I’ll go pretty much anywhere.

OFFER ME A TRIP to a Latin American country, though, and I’ll produce my passport in six seconds flat. This part of the world is my beat.

The Belize Tourism Board invited me to Belize earlier this month to, among other things, judge the country’s annual culinary festival, Taste of Belize. I knew pitifully little about the Central American country before I left home, giving myself a crash course in Belizean history (thanks, Google Books) the night before my flight departed.

I don’t like to compare countries, but Belize really is different than any other Latin American country I’ve visited. Its political history (it was a British, not a Spanish, colony) and its geographic location (bordering three countries by land or sea) have contributed to some really compelling social and cultural dynamics.

Here are 20 reasons why you should travel to Belize NOW… and 20 reasons why I can’t wait to go back.


1. Belize isn't overrun with travelers. 231,249 foreigners arrived by air in 2009, according to the Belize Tourism Board. For the BTB, that number represents a challenge. For you, that represents an opportunity. Go now.


2. You can get around without Spanish. "Le puedo ayudar?" I asked a disabled Belizean who flew into the southern town of Punta Gorda with me. "I don't speak Spanish," he replied. English is Belize's official language. Though you'll hear Spanish, Kreyol, or Quechi spoken by members of Belize's diverse cultural communities, English is Belizeans' lingua franca, and signs like these (at the Cozy Corner Restaurant in Placencia) are mainly for entertainment.


3. Money exchange isn't complicated. The local currency is the Belizean dollar, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted (I used a U.S. $50 bill to pay for a shirt and some baskets I bought from the Pop family, who live in a fairly isolated community at least 15 miles from the nearest bank.) The exchange rate is pegged at $2 BZ to $1 U.S., so conversion is super simple should you choose to pay in BZ.


4. It's easy to get around. Seen from above, Belize appears to be a vast jungle with occasional pockets of human life. On the ground, that impression pretty much holds true, but roads are more visible. If you want to road trip Belize, it's totally doable. There are a couple major highways and they're in excellent condition (adequate signage and no potholes!). They're also safe, toll-free, and void of military checkpoints. Traffic's minimal, too.


5. When was the last time you got so close to a working pilot? If you don't want to drive Belize, you can fly. Tropic Air and Maya Island Air are regional airlines with in-country flights between cities. The "airports" are little more than a house and planes take off from a small airstrip. Service is reliable, on-time, and more efficient than the New York City subway. Plus, there's no security. I'd forgotten what flying was like before the days of the hyper-vigilant TSA.


6. There's lots to do. Belize has seven World Heritage Sites just on its barrier reef, which, by the way, is the second longest barrier reef in the world. The country also claims more than 1,060 mangrove and/or sand cays. Some of these, like Caye Caulker, are inhabited; others are home only to birds, but there's plenty for you to explore.


7. There's also plenty NOT to do. If all you want to do is swing in a hammock, I'd highly recommend visiting Pelican's Pouch in October. When I visited, the only people there were the staff. I spent a blissful two hours in this hammock, doing nothing other than listening to the waves and drifting in and out of sleep.


8. People still say "Good morning." And "Good afternoon." And even "Good night." Within five minutes of borrowing a bicycle from the hosts of the Coral House Inn and setting off on a self-guided tour of Punta Gorda, I'd met more people who wanted me to stop and chat than I'd talked to in the past week in New York. I spent about 10 minutes talking with Mags, pictured above, who told me all about the upcoming Garifuna Settlement Day celebration, which takes place November 19.


9. There's always a big event just about to happen. Garifuna Settlement Day in November, Taste of Belize in October (me, with other Taste of Belize judges, pictured above), Carnaval and Independence Day in September, and the Belize International Film Festival in July. For complete event listings, check BTB's calendar.


10. People still know how to make things with their hands. And even better, you can watch them while they're working at their craft. This is Austin Rodriguez, who's been making drums for more than 35 years...


11. And Mercy Sabal, who's made dolls for over 20 years...


12. And a family-based cassava bread business.


13. Because "local food" isn't a trend; it's a way of life. Fish makes up a significant portion of the Belizean diet and is the centerpiece of many dishes, like hudut (pictured above). Fishermen must sell their fish with at least 2 inches of skin visible, so buyers can know what fish they're buying and that it's local.


14. Because a guy named Gomier can make tofu three dozen ways. Vegetarians and vegans traveling to Belize should head to the country's deep south, Punta Gorda, and stop by Gomier's Health is Wealth Vegetarian Restaurant. Gomier, a St. Lucian who has lived in Belize for 16 years, makes his own tofu. As if that's not enough, he turns it into dishes even the most die-hard tofu lover probably hasn't tried. His curried tofu balls were the bomb, and I polished them off with peanut-flavored tofu ice cream.


15. Because you've gotta try the local hooch. When my hosts mentioned that I'd be meeting with a local winemaker, the first question that popped into mind was, "But where are the grapes?" You'd be amazed what can be turned into wine. Lucy (above) makes wine out of sea grapes (!), starfruit, rice, grapefruit, and cashews, all of which are locally grown. My favorite was the cashew wine, which (I was told afterward) is the most potent, famous for its three-day hangover.


16. Because even "high-class" cocktails are made from local ingredients. Like this Hibiscus Punch at Francis Ford Coppola's Turtle Inn (no, I didn't stay there). The hibiscus syrup used in this drink is extracted from flowers on the property.


17. You can visit three other countries easily. From Punta Gorda, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras are each about 45 minutes by boat. The Mexican border isn't too far, either. Belize should keep you plenty busy, but if you're jonesing for more passport stamps, this is an easy way to get some ink.


18. Every expat seems to have an incredible story. My German-born guide, Bruno Kuppinger, was a successful banker who gave up his stressful career after his mother and a close friend died at young ages. He moved to Belize, sight unseen, because of his interest in archeology. "I figured if I couldn't make it here, I wouldn't make it anywhere." Every other expat I talked with had an equally compelling reason that motivated them to move to Belize.


19. The wildlife watching is spectacular. Some folks spend thousands of dollars to go see birds in the Galapagos. You can see the same species for a lot less in Belize; this frigate bird was resting at the bird sanctuary, Man-o-War Cay.


20. There's so much to learn. The diversity of cultures in Belize--the Garifuna, the indigenous descendants of the Maya, the Creoles, and the Chinese--totally stoked my passion to learn more about this country. And, of course, to go back soon.