Belize doesn't have a strong literary tradition. However, most gift shops and bookstores around the country have a small collection of locally produced short stories, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In recent years, there has been a trend to resuscitate and transcribe the traditional Mayan and Garífuna tales and folklore, along with the publication of modern pieces of fiction and nonfiction either set in Belize or written by Belizeans.
For a good, comprehensive look at the country's history, check out Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide (Harbour Publishing), by Alan Twigg. For a more first-hand, somewhat opinionated and local take on the subject, you could turn to Assad Shoman's Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize (Angelus Press).
If you're more interested in a mix of modern history and the environment, don't miss The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (Random House, 2008), by Bruce Barcott, which tells the story of Sharon Matola's fight to stop the Chalillo dam on the Macal River. Matola is the founder and director of the Belize Zoo, and the dam destroyed important habitat of the fragile and endangered Belizean macaw population. The book is far more interesting and better written than the above description might lead you to believe.
To prepare your eyes for possible sensory overload when you arrive in Belize, you may want to get your hands on a copy of Thor Janson's coffee table book of photography, Belize: Land of the Free by the Carib Sea (Bowen and Bowen Ltd.). This book is chock-full of beautiful photos of Belizean countryside, wildlife, local festivities, and people.
If the wildlife and nature pictures in Janson's book move you and leave you anxious to see the real deal, there are a slew of books dedicated to observing the wonders of Belizean flora and fauna. Updated and reissued in 2004, Les Beletsky's Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide (Natural World Academic Press), which features descriptions and color plates of most of the commonly spotted mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and corals, is probably the best all-around field guide for first-timers and armchair naturalists. Those with more specific interests in, say, birds, butterflies or ocean species, can find any number of more specific field guides.
Jaguar: One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve (Island Press), by Alan Rabinowitz, is an account of the author's time in Belize studying and working to protect jaguars. As you might have already guessed from the title, Rabinowitz was a major force in the establishment of the world's first jaguar preserve in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
Maya-philes will want to have some reference material handy when visiting the many Belizean ruins. The Maya (Thames and Hudson), by Michael D. Coe, is a good primer on the history of this advanced and enigmatic culture. As is Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (Thames and Hudson), by Simon Martin and Nicolai Grube. However, I find A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (Harper Perennial), by David Freidel and Linda Schele, to be a better read, and one that gives a good feel for what life might have been like in the Mayan world. To delve into the intricacy and reasoning behind the Mayan aesthetic legacy, check out Mary Ellen Miller's book, Maya Art and Architecture (Thames and Hudson). Anabel Ford has published a helpful pamphlet/book entitled The Ancient Maya of Belize: Their Society and Sites that is available at many bookstores and gift shops in Belize.
There is also a host of excellent books on the Maya and Tikal. Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Ancient Maya Capital, by John Montgomery (Hippocrene Books), is a good place to start. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City (Thames & Hudson), by Peter D. Harrison et al., is another similar option.
The history of Ix Chel Farm is chronicled in Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer (HarperOne), by Rosita Arvigo, who spent years studying with Mayan bush doctor Don Elijio Panti. If this book on Belizean natural medicine doesn't satisfy your shamanistic tendencies, don't fret; there are several additional books on the subject. Check out One Hundred Healing Herbs Of Belize (Lotus Press), by Arvigo and Michael Balick; or Rainforest Home Remedies: The Maya Way to Heal Your Body and Replenish Your Soul (HarperOne), by Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein.
Belize, A Novel (BookSurge Publishing), by Carlos Ledson Miller, is a lively novel covering 4 decades of life in a family, beginning with the disastrous consequences and events of Hurricane Hattie.
If you're bringing along the little ones, or even if you're leaving them behind but want to share a little bit of Mayan culture with them, look for Pat Mora's beautifully illustrated book The Night the Moon Fell: A Maya Myth (Groundwood Books). Or, for a handy little picture book filled with photographs of Mayan daily life, check out Hands of the Maya: Villagers at Work and Play (Henry Holt & Company), by Rachel Crandell. Older children and adults alike should read Beka Lamb (Heinemann), by Zee Edgell; it is a beautiful coming-of-age story by one of Belize's most prolific modern fiction writers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.