Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)
Punta Gorda and the Deep South
view of a seven-hill range, off Punta Gorda’s coastline.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Drum Schools: Two renowned drum masters teach how to play the Garífuna drums or the West African djembe drum, keeping Punta Gorda’s African diaspora culture alive (click here).
S Market Days: Punta Gorda comes alive on market days, with eateries, shopping, music, vendors, and goods from all the district’s villages (click here).
S Snake Cayes: A short ride from Punta Gorda, the protected Snake Cayes offer spectacular snorkeling in crystal-clear waters teeming with rays, barracuda, and other stunning marinelife (click here).
S Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve: This distant yet alluring cluster of cayes offers rarely visited dive and snorkel sites with abundant marinelife, giant corals, powdery beaches, and utter seclusion (click here).
S Lubaantun Archaeological Site: The ancestors of today’s Maya used this ceremonial center, which boasts stunning views, thick forests, and several long-standing legends (click here).
S Río Blanco National Park: In addition to waterfalls, this beautiful national park offers diverse flora and fauna plus the possibility of jaguar sightings. Bring your camera (click here).
S Blue Creek Cave: Swim up to 600 yards inside this stunning cave—the source of the Río Blanco—near the village of Blue Creek (click here).
The Toledo District is “God’s country,” according to 15-year veteran adventure tour guide and Punta Gorda resident Bruno Kuppinger. Because it’s the farthest in distance from Belize City, few pick “PG”—as Belizeans affectionately call this area—over the more conveniently reached Cayo. But just an hour and a half on a regional flight from Belize City will land visitors in the real backcountry of Belize, where they’ll find all that is authentically Belizean in one place: virgin rainforests, waterfalls, five Maya archeological sites, proximity to pristine cayes for snorkeling and sportfishing, and a population considered the most diverse in the country. The Creole, the East Indians, the Garinagu, and the Maya all coexist here in a world where most home cooking is still done on a fire hearth and deer dances of the past are performed in the present.
The Toledo District has the lowest per capita income in Belize, yet it is also the most expensive in which to live. More than 10,000 Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya are subsistence farmers in the Toledo countryside. This is chocolate country, home to organic cacao farms that supply all four of Belize’s quality chocolate producers.
The district is also home to the least visited islands, clustered around the very last tip of the Belize Barrier Reef. The Snake Cayes, resting inside the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, are a day-tripper’s dream, with virtually no other boats and waters teeming with marinelife at shallow depths. The farthest, at just over an hour from shore, the Sapodilla Cayes—a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other parts of the Belize Barrier Reef—beckon for a longer stay with two stunning islands and white-sand coral beaches at Lime Caye and Hunting Caye that are some of Belize’s best stretches.
While tourism isn’t yet booming in these parts, the mainland continues to grow. More restaurants are sprouting, jungle lodges continue to thrive while new ones appear, and the Cacao Trail is growing. The cayes, easily accessible by boat from Punta Gorda, are slowly receiving more attention as the NorthernCayes and Southern Cayes become more popular. Rapid improvements to the Southern Highway and San Antonio Road, giving easier access to sights and villages, and daily air service to and from Punta Gorda are helping to put Toledo on the map. There’s never-ending hope that visitors will realize this is the most untouched part of Belize.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
To best get a taste of the Toledo District before or during your getaway to the Snake or Sapodilla Cayes, you’ll need to set aside at least 4 or 5 days. Spend your first half-day exploring Punta Gorda, the urban heart of the deep south. Take a walk along the waterfront, stop by at one of the drum schools, and definitely time your visit to coincide with one of Punta Gorda’s market days. Spend the rest of the day on a scheduled chocolate trail tour to get a glimpse of a traditional Mayan village.
Make a day trip to Port Honduras Marine Reserve and its Snake Cayes, where you can snorkel and spot stunning coral and fish, dive, or simply soak in West Snake Caye’s gin-clear natural swimming pool and relax on its coral white-sand beach.
Add on a couple of days of relaxation and adventure in the Sapodilla Cayes, where you’ll snorkel and dive amid shipwrecks before lazing on the prettiest of beaches at Lime Caye and catching the sunset over the reef from your porch.
If you have time to spare, add on a final day trip for a visit to the inland Lubaantun Archaeological Site, a notable Mayan ruin. A sure bet is Río Blanco National Park, a 45-minute drive from Punta Gorda, offering a spectacular waterfall, hiking trail, caves, and plenty of stunning scenery. See where the Río Blanco begins at stunning Blue Creek Cave.
Punta Gorda and Vicinity
Toledo District’s county seat and biggest town, PG is simultaneously the lazy end of the road and an exciting jumping-off point to upland villages, offshore cayes, Guatemala, or Honduras. Punta Gorda’s 5,000 or so inhabitants live their daily lives getting by from hurricane to hurricane.
Punta Gorda is a simple port, with no real beach but plenty of swimming spots, and its winding streets are framed by some old dilapidated wooden buildings and newer concrete ones. The majority of inhabitants are of Garífuna and East Indian descent, although there are representatives of most of the country’s ethnic groups. Fishing was the main support of the local people for centuries; today many anglers work for a nearby high-tech shrimp farm. Local farmers grow rice, mangoes, bananas, sugarcane, and beans—mainly for themselves and the local market. Fair trade-certified and organic cacao beans are an important export as well, used to make chocolate by the Green & Black’s company in England.
Punta Gorda is a casual village with few street names. Arriving from the north, you’ll cross a bridge over Joe Taylor Creek—next to which is the famous Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge operation—and then be greeted by the towering Sea Front Inn, with the Caribbean on your left. After the road splits at the Uno gas station, it forms North Park Street (a diagonal street one block long) on the right and Front Street on the left. Following Front Street will take you through town, past the boat taxi pier, the immigration office, the market, and several eating establishments; continue all the way south to Nature’s Way Guest House at the bottom of Church Street, followed by Blue Belize Guest House. The municipal dock and town plaza, just a couple of blocks in from the sea, form the town center.
If you arrive by bus or at the town dock from Guatemala, prepare to be greeted by a few local hustlers; feel free to shake them off by firmly refusing their services.
Even though there is no real lounging beach or developed waterfront, people go swimming and sunning off the dock just north of Joe Taylor Creek. The waterfront is rocky but quiet and tranquil, with small waves lapping the shoreline, and a walk along its length, especially at sunrise, should be a top priority of your visit.
On a small triangle of soil roughly in the center of town, Central Park has an appropriately sleepy air to it, though plenty of activity swirls around it. At the north end is a raised stage dedicated to the “Pioneers of Belizean Independence.” In the center of the park is a dry fountain, along with a few green cement benches, and a giant clock tower on the south end. On market days, this is an especially pleasant spot to take a break, enjoy the blue sky, and watch the activities of the villagers who have come in to sell their produce.
S Drum Schools
PG’s diverse population provides a chance to learn drumming from two African-rooted cultures: Garífuna and Creole. For Garífuna drumming, Raymond “Ray” McDonald of the Warasa Drum School (New Rd., tel. 501/632-7701, www.warasadrumschool.com, 4:30pm-8pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-8pm Sat.-Sun., US$12.50 per hour drum lesson, US$25 per hour drum making) is one of Belize’s top drummers and a local star in Punta Gorda for his undeniable skills. He offers an introductory class on Garífuna drumming; learn about the various rhythms, how to produce the correct sound, and then start jamming. Ray also teaches drum making (ask to see his very own custom collection) and drumming at various lodges in town, particularly at Hickatee Cottages. The school’s location in a Garífuna Reserve area on the edge of town is currently being upgraded with a large new thatched hut.
Continue your drumming tour of Belize’s south with the Maroon Creole Drum School (main contact at Driftwood Café & Art, 9 Front St., tel. 501/632-7841 or 501/668-7733, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7am-4pm daily, US$10 per hour), run by renowned Belizean musician and drum master Emmeth Young, previously located in the village of San Pedro Colombia and now in his new home in Punta Gorda town. Emmeth, originally from the Creole village of Gales Point, is a talented man whose drumming and efforts to preserve Belizean culture have been featured on the Travel Channel, among other media. Emmeth’s sambai rhythms, which he learned as early as age eight, can be traced half a millennium back to the Ibo people of West Africa. Ask Emmeth about his “Drums not guns” initiative. At the school’s location near Joe Taylor’s Creek, they occasionally host Black Pot Fridays—an evening complete with hearth-cooked meals, drinks, drumming, and chanting under a massive palapa. Check ahead of time for scheduling.
Drum master Emmeth Young teaches at his Maroon Creole Drum School.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
With the largest number of Mayan villages in Belize, it’s not surprising that Punta Gorda offers some of the country’s most off-the-beaten-path caving and hiking sites. Toledo Cave and Adventure Tours (tel. 501/604-2124, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tcatours.com, US$95-115) is your best bet for trips to some of Belize’s lesser-known attractions, including Yok Balum Cave, Tiger Cave, Gibnut Cave, and Oke’bal Ha. Owner Bruno Kuppinger, longtime resident of Punta Gorda, is an adventure junkie who loves to get deep in the bush. He also offers group pickups from Belize City.
Ranger for a Day with Ya’axché
Zip up your boots and play ranger for a day along the rivers and trails of the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve. Thanks to the Ya’axché Conservation Trust (pronounced “ya-chay,” 22 Alejandro Vernon St., tel. 501/722-0108, www.yaaxche.org), you can now experience a day in the life of a rainforest ranger in the deep south of Belize.
Established in 1997, the Ya’axché Conservation Trust works to maintain and manage the health of Belize’s forests, rivers, and reefs in and around the “Maya Golden Landscape” of southern Belize, an area which includes the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve and the 100,000-acre Bladen Nature Reserve. To date, Ya’axché has some of the best-trained rangers in the country. In 2012 the organization’s then-executive director, Lisel Alamilla, now Belize’s Minister of Forestry, Fisheries, and Sustainable Development, was awarded the prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature for her leadership in conservation work at Ya’axché.
The day starts at the Golden Stream Field Center, located off the Southern Highway and easily accessible by bus. Sign up to join the day’s patrol and hike alongside rangers, learning to detect illegal activities—like hunting—by logging bird and mammal species along the riverside trail. Other tasks include tracking jaguar and tapir tracks, learning to spot various birds, and, weather permitting, cooling off in the Golden Stream River.
While there’s no set fee for this unique Ranger for a Day experience, a donation of US$30-45 is suggested. All contributions go toward the rangers’ salaries—giving back to the community at large and helping sustain a fantastic organization.
For some cave tubing fun, folks rave about Big Falls Adventures (Southern Hwy., Big Falls, tel. 501/634-6979, www.bigfallsextremeadventures.com, 8am-4pm daily, US$48-60, lunch US$10 extra), offering tubing along the Río Grande river, followed by a dip in a local hot spring before getting back down into the river (I opted for the zip line across Big Falls).
Fishing, Diving, and Snorkeling
The waterways around Punta Gorda offer anglers the rare chance to bag a grand slam (permit, tarpon, bonefish, and snook). Fly-fishing is generally possible between November and May, in shallow areas around the cayes, mangroves, and river mouths. Reel fishing is possible throughout the year, up the rivers or in the ocean; cast for snappers, groupers, jacks, barracuda, mackerels, or kingfish. Most guides help you bring your fish back and find someone to cook it up for you. Fishing trips can run upward of US$400-500 for four people.
Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge (tel. 501/722-0070 or 501/604-3548, www.garbuttsfishinglodge.com), next to Joe Taylor Creek, at the entrance to Punta Gorda, is a top-notch operation run by the Garbutt brothers, who were raised in nearby Punta Negra and grew up exploring these waters. They offer the most reliable way to get out to the cayes and go fly-fishing, diving, or snorkeling. Fishing charter packages for groups include on-site seafront cabin lodging (7 nights US$2,865 pp, all-inclusive). They are also dive masters and offer PADI classes and certification as well as self-guided (US$5 per hour) or guided (half-day US$12.50) kayak rentals.
TIDE Tours (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/722-2274, www.tidetours.org, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., reduced hours Sat.) offers snorkeling (US$145 pp for 2 people) and fishing trips to the Snake Cayes or Sapodilla Cayes. TIDE Tours is the customer service branch of the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), Belize’s only “ridges to reef” NGO. TIDE does much of the guide training in the area, helping to teach people sustainable, often tourism-related, skills. TIDE staffers promote tours to protected areas and give presentations on their work in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, in Paynes Creek National Park, and on the Private Lands Initiative. They also do tours to archaeological sites, caves, and other inland attractions. Revenue generated from TIDE Tours is used for education and outreach efforts.
BlueBelize Tours (tel. 501/722-2678, www.bluebelize.com) is owned and run by Dan Castellanos, a local fisherman, guide, and PADI dive master who specializes in fishing (US$325 for 2 people) and snorkeling tours (US$250 for 2 people). He has led National Geographic Channel and BBC film crews around the area.
TIDE Tours (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/722-2129, www.tidetours.org, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., reduced hours Sat.) offers numerous inland and sea trips, including river kayaking (US$90 pp for 2 people). Kayak rentals (US$2.50 per hour) are also available. Many guesthouses also include complimentary kayak use. In town, you can explore Joe Taylor Creek, and if you’re staying inland, the riverside lodges are ideal to launch your canoe.
Tours and Day Trips
Toledo offers more cultural tours than any other district, thanks to its diverse population, which includes East Indians, Maya, Garinagu, Creoles, and more. You can spend the morning in a Mayan community and the afternoon at a seaside Garífuna fishing village a couple of hours later, observing two entirely different worlds and lifestyles.
The most unique immersion experience in Toledo is to sign up for a Mayan village homestay. You can arrange this with the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) program—contact Chet Schmidt at Nature’s Way (tel. 501/702-2119, teabelize.org); with the Aguacate Belize Homestay Program (tel. 501/633-9954, www.aguacatebelize.com, US$9 pp per night, meals US$3.50 pp per meal, US$5 registration fee); or with the village of San Jose (contact Justino Pec, tel. 501/722-0109 or 501/668-7378, email@example.com).
Otherwise, if you’re short on time and would rather spend the most of your time on the cayes, but still want a taste of Mayan life, an excellent option is to go on Eladio Pop’s Cacao Trail in San Pedro Colombia. Eladio is a one-of a-kind individual, full of enthusiasm and knowledge of organic farming. He will walk you through his cacao orchards and land, showing you the cacao process from bean to chocolate. You’ll end up at his home, where you’ll get to watch cacao roasting and grind some yourself before tasting a delicious cup of hot chocolate the way the Maya used to have it. Tours are arranged through local lodges and operators, including Toledo Cave and Adventure Tours (tel. 501/604-2124, www.travelbelize.de, US$90 pp) or Cotton Tree Lodge (tel. 501/670-0557).
Punta Gorda’s waterfront
The Living Maya Experience (Big Falls Village, tel. 501/627-7408) offers visitors a day of full immersion in Q’eqchi’ Maya culture. Set up on the Cal family’s property, the day showcases what every day village life involves—from touring a traditional Mayan home to learning about farming methods, basket weaving, and making tortillas over a fire hearth. You can contact them independently, or let your resort know you’d like to set up a tour.
The Cho family runs Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate (formerly called Cyrila’s Chocolate, tel. 501/742-4050, cell 501/660-2840, www.ixcacaomayabelizeanchocolate.com, US$32.50 for 2 people) in the village of San Felipe. They offer a five-hour chocolate tour beginning with a visit to an organic cacao farm and continuing with lunch in Cyrila’s home. She and her daughter then lead a chocolate-making session. They also offer shorter, two-hour chocolate-making lessons.
TIDE Tours (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/722-2129, www.tidetours.org, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., reduced hours Sat.), the tour operating arm of PG’s leading NGO, specializes in cultural visits, including half a day in Barranco, a traditional Garífuna village, where you’ll get to tour, sample Garífuna food, and visit the museum and the sacred ceremonial temple (US$95 pp for 2 people). Another option is a craft lesson in the village of San Miguel, coupled with a visit to Lubaantun (US$65 pp for 2 people). TIDE offers several tour combos.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
There are a handful of small bars scattered around town, some with pool tables, all with lots of booze. The nightlife in Punta Gorda is a bit scattered, and there’s no one best hot spot. You pretty much have to hop from one spot to another to find the crowd, or ask around. The most consistent place on weeknights used to be the Reef Bar (Front St.), by the market, but it’s temporarily closed while a new market is being built.
In the meantime, D’ Thatch (Front St., no phone, 7am-9pm Thurs.-Tues.) is also good spot to get a drink or ceviche snack before taking it up a notch.
Waluco’s Bar & Grill (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/630-3672 or 501/664-7186, 7am-2pm and 5pm-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 7am-midnight Fri.-Sat., US$3.50-10) is right across from the sea, a short walk north of town, although at night a taxi or bicycle is best. The name means “son of the soil” in Garífuna. It’s sometimes a happening spot, with live music and drumming on Friday and Sunday as well as during festival times. You’ll find plenty of karaoke and some pool tables at Seaside Heights (tel. 501/722-2450 or 501/670-3672, 10:30am-3pm and 5pm-midnight Mon. and Wed., 4pm-midnight Tues., 10:30am-midnight Thurs.-Sun.), just a block from Waluco’s. A little outside of town, you’ll find a few more bars and nightclubs, open only on random weekends (no phone, 9pm-2am), including Roots Rock Reggae and Embassy on the Southern Highway just outside of town.
Festivals and Events
Toledo’s biggest event is the annual Chocolate Festival (Front St., www.chocolatefestivalofbelize.com, 3rd weekend in May) at the park. It’s a weekend-long tribute to Belizean chocolate and the organic cacao farmers of the Toledo District. From a Wine and Chocolate Evening to open-air concerts with traditional Mayan and Garífuna music and chocolate tastings, Cacao for Kids storytelling and games, chocolate-flavored cocktails, and an all-day food and crafts fair on Front Street, there are events from Friday evening through Sunday to entertain both children and adults, who come from all over Belize. Be sure to reserve accommodations ahead of time, and bring plenty of small change—there’s no telling how much chocolate or art you’ll be tempted to take home. The best part is that all the funds from the festival go to support community projects.
Toledo’s Chocolate Trail
The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao, “food of the gods”) has gained renewed importance in the culture and economy of the Maya in southern Belize. Thousands of years ago, Mayan kings and priests worshipped the cacao (or kakaw) bean, using it as currency and drinking it in a sacred, spicy beverage. A revival of southern Belize’s cacao industry has since led to choco-tourism. A few area lodges and families have found ways to connect ancient cacao farming with the modern craze for high-quality fair-trade food and products.
Today, farmers sell their cacao crop to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA, Main St., 1 block north of Central Park, Punta Gorda, tel. 501/722-2992, www.tcgabelize.com), a nonprofit coalition of small farms that sells the beans to acclaimed chocolatier Green & Black’s, a Britain-based company specializing in fair-trade and organic-certified chocolate bars. Some beans remain in Belize, used by a few Mayan families and small-batch chocolate makers to produce chocolate for the domestic market.
Sustainable Harvest International (SHI, tel. 501/722-2010, U.S. tel. 207/669-8254, www.sustainableharvest.org) is a nonprofit organization working to alleviate poverty and deforestation throughout Central America. The organization works with more than 100 cacao-growing families, helping them develop multistory forest plots that mimic the natural forest; this provides a diversity of food and marketable produce for the families, plus a home for threatened plants and animals. Coffee, plantains, and other shade-loving crops are planted alongside the cacao trees, under a hardwood canopy. Sustainable Harvest Belize estimates that for every acre converted to multistory cacao forest, five acres are saved from destructive slash-and-burn practices. The organization offers sustainable chocolate tours and other voluntourism opportunities at work sites in southern Belize. Accommodations range from rustic homestays to the stilted cabins of Cotton Tree Lodge, where SHI maintains a demo garden.
The Deer Dance Festival takes place over a week in August in the village of San Antonio. There are Mayan arts, crafts, music, and food showcased, but the highlight is the costume performance of the deer dance, an ancient ritual that reenacts the hunting of a deer, from chase to capture, acted out to traditional Mayan harps and violins. This is one of the most off-the-beaten-path cultural events you could attend.
One of the largest Garífuna cultural events in the country, the Battle of Drums (50 Main St., www.battleofthedrums.org) takes place in Punta Gorda, usually the weekend preceding November 19, Garífuna Settlement Day. While there are weekend-long events celebrating Garífuna culture through concerts and food fetes, the main event takes place on Saturday night, when drumming teams from all of Belize’s Garífuna towns and villages, and from neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, compete for the title of best Garífuna drumming team. It’s a spectacular display of music and dance and culture. Hotel rooms book up almost half a year in advance, so be prepared, and check the local papers for ticket prices, event times, and location details. You can also contact Beya Suites (tel. 501/722-2188 or 501/722-2956), the chief organizers of this event, for more information.
Mayan culture is celebrated in all its glory on Maya Day (Tumul K’in Center of Learning, Blue Creek, Mar.) in the village of Blue Creek. Folks descend from all over Belize to attend this event, which includes traditional dancing and performances, tortilla-baking competitions, firewood-splitting contests, plenty of caldo tastings, and other Mayan-inspired recreation. Get a copy of the latest Toledo Howler from the BTIA Tourist Office (Main St., tel. 501/722-2531) or pick up a local newspaper for details.
Next door to the airstrip, at Maya Bags (tel. 501/722-2175, www.mayabags.org, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.) craft workshop, about 90 women from eight Mayan villages participate in this craft and export venture. The women make hand-woven bags (US$50-140), embroidered yoga mats (US$43), beach bags, jipijapa purses, and other unique products. The bags are absolutely gorgeous, especially the clutches. If you have time, you can order a custom embroidered design; the craftsmanship is so good that the bags were featured in Vogue magazine in 2010 and sold in Barneys for several years. They also make home decorating items, from vases to throw pillows.
Tienda La Indita Maya (24 Main Middle St., 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.) carries handmade jewelry, wooden bowls, pottery, and other handicrafts. The store lies just north of Central Park, at the end opposite the clock tower. Also check the Fajina Women’s Group Craft Center (7am-11am Mon.-Sat.) on Front Street near the ferry pier; it’s a small co-op for quality Mayan crafts run by the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan women. You’ll find jipijapa baskets, cuxtales (bags), slate carvings, calabash carvings, jewelry, textiles, and embroidered clothes—when they’re open, that is. If the door is closed, ask upstairs at the restaurant to get it opened up.
You can find Creole drums at the Driftwood Café & Art (9 Front St., tel. 501/632-7841, 7am-4pm daily), made by locally renowned Creole drummer Emmeth Young, as well as other African-inspired crafts, clothing, and souvenirs.
For beautiful furniture pieces, made solely from Toledo District woods, mahogany to gorilla, you’ll have to find the workshop and factory at Belize Wood Works (Mile 18, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/604-2124 or 501/665-6778, www.belizewoodworks.com, 8am-noon Mon., Wed., and Fri., 8am-4pm Sat., US$100-800), where you’ll see sample dressers, chairs, and hand-carved Mayan doors. Exports are available to Canada and the United States.
If you’re a chocolate lover, don’t miss the Cotton Tree Chocolate Shop (2 Front St., just south of the Uno station, tel. 501/621-8772, www.cottontreechocolate.com, 8am-noon and 1:30pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.). They make milk, white, and dark chocolates; in addition to free chocolate samples, tours are available by appointment. A small gift shop sells chocolates, cocoa mix, cocoa butter, whole vanilla beans, and handmade chocolate soap by Dawn and Jo’s Soap Company, which looks good enough to eat.
S Market Days
Although there are four weekly market days, Wednesday and Saturday are the biggest. Monday and Friday are smaller but still interesting. As of publication time, the market (on Front St.) was still fenced and awaiting renovations—but vendors have set up a makeshift sidewalk market in the meantime, their tables haphazardly laid out along the waterfront, a stone’s throw from their usual haunt. Many Maya vendors sell wild coriander, yellow or white corn, chili peppers of various hues, cassava, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, star fruit, mangoes, and much more. Many of the women and children bring handmade crafts as well. Laughing children help their parents. If you’re inclined to snap a photo, ask permission first—and perhaps offer to buy something. Folks here are the most sensitive to photos that I’ve encountered in Belize. If you’re refused, smile and put your lens cap back on.
Punta Gorda’s few hotels and guesthouses occupy the blocks of Front Street near the main dock as well as a couple farther back; a good rule of thumb is not to book a room that is accessed via a smoky bar and pool hall (for example, at the Mira Mar). Quieter options are only a few blocks or a few minutes off the waterfront and an easy walk or bike ride away.
You’re apt to run into all sorts of interesting travelers from around the world at Nature’s Way Guest House (65 Front St., tel. 501/702-2119, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$19-24), which really is more akin to a hostel. Set at the back of a lush well-kept garden are six small, very basic fan-cooled guest rooms with bunk beds, all sharing baths. Three basic guest rooms have private baths and showers, although they are not much different in decor. Nature’s Way serves a good breakfast, and you’ll have access to all the activities in the area. The place is run by Chet Schmidt and his family. Chet is an American expat and Vietnam veteran who has been here for over four decades; he also spent 13 years teaching in the surrounding villages. He can help arrange kayak trips, rainforest treks, camping, exploration of uninhabited cayes, visits to archaeology sites, and Maya and Garífuna guesthouse stays with award-winning TEA.
St. Charles Inn (23 King St., tel. 501/722-2149, email@example.com, US$32.50, US$43.50 with a/c) is centrally located, with a dozen guest rooms and a shady veranda that allows you to observe village life below. The well-kept guest rooms include springy mattresses, private baths, fans, and small TVs.
As you leave the airport, you’ll see the Frontier Inn (3 Airport St., tel. 501/722-2450, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$35), a white two-story cement building. Twelve good-value, immaculate tile-floored guest rooms have TVs, wireless Internet, private baths, hot water, and colorful bedspreads and walls; there’s even a standby generator. The place is owned by a local airplane pilot. It’s a short two-minute bike ride from here to the center of town.
Tate’s Guest House (34 Jose Maria Nunez St., tel. 501/722-0147, email@example.com, US$19-45) is set on the ground floor of a comfortable home with five double guest rooms in a quiet neighborhood setting. Ask for room 4 or 5; they are spacious, with ceiling fans, TVs, sunrooms, louvered windows, and tile floors, and each has an additional entrance through the backyard. Internet access is available.
Charlton’s Inn (9 Main St., 1 block from the Uno gas station, tel. 501/722-2197, www.charltonsinn.com, US$44) is close to everything in town, and there’s a James Bus stop across the street. The 27 guest rooms are well kept, with hot and cold water, private baths, TVs, air-conditioning, wireless Internet, and fans; there are also nine furnished apartments available with monthly rates.
Located in a Mayan village just outside of town, and the best alternative for being surrounded by nature without shelling out on an expensive lodge, is Big Falls Cottages (Esperanza Rd., Big Falls Village, tel. 501/605-9985 www.bigfallscottages.com, US$42.50) offers two cabins with beautiful garden views, set on a residential property. Amenities include kitchenettes, hot and cold showers, and porches.
Occupying a breezy, ocean-looking rise next to the hospital, Coral House Inn (151 Main St., tel. 501/722-2878, www.coralhouseinn.net, US$90-100) is an excellent seafront bed-and-breakfast with a small pool and bar and a quiet yard. It was opened after the owners drove to Belize from Idaho in their VW Microbus. The four guest rooms are pleasantly decorated with soft colors, local artwork, and comfortable beds; continental breakfast, use of bicycles, and wireless Internet are free for guests. This is where one of Belize’s recent former prime ministers used to stay when in Punta Gorda. Ask about the nearby Seaglass Cottage, a little one-bedroom, one-bath, small-kitchen option, pitched on a bluff above the ocean (US$125).
One mile outside Punta Gorda, up Ex-Servicemen Road, Hickatee Cottages (tel. 501/662-4475, www.hickatee.com, US$80-120) is a wonderful option on the edge of the rainforest. Your expatriate British hosts are knowledgeable about local flora and fauna, passionate about their “lifestyle business,” and strive to run a green hotel and involve the local community as much as possible. After you’ve settled into your well-appointed wooden cottage (private bath, hardwood furniture, ceiling fans, and veranda) or the garden suite (more space, furnishings, and a kitchenette), take a walk through the beautiful grounds and nature trail, followed by a dip in the plunge pool. Hickatee Cottages is very popular with birders and naturalists; guests wander on a rainforest trail, participate in howler monkey research, watch orchid bees at work while having a cup of Toledo organic coffee, and observe the wild creatures of the night on the bug board. Bicycles are available to get to and from town. Ask about visiting the on-site farm, fruit trees, nursery, and orchid collection (40 native species at last count); rates also include a free visit to Fallen Stones Butterfly Farm (Wed. afternoon, advance reservations required, maximum 4 people)—an incredible opportunity. Also on-site, Charlie’s Bar offers home-cooked healthy meals (breakfast and lunch about US$8, dinner US$17.50). Hickatee sometimes offers cultural nights, including weekly drumming lessons with Ray McDonald, a local Garífuna musician.
For the culturally curious traveler, the unique guesthouse and homestay programs in the Toledo District offer a threefold attraction: (1) firsthand observation of daily rural life in southern Belize; (2) a chance to interact with one of several proud distinct cultures while participating in a world-renowned model of ecotourism; and (3) a unique way to go deep into the lush natural world of the forests, rivers, caves, and waterfalls of southwestern Belize.
Simple guesthouse and family home networks in participating villages offer a range of conditions and privacy, but most are simple, primitive, and appreciated most by those with an open mind. Activities include tours of the villages and surrounding natural attractions. For nighttime entertainment, traditional dancing, singing, and music can usually be arranged; otherwise it’s just stargazing and conversation.
These are poor villages, and the local brand of ecotourism provides an alternative to subsistence farming that entails slashing and burning the rainforest. Additionally, the community-controlled infrastructure helps ensure a more equitable distribution of tourism dollars than most tour operations (members rotate duties of guiding, preparing meals, and organizing activities).
Guests usually pay about US$11 for three meals. Breakfast in Mayan villages is generally eggs, homemade tortillas, and coffee or a cacao drink. All meals are indigenous fare, and lunch is the largest meal of the day; it is often chicken caldo (a soup cooked with Mayan herbs) or occasionally a local meat dish like iguana (“bush chicken”) or gibnut (paca, a large rodent). Fresh tortillas round out the meal. Supper is the lightest meal of the day and generally includes “ground” food (a root vegetable such as potatoes) that the guide and visitors might harvest along the rainforest trail. The comal (tortilla grill) is always hot, and if you’re invited, try your hand at making tortillas.
Families are located in the villages of Aguacate and San Jose:
✵ Contact Louis Cucul at the Aguacate Belize Homestay Program (Aguacate, tel. 501/633-9954, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.aguacatebelize.com, US$9 per night, meals US$3.50 per meal, registration fee US$5).
✵ Contact Justino Pec at the San Jose Homestay Program (San Jose, tel. 501/722-0109, cell 501/668-7378, email@example.com).
The Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) is the umbrella organization for the guesthouse program, which is cooperatively managed and includes village representatives in the respective towns. At last count, there were six participating villages. For the Toledo Ecotourism Association program, a registration fee, one night’s lodging, and three meals run US$28 pp per night. Other activities, like storytelling, crafts lessons, and village tours are available for US$3.50 per hour. Prices are standardized throughout the participating villages. Other activities, such as paddling trips, forest and cave tours (US$14 pp), and music and dance sessions cost more, but are still extremely reasonably priced—especially with a group. If visiting during the rainy season, be advised that trails and caves may be inaccessible.
Interested participants should contact organizer Chet Schmidt at Nature’s Way (tel. 501/702-2119, www.teabelize.org) to arrange visits and pay the registration fee (US$5). Guests will be briefed about the program and told how to reach the village (the villages are available on a rotating basis). One full day may be sufficient, as the villages are quite small; if you would like to explore the surrounding landscape, plan an extra day.
S BlueBelize Guest House (tel. 501/722-2678, www.bluebelize.com, US$75-135 plus tax) is owned by renowned marine biologist Rachel Graham and managed by a lovely couple, Kate and Adam. The five cozy furnished suites—including one for honeymooners—are large enough to feel like apartments and are tastefully decorated, with one or two bedrooms, en suite baths, kitchenettes or full kitchens, hot and cold water, ceiling fans, lovely seating areas, and wireless Internet. The guest rooms open onto verandas or patios literally a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. Use of bikes is complimentary, as is continental breakfast, served on your veranda or in your suite. BlueBelize is very popular with visiting doctors, scientists, and volunteers, as well as travelers escaping cold dark winters up north.
You can’t miss the Sea Front Inn (4 Front St., tel. 501/722-2300, www.seafrontinn.com, US$119, includes continental breakfast) as you enter town: It comprises two towering stone buildings across the street from the sea. The 14 guest rooms and three apartments are also available for monthly rentals. Guests find comfortable, spacious guest rooms, no two alike, with TVs, fans, air-conditioning, private baths, and handmade furniture built with hardwoods. The third floor is the kitchen, dining room, and common area, overlooking the ocean.
Also on the waterfront, just before the bridge taking you into town, the Garífuna-owned and tourism board award-winning Beya Suites (tel. 501/722-2188 or 501/722-2956, www.beyasuites.com, US$75-175) looks like a giant pink-and-white wedding cake. Inside you’ll find cheery staff to show you to one of the comfortable, air-conditioned, tile-floored guest rooms with large baths and a sinus-clearing floral scent. There’s a rooftop, a restaurant (breakfast only), a bar, a conference area, and fast Internet. Ask about apartments and weekly rates. Owner Darius Avila is the founder of the popular Battle of the Drums, an annual Garífuna cultural event held in Punta Gorda every November.
The area’s sole rainforest-luxe property is Belcampo Belize (tel. 501/722-0050, www.belcampoinc.com/bz, US$470), atop a forested perch high above the Río Grande and a gorgeous expanse of rainforest, five miles north of PG. This is a unique spot targeting a unique market. Belcampo’s property encompasses 12,000 acres of rainforest and organic citrus, coffee, and cacao farms, including 4.5 miles of riverfront (reached by a rainforest elevator!) and Nicholas Caye, a pristine island in the Sapodilla Cayes. The sea is a 20-minute boat ride down the river, where you’ll head for your sportfishing and snorkeling tours. Amenities include a pool, a farm-to-fork restaurant, use of kayaks and mountain bikes, a breakaway sitting room and veranda, and a spa as well as a screened rainforest veranda in your canopy-level tree house suite (there are 12); you may see a brightly colored toucan from your shower window or get a wakeup call from a howler monkey.
Punta Gorda offers mainly cheap local eats, with the added benefit of fresh seafood and a few excellent vegetarian options. Many restaurants are closed on Sunday and for a few hours between meals. The town has several good bakeries, and fruit and veggies are cheap and abundant on market days (Mon., Wed., Fri.-Sat.). Some of the best breakfast and lunch joints in the market building are also only open these days; look closely just behind the market stands, along the wall, and you’ll see hungry souls chowing down on Central American treats and coffee for dirt cheap. Notice which has the most crowds and place your order. Ask at any corner store for a sampling of the local Mennonite yogurt and bread and be sure to try a seaweed shake, which you can buy fresh and cold at Johnson’s Hardware Store, across from the market. Keep an eye out for Ms. Adriana, who is one of the few Garífuna women at the market, commuting all the way from the village of Barranco; she sells cassava cake, kola nuts, and other interesting items on the sidewalk across from the market.
Don’t miss Belizean barbecue chicken on Saturday, a tradition in much of Belize. The best in town is at Kay’s Barbecue Spot (Queen St., near Jose Maria Nunez St., close to the park, no phone, 8am-3pm Mon., Wed., and Fri.-Sat.). You’ll see her grill steaming up the block while she fills the stream of orders. The chicken comes with generous sides of rice and beans and a large fresh tortilla, all for US$3. Get here early, as she can run out by 2pm.
There are some great fast-food places surrounding Central Park. Grace’s Restaurant (Main St., tel. 501/702-2414, 6:30am-10:30pm daily) is a long-standing joint with typical Belizean fare like stew chicken (US$4), tasty conch soup (US$9), and eggs and beans with fry jacks. It gets traffic all day long, especially at breakfast, and there’s a ton of seating space. Close to Charlton’s Inn, El Café (no phone, 6am-2pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-2pm Sun., US$4-10) has cheap diner-style Belizean food all day long.
Waluco’s Bar & Grill (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/630-3672 or 501/664-7186, 7am-2pm and 5pm-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 7am-midnight Fri.-Sun., US$3.50-10) serves up daily local lunch specials, including stew chicken and fry fish, with the usual sides of rice and beans, callaloo (a leafy green vegetable), or coleslaw. The dinner menu is more varied, with pastas, burgers, and barbecue. There may be music to go along with your meal if you come on a Friday or Sunday night.
Seaside Heights (off of Southern Hwy., tel. 501/722-2450, 10:30am-3pm and 5pm-midnight Mon.-Wed., 10:30am-midnight Thurs.-Sun., US$4-10), serves Belizean, Central American, and East Indian options. Entrées range from burritos to tarkari (East Indian curry), and there’s a full bar and a huge top-deck seating area overlooking the waterfront. Add to that a pool table and plenty of karaoke nights.
S Jocelyn’s Cuisine & Catering (Front St., tel. 501/661-9267, 6am-9pm daily, US$2.50-4) is a cozy little seaside shack across from the Uno gas station with a lot of charm, serving delicious plates of local breakfast—freshly made johnnycakes, fry jacks, and even waffles—and a lunch of jerk chicken or Belizean stews and seafood. There’s seating under the tree on picnic tables, with a lovely breeze from the water.
The Snack Shack (near BTL parking lot, tel. 501/702-0020, 7am-3pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-1pm Sat.) is an expat favorite for breakfast, especially its giant US$3 egg burritos, a “gringo breakfast” option, fruit shakes, pancakes, and bagels. For lunch, there’s a “build your own” tortilla option (US$5), with flavored tortillas of your choice. It’s walking distance from the Immigration Office and good for a snack before you leave.
A few Chinese restaurants offer reliable chop suey; some expats call Hang Cheon (Main St., tel. 501/722-2064, 10am-2pm and 5pm-midnight daily, US$3-10) the best Chinese in town.
Creole and International
S D Thatch (former Olympic Grill, Main St., tel. 501/634-7974, 11am-10pm daily, US$4-9) serves up local favorites—including fresh conch ceviche daily when in season, escabeche, fry chicken, and pasta dishes.
Perched over the water, steps from BlueBelize, is Asha’s Culture Kitchen (80 Front St., tel. 501/632-8025, 4pm-10pm Fri.-Wed., US$5-13), a wooden casita with quite possibly the best outdoor deck and dinner setting in town. Asha’s serves Creole seafood dishes made to order as well as curries and other entrées. A bright chalkboard menu with blue checks lists the day’s availability, served up with two sides in generous portions (the garlic mashed potatoes are good). There is occasional live drumming here.
Asha’s Culture Kitchen offers lovely views with dinner.
An easy place to recommend for lunch or dinner is Marian’s Bayview Restaurant (76 Front St., tel. 501/722-0129, 11am-2pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., noon-2pm and 7pm-9pm Sun., US$5), located on a rooftop over the water on the south edge of Punta Gorda, across from Nature’s Way. Marian’s serves East Indian cuisine, seafood, or a good ol’ plate of rice and beans from her buffet—all with a view of Guatemala and Honduras across the sea.
If you don’t have the time to visit the Mayan villages, be sure to stop by Fajina Restaurant (Front St., tel. 501/666-6141 or 501/666-6144, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7am-8:30pm daily, US$3.50) for traditional Mayan fare, typically a delicious bowl of caldo (Mayan chicken soup served with corn tortillas). The small casual eatery is run by the same women’s group that operates the craft shop downstairs. Occasionally you’ll find callaloo (a leafy green vegetable), boiled plantains, or cohune cabbage on the daily menu.
Palma’s Tortilla Factory (Main St., no phone, 7am-1pm Mon.-Sat.) makes fresh tortillas every day and sells them for US$2.50 per pound; they also make tacos (3 for US$0.50), panades (little meat pies), tamales, and the like.
Seafood and Pasta
As you follow the highway north out of Punta Gorda, look for a driveway and sign on your left just as the road is about to turn away from the sea. Here you’ll find S Mangrove Inn and Restaurant (tel. 501/623-0497, 5pm-10pm daily, US$6-10), a family affair with a charming dining balcony, complete with a bar, cozy lighting, and African decor. The cook, Iconie, has worked in fancy resorts across Belize but prefers working at home. Expect savory fish dishes, pot pies, pasta, fresh salads, and rolls.
Da Lazy Fish (90 Jose Maria Nunez St., tel. 501/669-7042, 10am-3pm Tues.-Wed., 10am-2pm 5:30pm-10pm Thurs.-Sat., 6pm-10pm Sun., US$5-7) has good vibes and good food. Meals include fresh seafood—from lionfish to lobster—and the Lazy Burger, a bun stuffed with a pile of lobster, shrimp, and fish. Friday nights are for drumming, with the talented Ray McDonald from Warasa Drumming.
The best vegetarian restaurant is S Gomier’s Restaurant (5 Alejandro Vernon St., tel. 501/722-2929, 11am-2pm and 5pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., US$3-9), set in a small, humble space at the north entrance to town across from the Punta Gorda welcome sign. Expect a healthy haven of whole grains, homemade tofu, and lots of “good for you” options with a delicious veggie, vegan, and seafood menu. The tiny restaurant offers tasty and creative daily specials, such as barbecued tofu served with baked beans, bread, and coleslaw, plus a veggie grain casserole served with a salad (about US$5), a bulging soysage burger (US$3), delicious conch soup (in season), and tofu pizza. Other options include fresh local fruit juices (try the golden plum), soy milk, and soy ice cream. Ask Gomier about his vegan cooking classes.
Check at one of the two Supaul’s stores for local yogurt. Sophia Supaul’s store on Alejandro Vernon Street (known locally as Green Supaul’s, tel. 501/722-2089, 10am-7pm daily) carries imported cheeses (French brie in PG!), Mary’s Yogurt (a must-try, in many flavors, including coconut), local jams and honey, a decent wine selection, couscous, white chocolate, vegetables, and fruits.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Look for the Toledo Tourism Information Center (Front St., tel. 501/722-2531, email@example.com, 8:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-noon Sat.), not far from the town dock and run by the Belize Tourism Industry Association. This is a concerted effort by local businesses to provide excellent and organized information to visitors; they’ll recommend accommodations, tour companies, transportation, and more. You can pick up a print copy of The Toledo Howler, a local magazine published by the BTIA, for upcoming events and updated transportation schedules, often including a recent map of the area.
For information on the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) and how you can you sign up to stay in one of the six village guesthouses or visit the villages, contact Chet Schmidt at Nature’s Way (tel. 501/702-2119, www.teabelize.org). Near the municipal dock, you’ll find the Immigration Office (tel. 501/722-2247, 8am-close daily), for departures to and arrivals from Guatemala and Honduras. The departure tax is US$15 if you spent up to 24 hours in Belize, plus the US$4 PACT fee if you’ve been here longer.
The Belize Bank (tel. 501/722-2326, 8am-3pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-4:30pm Fri.) is right across from the town square and has an ATM. Continue one block south for Scotiabank (8am-2:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-4pm Fri., 9am-11:30am Sat.), which has a 24-hour international ATM. Grace’s Restaurant (Main St., tel. 501/702-2414, 6:30am-10:30pm daily) is also a licensed casa de cambio (moneychanger) and can change dollars, Guatemalan quetzales, or traveler’s checks. You may also find a freelance moneychanger hanging around the dock at boat time.
Media and Communications
Opposite the Immigration Office are a couple of government buildings, including the post office. There are two Internet places just north of the park on Main Street, both with nice air-conditioning and decent machines: Dreamlight Computer Center (Main St. and North St., tel. 501/702-0113 or 501/607-0033, firstname.lastname@example.org, 6:30am-8:30pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-1pm Sun., first hour US$1.50 per hour, US$2 per hour thereafter) and V-Comp Technologies (29 Main St., tel. 501/722-0093 or 501/601-0342, 8am-8:30pm daily, US$1.50 per hour), a nice operation with printing, copying, scanning, and even DVDs for sale.
Health and Emergencies
Punta Gorda has a police department (tel. 501/722-2022), a fire department (tel. 501/722-2032), and a hospital (tel. 501/722-2026 or 501/722-2161) for emergencies. NJV’s Pharmacy (Front St., tel. 501/722-2177, 8am-1pm and 4pm-8pm Mon.-Sat.) is a well-stocked drugstore, with everything from a pharmacy to books and office supplies.
If you’re coming to the area by bus, plan on nearly a full day of travel on either end of your trip south (at least 5 or 6 hours from Belize City). Consider taking the quick flight from Belize City, Placencia, or Dangriga to Punta Gorda.
Daily southbound flights from Belize City to Dangriga continue to Placencia and then to Punta Gorda. This is the quickest and most comfortable way to get to PG. For the return trip, Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, www.tropicair.com) and Maya Island Air (tel. 501/223-1140, U.S. tel. 800/225-6732, www.mayaislandair.com) each offer five flights to Placencia, Dangriga, and Belize City between 6:30am and 4pm daily. Tropic is usually more reliable and frequent in southern Belize.
Car and Bus
Punta Gorda is just under 200 miles from Belize City, a long haul by bus, even with the newly surfaced Southern Highway speeding things up. Count on three to four hours by car, five to six hours by express bus, or seven hours on a nonexpress bus. James Bus Lines (tel. 501/722-2049, www.jamesbusline.com) has a centrally located terminal in Punta Gorda, at King and Main Streets, and runs up to 10 buses daily between Punta Gorda and Belize City, departing 3:50am-3:50pm Sunday-Friday, with one express at 6am. It now offers free on-board Wi-Fi with the express ride. The first departure from Belize City is a 5:30am express, and then service continues until 3:45pm; the only other express is this last bus of the day. The fare is US$11 one-way. The James Bus makes a loop through PG before heading out of town. A few other bus lines make the trip, but much less regularly. Be sure to ask around about schedules the day before you leave.
Remember that you can get off in Independence and take a boat to Placencia, or you can get off at any other point, like Cockscomb Maya Centre (Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary) or Dangriga.
Ask your hotel if it provides free use of a bicycle, or rent one at Gomier’s Restaurant (5 Alejandro Vernon St., tel. 501/722-2929, 11am-2pm and 5pm-10pm Mon.-Sat.), near the entrance to Punta Gorda (US$10 per day). It’s a great way to navigate the town, which can sometimes be a tad spread out on foot.
Every day has a different schedule, but buses go to the Maya villages on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, generally around 11am, departing from Jose Maria Nunez Street (between Prince St. and Queen St.). From here it’s possible to get to Golden Stream, Silver Creek, San Pedro, San Miguel, Aguacate, Blue Creek, San Antonio, and other villages. Some buses drop you off at the entrance road, leaving a walk of a mile or two. It’s possible to make it a day trip and return later in the afternoon. Check the Toledo Tourism Information Center on Main Street for updated village bus schedules, or grab a copy of the latest Toledo Howler newspaper in town.
Punta Gorda’s taxis will take you anywhere within city limits for about US$3-4; look for their green license plates. It’s US$10 to drive the six miles to Belcampo and US$12.50 to Jacintoville and the Tranquility Lodge. Or you can call on Jonathan Supaul (tel. 501/669-4823 or 501/628-0460, 5am-10pm daily). Also try Castro’s Taxi (tel. 501/602-3632).
Islands Near Punta Gorda
The Toledo District is the gateway to the least visited of Belize’s offshore Caribbean islands—the Snake Cayes and the Sapodilla Cayes. For those who make the time and take the chance to venture this far south, the snorkeling and dive sites are rewarding, and with fewer boats (if any at all), you’re likely to be one of the few out in the water. It’s no exaggeration to say that you’ll have the entire last end of the Belize Barrier Reef to yourself. Just be sure not to attempt the boat journey from Punta Gorda in rough weather. On a glorious day, this is as close as you can get to paradise.
Closest to Punta Gorda, a mere 30-minute boat ride away, are the Snake Cayes, part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. These are ideal for snorkeling, diving, and swimming, thanks to protected no-take zones. These islands, along with the more remote Sapodilla Cayes, are not one bit about luxury—it’s about adventure and experiencing Belize’s nature and barrier reef at its best, with simple accommodations on two cayes and plenty of neighboring plots to explore above or under the water. Relax in a phone and Internet-free environment in your cabin or camping at Lime Caye, and crash in basic rooms on Hunting Caye, home to one of Belize’s most stunning beaches. You might not even use your room, it’s that pretty outside. Try to stay at least two days in the Sapodilla Cayes area if you’re heading that far. The Snake Cayes are an easy day trip from either Punta Gorda or the Sapodilla Cayes.
PORT HONDURAS MARINE RESERVE
The limits of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (park fee US$5 pp) begin just three miles outside Punta Gorda, stretching as far as 160 square miles and encompassing mangrove forests and approximately 138 mangrove islands, plenty of fresh water from five rivers that flow into the reserve, and, in the distance, a seven-hill range with its peaks towering over the reserve. The Snake Cayes and a few other gorgeous islands are accessible for top-notch snorkeling and sportfishing—you’ll likely notice private yachts on your way across the reserve, as top anglers head here for the best fly-fishing in the area, dubbed “the permit capital” of the world, not just Belize.
The Port Honduras Marine Reserve is comanaged and funded by the nonprofit Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE, tel. 501/722-2274, email@example.com), based in Punta Gorda. Their marine conservation efforts in the area are significant, the most notable of which has been the protection of, and increase in, the number of West Indian manatees. Seven years after gaining protected status, the reserve now boasts the second-largest population of these gentle sea cows. The park rangers play an important part in monitoring illegal fishing activity and removing gill nets, as well as protecting Middle Snake Caye, a strictly no-entry caye used for monitoring mangroves and marinelife research.
Your first stop in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve may be at Abalon Caye, in the center of the reserve. Abalon Caye is home to the ranger station and six full-time rangers. It’s a great place to learn about the area, part of a World Heritage Site along with the Belize Barrier Reef. Whatever you do, don’t miss climbing up the 60-foot-tall ranger station’s observation tower, used to spot vessel activity. A steep, narrow wooden staircase leads to views of the reserve. The 180-degree panorama includes the Snakes Cayes as well as neighboring Guatemala and even the Cockscomb range.
S Snake Cayes
Shortly past Abalon Caye, you’ll spot four plots in the distance, almost aligned from left to right. They are East Snake Caye, Middle Snake Caye, West Snake Caye, and South Snake Caye. Boa constrictors once lived here, hence the name.
The Snake Cayes make up the main area of the reserve used for daytime recreation purposes only—swimming, snorkeling, diving, and sportfishing—except for Middle Snake Caye, which is a strictly off-limits zone to everyone except researchers, with boats not being allowed to come 0.5 miles of the island.
Three of these accessible plots, ranging 1 to 2 acres, offer an incredible marine environment of healthy corals and reef fish on this end of the Belize Barrier Reef, and are a worthwhile day trip from Punta Gorda. Snorkel stops include South Snake and East Snake, before ending at West Snake for swimming.
At two acres, West Snake Caye (also called Lagoon Snake Caye) has a beautiful white-sand beach—the only one among these islands—facing a turquoise stretch of water 250 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep for ideal swimming. Even if you’re not snorkeling, it’s great for all around frolicking in a natural pool. There’s a palapa on-site for barbecues, and not much else except glorious fine sand, making this one of the most romantic southern islands and fun daytime hangout spots.
South Snake Caye tops all for marinelife, with stunning schools of fish hovering amid bright corals. You’ll need your underwater camera, as you’ll likely gasp at the sight and abundance of fish in these parts, thriving in crystal-clear waters at relatively shallow depths. Giant barracuda, Caesar grunts, permits, schoolmasters, dog snappers, angelfish, porkfish, and porcupine fish are among the numerous species in these parts. East Snake Caye, home to a lighthouse, is popular for its stunning coral gardens.
When you get in or out of the boat on snorkel trips, keep your eyes peeled for spotted rays leaping up to one foot out of the water.
S SAPODILLA CAYES MARINE RESERVE
One of the seven wonders of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System and the most southern of Belize’s protected areas, the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (park fee US$10 pp, paid at Hunting Caye) is as remote as it gets. Few people make it out here from the mainland; most visitors venture over from neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, as well as a few locals from Placencia. Located 35 miles or 1.5 hours by boat from the shores of Punta Gorda—or an additional 45-minute ride from the Snake Cayes—it might seem like quite the trek (don’t even attempt it on a cloudy, choppy day), but it’s not that far to go for top-notch snorkeling and diving, gorgeous white-sand beaches on Lime Caye and Hunting Caye—the two available islands for overnight stays—and an overall stunning landscape of deep turquoise waters, flocking birds, and marinelife. These make it worth the extra journeying.
Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve
The reserve—comanaged by the Fisheries Department and the Southern Environmental Association (SEA, tel. 501/523-3377, www.seabelize.org)—covers approximately 80 square miles and is divided into a preservation zone, a conservation zone, a general use zone, and special management areas. It’s also home to approximately 14 mangrove and sandy islands, many of which are privately owned, spread across its clear waters. The sandy islands are considered to be among the most beautiful of Belize’s Southern Cayes, and I agree wholeheartedly.
This last edge and boundary of the Belize Barrier Reef forms a hook or J-shaped curve, within which the Sapodilla Cayes are clustered. This is an area teeming with underwater life, where a ray jumping out of the sea or a loggerhead turtle swimming right up to the beach at sunset is no rare sight.
The reserve protects several endangered species, such as the West Indian manatee, three turtle species—with designated turtle-nesting beaches at Hunting and Lime Cayes—and over a dozen fish species. To add to its uniqueness, the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve counts spawning aggregation sites, with whale shark sightings every year.
Owned and operated by the Garbutt family, who run the successful Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge (tel. 501/722-0070, cell 501/604-3548, www.garbuttsfishinglodge.com, 2-day package US$345, 4-day package US$700, includes cabin, all meals, snorkeling, transportation, and park fee) based in Punta Gorda, this rustic and gorgeous 3.5-acre island and resort is your best bet for an overnight stay in these parts.
An often deserted soft white-sand beach—a designated turtle-nesting site—will greet you upon arrival, while the rest of the island is white sand shaded by grape trees and coconut trees.
Stays range two to six days in one of five no-frills wooden cabins painted in bright pastel colors. Two larger front cabins hold a mixture of bunk beds and a double bed for up to six people. The bathrooms are en suite, with clean and rustic shower tubs and toilets. Farther to the edge of the beach is a sea-facing wooden bunk-bed house, ideal for groups of 16—baths are of the shared outdoor variety.
For more privacy, opt for one of two adorable stand-alone and basic reef-facing cabanas on stilts at the very back of the island, ideal for couples or solo travelers. These are nothing more than a double bed, a nightstand, and shutters, but the atmosphere is cozy and the porch offers stunning views of the reef crest ahead, where the sun rises. Shared toilets and showers are a short walk away from the cabin. Bring sufficient towels as well as a rain jacket, as it can get cool in the mornings and evenings in high season. If you’re up for it, you can get even closer to the elements by camping on the island (US$10 pp).
Haphazardly placed hammocks and iguanas shuffling in distant mangrove trees at the beach’s end add to this remote, deserted island feel. Be sure to miss neither the sunset nor the sunrise, both of which are visible from the island—quite a rare treat.
Sanny’s Kitchen, run by the lovely Sandra Garbutt, is on-site, serving delicious daily meals that are enjoyed family-style on outdoor picnic tables three times a day. They consist of fresh seafood and Belizean specialties as well as classic cocktails. You’ll likely spend time reading prior guests’ messages and signatures along the dining area’s wood pillars and walls.
On Sunday, a local family or two might occasionally show up from Placencia for the day, unless a group reserves the caye in its entirety. Activities from Lime Caye—besides tanning, swimming, and strolling around the island—include diving, fly-fishing, and snorkeling.
Under five minutes from Lime Caye is Hunting Caye, known for having one of the most beautiful crescent-shaped white-sand beaches in Belize, accented by a lighthouse.
A turtle nesting site, the island serves as a base for staff from the Belize Coast Guard, Port Authority, Fisheries Department (rangers), a lighthouse keeper, and the University of Belize (UB). Because of this, the island has a fun local vibe. You’ll hear punta music in the background and voices chatting in Creole.
Luckily, UB does rent out its basic double-bed rooms to visitors (contact Victor Jacobs, tel. 501/602-4546, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, US$40 pp). Camping (US$5 pp) is allowed with your own tent. There’s a large kitchen for use on-site, if groups choose to cook for themselves. Otherwise, on-site meals are available with advance notice.
Hunting Caye feels a lot more spread out than Lime Caye, but it’s equally laid-back and charming, if it weren’t for the small crowd of folks who live here. If you’re staying on Lime Caye, ask for a ride to Hunting Caye for an hour or more of lounging on that gorgeous beach.
If you get the chance, meet the lighthouse keeper, Domingo Lewis, an interesting character who served 25 years in the British Army and has interesting travel tales to share.
Diving and Snorkeling
There’s little doubt that this deep southern area of Belize offers some of the best visibility for snorkeling and diving. Few make it this far, but those who do will have an entire reserve to themselves.
The Shipwreck is right off Lime Caye, a 10- to 15-foot-deep dive site where you’ll spot abundant marinelife—blue tangs, white grunts, angelfish, butterflyfish, lionfish, schoolmasters, and vibrant coral—surrounding a massive sunken ship. There are colorful schools of fish and amazing clarity, even in cloudy weather. The waters surrounding Ragged Caye offer decent snorkeling.
Lime Caye Wall is a top dive site, with plenty of big fish, such as groupers, snappers, giant spiny lobsters, and moray eels. Whale sharks also pass here, in season.
Snorkelers will be equally amazed at the health and brilliance of the coral and the spectacular Caribbean sea, with those vibrant turquoise hues, similar to the waters surrounding Belize’s atolls. They wash over lush coral gardens, densely packed and teeming with fish life. At Vigilante Shoal, right off Hunting Caye, you’ll spot densely packed corals, many in giant form, at a depth of barely eight feet. Within a hand’s breadth, you’ll spot huge spiny lobsters, 15-pound dog snappers, blue hamlets, blue tangs, bluehead wrasses, rock beauty fish, and other Caribbean reef species, like the stoplight parrotfish, sergeant majors, and angelfish. Impossible to miss are the massive mountainous star corals, pillar corals, and grooved brain coral. No other boats showed up while my guide and I snorkeled at our leisure.
Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge (tel. 501/722-0070, cell 501/604-3548, www.garbuttsfishinglodge.com) offers a range of trips, from snorkeling to “Discover Scuba” courses and fishing.
REEF CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL
If you’re looking for a vacation that combines conservation education and recreation, Reef Conservation International (ReefCI, tel. 501/702-0229 or 501/629-4266, www.reefci.com, divers US$1,195 per week, nondivers US$895 per week, all inclusive) offers weekly and monthly dive trips to stay on Tom Owens Caye, a small one-acre private island in the Sapodilla Cayes with incredible snorkeling. The boat leaves Punta Gorda on Monday morning and returns on Friday afternoon. Reef Conservation offers scuba certification courses. It’s worth stressing that not only will you be diving in the Sapodilla Cayes, but you’ll most likely be the only dive boat in the water (nondivers are also welcome). ReefCI offers various packages; there’s often a discount for walk-in travelers and last-minute bookings. ReefCI customers have the opportunity to get involved in a number of projects, such as helping with the removal of the invasive lionfish and other preservation projects in the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. They also have the unique opportunity to get involved with the survey work, learn about the environment, and identify fish, coral, and invertebrates—and to combine this with recreational dives and other activities.
You’ll find it more affordable to get to the Snake Cayes or the Sapodilla Cayes for a day trip when there’s a group of at least four people heading out. Check your dates with Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge (tel. 501/722-0070, cell 501/604-3548, www.garbuttsfishinglodge.com) or with TIDE (tel. 501/722-2274, firstname.lastname@example.org), both solid transfer options; they can keep you posted on availability and tour dates. If you’re staying on Lime Caye, the Garbutts will arrange for your transportation to and from the resort.
The wild, unique, and stunning southwestern chunk of Belize is referred to as “upcountry” or simply “the villages.” The Toledo District settlements to the west of Punta Gorda are home to Q’eqchi’ or Mopan Maya, whose descendants fled to Belize to escape oppression and forced labor in their native Guatemala. Anthropologists now believe that the Mopan were probably the original inhabitants of Belize, but that they were forcibly removed by the Spanish in the late 17th century. The Q’eqchi’ were close neighbors with the Mopan and the Manche Ch’ol, a Mayan group completely exterminated by the Spanish. The older folks continue to maintain longtime traditional farming methods, culture, and dress. Modern machinery is sparse—they use simple digging sticks and machetes to till the soil, and water is hand-carried to the fields during dry spells. It’s not an easy life.
On the outskirts of each town, the dwellings are relatively primitive; they often have open doorways covered by a hanging cloth, hammocks, and dirt floors, and animals may wander throughout. People use primitive latrines or just take a walk into the rainforest. They bathe in the nearest creek or river, a routine that becomes a source of fun as much as cleanliness.
Within the towns, past the thatched homes on each side of the road, it becomes apparent that the effects of modern conveniences are only beginning to arrive. When a family can finally afford electricity, the first things that appear are a couple of lights and a refrigerator—the latter allows the family to earn a few dollars by selling chilled soft drinks and such. After that, it’s a television set; you can see folks sitting in open doorways, their faces lit by the light inside.
SAN FELIPE AND JACINTOVILLE
Closest to Punta Gorda, Jacintoville is located just seven miles out of town, traveling along the Southern Highway. From there, a side road heading south leads to the village of San Felipe. (This same road will also eventually get you to Barranco.)
Cyrila Cho (tel. 501/742-4050, or cell 501/660-2840, www.cyrilaschocolate.org, US$32.50 for 2 people) and her family in the village of San Felipe offer a five-hour chocolate tour beginning with a visit to an organic cacao farm and continuing with lunch in Cyrila’s home. She and her daughter then lead a chocolate-making session.
Tucked away on the San Felipe Road, about eight miles outside Punta Gorda, S Tranquility Lodge (tel. 501/677-9921, www.tranquility-lodge.com, US$110-135) offers four well-appointed guest rooms popular with avid bird-watchers and orchid lovers; both have plenty to explore right here on Tranquility’s 20 lush acres (only five of which are developed at the lodge area). There were 75 species of orchids at last count—both planted and volunteers—and more than 200 identified species of birds. Rates include breakfast; guest rooms have clean tile floors, private baths, air-conditioning, and fans. When there are no other guests, it’s like having your own private lodge. Upstairs from the guest rooms is a beautiful screened-in (but very open) dining room, where you’ll enjoy gourmet dinners (US$15-25). All rates are negotiable in the off-season. There’s direct access to an excellent swimming hole on the Jacinto River, as well as a number of walking trails.
Cotton Tree Lodge (tel. 501/670-0557, U.S. tel. 212/529-8622, www.cottontreelodge.com, US$179-219, US$419 pp all-inclusive) is 12 miles up the Moho River from PG and is accessed either by boat or via the road to Barranco. Its 16 stilted thatched-roof cabins along the river’s edge are connected by a raised plank walkway; ask about the deep-rainforest tree house. The lodge is one of several in the area trying to take “green” to new levels; Cotton Tree conducts voluntourism projects with Sustainable Harvest International, has developed a unique septic system using banana plants, and raises 50 percent of the food it serves in its own organic garden. Available activities include the Cacao Trail, treks to Blue Creek Cave, mountain hikes, river and village trips, visits to ruins, and the like, plus hands-on classes in subjects like chocolate making and Garífuna drumming. Sportfishing and fly-fishing trips are available as well. There is one honeymoon suite with a jetted tub and one cabin with wheelchair access.
Laguna is a small Q’eqchi’ Mayan village of around 250 people living against a backdrop of limestone karst hills. The village is home to howler monkeys and many types of parrots, which can be seen flying over the village daily. Laguna is also home to a loosely organized women’s crafts group that produces cuxtales (pronounced “CUSH-ta-les,” traditional woven Mayan bags), table mats, beading, baskets, embroidery, beaded necklaces, and earrings. There is a long, muddy farmers road that leads to the confluence of Blue Creek and the Moho River; this two- to three-hour hike is very beautiful but is only recommended in the dry season (Mar.-May). There’s also a super-cool cave about a 20-minute hike away; it’s really best to have a licensed guide with you.
The Unspoiled South: Toledo’s Conservation Trail
Belize has the highest percentage of forest cover in Central America and the largest barrier reef system in the western hemisphere. These rich natural resources have survived relatively intact, primarily due to Belize having the lowest population density in the Central American region. This enviable status, however, is at risk, particularly in the south, where the country’s most pristine environment—in the lush Toledo District—is faced with rapid population growth and immigration, combined with increasing deforestation and illegal fishing along marine and terrestrial borders.
Nonetheless, the Toledo District has managed to fight back and continues to rise as an example in protecting its fragile ecosystems. Since the late 20th century, conservation efforts in the heavily forested and biodiverse district have strengthened. As early as the 1990s, commercial interest from Malaysian logging was met with fierce resistance from local indigenous activists. The bulldozing of Toledo’s forests had damaged drinking water supplies, leading to opposition from downstream communities. The late Mayan leader Julian Cho organized and led resistance to unsustainable logging on traditional Mayan land. The government of Belize responded by canceling these companies’ licenses.
More recent conservation successes owe to the implementation and use of a comanagement program, created by the Belizean government, whereby areas designated officially “protected”—such as the 100,000-acre no-public-access Bladen Nature Reserve—are monitored by nongovernmental organizations and residents of communities close to these protected areas, all working together and sharing in the financial burden of accomplishing the gigantic task. This comanagement system promotes both sustainable development and conservation, helping the local communities who depend on the health and sustainability of these resources.
Today, hope lies in the appointment of one of Toledo’s own residents and award-winning conservationist Lisel Alamilla as the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries, and Sustainable Development. Of note is Alamilla’s 2012 moratorium on the logging of rosewood from Toledo’s forests. A few busts of illegal harvesting have since been made, including in January 2013, when up to 700 pieces of the precious wood intended for export were discovered adjacent to Tambran Village. The export-quality logs were seized and set ablaze by the minister herself, in the presence of the media, to send a clear message to the perpetrators. The remaining logs were handed to local communities for building traditional houses.
Toledo has unique tropical forests and pristine coral reefs that provide livelihoods to the most culturally diverse population in Belize. If the protection of its resources continues in this vein, this district can be a globally recognized example of sustainable development.
(Contributed by Lee McLoughlin, manager of the Protected Areas Management Program at Ya’axché Conservation Trust.)
Laguna is the oldest member of the TEA Guesthouse Program (tel. 501/702-2119, www.teabelize.org), and there is a guesthouse with a nice veranda; beds are equipped with mosquito nets. A TEA guesthouse stay includes all meals and the opportunity to interact and cook or farm with local Q’eqchi’ indigenous people. Local tours, craft demonstrations, and cultural performances are available at an additional cost.
To get to the village, take the Laguna bus directly to the village, or take any bus that can drop you at the Laguna junction (10 miles from Punta Gorda). It is only about three miles to the village from the highway.
Hugging a lush bend of the Río Grande as it sweeps near the roadside village of Big Falls, S The Lodge at Big Falls (tel. 501/732-4444 or 501/610-0126, www.thelodgeatbigfalls.com, US$160-265) is an elegant and quiet retreat in a peaceful, well-maintained green clearing. The nine cabanas are ideal for a nature-loving couple looking for a comfortable base from which to explore the surrounding country or just to laze in the pool and listen to the forest sounds. Special rates are offered for multiple nights and for families; it’s a 20-minute drive to the town of Punta Gorda, and many day trips are available, as the Lodge at Big Falls is centrally located in the Toledo District.
Sun Creek Lodge (Mile 14, Southern Hwy., tel. 501/607-6363, www.suncreeklodge.com, US$40-120) offers four octagonal cabanas with central posts and thatched roofs. Some have shared rainforest showers and toilets, a few have private baths, and the spacious Sun Creek Suite is for families or groups. The lodge can help arrange for a myriad of tours in the area, from birding to caving.
If you’re driving through the area, make time for lunch (or any other meal) in Big Falls at Coleman’s Café (tel. 501/630-4432 or 501/630-4069, 11am-4pm and 6pm-9pm daily, buffet US$7.50), located just off the highway, on the entrance road to Rice Mill. This is home-cooked Belizean food at its finest, and the restaurant is run by a friendly and accommodating family. Creole dishes, cohune cabbage, and East Indian curries are among the offerings. They even have free changing restrooms for those who need to get dry from their tours and grab a cold one.
NIM LI PUNIT ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
Near the village of Indian Creek, Nim Li Punit (Mile 75, Southern Hwy., tel. 501/665-5126, 8am-5pm daily, US$5) is atop a hill with expansive views of the surrounding forests and mountains. The site saw preliminary excavations in 1970 that documented a 30-foot-tall carved stela (stone monument), the tallest ever found in Belize—and among the tallest in the Mayan world. A total of about 25 stelae have been found on the site, most dated to AD 700-800. Although looters have damaged the site, excavations by archaeologist Richard Leventhal in 1986 and by the Belize Institute of Archaeology (IOA) in the late 1990s and early 2000s uncovered several new stelae and some notable tombs. The stelae and artifacts are displayed in the very nice visitors center built by the IOA.
Nim Li Punit is located 25 miles north of Punta Gorda Town; it’s about 0.5 miles west of the highway, along a narrow road marked by a small sign.
S LUBAANTUN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
Located on a ridge between two creeks, Lubaantun (“Place of the Fallen Stones”) consists of five layers of construction and is unique compared to other sites due to the absence of engraved stelae. The site was first reported in 1875 by American Civil War refugees from the southern United States and was first studied in 1915. It is believed that as many as 20,000 people lived in this former trading center.
Lubaantun was built and occupied during the Late Classic Period (AD 730-890). Eleven major structures are grouped around five main plazas—in total the site has 18 plazas and three ball courts. The tallest structure rises 50 feet above the plaza, and from it you can see the Caribbean Sea, 20 miles distant. Lubaantun’s disparate architecture is completely different from Mayan construction in other parts of Latin America.
Most of the structures are terraced, and you’ll notice that some corners are rounded—an uncommon feature throughout the Mundo Maya. Lubaantun has been studied and surveyed several times by Thomas Gann and, more recently, in 1970 by Norman Hammond. Distinctive clay whistle figurines (similar to those found in Mexico’s Isla Jaina) illustrate lifestyles and occupations of the era. Other artifacts include the mysterious crystal skull, obsidian blades, grinding stones (much like those still used today to grind corn), beads, shells, turquoise, and shards of pottery. From all of this, archaeologists have determined that the city flourished until the 8th century AD. It was a farming community that traded with the highland areas of today’s Guatemala, and the people worked the sea and maybe the cayes just offshore.
The Skull Of Doom: Mystery Solved
In 1924, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the daughter of explorer F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, allegedly found a perfectly formed quartz crystal skull at the Lubaantun archaeological site on her 17th birthday. The object has been the subject of much mystery and controversy over the years. Was it made by the Maya to conjure death? Atlanteans? Aliens? Did Mitchell-Hedges plant it for the pleasure of his daughter? Is the whole story a hoax?
The world got its answer in 2007 when the Smithsonian Institute put the Mitchell-Hedges skull under a scanning electron microscope. Researcher Jane MacLaren Walsh concluded, “This object was carved and polished using modern, high-speed, diamond-coated, rotary cutting and polishing tools of minute dimensions. This technology is certainly not pre-Columbian. I believe it is decidedly 20th century.”
The skull currently resides in North America with the widower of Anna Mitchell-Hedges. Despite the Smithsonian’s findings, some still warned of dire consequences if the skull was not returned to Lubaantun by December 21, 2012, but that also proved untrue.
To reach Lubaantun from Punta Gorda, drive 1.5 miles west past the gas station to the Southern Highway, then take a right. Two miles farther, you’ll come to the village of San Pedro. From here, go left around the church to the concrete bridge. Cross and drive almost one mile—the road is passable during the dry season.
SAN PEDRO COLUMBIA
San Pedro is one of the biggest of the villages and is home to well-known Mayan musicians as well as Eladio Pop’s Cacao Trail. A small Catholic church in town has an equally small cemetery; it sits on a hilltop surrounded by a few thatched dwellings.
village of San Pedro Columbia
Eladio Pop’s Cacao Trail is a fantastic experience. Eladio is a one-of-a-kind Maya who will take you all over his farm and show you how the Maya once made chocolate, from the cacao tree all the way to his home, where his wife will roast, grind, and make hot chocolate the old-fashioned way. Contact Toledo Cave and Adventure Tours (cell 501/665-6778) to arrange a trip to Eladio’s.
Two miles upriver from San Pedro Columbia you’ll find Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF, tel. 501/630-4386, www.mmrfbz.org), a registered NGO and working demonstration farm situated on 70 acres. Maya Mountain promotes sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, appropriate technology, and food security using permaculture principles and applied biodiversity. The farm also operates on solar power and offers courses. The property has more than 500 species of plants (including lots of cacao), and the staff are working to establish an ethnobotanical garden of useful plants with their Q’eqchi’ Mayan names and uses. Accommodations are simple rustic affairs, with solar lighting and Internet access.
From the turnoff for Punta Gorda at Mile 86 on the Southern Highway, take the road north. At about Mile 1½, a turnoff on the right heads for San Pedro Columbia and other villages. The Chun Bus makes the run from Punta Gorda to nearby San Antonio (11:30am Mon.-Sat., about US$4 round-trip) but doesn’t stop in San Pedro Columbia; instead you will have to get off the bus at the road and trek in several miles.
This friendly Q’eqchi’ Mayan village has a village guesthouse, a nearby river, thatched houses, and people in traditional dress carrying dishes and clothes (in buckets on their heads) from the swiftly flowing river. San Miguel is also experiencing intense change with recent access to electricity, water, better roads, and increased educational opportunities. During times when the villagers are harvesting coffee, you can witness the process of picking, shelling, drying, and grinding organic coffee. Tours of the village, cave, and milpa are also available. All activities are US$3.50 per hour. The Mayan site of Lubaantun, famous for the discovery of the Crystal Skull and unique architectural features, is about three miles from San Miguel. You can either walk to the site or charter a vehicle (US$7.50). The village does not have a restaurant, but meals are cooked and served at local homes (breakfast or dinner US$3.25, lunch US$4).
San Miguel is home to one guesthouse, run by Vicente Martin (tel. 501/602-6240, email@example.com, dorm bed US$10) and his family, who live across the street from the accommodations. The guesthouse is a traditional thatched structure comprising a bedroom, which may be shared among multiple travelers (although it is likely you will be the only one there); a main living area with a desk, a chair, and a hammock; and a covered outdoor veranda with hammocks. They also provide electricity, linens, and mosquito nets, and a shower and toilet are on the premises. The family offers cooking lessons where you can learn to make corn tortillas (xoroc li cua in Q’eqchi’), along with caldo and other traditional dishes. They also offer handicraft lessons on calabash carving and traditional embroidery.
San Miguel buses leave Punta Gorda three times a day Monday-Saturday. You can catch the village bus on Jose Maria Nunez Street. The first bus leaves at 11:30am and is marked “Silver Creek.” The bus has a 30-minute layover in Silver Creek before heading on to San Miguel. The other buses are also marked “Silver Creek” and leave the park at 4pm and 4:30pm. The bus ride is about 1.5 hours. Buses leave San Miguel for Punta Gorda at 6am, 12:30pm, and 1pm Monday-Saturday.
The village of San Antonio is famous for its exquisite traditional Q’eqchi’ embroidery. However, the younger generation is being whisked right along into 21st-century Belizean society, so who knows how much longer it will survive. Contact Toledo Cave and Adventure Tours (tel. 501/604-2124, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, www.tcatours.com, US$95-115) for a guided trip to Blue Creek Cave (bring a swimsuit) and advice about the area. This is also great bird-watching country.
Along a paved portion of San Antonio Road, two Mayan statues greet you at the entrance of The Farm Inn (Santa Cruz Rd., tel. 501/732-4781 or 501/604-4918, www.thefarminnbelize.com, US$107-142), the most recent (2012) addition to Toledo’s unique “jungle lodge” offerings, but with self-catering units. This remote solar-powered riverside guesthouse is tucked amid 52 acres of land, most of which is being farmed. It is home to 3,000 cacao trees, and guests are welcome to stroll through the cacao plantation. The main guesthouse, closest to the river, is a home transformed into several self-catering guest rooms for a cozy green getaway. The deck views of the surrounding canopy are stunning. There are also two garden-side cabanas, and a 26- by 26-foot swimming pool is forthcoming. Camping is available (US$10); the inn can provide tents. Owners Petro and Pieter Steunenberg moved to Belize from South Africa, hence the on-site outdoor restaurant serving a mix of Belizean and African cuisine. There are nature trails, including one leading to the river below, complimentary use of kayaks, and a bird-watching tower. Tours can also be arranged. The lodge is conveniently located within a 10-minute drive in either direction of two beautiful parks and waterfalls: the San Antonio Falls and my favorite, Río Blanco National Park.
To reach San Antonio, after leaving San Pedro, return to the main road and make a right turn. Soon you’ll be in San Antonio, just down the road. From San Antonio the road is passable as far as Aguacate (another Q’eqchi’ village). Uxbenka is west of San Antonio near the village of Santa Cruz and is easy to get to via the trucks that haul supplies a couple of times a week. Known only by locals until 1984, Uxbenka is where seven carved stelae were found, including one dating from the Early Classic Period.
The Chun Bus makes the run from Punta Gorda to San Antonio (11:30am Mon.-Sat., about US$4 round-trip). Note that this bus doesn’t stop in San Pedro Columbia; instead you have to leave the bus at the road and trek in several miles. Catch the Chun Bus at Jose Maria Nunez Street in Punta Gorda to ensure getting a seat. Remember: No buses run on Sunday.
UXBENKA ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
Difficult to access and largely unexcavated (actually, some recent excavations were covered back up to protect them), the small site of Uxbenka was discovered in 1984 and has more than 20 stelae. The site is perched on a ridge overlooking the traditional Mayan village of Santa Cruz and provides a grand view of the foothills and valleys of the Maya Mountains. Here you’ll see hillsides lined with cut stones. This construction method is unique to the Toledo District. Uxbenka (“Old Place”) was named by the people of nearby Santa Cruz.
Uxbenka is located just outside Santa Cruz, about three miles west of San Antonio village. The most convenient way to see the site is with a rental car. Contact the Uxbenka Kini’chahau Association (UKKA, tel. 501/628-9535, ask for Jose Mes) for more information.
S RÍO BLANCO NATIONAL PARK
Established in 1994 and comanaged by the government and the Río Blanco Mayan Association (the people of Santa Cruz, who volunteer their time as the park wardens, and chairperson Jose Mes), Río Blanco National Park is a favorite, providing stunning scenery and natural beauty for the visitor and an alternative income for members of neighboring villages. The park’s 105 acres encompass a spectacular waterfall that is 20 feet high and ranges from a raging 100 feet wide during the rainy season to about 10 feet during the dry season. Locals say the turquoise pool under the waterfall is bottomless (one claims to have dived 60 feet and never touched bottom, although another says he touched it at 20 feet). The adventurous can jump off the surrounding rocks and fall 20 feet into crystal-clear water. There are also several pools to the back of the falls, plenty of space for a picnic, and two miles of nature trails, which include the cave where the Río Blanco river enters the mountain and a suspended cable bridge over the river.
Río Blanco National Park (tel. 501/628-9535, US$5) is a community-based effort, and 10 percent of entrance fees goes back into the surrounding villages, home to indigenous Maya. On-site, visit the Craft & Snack Shop (run by the Río Blanco Women’s Association) for things like baskets, jewelry, and embroidery, plus the only cold beverages in the area. There is a picnic area under the visitors center.
Rio Blanco National Park
Río Blanco National Park is about 30 miles west of Punta Gorda, between the villages of Santa Cruz and Santa Elena on the road to Jalacte. From Punta Gorda Town, the park is a smooth one-hour drive or an easy hop off the bus. It’s also an easy two-minute hike from the visitors center (at park entrance) along a clear rainforest trail to reach the waterfall.
Two small bus companies serve the village of Jalacte, leaving from Jose Maria Nunez Street in Punta Gorda at 11:30am (Chun Bus, Mon.-Sat.) and 4pm (Bol Bus, Mon., Wed., and Fri.-Sat.); they return from the village on the same days at 3pm. Double-check the latest copy of the Toledo Howler to ensure the schedule hasn’t changed, as it so frequently does around these parts.
BLUE CREEK VILLAGE
S Blue Creek Cave
This village of some 275 Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya was first settled in 1925. It is also called Ho’keb Ha, “the place where the water comes out,” describing the spot where the Río Blanco emerges from the side of a mountain and becomes Blue Creek, home to an extensive cave system. You’ll need a guide who’s familiar with these caves; ask at Punta Gorda or at one of the nearby Mayan villages. Many of these folks know the nearby caves well. You can swim up to 600 yards into the cave; it’s pretty stunning, with a small waterfall in the cave. Bring a flashlight and a swimsuit.
To get here, Kan’s bus leaves Punta Gorda at 11:30am Monday-Saturday; Teck’s bus leaves at noon on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Check the latest bus listings in the local paper to be safe.
Tumul K’in Center of Learning
Located in the village of Blue Creek, the Tumul K’in Center of Learning (tel. 501/608-1070, www.tumulkinbelize.org) was established in 2002 to help preserve Mayan heritage, traditions, and practices. Most impressive is the center’s Residential Academic Program. This Mayan high school of sorts takes in teenagers ages 13 to 16 for a four-year stint. In addition to regular academic classes, such as math and science, the students learn Q’eqchi’ and Mopan, arts and crafts (pottery, sewing, basketry, and marimba playing), and specialize in one of four areas: agricultural science and production, agro-processing, eco-cultural tourism, and sustainable use of natural resources.
The center runs its own farm and sells various products to help sustain the school, including jams, honey, and bottled water. There are also cultural tours and ecotours for visitors. You can visit several Mayan villages in a day, learn to dance to the marimba, or have a “Maya for a Day” experience, where you get to immerse yourself in a day in the life of a Mayan family—making tortillas, helping with household chores, and bathing in the river. Plenty of nature and adventure tours are also offered in the area. Maya Day, one of Toledo’s biggest events, is organized by the center.
International Zoological Expeditions (IZE, tel. 501/532-2404, U.S. tel. 508/655-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ize2belize.com) has a lodge at the Blue Creek Rainforest Station that can host cottage guests at the rustic site. Guests must hike 0.3 miles up into the rainforest along a trail that borders Blue Creek to reach the group of simple cabins with bunk beds, screens, lights, and electric fans. One cabin has a queen bed. Baths are in the main lodge, where meals are served. The rate (US$115 pp per night) covers lodging, three meals, and two daily activities of your choice (for example, guided hikes into the rainforest and a cave).
PUSILHÁ ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
Along the Moho River is a forgotten city, today mostly covered by corn and rainforest. Since its discovery in 1927, Pusilhá has received little attention due the remoteness of the ruins. Early investigations by the British Museum Expedition revealed stelae, extraordinary ceramics, eccentric flints, and the remains of a stone bridge. In 2001, shortly after a dirt-track road connected the village to the rest of Belize, the Pusilhá Archaeology Project resumed investigations under the direction of Geoffrey Braswell. Recent analyses of ceramics suggest that Pusilhá was an important regional trading center.
Pusilhá is near San Benito Poite village, a few miles from the Guatemalan border. Contact licensed tour guide Manuel Cucul (tel. 501/534-8659) or head there with TIDE Tours (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., tel. 501/722-2129, www.tidetours.org, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., US$95 pp for 2 people).
Andy Palacio: Garífuna and Belizean Legend
Barranco’s pride and joy is Andy Palacio, whose pictures are still plastered around the village—clipped from old magazines, at the bar, inside homes, at the local museum, and on the village bulletin board. The talented artist, popular singer, and Garífuna activist was born in Barranco and was buried in his home village far too soon; the star suffered a heart attack at the age of 47, and his death left behind a grieving nation.
Palacio’s legacy is undisputed—anxious to preserve the Garífuna culture and language, he used music as his medium. The Afro-influenced rhythms of punta and paranda are accompanied by moving lyrics that carry socially conscious messages: “Our ancestors fought to remain Garífuna / Why must we be the ones to lose our culture?”
His last album, Wátina, was recorded with the Garífuna Collective, a group of Garífuna musicians from Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. Wátina won worldwide acclaim and awards and put Garífuna music back in vogue, especially with the younger generation. (If you can, grab or download a copy; I still listen to it regularly).
A year before his death, Andy Palacio was awarded the prestigious WOMEX Award and named UNESCO Artist for Peace. You can visit both his childhood home and his grave in Barranco.
Barranco is an isolated, authentic Garífuna village, where activities include fishing along the river and traveling by dugout canoe up the river into the Sarstoon-Temash National Park to see howler monkeys, hickatees (river turtles), and iguanas. Many of Barranco’s 600 inhabitants have traveled far from their village to become some of Belize’s most renowned musicians, painters, and researchers; many have earned advanced degrees in their fields, giving Barranco one of the highest per capita number of PhDs in Central America.
Go on a tour of the village with Alvin, a local resident and tour guide who works with the Belize Tourism Board and will share Garífuna culture and history along the way. Visit a traditional Garífuna thatched-roof home—including the home of famous Garífuna artist Andy Palacio—and view the inside of the impressive dügü, or Garífuna temple, used for family reunions. Sample a Garífuna lunch of fried fish stewed in coconut broth, and visit the Barranco House of Culture for more on this fascinating Afro-Caribbean culture. Return for a refreshing glass of hiu (a spicy drink made of cassava and sweet potato) at the local bar and an evening of drumming.
traditional homes in Barranco, a Garífuna fishing village in the far south
You can get to Barranco by bus from the park in Punta Gorda, by boat from the Punta Gorda dock, or with your tour operator. TIDE Tours (Mile 1, San Antonio Rd., Punta Gorda, tel. 501/722-2129, www.tidetours.org, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri.) is your best bet for a trip to Barranco. If you can, arrange to return by boat—it’s a lot faster and more pleasant than the 2.5-hour bumpy ride back to Punta Gorda.