The first morning I awoke in Belize, it was raining and warm. I got up before dawn and followed the crowds to the water’s edge in Belize City . There, a gray dawn delivered a festooned flotilla of wooden dories to the dock in Haulover Creek. It was November 19, Settlement Day , the Garifuna people’s annual reenactment of their ancestors’ 1832 arrival to Belizean shores.
Drums, smiles, and biting belts of gífit, a drink also known as “bitters ,” were on hand as I walked with the clump of celebrants through Belize City’s narrow streets. People were singing and drumming, dancing and marching. There were shouts and umbrellas, black-and-yellow flags, babies crying. And the rain.
The parade marched across the old Swing Bridge. The first light of day had become a bright white suffused in a light drizzle, and masts of fishing boats were reflected on the water’s glassy surface. The smell of low tide, fish, and gasoline completed the scene. As we turned onto Front Street, a man next to me beat on a string of turtle shells dangling from his neck, the drums thumping below him.
When we arrived at the entrance to the church, I stepped aside and watched waves of wet, shiny people wash up the stairs with drums and flags, music never ceasing as they crammed inside for a blessing.
My first day in Belize delivered this damp, convivial experience. My second day, driving inland, gave me a different experience entirely — river crossings, pyramids, and the roar of “baboons.” On my fifth day, in the cayes, I saw Belize through a curtain of grouper fish and reef sharks.
If you’ve traveled in other parts of Central America or the Caribbean, forget them all. Belize is different: It is coconut shavings in your rice and beans. It is butter pooling in your conch soup — with a squirt of lime and a splash of hot sauce to make it bite. Belize is the hemisphere’s largest barrier reef; it is massive forests of giant cohune palms and prehistoric tree ferns, some amid ancient Mayan plazas.
There are birds, big cats, and strange rodents in Belize’s ample backabush. And, of course, there are the Belizeans — about 300,000 of them, each family line hailing from a uniquely Creolized collection of cultures.
It’s a country that is always new to me, as new as it was that first morning in the rain. Your experience will be just as personal. And it will begin the moment you decide to go to Belize.