Belize is the textbook definition of paradise. Its tropical beaches, exotic wildlife, winding coral reefs, and Latin-Caribbean atmosphere make it one of the top destinations in Latin America. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, as well as ancient temple ruins scattered throughout magnificent jungles. As one of the last unspoiled places on Earth, Belize is the perfect country for anyone looking to explore lush rainforests, climb Mayan ruins, deep-sea dive, or lounge upon white sandy beaches. Whether you're an adventurer, archeology buff, or simply want to step outside of your comfort zone, Belize will not disappoint.

Volunteering

The majority of gap year programs are volunteer-based programs. Belize is a great country to volunteer in, as there are many different fields in which volunteers are needed. One of the most popular is conservation, including marine/Caribbean reef conservation and rainforest conservation. There are also volunteer programs that work with animals, underprivileged children, the healthcare system, and community development, to name a few. Volunteer programs are great for gap year students because they allow students to really interact with the Belizean culture and learn outside of a classroom, as well as make a difference in someone's life.

Studying

Another popular type of gap year program is a study program. These can range from traditional education in a classroom to outdoor/specialized education. While many gap year students pick language immersion programs, others may be interested in the expedition leader study programs or diving school programs to gain a PADI certificate. Because Belize is such a diverse country, many types of education are non-traditional and allow students to really get outside of their comfort zones.

Traveling

There are many gap year programs in Belize that are travel-based. These are typically multi-country tours usually including Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Many gap year students pick travel programs because they can experience several countries and cultures at once without having to figure out travel arrangements. Travel programs are great for adventurous and flexible students who want to experience as many cultures as possible.

Cost of Living in Belize

Belize is more expensive than most of its neighbors, but still less expensive than the United States. Rent can range anywhere from $250 - $700 per month, depending on if you're living in a city or on an island. Islands such as San Pedro and Caye Caulker are at least 20% more expensive than the mainland. Food expenses are low, as most food can be purchased at markets or roadside stands, and you can typically purchase everything you need for the week for about $15. “Luxuries” such as internet can be more costly than in the U.S., but others such as having a maid can cost as little as $2 per hour. Most foreigners find the cost of living in Belize to be fairly reasonable.

Culture and Etiquette in Belize

Belizeans are generally very laidback, fun-loving, and rarely punctual. Meetings will often start between 30 minutes to an hour after they were supposed to, and public transportation always runs late. Clothing, dining, and tipping are very similar to North American customs and are easy to adapt to. The primary meal in Belize is a combination of beans, rice, and chicken. Fresh fruit is abundant in Belize and typically sold in roadside markets. Foreigners should be careful about food intake at first, as some of the Belizean food can easily make foreigners sick.

While much of the culture in Belize is similar to that of North America, there are a few main differences. Homosexuality is illegal in Belize, but the laws are weakly enforced. There is a discreet gay community in Belize, and locals typically have a “don't ask, don't tell” view about homosexuality. However, views on homosexuality and gender issues are modernizing with the times, and the Belizean youth are fairly open-minded. Taking pictures of official buildings and inside of churches are forbidden, and when photographing locals, it is polite to ask their permission and tip them after.

Health and Safety in Belize

Belize is a relatively healthy country. The water is not always trustworthy, so it is better to stick to bottled water. Malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in Belize, so make sure you have the proper drugs and shots before arriving. Also, most foreigners catch food poisoning at least once while in Belize, so be prepared with over-the-counter medication. Prevent bug bites with appropriate clothing and repellents, as well as a bed net if sleeping in an unscreened room. The sun is very intense in Belize and it is hot and humid, so wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

While most parts of Belize are very safe, minor criminal activity is a problem. Robberies and muggings are common in parts and the crime rate increases in Belize City, but violent crimes are rare. Keep your personal belongings and travel documents safe and out of sight, and avoid unwanted attention by not showing signs of wealth. In unfamiliar areas, avoid using your debit or credit card, as copying cards is common. Crimes against foreigners are taken very seriously in Belize and are dealt with quicker and more severely than for locals. Because of the newly developed Tourist Police Force, travelers have more assistance and protection than in previous years.

Why Take a Gap Year in Belize?

With forty percent of the country nature preserves and protected parks, Belize truly is a modern-day Garden of Eden. Belize's world-class attractions and intriguing mixture of culture and natural history bring students from all over the world. With stunning natural beauty and picturesque towns, it's no wonder foreigners flock to Belize. Take your gap year in Belize and study in the gem of Central America!

Contributed by Rebecca Murphy

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