Okay, so “city” might be stretching it, but there is no doubt that the biggest concentration of Belizeans in the world (about 70,000) live on a relatively small peninsula. Belizeans throughout the country refer to Belize City, their former capital, as “Belize,” which can be disorienting until you get used to it.
While there are no high-rises, only three traffic lights, and more faded paint and rotten wood than you’d expect in the country’s most important population center, Belize City is an exciting cluster of cultures throbbing under the tropical sun, wind, and rain.
The town straddles Haulover Creek (named when cattle were attached to one another by a rope around the horns and hauled across) and sprawls loosely north to the Belize River and the international airport. For tourists, Belize City is no Caribbean paradise—not by a long shot. Indeed, the banks of the Haulover Creek, meandering through the middle of the city, are often foul. The city is run-down and, though perched on the edge of the Caribbean, it is without beaches (except the artificial one at Old Belize , just outside town). Antiquated clapboard buildings on stilts—weathered, tilted, and streaked with age—line narrow streets. In other areas, the old buildings are slowly being replaced by concrete boxes.
The people of Belize City are friendly, though the hucksters who prey on cruise ship passengers are sometimes a little too friendly. In general, Belize City residents are better off and more optimistic than those in other developing world cities—in large part because Belize City is so much smaller. It has its problems (from petty gang crime to government corruption), but it doesn’t have sprawling slums and shantytowns like other cities in Central America. Schools and uniformed students are plentiful, little shops are everywhere (often referred to locally as the “Hindu,” “Arab,” or “Chinese” store, based on the ancestry of the proprietors), and some of the simplest bars are gathering places for truly interesting and important people.
Belize City is the transportation hub of the country, by air, land, and sea.
By Air: From the international airport, it’s a 20-minute drive to downtown Belize City, a trip that costs US$25 in a taxi (less in the opposite direction). The Municipal Airport (a.k.a. “Muni”) is on the waterfront, practically in downtown Belize City. Belizean commuter planes provide steady service in and out of Belize City to outlying airports all over the country. It’s cheaper to fly to local destinations out of Municipal.
By Bus: Domestic bus service is handled almost entirely out of Novelo’s Terminal, at the western terminus of King Street. If you arrive by bus and want to walk downtown, it’s about 10 blocks to the Swing Bridge (from Novelo’s, cross the canal and stay on King Street till you reach Albert Street, then make a left; continue for three blocks to the Swing Bridge and Water Taxi Terminal). This walk should not be attempted at night but is usually safe during the day (remember; when in doubt, always take a cab). International bus service to Guatemala and Mexico is offered by a handful of companies with offices in the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal.
By Boat: There are three companies with regular service to San Pedro  and Caye Caulker . The Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal is at the north end of the Swing Bridge, with boats leaving between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (San Pedro tel. 501/226-4646, Caye Caulker tel. 501/226-0992, Belize City tel. 501/223-5752, www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com ).
San Pedro Express departs from the Tourism Village (tel. 501/223-2225, www.belizewatertaxi.com ) between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. express.
Water Jets Express (tel. 501/207-1000, www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com ) leaves from Bird’s Isle Water Taxi and Marina between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily.
Boat transit to Caye Caulker takes about 45 minutes, then it’s another half hour to Ambergris Caye. The trip to Caulker costs about US$10 one-way; to San Pedro costs US$15 one-way. The trip is pleasant on calm, sunny days, but be prepared for a cold and wet ride if the sky to the east is dark. A few of the boats are covered; others will pass out plastic tarps if it’s really coming down.