Orange Walk District is Belize’s second largest in terms of area (approx 1,830 sq mi or 4,700 sq km), and borders both Mexico and Guatemala, although there are no official border crossings and immigration procedures for locals are decidedly informal. Much of this northern district’s terrain is forest savannah, and most of inhabited land has been developed for growing sugar cane, and Belize’s last operating sugar mill is at Tower Hill. According to a 2007 census the population of Orange Walk is approximately 48,000 people.
Many of Orange Walk’s inhabitants are people of Maya Mestizo descent who fled Mexico during the devastating Yucatan Caste Wars of the 1840s. As the Maya fled the Yucatan, they moved to land already inhabited by the local Icaiché Maya who descended from original Maya habitation dating back from before the time of Christ.
As a result, the area has been the scene of bloody skirmishes between the Maya and European loggers and other settlers, and the remains of two forts, Mundy and Cairns, which were the scene of such battles, can still be seen.
Early European settlement in Orange Walk centred on logging, with the timber floated down the New River into the Corozal Bay, then to Belize City before being shipped abroad. As with the Corozal District, the logging industry was in decline by the time Maya refugees were arriving and the sugar industry and consequent rum production were emerging as the district’s main economic force.
The district capital is Orange Walk Town, with a population of some 16,000. Other villages include August Pine Ridge, Carmelita, Indian Church, Guinea Grass, Trial Farm, Trinidad and the Mennonite communities of Blue Creek and Shipyard. There are also significant Maya sites including Cuello, Lamanai, Nol Mul and Chan Chich.
The Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area is a large private reserve located in the Yalbac Hills and is cultivated by Mennonite farmers with sugar cane, rice, corn and vegetables for market. Orange Walk is also important to Belize for the production of dairy products, citrus, beef and rum.
In recent years, tourism and amateur Maya archaeological exploration are emerging as important income earners, and Orange Walk is establishing a reputation as a bird watcher’s paradise, with over 400 species recorded in the area. Belize's largest body of water, the New River Lagoon, also supports an impressive variety of bird and wildlife.
The slowly meandering New River was once a heavily used commercial waterway during the logging days, and today is a lovely way to visit the Maya archaeological sites at Lamanai. Several local tour operators offer excursions to this impressive, remote Maya site.
Orange Walk Town is centred around a formal plaza shaded by large trees, and the nearby Palacio Municipal or town hall, all give a distinctly Mexican flavour to the town. Points of interest include the Banquitas House of Culture (Mon– Fri 8.30am–5.30pm), a well-run museum and cultural centre operated by the National Institute of Culture and History. The town contains several hotels and restaurants including the Akihito Hotel, Orchid Palm Inn, Hotel De La Fuente, Golden Star Chinese Restaurant, and JJ’s.
Chan Chich Lodge, Lamanai Outpost Lodge and the more rustic La Milpa Field Station provide relaxed, natural Orange Walk experiences.
Hourly buses from Belize City and Corozal arrive on the main road in the centre of town, and continue north on the hour and south on the half-hour. Buses to and from Sarteneja stop at Zeta's store on Main Street, and local buses to the surrounding villages (including Indian Church to Lamanai) leave from the market near the centre of town.
Orange Walk Town is an easy hour and a half drive from Belize City, so a rental car is a good option for those wishing to see this interesting area of Belize and explore its unique, friendly villages and Maya heritage.