our recently purchased bottle he switched to begging for money and was very persistent. By this point we’d had enough and took a cab to the municipal airport for the short flight south to the peace and calm of Dangriga.

All of which makes me wonder why so many cruise ships dock here. Their passengers step off, run the gauntlet of earring and pony trap sellers and then get back on their ships and sail away. For what?

I heard the findings of a recent survey of cruise ship passengers coming to Belize. Of those who stepped off the boat and didn’t venture beyond Belize City, 99% said that they would never return to Belize. By contrast, of those who took day trips inland around three quarters would happily come back to the country. Neither finding surprises me.

Of course Belize City has some major social and economic issues and analysing it from a tourism perspective provides only a very narrow viewpoint. But of all the cities I’ve ever visited this would be near the bottom of the pile as a tourist destination; if the Belize government insists on using this as a showcase of their nation, they need to do something quickly to address the damage that the city is doing to the country’s image.

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10 Responses to “Belize City: does it deserve its awful reputation?”

  1. Interesting analysis of the run down conditions that exist in Belize City. I like the fact that you tempered it with advice on places to go outside the city in the country that are much more pleasant.

    March 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm
  2. Jack #

    Based on your description, I definitely would agree that the something needs to be done by the government to approve the appeal of Belize City if it hopes to attract tourists and sustain itself economically. Any ideas on what could be done?

    March 25, 2011 at 12:29 am
    • J. Leo #

      One idea would be for the cruse ships to find another port until the existing conditions improve. I will be visiting this city this month and I can tell you that it is most likely I will not get off the ship.

      September 8, 2012 at 3:42 am
  3. Michael Olenick #

    Interesting view on Belize City. I am glad you ventured in even though you heard it was not worth the trip. I am planning a Central America trip this summer. Any suggestions?

    March 28, 2011 at 3:16 am
  4. Not all too surprised to see this — Belize City is rough and not somewhere I ever venture. I’ve been going to Belize once a year for pat 7 years and I’m much happier in other parts of the country. I usually stay on Ambergris Caye and do day trips back to the mainland.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:44 am
  5. Thanks for the comments to all.
    Jack, not sure what can be done but many places in the world have tackled similar social problems and I’m sure that with the right people in charge and the will to change Belize can succeed here as well (those are two mighty big caveats though!)
    Michael, so much to see in Belize that I wouldn’t know where to start. The Cayes are a great spot for swimming and snorkelling/diving, and inland you have the jungle and caves to explore. Also the Garifuna culture in the south. It has a lot to offer as a small country.

    March 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm
  6. We were in Belize about 2 years ago and spent a couple days in Belize City and it was just fine. We had come in on slow chicken bus from Mexico. Lots of wandering around, had some great meals at Marva’s, met a lot of good hearted people, no hassles, no annoying touts, no scariness. I wouldn’t choose it as a place to live but it wasn’t anything like I had been warned (or maybe I was just used to cities that were similar- I’d spent the previous decade in Turkey and South Africa)

    April 3, 2011 at 2:14 am
  7. Elle #

    I’ve been to Belize 3x now and each time I leave the city ASAP. I have not explored it on foot, however I’ve driven around and through it each time. Belize is a fantastic country, their tourism industry would benefit from cleaning up the city a little.

    May 29, 2011 at 6:50 pm
  8. Never ceases to amaze me that tourist boards the world over can’t seem to put themselves in a tourist’s shoes and take a look at what they look like to others. Ack, I know it isn’t true everywhere, just ranting on account of recent experiences. I had vague plans to go to Belize next year, so this was very useful!

    May 29, 2011 at 7:28 pm
  9. Dave #

    My brother lives in Belize and having visited him and his family, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the city. I’m in awe of the tourists who pony up the money for a motorized tour of the city. There’s really nothing to see and the city lost its charm a long time ago (if indeed it had any to begin with).

    For those flying (or sailing) to Belize for any length of stay, be sure to head out of Belize City. Go south or north to the cayes, or west towards the Guatemalan border. That’s were you’ll find the real richness of Belize.

    July 3, 2012 at 10:40 pm