Automated teller machines (ATMs) are available in nearly all major Belizean towns, but they may operate on different card networks (Plus, Cirrus, etc.), so you may have to try a few to get your card to work. They’re also often out of order.
The currency unit is the Belize dollar (BZE$), which has been steady at BZE$2 to US$1 for some years. While prices are given in U.S. dollars in this travel guide, travelers should be prepared to pay in Belizean currency on the street, aboard boats, in cafés, and at other smaller establishments. Everyone else accepts U.S. dollars.
When you buy or sell currency at a bank, be sure to retain proof of sale. The following places are authorized to buy or sell foreign currency: Atlantic Bank Ltd., Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays Bank, Belize Bank of Commerce and Industry, and Belize Global Travel Services Ltd. All are close together near the plaza in Belize City and in other cities. Hours are till 1 p.m. Monday–Friday, till 11 a.m. Saturday. You can also change money, sometimes at a rate a bit better than 2:1, at Casas de Cambio. But because Casas de Cambio must charge the official rate, many people still go to the black market, which gives a better rate.
At the Mexico-Belize border, you’ll be approached by money changers (and you can bet they don’t represent the banks). Many travelers buy just enough Belize dollars to get themselves into the city and to the banks. Depending on your mode of transport and destination, these money changers can be helpful. Strictly speaking, though, this is illegal—so suit yourself. The exchange rate is the same, but you’ll have no receipt of sale. If selling a large quantity of Belize dollars back to the bank, you might be asked for that proof.
Most restaurants and hotels include a 10–15 percent service charge on the bill; if they don’t, you should pay this amount yourself. It is not customary to tip taxi drivers unless they help you with your luggage. Always tip your tour guide 10–15 percent if he or she has made your trip an enjoyable one.
Make no mistake: Belize vies with Costa Rica for being the most expensive country in Central America, and backpackers entering Belize from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras can expect some serious sticker shock after crossing the border. This was true even before the advent of tourism, because of the import-reliant economy and whatever other invisible market hands guide such things. Shoestring travelers squeaking by on US$25–50 per person per day in Belize are most likely stone sober and eating street tacos three times a day; they are not paying for tours or taxis, and they are surely not diving in the Blue Hole. They can still have a grand old time though, camped out in the bush (or in a US$10 room), doing lots of self-guided hiking, paddling, and cultural exploring. It’s possible to travel on this little—but it depends on your comfort zone and definition of a good time.
If you’ve only got a seven-day vacation, you won’t have to stretch your dollars over as many weeks or months as Jimmie Backpacker and his dog, Dreddie, and can thus spend more on lodging and activities. Figure at least US$100 per person per day if you want to pay for day trips and don’t want to share a bathroom; serious divers or anglers should add a bit more. Weeklong packages at many dive and jungle resorts run US$1,000–1,600 and go up from there.
There are usually low-budget, decent quality exceptions to the rule across Belize, and I’ve tried to point all of those out in each region. In general though, prices are high and getting higher. Many mid- and upscale accommodations have raised their rates by as much as 20–40 percent since the last edition of Moon Belize—and not all have increased the quality of their service to match. Alcohol is always a good indicator: A bottle of One Barrel Rum is peaking at US$12 in most stores; a six-pack of Belikin beer can go for US$10!
Be prepared for some additional taxes and service charges on your bill, which sometimes are and sometimes are not included in quoted rates:
- General sales tax: (GST) 10 percent
- Hotel tax: 9 percent
- Service charge (often placed on bill): 10–15 percent
- Airport departure tax: US$20
If you use your credit card, it will cost you a little more at most businesses, sometimes an extra 3–5 percent of the bill.
Many banks are only open till 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. Monday–Thursday (staying open a bit later on Fridays), are often closed for lunch, and are always closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition