Belmopan, Belize’s Capital, Is a City of Brutalist Calm

Belmopan, Belize’s Capital, Is a City of Brutalist Calm

Mention Belmopan, Belize’s capital that sits deep in the country’s interior, and many Belizeans will belittle the city as a bastion of pencil-pushing bureaucrats that’s not just dull, but also devoid of nightlife.

“I was warned, ‘Belmopan is for the newlyweds or the nearly deads,’” said Raquel Rodriguez, 45, owner of an art school, about the reactions when she moved to Belmopan from coastal, bustling Belize City.

Not exactly known as an Eden for young urbanites, Belmopan figures among the smallest capital cities anywhere in the Americas. It has only about 25,000 residents and a cluster of hurricane-proof, heavy-on-the-concrete, Maya-inspired Brutalist buildings.

The capital of Central America’s only English-speaking nation can feel jarringly different from the frenetic capitals of neighboring countries. In terms of its origins and design, Belmopan has more in common with the capitals of other former British colonies, especially in Africa.

But Belmopan is also, perhaps, a prism through which to view the development of Belize, which has emerged as something of an exception in Central America. In a region where rulers are embracing authoritarian tactics, Belize has developed into a relatively stable (albeit young) parliamentary democracy with a history of peaceful transitions of power.

The capital, serenely calm at times, boasts a reputation for safety and quality of life. In a sparsely populated country with fewer than half a million people, Belmopan’s welcoming vibe also showcases Belize’s extraordinary ethnic diversity, and its propensity to absorb migrants from other parts of Central America.

Consider the open-air market where many residents buy their food. Peddlers greet customers in Belize’s official language, English, or Kriol, the patois formed centuries ago when Britons brought enslaved Africans to what is now Belize.

Other vendors speak Mayan languages such as Kekchí, Mopán and Yucatec, spotlighting the Indigenous peoples who have long lived in Belize or who moved to the country from Guatemala or Mexico. Reflecting different migration waves, others ply their trade in Spanish, Chinese or Plautdietsch, an archaic Germanic language influenced by Dutch.

Like many others in Belmopan, Johan Guenther, 71, a Mennonite farmer, came from somewhere else. He was born in Mexico’s Chihuahua State, the site of large Mennonite communities, and came to Belize at 16.

He then tried his luck in Bolivia for a while but decided he preferred Belize’s mellower lifestyle. He lives with his wife in a small farming settlement outside Belmopan, coming into the capital to sell cheese, butter, cream and honey at the market.

“I’m not a city man, but I like Belmopan,” Mr. Guenther said in a mixture of English, Plautdietsch and Spanish. “It’s calm, good for selling my production, easy to get in and easy to get out.”

Making Belmopan a linchpin for agricultural development in Belize’s interior, and a haven from natural disasters, was top of mind when British colonialists developed plans to build the city after Hurricane Hattie in 1961 laid waste to the old capital, Belize City, leaving hundreds dead.

At the time, planned cities were popping up in various parts of the world, a trend turbocharged by the inauguration in 1960 of Brazil’s futuristic capital, Brasília. In Britain’s disintegrating empire, especially in Africa, the new capitals included Dodoma, in Tanzania; Gaborone, in Botswana; and Lilongwe, in Malawi. Designers largely envisioned them, like Belmopan, as “garden cities” with ample open spaces, parks and pedestrian walkways.

Political tensions shaped the city’s plans. George Price, the architect of Belizean independence, viewed Belmopan’s construction as a way to forge a sense of national identity transcending ethnic differences. And with Guatemala laying claim to Belize in a territorial dispute persisting to this day, Belize’s colonial rulers chose a site about midway between Belize City and the Guatemalan border, in a bid to populate to the interior.

Sturdy concrete government buildings like the National Assembly evoke the pyramidal design of a Maya temple, perched on an artificial mound where breezes could cool the structure. They were designed to be both hurricane proof and economical, at the time avoiding the need for air conditioning.

At the same time, the authorities tried to lure public employees to Belmopan by offering them homes, essentially in the form of concrete shells, on streets where people from different economic backgrounds were intended to live.

“Belmopan is a social experiment,” said John Milton Arana, 51, a Belizean architect whose family moved here in 1975. Noting the footpaths still connecting residential areas to Belmopan’s concrete-laden core, he added, “The pedestrian was the priority of this vision.”

Still, Mr. Arana said the notably slow-paced city can also be disorienting with its traffic circles, ring road and dearth of teeming commercial areas. “People visit and ask me, ‘Where’s downtown?’” Mr. Arana said. “I tell them, ‘You just passed it.’”

Not everyone is sold on Belmopan. Tourists tend to neglect the city, preferring the snorkeling near remote islands or stunning Maya archaeological sites. When Belmopan was inaugurated in 1970, it was forecast to grow quickly to a population of 30,000 — a figure it has still not reached more than five decades later.

Some attribute that slow growth to perennial budgetary restrictions giving Belmopan a perpetually unfinished look. The fortresslike structures where many civil servants toil are showing their age, adorned with noisy air-conditioning units; airy new buildings like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a gift from Taiwan’s government replete with hanging gardens, show how the authorities have moved on from Belmopan’s spartan origins.

Mr. Arana, the architect, said that departures from Belmopan’s original designs were changing the city for the worse. Ramshackle development outside central areas, he said, particularly where Spanish-speaking migrants from neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala have settled, underscore problems like substandard housing and untreated sewage.

Among diplomats, views on Belmopan are divided. Countries like Panama and Guatemala, along with the self-governing island of Taiwan, maintain their embassies in Belize City, which has more than double Belmopan’s population. Even after Belize gained full independence in 1981, the United States took 25 years to move its embassy to Belmopan.

Michelle Kwan, the United States ambassador to Belize and a decorated Olympic figure skater, said she had grown fond of Belmopan after relocating from Los Angeles. She compared life here to her days training in Lake Arrowhead, a small resort community in California’s San Bernardino Mountains, where she could “really focus on what I had to do.”

“It’s no different here,” Ms. Kwan said. “This is where we focus and where we work.”

Others in Belmopan suggest the city has helped forge a multicultural Belizean identity incorporating Maya peoples and newer Latino immigrants that is distinct from that of Belize City, known more as a bastion of Kriols, people of African and British descent.

“Belmopan made our cultural divides less pronounced,” said Kimberly Stuart, 49, an education lecturer at the University of Belize, whose main campus is in the capital.

Others bemoan certain aspects of life in Belmopan. While garish new homes and flashy new office buildings are altering the capital’s small-town feel, restaurants and bars are still few in number, and tend to close early.

Some in Belmopan say it is downright boring — but they like it that way. Raj Karki, 52, a Nepalese immigrant who moved to Belize to work on a hydroelectric project, liked the relaxed city so much that he decided to stay and open a restaurant offering South Asian food near government buildings.

“You can come to Belmopan from any place in the world,” Mr. Karki said. “In a short time you are welcomed and they say, ‘Help us build the future.’”

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Bruce Killigang

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