Belize is an increasingly popular eco-tourism destination, but while the jungles and cayes of Belize are beautiful, crime is a serious problem in this Central American nation. Fortunately, the Caribbean islands of Belize also are some of the safest places to visit.
Belize has the second-highest murder rate in the Caribbean, and one of the highest in the Americas; the murder rate is comparable to that of Detroit, Mich. Gang violence is a big part of the problem, and is largely centered on Belize City. The south side of Belize City, in particular, should be avoided at all times.
Some violent crime has spread to the northern and western parts of the country, however, where murder and incidents like home invasions were previously rare. This includes some areas frequented by tourists. Criminals typically carry guns and do not walk in fear of confrontation; travelers are advised to comply with a robber's instructions rather than resisting. Nonetheless, a number of robberies in recent years have resulted in severe injuries or death.
"Major crimes remain low around popular tourist destinations including the Mayan ruins but the risk still exists," according to the U.S. State Department. "Several tourist areas along the western border with Guatemala have active military patrols due in part to the several border incidents that are reported each year. Some of these excursions require a military patrol to view ruins located on the border with Guatemala. Tourist attractions, including cave tubing and zip lining, remain relatively safe."
Belize visitors are advised:
- Leave valuables and large amounts of cash locked up in a secure location.
- Do not leave items visible inside your parked car.
- Keep important items out of reach of outsiders while driving.
- Move about in groups, staying in well-lit areas, avoiding short-cuts, and maintaining good situational awareness.
- Don't travel alone if you are female (or even with only one other female companion). Sexual harassment is common in Belize, and sexual assaults can occur.
- Do not dress in a manner that displays or indicates wealth.
- Beware of pickpockets. Men should keep their wallet and cash in their front pants pocket. A woman's purse should be small and held closely in front of her.
- Buses and cars do not yield to pedestrians.
- Keep your hotel door secured at all times. Meet visitors in the lobby.
- Do not leave money and other valuables in your hotel room while you are out. Use the hotel safe, if available.
The Caribbean cayes off the coast of Belize, which are some of the most popular tourist destinations, are much safer. While crime still happens on the cayes, it is much less frequent and generally non-violent -- typically petty crimes of opportunity. However, such crimes often target tourists or more affluent long-term residents. And there have been a few high-profile murders of tourists and expatriates.
"Belize offers an immense variety of tourist destinations, many of which are located in remote parts of the country. The easy pace found in Belize can lull one into forgetting that criminals will work wherever and whenever it is to their advantage," reports the U.S. State Department. "Tourists have been robbed while visiting archeological sites, and occasional violent crimes have occurred at resort areas on both mainland Belize and the cayes. Illicit activities in remote areas can quickly involve the innocent tourist.
It is prudent to assume that safety procedures and requirements at tourist destinations are not up to U.S. standards and careful consideration given prior to engaging in the activity."
Police in Belize are understaffed and poorly equipped. Crimes against visitors are taken seriously, but the ability of police to respond is limited.
Travelers are advised to avoid buses in Belize and use only licensed taxis, which have green license plates. Don't accept taxi rides with other passengers unknown to you, and solo female travelers should be especially cautious, as sexual by taxi drivers against women traveling alone have been reported.
"There have been recent complaints that Western tourists disembarking from cruises are offered drugs and then “set-up” for arrest and payment of a hefty fine," the State Department notes. "All U.S. citizens are advised that the purchase of drugs in Belize is against the law, and violators are subject to substantial penalties, including jail time."
Road conditions in Belize are generally very poor at best and hazardous at worst. Roads other than the Northern, Western and Hummingbird (southern) highway should be avoided, and extreme caution should be used even when driving on these major roads. Don't drive at night unless absolutely necessary. If you do drive, ensure that you have a cell phone, spare tire, and other emergency equipment -- even some non-perishable food. Travel with more than one vehicle, if possible.
Note: Vehicles in Belize DO NOT yield to pedestrians.
Hurricanes and tropical storms can hit Belize, sometimes causing significant damage. Minor earthquakes have occurred, but flooding after storms is a much larger concern. Forest fires can occur during the dry season, and dangerous wildlife, including jaguars, may be encountered in the protected rainforests.
Belize City has the only two major hospitals considered adequate by U.S. standards and equipped to handle serious problems: Belize Medical Associates and Karl Huesner Memorial Hospital.
For more details, see the Belize Crime and Safety Report published annually by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.