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Belize is a small country in Central America. It covers 8,900 square miles (23,000 sq. km), making it a bit bigger than the state of New Jersey. It shares borders with Guatemala and Mexico, and has coastline along the Caribbean Sea.
Belize has been inhabited for thousands of years, and was a part of the Maya civilization, which originated in the north, in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya practiced advanced forms of agriculture and architecture, allowing them to expand to a relatively high population density for the region. The civilization reached its zenith sometime in the 12th or 13th century, and then began to decline, with many of the major cities being abandoned.
Europeans first spotted Belize in 1502, during one of Columbus’ journeys. A decade later a group of Spanish sailors whose ship had wrecked washed ashore in Belize, where they were captured by the Maya. No permanent settlements were formed until the mid-17th century, however, and contact with Belize remained intermittent until this time.
Although Spain had laid claim to Belize, and wished to retain control over the entire region, the Empire did grant logging concessions to the British. The British began to establish camps throughout Belize to harvest mahogany and logwood, fortifying their camps to protect themselves from attacks by the indigenous peoples. The British continued to expand their control of the region, occasionally clashing with Spanish settlers.
At the end of the 18th century Spain and Britain went to war, and the Spanish attempted to capture the British camps. After a week of heavy fighting, the Spanish were defeated, and the British laid claim to the land on September 10th. In 1840 the region was declared the Colony of British Honduras, and in 1871 it was officially made a Crown Colony.
Belize remained under British control for more than a century, and as a result English remained the primary language. Once Guatemala was declared independent, it began asserting its right to the territory that is now Belize, creating concern both among citizens and the British. The region was granted autonomy in 1964, and was officially named Belize in 1973, but continued to remain a British dependency. In 1981 independence was finally achieved, after a deal was made with Britain for defense against Guatemala in the event of an invasion. Guatemala refused to recognize Belize until 1991, but did not pursue military means of acquiring the land.
Belize has a bustling tourist economy, due in no small part to the status of English as an official language, making it a desirable Central American destination for those who don’t speak Spanish. The country is most famous for its beautiful scenery and affordable tourist infrastructure. Lush tropical forests, majestic mountains, ancient Mayan ruins, and a gorgeous Caribbean coastline make it ideal for those looking for the quintessential Central American vacation. The prevalence of English and the low costs throughout the country are simply icing on the cake.
Flights arrive daily from a number of North American hubs, and some airports in Europe. Smaller local flights also arrive from neighboring Guatemala. Cruise ships occasionally make port in Belize City and some other coastal cities, and personal overland travel is possible, although difficult, from Guatemala and Mexico. Pre-packaged bus travel directly from the United States, via Guatemala, is much easier, and quite affordable.