Belmopan City – The Smallest Little Capital in the World
(by Rhoda Gill)
Tucked in a cute little corner of Central America and many times missed by most viewers of any map of the isthmus, Belize is famous for a few things….. its natural and lush rain forests, the largest cave system in Central America and of course the world renowned Great Blue Hole but what is amazing and something that most people do not know is that Belize owns one of the smallest capitals of the world!
Photo credit: belizex.com
Smack in the center of the country, Belmopan has a population of just around 20 thousand residents.
When the country was under British rule, it was known as British Honduras and its capital was Belize City, a bustling port center on the coast. Colonial infrastructure can still be seen today and include well-known landmarks. Battered by tropical storms and hurricanes for over 100 years, the area which is level with the sea (and at some points just a bit lower) suffered repeated damage. Hurricane Hattie turned the city to pulp in 1961 with category 4 winds and between a 10 – 12 foot storm surges. Belize City was left completely destroyed with most of its government offices reduced to shreds.
Photo credit: ambergriscaye.com
The legendary Premier of British Honduras – George Price, cleverly promoted the building of a new capital to be located inland and safe from tropical cyclones. His idea focused on an area of the country on high ground and better terrain. In 1962, a committee chose the site now known as Belmopan, located some 51 miles west of the old capital of Belize City. Work started in 1967 and was completed in 1970. The idea was to have the seat of government in Belmopan and government workers were assigned positions in the town for this purpose. Today, many of the older buildings located around the center of Belmopan are the original homes which were used by these workers.
At the time and because of its location, many people worked in the city by day and went home to other towns by night. In many ways, this is still true today with the majority of the day population being workers from Belize City, San Ignacio and other areas.
In commemoration of the country’s cultural heritage, Premier George Price incorporated the name “Bel” for Belize and “Mopan” in honor of the Mopan Maya culture in the area – creating the distinct name of Belmopan for the new capital. Also, in tribute to the indigenous and original inhabitants of British Honduras, the government offices were created in the shape of an ancient Maya courtyard and a tall “pyramid” as the seat of government – the House of Representatives. The buildings that make up Independence Plaza are unpainted and pay homage to the design & ancient civilization of the Maya in Belize.
Independence Plaza marks the center of town. The prime minister’s office and administrative buildings are grouped within the plaza. The post office is located nearby exactly opposite the House of Representatives which is the tallest building of the plaza. Surrounding these are pedestrian walkways which connect to business and other residential areas.
Market Square is next to the Plaza and where much of the local commerce takes place. Open most days including weekends, vendors sell everything from tropical fruits and tamales to watermelons and designer jewellery. Apart from the permanent market, vendors and customers converge around the market square and Social Security parking lots for the Tuesday & Friday market days. Cultural dishes including game meat, the traditional Belizean fair of Rice & Beans and Chicken & Salad can be found at the market area from a number of excellent vendors. Tasting many of the native fruits is also a must when visiting Belmopan.
Adjacent to the market is the bus terminal, forming the central hub for public transportation system connecting all major towns and cities within the country.
A museum was created in honor of Belize’s first Prime Minister, Rt Hon. George Price, who not only led the country to independence but created Belmopan as the present capital of our beautiful Jewel. This museum is a must see and photos of the construction of the city can be viewed throughout the halls. The center is also the focal point for many cultural presentations and events including meetings, assemblies and musical shows.
A National Agriculture & Trade Show takes place in Belmopan every spring and is a 3 day affair with lots of music, cultural dishes and livestock on display. Much like the county fairs of most North American cities, this event is something to which the entire country turns out for and enjoys. It showcases the country’s agricultural sector, government agencies and comes complete with rodeo and motor cross races.
With its colorful vegetation and many Flamboyant trees, Belmopan is often referred to as the “Garden City”.
A number of recognized landmarks & natural attractions skirt the nation’s capital. The famous ATM cave is located just 20 minutes out of the city itself – in the direction of San Ignacio. The Inland Blue Hole National Park & St Herman’s Cave are located about 20 minutes in the direction of Dangriga.
Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co & Jungle Lodge– awarded Top Adventure Lodge in the world is located just 12 miles outside of Belmopan and features unique jungle & cave experiences for both tourists and locals. Some of the attractions at this property are the only ones of their kind in the entire country.
Guanacaste Park is a National Reserve situated just 5 minutes from downtown and on the banks of the old Belize River. In this 50 acre park, orchids and other “air plants” can be seen along nearly 2 miles of trails with shaded benches which invite visitors to look for wildlife and birds. The Visitor’s Center at the park offers first-class information about the birds, insects and animal life that might be seen.
The beautiful Hummingbird highway that runs just outside the city of Belmopan leads to Dangriga, Hopkins and other southern destinations. Carved through the foothills of the Maya Mountains – the Hummingbird highway is considered Belize’s most scenic highway and is truly an experience to remember!
To the east of Belmopan are opportunities for Cave Tubing and Zip-lining – excellent adventures that are fairly new to Belize’s tourism scene. The completely unique and fun Belize Zoo makes for a day trip with the family and is one that you will not want to miss!
To the west of Belmopan sits the picturesque Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve – rich is flora and fauna as well as waterfalls & caves carved out of the limestone hills. The maya ruins of Caracol, Xunauntunich and Cahal Pech are just a few of the nearby attractions that are within 45 minutes travel from Belize’s garden capital.
Now served with its own airstrip, Belmopan has become more then a center of commerce and more of an attraction for the small and developing country of Belize. Outfitted with two FIFA approved soccer stadiums, Belmopan is now the focal point for most of the football games when neighbouring countries compete for World Cup status. Filled with friendly people, smiling faces and warm inviting smells, this little capital is a must see when visiting the mainland.
So although still small & quiet in nature but rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage, you won’t want to pass up the opportunity to experience the newest facet of the beautiful Jewel we call Belize!
Special thanks to the following for written reference and photos: