Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School

The Hidden Treasures of Belize

Exploring the Country’s Rich Cultural Traditions and Natural Heritage

View from a boat of a river in Belize.

The small Central American country of Belize is primarily known for the world's second-largest barrier reef and its picturesque islands, a popular destination for sun-seekers and divers. But Belize has much more to offer than coral reefs and pristine beaches. The country has 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 south 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 across this vastly unspoiled region, where the villagers pursue traditional farming and fishing livelihoods.

In the 1990s, several villages joined to form the Toledo Ecotourism Association. This community-based organization promotes cultural and ecological tourism in the area. The project initially received a lot of international attention. It received 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 Berlin, Germany's largest tourism fair. 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 waned in recent years, the guesthouses continue to operate, and the villages still welcome a few guests each year.

What sets this initiative apart from the other hotels and lodges in the region is 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, and 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 enslaved Africans 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 mainland of Central America. Eventually, they migrated along the coast, south to Nicaragua and north to Belize. Although the Garífuna people are predominantly African ethnically, their language and culture are 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 various 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 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 baking cassava bread. In addition, guests are welcome to join in and learn about the daily activities of the villagers — such as farming, fishing, or making handicrafts.

Both the Mayans and Garífuna speak English in addition to their indigenous language. I have found both the Mayan and Garífuna people 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, 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 entirely paved, there will not only be a more significant 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 villages, visitors contribute to the preservation of the pristine ecosystems in southern Belize. Each village has several certified and trained tour guides and actively protects its traditional homeland and 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 are two 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 allowing 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 community's living conditions, 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 many birds. The Laguna community maintains a boardwalk 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 could observe wood storks, egrets, ibises, ducks, warblers, kingfishers, and several 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 was agreed on between the government and the villages. 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 allows visitors 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 arrange 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 essential economic impulse for these remote communities, where fishing and farming are the main livelihoods and 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 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. Still, 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 are offered daily programs and entertainment. As usual, the villagers go about their daily lives, and visitors can join them and participate. Still, it is up to the guests to take the initiative 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 only available in some places. 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 unavailable. Although each ethnic community has its own culinary specialties, the daily fare is relatively simple.

How to Arrange a Stay at a Village Guesthouse

To sign up for a village stay, you must contact the tourism office in Punta Gorda., where the TEA has a desk staffed several days a week. You can also arrange a village stay with TEA with an email before arrival. Still, an advance reservation is usually optional. Village stays are arranged on a rotational system so that all communities receive equal 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 in cash, either in Belize dollars or U.S. dollars. The exchange rate is fixed at 2 Belize dollars to 1 U.S. dollar.

Getting There

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 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 sweltering from March to May, before the onset of the rainy season.

Each village 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 most significant 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 the Toledo district, is known for the St. Luis or Deer Dance festival, held annually in August and 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. A conservation fee of BZ $7.50 is charged to foreign visitors, who stay more than 24 hours, when leaving the country — which is used for the conservation and protection of the environment.

For More Info

Belize Tourism

SATIIM (Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management)

Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT)

Related Topics
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism
Independent and Solo Travel
Related Articles
Explore a Reef Hideaway: Belize's Placencia Peninsula Offers Affordable Adventures
Volunteering and Educational Travel in Belize: An Overview of Voluntourism and Research Options

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection