/div>Country, Central America. Area: 8,867 sq mi (22,965 sq km). Population: (2009 est.) 334,000. Capital: Belmopan
. Most Belizeans are of mixed ancestry (Maya and Spanish; African and British), with smaller groups of Maya
and Garifuna. Languages: English (official), Creole, Spanish. Religion: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant). Currency: Belize dollar. The country is bounded to the north by Mexico, to the east by the Caribbean Sea, and to the west and south by Guatemala. Belize is a land of mountains, swamps, and tropical jungles. The northern half consists of swampy lowlands drained by the Belize and Hondo rivers; the latter forms the boundary with Mexico. The southern half is more mountainous and contains the country's highest point, Victoria Peak (3,681 ft [1,122 m]). Off the coast lies Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second largest barrier reef. Belize is relatively prosperous and has a developing free-market economy with some government participation. It is a constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses; its head of state is the British monarch, represented by a governor-general, and the head of government is the prime minister. The area was inhabited by the Maya (c.
300 BCE–900 CE); the ruins of their ceremonial centres, including Caracol and Xunantunich, can still be seen. The Spanish claimed sovereignty from the 16th century but never tried to settle Belize, though they regarded the British who did as interlopers. British loggers arrived in the mid-17th century; Spanish opposition was finally overcome in 1798. When settlers began to penetrate the interior, they met with Indian resistance. In 1871 British Honduras became a crown colony, but an unfulfilled provision of an 1859 British-Guatemalan treaty led Guatemala to claim the territory, a situation still unresolved. Belize became independent on Sept. 21, 1981. Although Guatemala officially recognized the territory's independence in 1991, a British force, stationed there to ensure the new country's security, was not withdrawn until 1994.