From scuba diving to hiking up Mayan ruins or caving like Indiana Jones, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities in Belize. You’re probably thinking that you’ve been there and done that in Central America—perhaps in Costa Rica or Mexico.
But more than likely, you haven’t experienced what makes Belize unique from its neighbors: its fusion of Caribbean, African, Latin and Mayan cultures. From a West-Indian style carnival in Belize City to lobster feasts, Garifuna John Canoe dance contests and chocolate celebrations in Punta Gorda, planning a visit around one of the following seven local festivals in Belize will give you unique insight into its melting pot culture—the kind you won’t experience across the border.
1. Belize Carnival
Belize’s annual Carnival rivals those held in the Caribbean. Every September, residents of Belize City and Belizeans from around the country descend on Belize City to celebrate or take part in the ritual. The city’s main streets shut down as revelers in colorful costumes roam the streets, while carnival floats slowly ride through the city, with Belizean music echoing south to north. Over 20,000 spectators cheer and join in the dancing in a display of Creole culture, one that is unique to Belize in this otherwise Spanish-speaking Central America.
The best way to experience Belize Carnival is to get a taxi drop off on the south side of the city, where the parade begins, close to one o’clock in the afternoon. Reserve your spot on the sidelines and be sure to wear light clothes, stay hydrated throughout the day, and wear plenty of sun block and a small hat.
Belize Carnival takes place mid-month as part of the month-long September Independence celebrations.
For three entire weeks in July, Belize hosts lobster celebrations across three of the country’s favorite getaway spots: Caye Caulker, San Pedro and Placencia.
To experience Lobsterfest in a more contained and local environment, head to Caye Caulker, the original spot to host the first Lobsterfest. Besides sampling the best of Belizean seafood, there are local arts and crafts to browse, live Belizean music and lots of local cuisine to sample. Towards the end of the day, the Split—Caye Caulker’s popular sandy swimming area—is an ideal place to cool off and watch sunset with two-for-one rum punches in hand.
3. Garifuna Settlement Day
The first Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) people—who are descendants of West Africans and Caribs—arrived in Belize on November 19, 1802. As a result, November 19 is a national holiday in Belize, celebrated as Garifuna Settlement Day.
In Dangriga, the country’s main Garifuna town, Settlement Day is celebrated with a complete reenactment of the arrival of the first Garifuna settlers in dugout canoes to the eastern shores of Belize.
To experience the best of this event, rise just before dawn on the 19 and head to the main bridge in town. Residents and visitors line up by the bridge or along the shores to wait for the boats, to the sounds of drums and chanting. When the three or more boats appear on the horizon, the crowd cheers on the passengers, who are carrying cassava and plantains in their boats.
After the reenactment, don’t miss walking through town to witness the parade and intense drumming and chanting through the streets of Dangriga. Then go bar hopping to celebrate with live drumming and late night partying, and don’t forget to sample traditional Garifuna foods like cassava bread and hudut.
4. Independence Day in Belize City
Much like Belize City Carnival though without the Carnival floats, Belizeans celebrate September 21 or Independence Day by parading through their town or city’s main streets with music, dancing and marching bands. Plenty of street foods are available along the way. Find your way to Albert Street for the heart of the celebrations.
5. CacaoFest in Punta Gorda
What could be more fun than an all-day celebration of chocolate? Those who visit Belize in May and venture to Belize’s southern town of Punta Gorda will enjoy CacaoFest—a weekend-long tribute to Belizean chocolate and the organic cacao farmers of the Toledo District.
From open-air concerts with traditional Mayan and Garifuna music to chocolate tastings, “Cacao for kids” storytelling and games, chocolate-flavored cocktails and an all-day food and crafts fair on Front Street, there’s more than enough to entertain both children and adults.
CacaoFest usually takes place from Friday evening through Sunday and attracts Belizeans from all over the country. To get the best experience, make hotel reservations early and plan to arrive a day earlier. Bring plenty of small change to the event; there’s no telling how much chocolate or art you’ll be tempted to take home. The best part is that all the funds from the festival go to support community projects.
6. Pan Yaad in Belize City
In line with its Caribbean or Creole heritage, Belize’s steel pan music is very much alive. Pan Yaad is a three-hour steel pan concert hosted outdoors on the gorgeous seafront lawn of the House of Culture in Belize City. Up to seven steel pan bands made up of young Belizeans from around the country perform to a large crowd, who eventually get up to dance the night away. The night includes a hot buffet of Belizean foods and drinks. Pan Yaad is held in September, as part of the independence month-long celebrations.
During breaks, go inside the House of Culture and head to the very top floor for a panoramic view of the grounds.
7. Garifuna John Canoe Dance Contest
Held every December after Christmas in the Garifuna town of Dangriga, also known as Belize’s culture capital, this contest is a display of Garifuna culture and dance: from the cowry-shelled costumes to the masks that mimic former European slave masters and the swinging of the hips at each drumbeat.
The annual John Canoe dance contest was launched in 2010 as part of a continuing effort to preserve the endangered Garifuna culture, pass it on to the younger generations and improve the quality of the traditional dance.
The contest takes place at “Y-Not Island”—a seaside basketball court used as a makeshift dance floor for the event. To get the best view of the dancers and the detail in their movements, either sit to the sides or behind the drummers. But not before grabbing a cold Belikin and some conch fritters from one of the many street food vendors.
Photos courtesy of Lebawit Lily Girma.
–Lebawit Lily Girma