The Hidden Treasures of Belize
Exploring the Country’s Rich Cultural Traditions and Natural Heritage
The small Central American country of Belize is primarily known for the world’s second largest barrier reef and its picturesque islands, which are a popular destination for sun seekers and divers. But Belize has much more to offer than coral reefs and pristine beaches. The country has a great cultural and ecological diversity, and visitors are well advised to venture beyond the islands and beaches to explore the country’s rich traditions and natural heritage. For travelers interested in meeting the diverse ethnic groups that make up the country’s population while exploring remote natural attractions, the southern district of Toledo is the best destination. Although southern Belize is the least visited region of Belize, it is home to ancient Mayan temples, pristine rain forests, dense mangroves, mountain ranges, extensive river systems, limestone caves, and lagoons. Small indigenous communities are scattered all across this largely unspoiled region, where the villagers pursue traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing.
In the 1990s several of these villages joined to form the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA), a community-based organization with the goal to promote cultural and ecological tourism in the area. The project initially received a lot of international attention and was the recipient of international funding to build guesthouses in several villages—where visitors can stay and experience village life. In 1997 the TEA won the ‘ToDo Prize for Responsible Tourism’ at the world’s largest tourism fair in Berlin, Germany. This prize was awarded annually in Germany from 1996-2006 to support sustainable tourism projects around the world. Although publicity and international attention for the TEA has somewhat waned in recent years, the guesthouses continue to operate and the villages still welcome a small number of guests each year.
What sets this initiative apart from the other hotels and lodges in the region is the fact that the TEA guesthouse program is owned by the villages and that all profits directly benefit the local communities. There are villages of several distinct cultural and ethnic groups that travelers can visit. In southern Belize there are two different Mayan communities, the Mopan and Kek’chi Mayas, as well as the coastal Garífuna village of Barranco. The Mopan and Kek’chi migrated to Belize from Guatemala and Mexico in the late 19th century, and the Garífuna settled in this area in the 1850s. In addition there are more recent arrivals of Mayan groups from Guatemala, mostly Kek’chi Mayans, who fled the violence of the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Garífuna are descendants of African slaves who mixed with the Carib Indians in the Caribbean centuries ago. After being expelled by the British from their original home island of St. Vincent in the Grenadiers in 1796, the Garífuna were deported to one of the Bay Islands in Honduras (Roatán). From Roatán they reached the Central America mainland and eventually migrated along the coast, all the way south to Nicaragua and north to Belize. Although the Garífuna people are predominantly African ethnically, their language and culture is mostly Carib in origin.
Exploring Local Culture in Belize
Experiencing the way of life of the local people is one of the main attractions of the guesthouse program. Visitors stay at the village guesthouse, have their meals with local families, and are offered to participate in a variety of activities, such as cultural events and excursions to the nearby natural attractions. Village guests are encouraged to sample traditional foods. In Mayan villages you can expect to be served freshly made corn tortillas, and guests may be invited to join in the tortilla preparation. In the Garífuna community of Barranco, you might be able to participate in the harvesting of cassava roots and the baking of cassava bread. In addition, guests are welcome to participate in and learn about the daily activities of the villagers—such as farming, fishing, or the making of handicrafts.
Both the Mayans and Garífuna speak English in addition to their indigenous language. I have found both the Mayan and Garífuna people to warm and hospitable. When I stayed in Barranco, I received many invitations to visit the villagers’ homes, meet their families, have a cup of coffee, take a look at their orchards, and visit their farms. I was fortunate to stay in the village during a short visit of a small group of university students and participate in the cultural activities arranged for them, including a performance of traditional dancing and drumming.
Protecting The Rich Ecosystem of Southern Belize
An important aspect of the Toledo Ecotourism Association is environmental protection. Now that the southern highway connecting the Toledo district with the rest of Belize is almost completely paved, there will not only be a greater influx of tourists, but also of companies interested in exploiting the region’s rich natural resources, such as timber and oil. In contrast to the predatory extraction of resources, the guesthouse program promotes sustainable tourism.
Many of the villages are close to wildlife reserves and national parks, and by staying in the village visitors contribute to the preservation of the pristine ecosystems in southern Belize. Each village has a number of certified and trained tour guides, and is actively engaged in protecting their traditional homeland and its environment for future generations.
Blue Creek, a small Mayan village, is located at the lower end of a canyon, about a mile downstream from where the river emerges from an underground system of caves. Swimming upriver into the limestone cave and climbing up several waterfalls is one of the main natural attractions of the Toledo district. Since the land is government-owned, the Blue Creek community is advocating a co-management plan that would allow only local guides to the caves and surrounding attractions to channel more funds to the Blue Creek community. With few economic opportunities to improve the living conditions of the community, this agreement would provide much-needed additional income.
Laguna is another Mayan village close to a nature reserve on public land. The Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary protects extensive wetlands and several lagoons, home to a large variety of birds. The Laguna community maintains a boardwalk that leads for about a mile from the village to the river, past marshland and swamp forest. The small visitor fee supports the maintenance of the boardwalk and visitor facilities. When I visited the park, the recent rains had significantly raised the river’s water level, and the bird watching trip turned into an exhausting adventure of wading waist-deep across the flooded savanna. Fortunately the effort paid off, and I was able to observe wood storks, egrets, ibises, ducks, warblers, kingfishers, and a number of other birds.
Barranco is one of five villages in Belize forming a buffer zone around the Sarstoon-Temash National Park, a bi-national protected area in Belize and Guatemala, home to extensive mangrove swamps and the coastal rain forest, as well as a large diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds. After protests by the villagers, who found themselves prohibited from using natural resources inside the national park, a co-management plan between the government and the villages was agreed on. Ecotourism, limited land use for farming, and sustainable extraction of forest resources, such as the leaves of the Comfra palm for thatched roofs, are part of this agreement. Together with other villages of the buffer zone, residents of Barranco are currently fighting proposed oil exploration by a U.S. oil company, which would most likely have a devastating impact on the largely untouched ecosystem of the national park. Visiting Barranco gives visitors the opportunity to explore the nearby national park with its mangrove forests, winding rivers, and diverse wildlife. Guests can rent a kayak to explore the national park on their own or with a local guide, or they can make arrangements for a tour by motorboat.
Attracting visitors to the region’s natural treasures is the only economically viable alternative to logging and oil exploration, and visiting the villages provides an important economic impulse for these remote communities, where fishing and farming are the main livelihoods and where poverty and underdevelopment are the most pressing problems.
What to Expect
Before leaving the regional capital Punta Gorda for my stay in Barranco village, I was lucky to meet one of the guides involved in the guesthouse program. Egbert is a young, energetic Garífuna man, dedicated to promoting ecotourism in his native village. He told me that he would notify the village of my arrival, but he also pointed out an important aspect of the guesthouse program that visitors should keep in mind: “You will be welcome in our village and you can participate in our daily activities, but we will not entertain you.” In contrast to jungle lodges and resorts, visitors are not pampered and offered daily programs and entertainment. The villagers go about their daily lives as usual, and visitors can join them and participate, but it is up to the initiative of the guests to let the villagers know what types of activities they are interested in.
Keep in mind that all villages of the guesthouse program are located in remote areas of southern Belize, where electricity and water supply systems are not available everywhere. There is usually a community telephone in every village, but no computers or internet access. Accommodation in the villages is at a simple guesthouse with two eight-bed dormitories and a thatched roof. The bathrooms are in separate buildings with modern plumbing, but no hot water. Bedding, mosquito netting, and mosquito coils are provided, as well as candles where electricity is not available. Although each ethnic community has their own culinary specialties, the daily fare is rather simple.
How to Arrange a Stay at a Village Guesthouse
To sign up for a village stay, you need to contact the tourism office in Punta Gorda., where the TEA has a desk that is staffed several days per week. You can also arrange a village stay with TEA with an email ahead of your arrival, but an advance reservation is usually not necessary. Village stays are arranged on a rotational system, so that all communities receive an equal amount of visitors. Accommodation at a guesthouse is usually paid to the TEA representative in the village, and the meals and special activities are paid directly to the host families and the guides. You can pay cash either in Belize dollars or U.S. dollars. The exchange rate is fixed at 2 Belize dollars to 1 U.S. dollar.
Punta Gorda, the capital of Toledo district, is connected to the main international airport in Belize City by daily flights and buses (it’s an all-day bus ride). Punta Gorda can also be reached by ferry from Guatemala (daily from Puerto Barrios, and twice a week from Livingston). From Punta Gorda you can reach the villages on a dirt road by bus, hired vehicle, and in the case of Barranco, also by boat. There is usually just one bus a day in either direction.
When to Go
Belize has two seasons: the rainy season from August to January, and the dry season from February to July. Toledo is the most fertile and lush district in Belize, with the highest amount of rainfall, and a slightly shorter dry season from February through May. The best time to visit southern Belize is from January through March, when rainfall lightens up, and the temperatures are still pleasant. It can get very hot from March to May, before the onset of the rainy season.
Each of the villages in the guesthouse program has its own special festivities and celebrations. You might want to plan your stay around one of these major festivals: The biggest celebration for the Garífuna people is Nov 19, Garífuna Settlement Day, when many Garífuna communities celebrate the arrival of their ancestors in Belize, with traditional costumes, music, dance, and food. San Antonio, the largest Mayan village in Toledo district, is known for the St. Luis or Deer Dance festival, held every year in August, which is celebrated with dances, music, and traditional costumes. All Saint's Day and All Souls Day in early November, although Catholic holidays are also important celebrations for the Mayans, who honor their ancestors with music, dance, and ceremonies.
Entry and Exit Requirements
Citizens of North America and Europe can enter Belize with a valid passport, for up to 30 days. No visa is necessary. There is a conservation fee of BZ $ 7.50, charged to foreign visitors when leaving the country, which is used for the conservation and protection of the environment.
For More Info
Plenty International, plenty.org/programs/plenty-belize/.
Southern Belize.com, www.southernbelize.com.
The Belize Tourist Board, www.travelbelize.org.
SATIIM (Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management), www.satiim.org.bz.
Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT), www.pactbelize.org.
Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize, a project of the Mayan People of Southern Belize in cooperation with the U.C. Berkeley Geography Department. Although now over 15 years old, this interesting book is still a great reference work about Mayan culture in southern Belize. Published by North Atlantic Books.