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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Belize.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Belize.
Visitors per year: 25,000
Main town: Punta Gorda
Languages: English, Maya, Garifuna
Major industries: agriculture, some tourism
Unit of currency: BZ dollar (BZ$)
Cost index: meal on the street BZ$6 (US$3), meal at resort BZ$30-40 (US$15-20), shared bunkroom at Rio Blanco Ranger Station BZ$20 (US$10), cottage at eco-resort BZ$200-1000 (US$100-500).
With gorgeous islands, protected jungles and ancient Maya ruins, it’s no wonder that the small Central American nation of Belize welcomes 300,000 visitors annually. But though Belize’s Toledo District possesses all these splendours and more, only a single-digit percent of visitors to Belize ever make it to the deep south. Thank geography for that: Toledo sits at the end of the Southern Highway, making it Belize’s only dead-end district, still largely the province of adventure travellers willing to go the distance to experience the country as it was in days gone by.
But as Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changin, and Toledo’s days as a backwater are almost certainly coming to a close as the $8 million asphalt road – which, when completed, will form part of the Pan-American Highway – continues to be built from the Southern Highway towards the border of Guatemala. Once the road reaches the tiny village of Jalacte, Belize’s third (and Toledo’s only) international border crossing will open, connecting Toledo’s tiny Maya villages with neighbouring Guatemala and the world beyond What changes the road will bring to the area is uncertain.
As of mid-2014, the road was paved just until Rio Blanco National Park, a protected wildlife area with waterfalls, hiking trails, and Belize’s most beautiful swimming hole. From the park, it’s less than 15 miles through jungle and Maya villages over a rough and unpaved (for now) dirt road to Jalacte, site of the future border crossing.
Celebrated in the village of Blue Creek, Toledo’s Maya Day celebration is hold on Sunday 22 March. Like chocolate? Then you won’t want to miss the Chocolate Festival of Belize (formerly the Toledo Cacao Festival), which will happen on Commonwealth Day weekend in Punta Gorda. Bringing together drummers from around the country, Punta Gorda’s Battle of the Drums weekend will happen from 13 to 15 November.
Take a jungle hike through the stunning Rio Blanco National Park followed by a swim in the protected wildlife area’s crystal blue waterfall-fed pond.
Learn the ancient and delicious Maya tradition of cacao production and chocolate-making at Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate (formerly known as Cyrila’s), sampling along the way chocolate bars, hot chocolate, cacao wine and more.
Study traditional Creole and Garifuna music and drum-making with Emmeth Young or Ronald Raymond McDonald, two master drummers who have schools in Punta Gorda.
Those who make it to Toledo will catch a glimpse of Belize as it existed in decades gone by. While most of the Maya villages in the deep south have electricity (many through solar power), meals and accommodation in San Pedro Columbia, San Antonio and San Jose will likely be with local Maya families rather than guesthouses. Trek out to the partially excavated tombs and pyramids of Nim Li Punnit and Lubaantun and on most days it’ll just be you, the jungle and the ghosts of the past for miles around.
You may run into fellow travellers in Punta Gorda (Toledo’s largest – and only – town), but even there you’ll experience none of the tourist-town vibe of Caye Caulker or Cayo.
That the building of the Pan-American Highway will bring major change to the region is a given. Christopher Nesbitt, founder of Toledo-based Maya Mountain Research Farm (which promotes economic security and environmental conservation throughout Belize), has spent much time in recent months working with villagers along the new road to develop solar and other sustainable forms of power to cope with the coming increase in traffic and visitors. ‘People in the Maya communities are all talking about the changes the road will bring,’ says Christopher. ‘Increased traffic will bring some benefits, but most people are worried that their traditional way of life may be eroded by the creation of this highway.’
Spending a night in this one-of-a-kind jungle-enveloped lodge is like being a guest of the Mayan spirits in an ancient world. Set within a Mayan plaza dating to the Classic Period (A.D. 300-900), itself surrounded by the pristine vine-tangled wilderness of the 250,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation area, the Chan Chich Lodge gives new meaning to the expression “off the beaten track.”
The ruin-studded location teems with birds and howler monkeys, while well-tended trails snake around grass-covered mounds concealing temples, pyramids, tombs, and residences dating back more than 1,500 years. Organized jeep and horseback trips to neighboring, less-excavated cities provide further insight into the rich Mayan heritage. The lodge’s thatched-roof bungalows, built of local woods, resemble Mayan homes, but are elegant and luxurious inside, although TV- and telephone-free. Wraparound verandas strung with hammocks invite low-impact afternoons, when listening to the tropical birds may be all the gods meant for their guests to do.
Even if you don’t ride, this beautiful place in the Maya Mountains will make you reconsider. Although some treks can be made by foot or four-wheel drive, many fascinating jungle destinations are accessible only on horseback. At Mountain Equestrian Trails (MET), your machete-wielding Mayan guide knows his backyard intimately. As he whacks back the dense brush along 60 miles of narrow, winding trails, he’ll point out hidden wildlife and recount jungle lore on the way to breathtaking locations that include remote Mayan ruins and underground cave systems.
Unnamed waterfalls, hidden streams, and natural pools are perfect for a refreshing swim and a lunch break of homemade empanadas. Situated at 800 feet above sea level in the jungles of the Maya Mountains, some of the METs trails head for twice that altitude on the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. About 70 percent of this tiny former British colony is covered by forest; it is home to 700 species of trees and 250 kinds of orchids. Back at the ranch, owned by a hospitable American family, the simple but handsome thatched cabanas have no electricity, but are romantically lit by the flicker of kerosene lamps and resident fireflies. The showers are hot, the bacon is crisp, and the homemade banana pancakes are delicious. Extraordinary scenery and the clear mountain air should have even the formerly horse-phobic jumping back in the saddle for another day’s journey of discovery.
It is incongruous that along the coast of a little-known country the size of Massachusetts is a teeming barrier reef, the longest in the western hemisphere and second in area only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. More than 200 offshore islets and cays sit either directly on or just off the 185-mile-long reef, the two largest being Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye.
The latter is the most popular, its charming laid- back town of San Pedro the reef’s most important jumping-off point for more than forty snorkeling and dive sites. Off the southern tip of Ambergris, the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve offers one of the best day or night dives for sheer variety of marine life, including forty kinds of grouper, a forest of coral, and sponge as dense and varied as the mainland’s jungle mantle. But if diving off Ambergris is great, then diving off the only three coral atolls in the Caribbean is unforgettable. Ringlike Lighthouse Reef is the most accessible, owing to a new airstrip built on the cay, and is nearest to two of the reefs most stellar dives: the fabled Blue Hole (in 1970 Jacques Cousteau called it “one of the four must-dive locations on this blue planet”) and Half Moon Caye National Park. Lighthouse Reef also has spectacular wall dives, with superlative visibility often reaching 200 feet. At Lighthouse Reef Resort, 90 percent of the guests come for the diving, the rest for the remoteness and serenity.