Bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize might be small, but it packs a punch. Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, the country is a magnet for snorkelers and scuba divers. With hundreds of Caribbean islands, including Caye Caulker and Caulker Ambergris, there is plenty of opportunity to find your own personal slice of paradise.
Add lush jungles, ancient Mayan temples and the fascinating culture of the Garifuna people into the mix, and there are many reasons to choose Belize as a volunteer destination. Belize is known for its laidback attitude and friendly locals, characteristics which make living and volunteering in the country a unique and enjoyable experience.
There is a diverse range of volunteering opportunities available in Belize, from marine conservation to teaching. Whatever you choose, you'll have plenty of time to enjoy the delights of the country as well as the chance to contribute to a worthy cause, gain a sense of self-satisfaction and make new friends.
There are an abundance of volunteering opportunities in Belize, and volunteers are greatly appreciated in schools, hospitals, and communities throughout the country.
Given the location, marine conservation is one of the most popular volunteer options in Belize. Volunteers are based on a tropical island and work requires gathering data from the Belize Barrier Reef. This can involve surveying the health of reef and seagrass beds, monitoring fish species, and the checking the location of turtle nests and number of turtles.
Some programs include whale shark monitoring. Beach clean-up and salvage dives are also undertaken. If you haven't already got a PADI certificate, there's an opportunity to become qualified and, if you have, you can always obtain your advanced certificate in Belize.
Medicine & Healthcare
If you're a medical student, volunteering in this area is a great way to gain practical experience -- and it also looks impressive on your resume. Volunteers are supported by medical professionals who offer training and guidance.
Much of the work is based in public polyclinics and hospitals, which offer medical care and advice to children and adults who would not otherwise have access to it. There are also programs that concentrate on community outreach and public health campaigning.
Whether you have teaching experience or not, there are programs available to suit everyone in Belize. Additionally, many classrooms are overcrowded and teaching assistants are often required to help support teachers.
Volunteers can help improve literacy levels and provide children with the tools they need for a sustainable and successful future. Whether you are planning on a teaching career or simply seeking a more meaningful vacation than two weeks at a beach resort, volunteering with children is a hugely rewarding experience.
There are opportunities to help support children in daycare centers, after-school clubs, and summer camps. This might include anything from sports coaching to providing practical advice to adolescent girls on issues like bullying or raising self-esteem. Volunteering in this way is a great way to use and develop your own skills -- and have a positive aspect on the children themselves.
Planning Your Trip
Planning your trip is an exciting part of the whole volunteer experience. Here are a few useful facts to get your plans underway.
Where to Volunteer in Belize
Belize City is the largest urban center in Belize and the major transport hub of the country. Close to the airport and harbor (from where the ferries arrive and depart to and from the islands), it is likely that you will at least pass through the city at some point in your travels. From slums to magnificent colonial houses, it's a city of contrasts and one that many avoid due to its reputation for being dangerous.
San Pedro, located on Ambergris Caye and San Ignacio, situated in the heart of the Cayon district, both have plenty of volunteer positions available and are safer options for long-term stays. San Ignacio and its twin town of Santa Elena, situated on either side of the Macal River, is a vibrant and colorful town with good restaurants and lots of nearby activities. San Pedro is a typically tropical town, full of vibrantly-painted buildings, tourist services, and conveniently located right next to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Housing & Accommodation
Homestays are the most common form of accommodation. There's no doubt about it, living with a family is the best possible way to learn about local culture and immerse yourself in the local community. Other types of accommodation may include hostels, cabins, or on-site dorms.
Language Requirements & Tips
English is the official language of Belize, making life easy for volunteers. Spanish and Creole are also commonly spoken and many residents are bilingual. If you don't already know some Spanish, learning a little can enhance your experience in Belize even more.
Belize is casual in its approach to dress, so there's no need to pack anything too formal. Take lightweight items that are easy to dry. If you are going to be there during the wet season, pack a poncho. Pack a lightweight foldaway daypack, an indispensable item for days out exploring.
Protect yourself from the sun by taking along sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. If you plan to do a lot of snorkeling, it is worth taking your own gear as rental costs can add up.
- You can enter Belize for up to 30 days without a visa or for three months with a visa that has been applied for in advance. Extensions can be applied for in-country. All travelers should have a passport valid for at least six months after your date of entry into Belize. Remember, there is a $35 departure tax to be paid when leaving the country.
- Although the cost of living in Belize isn't as low as most of the other Central American countries, it is still substantially lower than that of the U.S. A beer goes for $2-3 and a basic lunch for around $5.
- The Belizean dollar is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted.
- You can arrange for your cell phone to be unlocked and purchase a SIM card when you arrive in Belize. The other option is to buy a cheap local phone for $50-$80 and sign up for a pre-paid plan, which is probably worthwhile if you are in Belize for any substantial length of time.
- Te best time to visit Belize is the dry season between November and April.
Health & Safety
Before heading off to Belize, make sure that you know the score as far as health and safety are concerned. Preparing well and being aware will ensure that you have an optimum, hassle-free experience in Belize.
The good news is that you don't need to protect yourself against malaria in Belize, but it still makes sense to cover up and use bug spray to avoid getting bitten. It's wise to be up-to-date with your routine vaccines, and it's recommended to have typhoid and hepatitis A, as well. If you are coming from a country where yellow fever is present, you will need to have a certificate of immunization to present at immigration. Don't drink the water -- stick to bottled water or be kind to the environment and use a water filter.
Most of the crime aimed at tourists is opportunistic pickpocketing. Be aware of your surroundings, especially in Belize City at night, and try not to wander into any sketchy neighborhoods at any time of the day or night. Don't carry too much cash or wear expensive jewelry.