The narrow, congested streets of BELIZE CITY can initially seem daunting and unprepossessing, even to travellers familiar with blighted urban centres. Dilapidated wooden structures stand right on road edges, offering pedestrians little refuge from the ever-increasing number of cars and trucks. Constricted bridges force traffic to cross in single file over almost stagnant canals, still used for some of the city's drainage. The overall impression is that the place is recovering from some great calamity – an explanation at least partly true. Belize City has suffered several devastating hurricanes, the latest in October 1961, when Hurricane Hattie tore it apart with winds of 240kmph and left behind a layer of thick black mud. Such hazards, however, are often overstated by people who have never set foot within the city limits. For those who spend some time here – that is, longer than it takes just to catch a bus or boat to the cayes – Belize City will reveal a distinguished history, several superb sights and fascinating cultural spectacles.
The city's astonishing energy comes from its 75,000 inhabitants, who represent every ethnic group in the country, with the Creole descendants of former slaves and British Baymen forming the dominant element and generating an easy-going Caribbean atmosphere. As you push your way through the throng, you'll see this relaxed attitude blending with an entrepreneurial flair, for this is the country's business capital. Banks, offices and shops line the main streets, while fruit and fast-food vendors jostle for pavement space with others selling plastic bowls or cheap jewellery. This apparent chaos finds some sort of order during the jubilant September Celebrations, which pack the already full streets with music, dancing and parades. Carnival, the culmination of the celebrations, ratchets up the excitement even further with gorgeously costumed dancers, who shimmer and gyrate through the city to electrifying Caribbean rhythms.