It was the middle of July. Temperatures were blistering hot, and our cruise ship had docked in Belize City for the day. Prior to visiting, I knew very little about Belize City other than the fact that it was the largest city in the only English-speaking country in Latin America. I had seen gorgeous pictures of islands off of the city’s coast, and I had been mesmerized by images of the Great Blue Hole, but I knew very little about the city that we were actually docking in.
We Took a Cruise to Belize City
I proudly call myself an explorer. No destination really intimidates me, and I have lived in countries all over the world – including Mexico, which sits just north of Belize. While cruise stops are short and leave much less time than I would typically desire, I was very excited to explore this little country’s biggest city.
Ignorantly, I didn’t do any prep work. I knew that my time would be short, and I figured the best way to explore would simply be to wander around and check out some of the city’s highlights. As I wrote in my Belize City Travel Guide, there isn’t a ton to do within the city itself, and I figured I’d be able to see most of it in a day.
As the city is pretty small and walkable, my friend and I decided against renting any sort of transportation. While it was hot outside, we looked forward to seeing the people and streets that fill this little Caribbean city. I always opt to walk whenever it is feasible, as you get a much more intimate experience walking than you do in a car.
As we explored, we realized that Belize City was not safe
Well, we got quite the experience…but I wouldn’t call it intimate. As we walked through the city, we got a strange vibe. We got off our ship very early in the morning – around 7:30am – and proceeded to walk around the city while it was still relatively quiet. The area immediately off of the ships is a protected tourist zone, and certainly isn’t a real representation of Belize City. For many reasons, this isn’t the place you want to spend a day in Belize City. We breezed right by the overpriced souvenir stands here and started to make our way into the city itself.
As we started to explore, we wandered down some alleyways that looked a little impoverished, passed by some shoddy storefronts, and generally started to get the vibe that this city doesn’t exist for tourists, and probably isn’t ready for them, either. We didn’t feel any imminent threats, but we also didn’t find much comfort, either.
As people filled the streets, we were not met with kindness. Rather, we were met with offense. From racially charged name-calling to physical affronts, the locals in the part of the city where we were walking were not very excited to see two white men walking around. Some of this probably stemmed from a genuine spirit to protect their neighborhood, but we were very clearly no threat to anyone.
We were confronted by a gang in Belize City
As things got ugly, we decided to head back to a more touristy part of the city. On our way there, we wanted to pop into a convenience store to grab a drink and beat the heat. As I always try to support small businesses when I travel, I opted to enter a local store to buy some water. The man at the counter happily greeted us and sold us water, but as we tried to leave, a group of men blocked the exit.
At first, they acted kind and offered to sell us drugs and prostitutes. After we refused, the men got more agitated. “How about you buy us all some beers, white boy?” they said to me along with threats and profanity that I won’t repeat here. The man doing the speaking seemed to have a large item in his pocket – presumably a knife – which he kept reaching for as he looked at me.
We immediately realized these men were not our friends. When I refused to buy the leader of the pack a beer or follow him to his brothel, he started to threaten me. He clearly expected me to comply with his demands! While there were several men blocking the door, my friend and I were both much faster and larger. We instinctively gave the entourage a good shove, knocked them off balance, and made a run for it.
The men chased us for a couple of blocks while screaming profane things, but they were ultimately unable to catch us. We crossed a bridge into another part of the city, and the men stopped right at the foot of the bridge. At the time, we didn’t think much of it. We were just grateful to have gotten away without being robbed or injured.
At this point, clearly on high alert, we decided to just try and get back to a touristy area. We started asking a few passersby on the streets, but they all seemed to point in different directions. We decided to just head towards the ship until we got to an area that felt safe.
After about 10-15 minutes of brisk walking, we found ourselves in what felt like a safe area. There were souvenir vendors, a couple of restaurants, and even a police officer. At this point, we sat down, caught our breath, and soaked in what had just happened.
The truth is THAT Belize city is very dangerous
We hopped onto Google to research about safety in Belize City. As I said, we had irresponsibly done zero prep work before arriving, and I had no reason to believe that Belize City would be dangerous. It is a commercial cruise port, after all! It must be ready for tourists!
What we found is that Belize City struggles immensely with gang violence and is not considered a safe place whatsoever. While transiting through the city and hanging out in the touristy areas are both generally safe activities, exploring by foot without an understanding of the city’s dynamics is very dangerous. At this point, we realized that the reason the men stopped chasing us at the foot of a bridge was probably because that bridge bordered another gang’s territory, and the reason that people on the streets kept pointing us in different directions may have been to steer us out of touristy areas and into certain gang’s territories.
Our Final Thoughts on Safety in Belize City
This blog post is not intended to make accusations against the Belizean people in any way. Once we reached safer areas of the city, we had great experiences. However, this post does intend to point out the harsh reality that Belize City is not a very safe place, especially if you explore by foot. The odds of something happening to you in a touristy area are very low. I encourage including Belize City on your trip itinerary if you want to see the Great Blue Hole or the beautiful islands just off of the coast. However, when you arrive in Belize City, I caution you to be extra careful, stick to touristy spots, and leave all of your valuables on the ship or in your hotel.
I truly believe that the only thing that kept us from getting robbed was the fact that we were two fit, strong young men who stood a chance fighting off the Belizean gangsters that confronted us. If I had been in that situation after getting married and having a child, I have no idea what the outcome would have been. Again, I have traveled all across Latin America and lived for years in Mexico. This is my honest retelling of my own experience, and my goal is simply to help you to stay safe during your own trip.
That wraps up our post on dealing with gangs in Belize City. Please comment any questions you have below or shoot us an email! We hope you heed our advice and stay safe in Belize City if you ever have the opportunity to go.