The Maya civilization spread over Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 900.
The first Europeans arrived in the area in the early 16th century and settlement began with British privateers and shipwrecked English seamen as early as 1638.
The origin of the name Belize is not clear, but one explanation is that it derives from the Spanish pronunciation of Wallace which is the name of the pirate who created the first settlement in Belize in 1638. Another possibility is that the name is from the Maya word belix, meaning "muddy water", applied to the Belize River.
The early "settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras" grew from a few habitations located at Belize Town and St George's Caye into a de-facto colony of the United Kingdom during the late 18th century. In the early 19th century the settlement was called British Honduras, and in 1862 it became a Crown Colony.
Hurricane Hattie inflicted significant damage upon Belize in 1961. The government decided that a coastal capital city lying below sea level was too risky. Over several years, the British colonial government designed a new capital, Belmopan, at the exact geographic centre of the country, and in 1970 began slowly moving the governing offices there.
British Honduras became a self-governing colony in January 1964 and was renamed Belize in June 1973; it was the United Kingdom's last colony on the American mainland. George Price led the country to full independence on 21 September 1981 after delays caused by territorial disputes with neighboring Guatemala, which did not formally recognize the country until 1992.
Throughout Belize's history, Guatemala has claimed ownership of all or part of the territory. This claim is occasionally reflected in maps showing Belize as Guatemala's most eastern province. As of 2006, the border dispute with Guatemala remains unresolved and quite contentious; at various times the issue has involved mediation assistance from the United Kingdom and the CARICOM heads of Government. Since independence, a British garrison has been retained in Belize at the request of the Belizean Government. Notably, both Guatemala and Belize are participating in the confidence building measures, including the Guatemala-Belize Language Exchange Project.
Belize was recently the site of unrest directed at the country's ruling party concerning tax increases in the national budget.
Protected by the western hemisphere’s longest Reef (175 miles), the Belizean cayes are the country’s prime attraction to travelers and vacationers. The visible peaks of an undulating submarine ridge running parallel to the coast, they range in size from uninhibited coral specks awash at high tide to substantial islets of mangrove and coconut palms, some with idyllic beaches and tiny fishing settlements. Tourism has reached many of the cayes (pronounces “keys”, from Spanish “cayo”) and commercial fishing is big business: bonefish, tarpon, snapper, marlin, wahoo, tuna, etc. The warm, crystal-clear waters around the islets and reef make swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling some of the best in the world.
Vacation resorts can be found on many of the cayes, particularly San Pedro (Ambergris Caye - AmbergrisCaye.com, GoAmbergriscaye.com), which is linked to Belize City by scheduled flights and helicopter transfers. Protecting the Reef and mangrove habitants at the southern end of Ambegris Caye the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Belize boasts three offshore atolls: Turneffe, Glover's Reef and Lighthouse Reef. Together they easily provide over a hundred dive and snorkeling sites for the adventurous visitor.
Turneffe Atoll, the largest of three atolls found in Belize, is 30 miles long. The water dept measures between 55 and 65 feet.
Glover's Reef, which is most south of the three, is often overlooked. It has a diameter of some 40 miles with over 700 shallow patch reefs in its interior.
Lighthouse Reef is the farthest from the mainland but unlike Glover's Reef gets plenty of visitors. Depth near the reef is around 9 feet.
Centered on Half Moon Caye in the Lighthouse Reef is a National Monument, providing sanctuary for the extensive breeding grounds of the Red-footed Booby; a hundred other species of birds also winter here, and iguanas and turtles around the 45-acre caye, which has some of Belize's clearest waters and finest beaches. The Blue Hole Natural Monument lies within the atoll lagoon of Lighthouse Reef, about 75km east of Belize City, and about 8km north of Half Moon Caye Natural Monument. The great “Blue Hole” studied by Jacques Cousteau in recent years, is an underwater cave, formed during periods of lower sea level, is a karsts-eroded sinkhole where depths exceed 400 feet. It contains Pleistocene stalactites and stalagmites and serves as an important habitat for shrimp and jewfish.
St. George's Caye, only 9 miles from Belize City, Spain made its last attempt to recover Belize; a great sea battle took place on September 10th 1798, in which the British woodcutter settlers prevailed, securing for Great Britain the territory which would later become British Honduras.
Caye Caulker (CayeCaulker.org, GoCayecaulker.com) is probably the lowest-key and least expensive of the cayes, and Caye Chapel with its three square miles of beaches, coconut plantations and 18 Hole Championship Golf Course.
Many other cayes are National Parks and Marine Reserves including Laughing Bird Caye on the western side of Victoria Channel, only 11 miles off the coast from Placencia Village in the Stann Creek District of Belize.
One of the other atolls, Glover's Reef, has 5 cayes (Southwest Cayes - 2 cayes, Middle Caye, Long Caye and Northeast Caye). All the cayes in Glover's Reef are developed with small dive resorts with the exception of Middle Caye which is a Marine Research Station managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Nestled on Central America's Caribbean coast just south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Belize has the highest concentration of Maya sites among all Central American countries. It is believed to have been the heart of the Maya, who settled in this tropical setting as early as 1500 B.C. Although the civilization began its decline in 900 A.D., some Maya centers were occupied until contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. During the classic period (250 A.D. to 900A.D.), there were a million Maya in Belize. Their descendants remain today an integral part of the Belizean population.
Belize's rich Maya heritage includes:
Altun Ha (Water of the Rock), the most extensively excavated ruin in Belize, was a major ceremonial and coastal trade center. The ruin consists of two main plazas with some thirteen temple and residential structures. It was here the Jade Head representing the Sun God, Kinich Ahua, was found. It is the largest carved jade object in the whole Maya area, and has become a national symbol of Belize.
Caracol (The Snail) is the largest of Belize's Maya ruins, reached by a spectacular scenic drive through the Chiquibul Rainforest. Currently under excavation and restoration, Caracol's importance as a major ceremonial center has only been recently discovered. The largest pyramid in Caracol, "Caana" (Sky Place), rises 140 feet high, and is the tallest man-made structure in Belize.
Cerros is located on a peninsula across from Corozal Town in the Bay of Chetumal; it served as a coastal trading center in the late Pre-Classic Period (100 B.C. to 250 A.D.). New forms of art and architecture that were crucial to the civilization were established here. Cerro's tallest temple rises 72 feet high above the plaza and offers a panoramic view of Corozal Town and the Bay.
Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile), among the largest of the Maya ceremonial centers, is located on the banks of the New River Lagoon. With one of the longest occupation spans, (1500 B.C. to the 19th century), the ruins of Lamanai include the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill, along with distinctly exotic examples of Maya art and architecture. The scenery around Lamanai is of particular beauty, and there are spectacular views from several of its large pyramids.
Territorial disputes between the UK and Guatemala delayed the independence of Belize (formerly British Honduras) until 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation until 1992. Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy. Current concerns include high unemployment, growing involvement in the South American drug trade, and increasing urban crime.
Lubaantun (Place of Fallen Stones) is a late Classic ceremonial center that lies above a tributary to the Columbia River. It has eleven major structures, grouped around five main plazas. Lubaantun was uniquely built entirely without mortar; each stone was carefully measured and cut to fit with its adjoining stone.
Xunantunich (Maiden of the Rock) was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. The site overlooks the Mopan River, and is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than twenty-five temples and palaces. The site is currently undergoing excavation.