What makes Belize a unique country to travel to?
Belize is a parliamentary democracy and British Commonwealth country with a developing economy based primarily upon agriculture and tourism. Tourist facilities vary in quality, from a limited number of business-class hotels in Belize City and luxury resorts in the offshore cayes (pronounced: "keys") to a range of luxury resorts, eco-tourism lodges, and very basic accommodations in the countryside. Violent crime, especially in areas of Belize City, remains a serious concern.
Much of the violent crime in Belize occurs on the south side of Belize City, home to several street gangs. Belizean officials in November 2012, in an attempt to control the security situation in these areas, invoked a “declaration of crime-infested areas” under the Belizean law that allows for law enforcement and security forces to conduct warrantless searches of personnel and property in these “crime-ridden” areas. Organized crime beyond street gangs is primarily connected to drug trafficking or trafficking in persons. Incidents of crime remain high, including violent crimes such as armed robbery, home invasions, shootings, stabbings, murders, and rapes. The Embassy has noted an increase in crimes against tourists at resorts and on the roads and riverways. U.S. citizens are primarily the victims of opportunistic crime. There is no evidence suggesting criminals specifically target U.S. citizens, but nonetheless, foreigners have been targeted for crime due to their perceived wealth. Incidents of crime (such as theft, burglary, home invasion, purse-snatching, and pick-pocketing) increase during the winter holidays and during spring break. Several victims who resisted when confronted by criminals received serious injuries, including gunshot wounds and broken limbs. Although the majority of reported incidents occur in Belize City, particularly southern Belize City, crime may occur anywhere including in tourist destinations such as San Pedro Town (Ambergris Caye), Caye Caulker, San Ignacio, Dangriga, Corozal, and Placencia.
Violent crime has risen steadily in Belize over the past several years. In 2012, Belize recorded 145 murders, setting a new record for homicides in the country, nearly 15% higher than in 2011. With a population of only 312,698 according to the 2010 country census, the extremely high murder rate per capita of 46 homicides per 100,000 residents, makes Belize the sixth most dangerous country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While the country’s per capita homicide rate is still lower than that of other Central American countries, such as Honduras and El Salvador, its year-on-year increase is of concern.
The majority of homicides in 2012 occurred in the Belize district, with most in the southern portion of Belize City, an area that has become increasingly violent due to ongoing gang warfare between local groups for control of lucrative narcotics smuggling routes and sales rights. Tourists have not been targeted in this recent increase in the murder rate, but armed robberies of tourists remain a possibility at archeological sites, national parks, and other areas frequented by visitors. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of robberies, home invasions, and daytime assaults committed across Belize. It does not appear that the perpetrators have targeted tourists; the victims are mostly Belizeans who were targets of opportunity. Violent crime has remained low in tourist areas. Though some notable murders have occurred, including the widely-publicized murder of a U.S. citizen in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye.
Crime Threats: We encourage U.S. citizens to exercise caution and good situational awareness in all their travel activities. Visitors to tourist attractions should travel in groups and remain at the main plazas at Maya ruins and the central areas. Although there are armed guards stationed at many of the archeological sites, armed criminals have been known to prey on persons walking alone or in small groups from one site to another. While many victims of theft are unharmed and only robbed of personal belongings and cash, victims who resist assailants have suffered an injury, sometimes serious. U.S. citizens who become victims of a robbery should report it immediately to the nearest police station and notify the Embassy.
The Embassy recommends that visitors travel in groups and only during daylight hours. Avoid wearing jewelry or carrying valuable or expensive items. As a general rule, valuables should not be left unattended, including in vehicles, in hotel rooms, or on the beach. Care should be taken when carrying high-value items such as cameras. Women’s handbags should be zipped and held close to the body. Men should carry wallets in their front pants pocket. Large amounts of cash should always be handled discreetly.
Economic Crimes and Drugs: The reporting of financial crimes committed against patrons of tourist destinations in Belize increased in 2012. There were several reported instances of credit card fraud against patrons or resorts and other local establishments. It is believed that several credit card fraud rings are currently active in Belize.
“Confidence scams” also occur in Belize, especially in resort areas. While there is no indication U.S. citizens are specifically singled out because of their nationality, tourists, in general, are particularly vulnerable to these crimes, resulting in visitors being pick-pocketed or robbed. More serious crimes have included armed robbery, physical assault, and being swindled out of large sums of money from fraudulent real estate and land sales or other business deals.
There have been reports of fraud committed against expatriates who have attempted to purchase land in Belize. Many expats have reported being the victim of scams in which land is purchased that wasn’t available, or land was purchased that was legally owned by other parties. It has been reported that Belizean authorities have not been proactive in investigating these crimes and enacting measures to ensure that they do not occur in the future. There have also been several reports of tourists being “set up” or solicited to purchase illegal drugs. The tourist is then arrested. Most are fined and then released, but visitors should be aware that they could be sent to prison to await trial, and, if convicted, could serve their sentence in Belize, in accordance with Belize’s strict laws on illegal narcotics. Marijuana and other recreational drugs are illegal in Belize and police aggressively target drug consumers in sting operations.
Drug use is common in some tourist areas, but U.S. citizens should not buy, sell, hold, or take illegal drugs under any circumstances. Belize classifies marijuana or ganja (i.e., cannabis) as an illegal drug for which a conviction of possession of even small amounts could result in heavy fines or imprisonment. Belize does not recognize the medical use of marijuana as permitted in some U.S. states, and U.S. citizens can be charged, fined, or serve time in jail for possession of an illegal substance.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootleg items illegal in the United States, but if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
Firearms: Possession of a firearm or ammunition requires a license from the Government of Belize. The government recently tightened its restrictions on the possession of guns and ammunition. Residents and tourists found by Belize law enforcement to be in the possession of such items without a license may be sentenced to a prison term in Belize, and several U.S. citizens are in prison for what would be considered a small amount of ammunition in the U.S.
Sex Crimes: Sexual harassment and/or assault of persons traveling alone or in small groups have occurred in recent years. In recent years, there were a handful of sexual assaults on U.S. citizen women after leaving nightclubs, and even during daylight hours while walking with friends and while cycling alone on isolated stretches of local highways.
A lack of resources and training impedes the ability of the police to effectively investigate sex crimes and apprehend serious offenders. As a result, a number of crimes against U.S. citizens in Belize remain unresolved.
While you are traveling in Belize, you are subject to Belize’s laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Belize law enforcement reserves the right to hold any individual for up to 48 hours to verify identity and conduct other security checks prior to a formal arrest at which time the Embassy would be given consular access to that U.S. citizen. Persons violating Belize’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs in Belize are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Belize has strict laws making possession of a firearm, ammunition, or anti-ballistic body armor illegal unless a valid permit is obtained. Penalties for firearms violations are severe. U.S. gun licenses or permits have no validity in Belize. Engaging in sexual conduct with children, using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country, including Belize, is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, under the Protect Act. U.S. law requires that all sex offenders notify U.S. law enforcement authorities of any travel outside of the U.S.
Persons illegally present in Belize may face a sentence of imprisonment of up to 6 months if they are unable to pay the fine imposed by a court.
The U.S. Embassy does not have the jurisdiction to resolve legal cases on behalf of U.S. citizens.
Consular access for U.S. citizens who are detained or arrested is uniformly good. If you are arrested in Belize, the Belize arresting officials are required to notify the U.S. Embassy of your arrest. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police or prison officials notify the U.S. Embassy, Belmopan as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care for minor ailments is generally available in urban areas. Trauma care or advanced medical treatment is limited, even in Belize City or Belmopan, and may be extremely limited or unavailable in rural and remote areas. Pharmacy services are generally good in larger towns; many medications such as antibiotics which are available only by prescription in the U.S. can be obtained over-the-counter from licensed pharmacists. However, more specialized prescription medications may be completely unavailable. U.S. citizens bringing their own prescription medications with them must ensure they carry a current doctor’s prescription for each medication.
In much of the country, emergency services will be either unavailable or delayed and serious injuries or illnesses often require evacuation to another country. The Embassy strongly suggests visitors obtain traveler’s insurance and medical evacuation coverage in advance of their travel to cover unexpected medical emergencies.
Dengue Fever: The Government of Belize reported that Dengue fever has quadrupled in 2013 compared to previous years. In 2012, there were cases of Dengue fever, but no deaths were reported. In 2013, over 600 suspected cases were reported, but only 20 were confirmed by a laboratory. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), no hemorrhagic cases were reported. Neighboring countries are on high alert, including Honduras where a state of emergency has been issued.
Safety and Security
Terrorism and Security: The potential for domestic terrorist activity such as bombings, kidnappings, or hijackings is considered low in Belize. However, domestic gang members and other criminals have used fragmentation grenades and firearms to settle disputes. Neither U.S. citizens nor other foreign nationals are known to have been the victims or targets of terrorist activity in Belize. U.S. citizens are not believed to be specifically targeted for robbery or other crimes but are instead targets of opportunity. No areas are closed to travel but visitors should exercise caution, particularly in southern Belize City and remote areas along Belize’s borders.
General Safety: As with any travel, visitors should exercise situational awareness and good judgment while visiting Belize. Crime is a serious and growing problem throughout Belize. Road accidents are common and traffic fatalities have included U.S. citizens. Public buses and taxis are frequently in poor condition and lack basic safety equipment. Many unlicensed taxis are present in Belize and U.S. citizens are encouraged to avoid traveling in them; genuine taxis may be identified by their green-colored license plates. Medical care is limited in many areas, including the larger cities of Belize City and Belmopan, and emergency response services such as ambulances or paramedics may be either unavailable or limited in capability and equipment.
Water Safety: Tourist safety standards and emergency response capabilities in Belize are not equal to those in the United States, and significant injuries and deaths continue to occur while tourists are swimming, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving. Five U.S. citizens died while either diving or snorkeling in Belize in 2012. Inconsistent and overall lax safety standards may have been a factor in some of these deaths, along with poor weather conditions. Boats serving the public, especially water taxis, often do not carry sufficient safety equipment, observe safety regulations, or stay within defined water lanes while operating in the presence of tourists in the water. Many carry an excessive number of passengers and may sail in inclement weather. Tourists should check with their hotel before choosing to snorkel and swim off shore to ensure that they avoid the boat lanes, as tourists have been severely injured by passing boats. Rental diving equipment may not always be properly maintained or inspected, and some local dive masters fail to consider the skill levels of individual tourists when organizing dives. Deaths and serious injuries have occurred as a result of the negligence of dive tour operators, the lack of strict enforcement of tour regulations, water taxis diverging from routes when tourists are in the water, and tourists’ neglect of their own physical limitations. The Embassy strongly recommends that anyone interested in SCUBA diving or snorkeling while in Belize check the references, licenses, and equipment of tour operators before agreeing to or paying for a tour. The Embassy further recommends that U.S. citizens be forthcoming in reporting pre-existing medical conditions to their dive tour operators, and comply when a dive tour operator prohibits participation in such activities due to a U.S. citizen’s health condition. The situation may improve, as all tour guides and boat captains are now required to be licensed by the Government of Belize. The only hyperbaric recompression chamber in Belize is located in San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye.
Cave Tubing: As a result of a fatal accident at the Cave’s Branch Archeological Park in September 2008, the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) implemented new regulations, effective as of October 15, 2008. Cave tubing policies include an enhanced, mandatory guest-to-guide ratio of eight-to-one for all cave tubing tour companies operating in Belize. Signage is required at each cave tubing excursion site to inform participants of park rules, current water conditions, and/or warnings. Mandatory specialty training for each cave tubing guide continues and includes education on new regulations. Helmets are required for each cave tubing participant. Additionally, the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), which manages the Cave’s Branch Archeological Park, has installed additional monitoring equipment for cave tubing excursions which measure currents and other factors. The Embassy encourages U.S. citizens participating in cave tubing to do so only with a guide and to only use cave tubing tour companies that adhere to the above requirements and guidelines and operate only when water currents are deemed safe.
Border Areas: A long-standing border dispute between Belize and Guatemala has not been resolved and many areas of the border area are not adequately patrolled. Smugglers, narcotics traffickers, and wildlife poachers enter Belize in the shared border region, and there have been incidents of clashes between some of these individuals and Belize military and law enforcement personnel, some of which included the exchange of gunfire. Visitors should avoid trekking or other activities near the Belize-Guatemala border to ensure that they do not inadvertently cross the border into Guatemala. The Embassy cautions U.S. citizens who choose to travel on cross-border public buses between Guatemala and Belize that there has been a spike in armed bus attacks by bandits since January 2011. Illegal cross-border activities increase after nightfall. Visitors to the border areas should travel only during daylight. For additional information, visitors should consult the CSI for Guatemala for information on incidents directed at tourists in the border area in Guatemala near Belize.
The Guatemalans have increased their police presence in the area leading to the popular Mayan tourist site at Tikal and the surrounding Peten area. However, tourists and other travelers in the area are still urged to be very cautious as the area is the center of illegal smuggling and forest harvesting activities. Tourists traveling to the important Belizean Mayan site of Caracol, deep in a national forest and close to the Guatemala border, must travel in convoys with Belize Defense Force escort, which has effectively ended attacks against tourists in that specific area. As in other tourist areas of Belize, there is no information to suggest that perpetrators in the border regions attempt to target individuals or tourists of any specific nationality, and victims appear to have been targets of opportunity. Take some time before travel to improve your personal security—things are not the same everywhere as they are in the United States.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
Belize’s road conditions differ significantly from those in the United States.
Valid U.S. or international driver’s permits are accepted in Belize only for a period of three months after initial entry.
Public buses and private vehicles are the main mode of transportation in Belize; no railways currently operate in the country. Like in the United States, drivers operate vehicles on the right side of the road, and road signs are in English with distances indicated in miles. But driving norms do not always follow U.S. practice, and due caution must be exercised at all times. Poor road and/or vehicle maintenance cause many fatal accidents on Belize’s roads. Speed limits are a maximum of 55 miles per hour on highways and 25 miles per hour on most other roads, but they are seldom observed or even posted. Drivers should particularly watch for speed bumps and rumble strips as they pass through villages on the major highways. These usually denote pedestrian crossings and are not always marked by clear signage or reflective yellow paint. Roadside assistance can be difficult to summon as there are very few public telephones along the road and emergency telephone numbers do not always function properly. While cell phone service is fairly reliable, reception in remote areas is spotty or non-existent. The Belize Department of Transportation is responsible for road safety.
Roads in Belize vary from two-lane paved roads to dirt or gravel tracks. The few paved roads are high-crowned, meaning that the roads are built to a slight point in the middle and slope down on the sides. There are usually no shoulders on the sides of the roads such that when vehicles get too close to the edge, the vehicle may lose traction on the loosely packed gravel, which contributes to cars overturning. There are few markings or reflectors; even in urban areas, most streets lack lane markings, leading many motorists to create as many lanes as possible in any given stretch of street or road. Bridges on major highways are often only a single lane. The Manatee Road (Coastal Road), leading from the Western Highway east of Belmopan to Dangriga, is mostly unpaved, easily flooded after storms, and without services. The Southern Highway from Dangriga to Punta Gorda is now completely paved and in good condition. Service stations are available along the major roads, although there are some significant gaps in the rural areas.
Belize’s official hurricane season lasts from May to November and creates hazardous road conditions. Motorists should not attempt to cross any low bridge with water flowing over the surface of the bridge as both the strength and depth of the current may be stronger than is apparent. Certain stretches of the George Price Highway that connects Belize City to Belmopan and continues west to the Guatemalan border have been the site of several fatal accidents.
Many vehicles on the road do not have functioning safety equipment such as turn signals, flashers, or brake lights. Seatbelts for drivers and front-seat passengers are mandatory, but children’s car seats are not required and are not widely available for purchase. Maintaining a safe driving distance will help avoid accidents.
Driving while intoxicated is punishable by a fine; however, if an alcohol-related road accident results in a fatality, the driver may face manslaughter charges. U.S. citizens can and have been imprisoned in Belize as a result of road accidents, even where alcohol is not a factor.
Unusual local traffic customs include: pulling to the right before making a left turn; passing on the right of someone who is signaling a right-hand turn; stopping in the middle of the road to talk to someone while blocking traffic; carrying passengers, including small children, in the open beds of trucks; and tailgating at high speeds.
Bicycles are numerous and constitute a traffic hazard at all times. Bicyclists often ride against traffic and do not obey even basic traffic laws such as stopping at red lights or stop signs. Although commonly encountered after nightfall, few bicyclists use lights or wear reflective clothing. It is common to see bicyclists carrying heavy loads or passengers, including small children, balanced on their laps or across the handlebars.
During daylight hours, particularly during weekends, highway drivers may encounter cross-country racing bicyclists, engaged in either training or in organized competitions. These may be accompanied by slow-moving vehicles such as pickup trucks or even motorcycles. Exercise caution when passing such persons as their attention may be on each other rather than passing motorists.
The driver of a vehicle that strikes a bicyclist or pedestrian is almost always considered to be at fault, regardless of circumstances. U.S. citizens who have struck bicyclists in Belize have faced significant financial penalties or even prison sentences.
Driving at night is not recommended even in populated areas. Major driving hazards include poor signage and road markings, a tendency by drivers to not dim their lights when approaching other vehicles, drunk driving, and poor or unfamiliar road conditions. Pedestrians and motorcyclists without reflective clothing and bicyclists without lights or reflectors also constitute very serious after-dark hazards exacerbated by the lack of street lighting at night. Local wildlife, dogs, and livestock on the road are also hazards even outside of rural areas. For safety reasons, travelers should not stop to offer assistance to others whose vehicles appear to have broken down as it may be a robbery scheme.