Mind-boggling, but in an oddly pleasant way, Belize is a total misfit. Culturally Caribbean, linguistically English (or a bizarre creole form), accepting of US dollars as legal tender, surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries and there are Chinese takeaways everywhere.
Belize only gained independence from the ruddy British in 1981, and this is the outcome after 34 years of doing it for themselves. There is infrastructure, decent healthcare and, most importantly, a booming tourism industry. You have to stand back and appreciate how far Belize has come in its short, independent lifespan.
But Belize, like most other Central American countries, has been given the ‘dangerous’ label. “People kill each other in the street!”… “There’s a gun crime every 5 minutes!”, so the warnings go. Unfortunately crime does happen frequently in Belize, but it is almost entirely gang-related – crimes committed against tourists are very uncommon. Sure, there are certain no-go zones, like anywhere in the world, ‘cos you know, crime is kind of a global issue and everything, but trouble can be avoided by using simple common sense.
Here are some tips for staying safe in Belize, as a solo backpacker…
1. Travel with other backpackers
You’re a much easier target alone than you are in the company of other backpackers. Whether you’re travelling from city to city or just nipping out for lunch, it’s worth doing it with other backpackers. Two minds are better – and more alert – than one.
After five days of partying and snorkelling in Caye Caulker I had to pay a visit to Belize City hospital on the mainland (and that’s a whole other story) – which meant having to stay the night. Luckily, a friend of mine was living in Belize City at the time and he found a spare room for me at a hostel close to the hospital. That night we strolled down the road for dinner and attracted a fair bit of attention. Had I been on my lonesome I doubt I’d have hung around for long, but as a pair we felt much safer.
2. Research and book hostels and hotels online
The last thing you want is to turn up somewhere in Belize without pre-arranged accommodation or any clue of where’s good and where isn’t. When possible, use WiFi to research and book accommodation in Belize before you arrive in your next destination. You’re going to want somewhere that’s secure and in a touristy area. Sites like Trip Advisor are great resources for gathering information contributed by other travellers.
If you’re not limited by budget, you might want to splash out on a hotel or somewhere else a bit more lavish than your average hostel. Beautiful Belize beachfront rentals line the shores of quieter cayes such as Cayo Esperanto, where the word ‘crime’ barely enters the vernacular.
3. Travel by taxi or minibus
While the most fun means of transport around Belize is undoubtedly a chicken bus, it is definitely not the safest. These buses quickly fill to maximum capacity, and when there are no more seats or aisle space available people take to the roof. When there’s no more roof space people hang out the doors. You get the picture. Amidst such chaos, you’re likely to lose sight of your backpack, which may even be hoisted onto the roof without you realising. Then it is ripe for a bit of looting.
Travelling by taxi or shuttle bus is direct, and much safer. You’ll pay more but you’re pretty much guaranteed to arrive with all your possessions intact. It’s also a good idea to get your hostel or hotel to arrange transport for you, for an agreed price; flagging down a taxi in the street is likely to cost more and nobody can vouch for the driver.
4. Avoid using cash machines in sketchy areas
Need to withdraw some cash? Before you do, scout out the different cash machines in the area. Which ones look safest? Which are in full public view? You’re unlikely to be mugged at a cash point but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – wherever you’re travelling. If you have to use an ATM in a sketchy neighbourhood, do it during the day when people are around.
5. Don’t push your luck with the locals
Solo and single backpackers are entitled to flirt with locals just as much as other locals are, but unfortunately this isn’t necessarily acceptable to locals. One night in Caye Caulker I got talking to a Belizean girl en route to I&I Reggae bar. It was pretty innocuous – I wasn’t trying to chat her up, just chatting, but open to developments. When we got to the bar I offered her a drink, which she (and her friend who suddenly sprung from nowhere) accepted. Next thing we know we’re on the dance floor and she is grinding all over me – not sexily, just awkwardly – to music that definitely wasn’t reggae. I mumbled an excuse and turned around to find three Belizean dudes built like tanks staring menacingly at me. “She is Belizean girl boy, not for you” one of them sneered. Rather than try to explain I wasn’t trying my luck I thought it best to just hold my hands up in protest and walk away. Later the same girl appeared at the bar and asked for another drink. Before I could even say “no”, I clocked the same dudes again, standing a few feet behind her looking in our direction. Clearly I was ruffling feathers, whether I meant to or not, so I decided to go and befriend the doormen. After that they left me alone!
In the same vein, don’t accept any ‘favours’ from locals – often there will be money expected in return and if you don’t stump up there might be trouble.
Have you travelled in Belize? Did you feel safe? Any sketchy experiences or tips you want to share? Leave a comment!