By RICHARD MAHLER
One of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to British novelist Aldous Huxley, who long ago noted that Belize was "on the way from no place to nowhere."
Today, while the rest of this long-neglected country is giving way to air-conditioned jungle lodges, stoplight intersections, and cybercafes, Huxley's backwater ambiance still pervades its southernmost district: Toledo.
In Punta Gorda-or P.G., as the Belizeans call it-one can stand for half an hour in the center of the main street and be overtaken by more dogs and chickens than automobiles. Indeed, there are times of day when you could probably lie down and take a nap on Main Street without fear of being run over-except perhaps by the eager entrepreneur who delivers homemade pizza on his bicycle.
The most sparsely populated and undeveloped region in Belize, Toledo is connected (barely) to the rest of the country by a single dirt road, the Southern Highway, which is (very) slowly being paved thanks to loans from Kuwait and others. Punta Gorda also has a small airstrip.
Much of the area is without electricity, indoor plumbing, or hot water. In fact, the majority of its residents are subsistence farmers-including about 11,000 Kekchí and Mopan Maya-who live in thatched-roof huts or cement-block cabins. The per-capita annual income here is estimated at less than US$800.
A visit to Toledo is a visit to the Belize of 25-or perhaps 50-years ago.
In the sprawling market town of P.G., horses roam freely among clapboard houses and patches of uncut vegetation. Freshly caught turtles and fish are dressed on the shoreline. Wheelbarrows brimming with produce roll along broad, tree-shaded streets. Uniformed schoolchildren skip rope in front of modest churches; adults gossip on street corners as they go about their errands. The silence at night is deafening.
P.G. gives new meaning to the concept of laid-back. My first day in town I stopped at an inexpensive guesthouse in search of a room. The hotel was completely empty and I feared there may have been a sudden death in the family. A passersby sent me next door, where the proprietor's friendly wife explained that her husband was out running errands and I should pick any room I liked. After settling in, I walked down the road to a Chinese restaurant. Between the time I sat down and receipt of my greasy fried rice, 49 minutes ticked by. Even by Belize standards, this is leisurely service. Luckily, the cafe had a TV dish scooping up CNN, which allowed me to catch a glimpse of the blizzards back home.
Later that evening-after a long-winded discussion about the world's problems with a Vietnam vet, a Mayan village chief, and a young Canadian couple-I enjoyed a more satisfying meal at Man Man's Five-Star, a P.G. institution that combined home, kitchen, and restaurant of a Garifuna chef with a big smile and a lifetime of experience cooking for the Belizean and Guatemalan military.
"Y'all in fo' big treat," Man Man declared, rolling his eyes, as we sat down to a festive feast that included fried snapper, cole slaw, rice, beans, and Belikin beer. "Don't nobody leave heah hungry!" It's no wonder his kitchen-and I'm not kidding-once received the official Duncan Hines seal of approval.
Sadly, Man Man's cooking can no longer be enjoyed in P.G. He has moved to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days in P.G., and I found that this is a good time to inspect the handcrafted wares of Mayan artisans from local villages as well as nearby Guatemala. Exotic fruits and vegetables are on sale, too. The market is on Front Street (which fronts the Caribbean), with booths spilling over onto Queen. Local handicrafts made by the Fajina Craft Center (501-7-22470) are a particularly good value: They are of high quality, priced fairly, and their sale supports a local "self-empowerment" organization of Kekchí and Mopan women. Look for tie-tie baskets, jippy-jappa baskets, slate carvings, hand-woven textiles, and embroideries. Among the most unusual items are reproductions of ancient Mayan icons on hand-made paper.
Once you've exhausted the low-key attractions of P.G.-easily accomplished in a day or two-it's time to head west and north for a look at Toledo's three major inland attractions: ancient Maya ruins, living Maya villages, and lush rainforests.
Be advised that travel is manageable during the dry season (February-May) but can be problematic the rest of the year. The district averages well over 100 inches of rain annually, and its many streams can be difficult to ford during a downpour. There are relatively few gas stations, grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants. In short, tourist services are minimal. Yet this is where you'll see Belize's only true rainforest and some of its most interesting Mayan sites.
Beyond the daily buses traversing the Southern Highway (now paved north from P.G. for a few miles), the only public transportation consists of supply trucks and informal pick-up "taxis" that shuttle between 30 villages scattered along a network of interior roads. Friendly drivers routinely stop for pedestrians, but you'll save time by renting your own 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
It's a comfortable day-trip from P.G. to Lubaantun, one of the most unusual Mayan ruins in Belize. Nestled on a verdant hillside about 2 miles north of San Pedro Columbia, Lubaantun encompasses several large pyramids, plazas, a ball-court, and other ceremonial structures. A visitor is struck by the fact that most buildings are composed of limestone blocks cut to precise dimensions, as at the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. No one is sure how the Maya accomplished this engineering feat, since they had no metal tools. The look of this masterful stonework is like marble. The best-known "discovery" here is the Crystal Skull, an 8-inch carved cube of pure crystal. It was supposedly unearthed here in 1926 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, daughter of a Canadian archaeologist. Belize officials have been clamoring for return of the skull (which some Mayanists dismiss as a fake), but during a visit to Lubaantun in 1996, Mitchell-Hedges said she has no intention of giving the relic back.
The other large ruin in Toledo is Nim Li Punit, about 25 miles north of P.G. near the village of Indian Creek. Hidden from outsiders until 1976, this site is noted for its 25 intricately carved stelae, including the tallest (at 31 feet) stone monument in the country. As at many Mayan sites, there is an enormous ceiba tree near the ruin's center, probably dating from its final occupation. Nearby you can buy well-made handicrafts from local Mayan artisans, who operate an arts co-op.
A favorite natural wonder is the Maya's sacred Hokeb Ha Cave (also called Blue Creek Cave), part of an intriguing underground river system. The water flowing from this passage is crystal clear and perfectly suited to a refreshing swim on a hot day. During the dry season it's possible to hike from the Blue Creek entrance to an exit point 5 miles away. Access to Hokeb Ha is via well-marked riverside trail from Blue Creek Village, about 21 miles west of P.G.
A favorite kayaking spot is the Upper Moho River, which drains a wilderness watershed in the southern Maya Mountains. The spectacular terrain has prompted one visitor to label this, "Belize's answer to Arizona's Havasupai Falls." From December through April, Island Expeditions (800 667-1630 or 604 452-3212) offers a 6-day trip using inflatable kayaks (about US$1,000 per person).
Naturalists and truly adventurous travelers have several undeveloped wilderness parks in Toledo to choose from, including the Bladen Nature Reserve, Temash-Sarstoon National Park, Payne's Creek Natuonal Park, Columbia Forest Reserve, Monkey River Wildlife Sanctuary, and Punta Ycacos Nature Reserve. Access to some of these rugged destinations is restricted and you'll definitely want to hire an experienced, competent guide.
The barrier reef swings far to the east of Toledo's coast and trips to offshore islands are relatively time-consuming and expensive. But your reward for these high-priced excursions is access to some of the most pristine diving, snorkeling, and fishing waters in Belize. Particularly recommended are the Sapodilla cayes, with talcum-powder beaches and swaying coconut palms. You'll share the more popular reef islands, like Hunting Caye, with daytrippers from Honduras and Guatemala.
For offshore adventure, Timeless Tours runs 7- to 12-day camping excursions to cayes and jungle rivers aboard its 38-foot schooner Juanita, based in P.G. The sailboat goes as far as Wild Cane Caye (the site of a Mayan ruin), the Snake Cayes, and even Guatemala. Charter by Land/Sea schedules boat and interior trips from its office at 12 Front Street (501-7-2070). Requena Boat Charters (501-7-22070, Main Street) also arranges fishing, snorkeling, and nature-observation trips and provides very good guides. Diving is the specialty of Orange Point Marina, operated by an American expatriate.
Many of the recent changes in the Toledo District have made it more attractive to the foreign visitor. But with change comes uncertainty. It's safe to say that there is no better time to visit the Toledo District than the present, in part because development pressures, spurred by the paving of the Southern Highway, are already changing its look and character. At least 15 logging concessions reportedly have been granted by the Belize government in Toledo's forest reserves, and one Malaysian firm (Atlantic Industries) is logging pristine rainforest at the rate of 1,200 acres per year. Local villagers, members of the Belize Audubon Society, and international conservationists have complained that Atlantic is violating terms of its contract by harvesting trees outside designated areas and destroying critical wildlife habitat, among other alleged offenses. Both the government and the logging company have denied the charges. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean about 20 miles east of Monkey River, Houston-based Dover Technology has sunk Belize's first offshore oil well.
A word to the wise should be sufficient: If you want to see southern Belize in its full pristine glory, go now!
Editor's note: Richard Mahler is co-author, with Steele Wotkyns, of Belize: Adventures in Nature, published by John Muir. This guide formerly was titled Belize, A Natural Destination, and its 3rd edition was named the country's best travel guide by the Belize Ministry of Tourism and the Environment. This section on Toledo is excerpted, with some changes, from the new guide. It is reprinted with permission. Richard Mahler lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
IF YOU GO -- Practical Information
Update on the Southern Highway
First-Person Report on Toledo Homestays
Back to Main Menu Toledo: Remote and Beautiful