It won't take long after arriving in Belize to wonder if you really are in Central America.
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It's almost a little British, with the colonial history making it the region's only country with English as its official language and images of the British monarch on its currency (still Queen Elizabeth II).
Or it could be a little Caribbean, with a heavy dose of cultural influence coming from the nearby island nations, partly because Belize is the only Central American country with its entire coastline on the Caribbean Sea.
And maybe there's a bit of USA in the mix too, with plenty of people from up north coming for holidays or settling down here.
Belize is a country that's hard to define by just one thing - whether it's the cultural influences or the natural wonders, stretching from the reef to the jungle. And while it's not a popular destination for Australians, it does make for an excellent extension to an American trip, with no shortage of things to do.
The country's crowning glory is the Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second largest after our own. It's not just the scale that's of note, although its 300-kilometre length is impressive, but also the quality of marine life. With more than 100 coral and 500 fish species, the biodiversity is something Belize is rightfully proud of, particularly after a nationwide conservation effort that began in 2015 after UNESCO added the natural wonder to its "in danger" list.
If you're a diver, the highlight is the Great Blue Hole, 124 metres deep with crystal clear water and plenty of reef sharks. But, as a snorkeller, I am more than happy with everything I find closer to the surface.
It's more than possible to visit the reef and not even stick your head under water - in fact, that's exactly what lots of people do. Off the coast, dozens of the country's 450 islands have been developed for tourism, offering an entire spectrum of experiences.
The largest, Ambergris Caye, has grown into a small city with family-friendly beach resorts and world-class restaurants, while nearby Caye Caulker is more laidback with colourful beach shacks attracting a younger (and more budget-conscious) crowd. There are secluded islands with accommodation for just 20 people, luxurious resorts right on the waterfront, towns that focus on nightlife, and even dorm rooms for people who've come for conservation projects.
Back on land, I head into the jungle... and then underground. With just a headtorch for light, it's critical I hang on tight as I climb for kilometres through the Crystal Cave, a vast complex of caverns carved by water into the limestone karst, filled with wondrous formations that glitter in the torchlight.
It's just one of many cave systems you can access, the most popular one being the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, which involves a fairly easy walk once you've swum through some water near the entrance. The base for these caving trips is the jungle town of San Ignacio, where local operators also offer adventure activities like canoeing and tubing.
To the Ancient Maya, Belize's caves were considered entranceways to the underworld, so they built their cities away from them. Many of these sites remain, with the most important at Caracol once home to about 140,000 people but abandoned about 1200 years ago. Its tallest pyramid, a monument stone staircase, is about 43 metres high, while the palaces, ball courts, and observatory - all decorated with carvings - show how advanced the civilisation was.
The ruins at Xunantunich are almost as striking, with an ancient castle dominating the skyline. Or there's Lubaantun, a smaller site shrouded in legend because of the supposed discovery here of a "paranormal" crystal skull.
The Garifuna people have an interesting history in Belize. They are direct descendants of a group of African slaves who escaped after their ships crashed near St Vincent in 1635. Centuries later, they've developed a strong and vibrant culture that is a delight to learn about.
For visitors, Garifuna culture is probably best found in its music, which is focused on percussion. In the town of Hopkins, head to the drumming school to hear a performance and learn how to play something yourself. There are also regular dance performances in Garifuna towns in the south of the country, where you'll be able to try "hudut", a fish and coconut stew.
On my first day in the city of Punta Gorda, a local tells me that, "to see all of Belize, you only need to see Toledo".
Toledo is the southernmost district of Belize, with Punta Gorda as its capital. And, despite only having about 10 per cent of the country's population, it is one of the most culturally diverse, with a melting pot of Maya, East Indian, Creole, Garifuna, and Mestizo. It's a perfect place to get away from the tourist trail and immerse yourself in authentic cultural activities.
In town, try some of the East Indian food that mixes Asian heritage with Caribbean influences; at a cacao plantation, locals will show you how they've made chocolate for generations; or there's the Living Maya Experience to show how the ancient civilisation evolved into modern life - and is now an important part of a country that benefits from its varied and rich heritage.
You can see more things to do in Belize on Michael's Time Travel Turtle website.
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