Good sources of Toledo travel information include the Belize Tourist Board, on Front Street in P.G. next to Verona's (open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). The office also houses the Toledo Ecotourism Association (501-7-22119), which arranges Mayan guesthouse visits.
The Toledo Visitors Information Center (daily 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., except Thursday and Sunday, 501-7-22470 or fax 7-22199), is operated next to the main pier by Alfredo and Yvonne Villoria of Dem Dat's Doin'. The center maintains a message center, bulletin board, and book exchange. Information dispensed free of charge.
Maya Island Airlines has several daily flights between Belize City and P.G.; Tropic Air also has flights on the same route. The trip takes about one and one-half hours (with two stops) and costs around U(S$65 (one-way).
The Z-Line bus runs twice daily between P.G. and Belize City (53 Main Street, 501-7-22165); the James Line bus makes the same shuttle (arriving and leaving from P.G.'s main square). The trip to Belize City (US$11) takes about 10 hours (Dangriga 5 hours, US$8). A number of local buses and trucks carry passengers to surrounding villages, with the heaviest traffic on Wednesdays and Saturdays (Punta Gorda's market days).
Particularly recommended is William Tate's Guest House, near the post office. US$20, 501-7-22196, e-mail: wgs1.btl.net. A/C, TV, owned by P.G.'s postmaster.
Outdoor recreation buffs enjoy Nature's Way Guest House, at 65 Front Street, US$15, 501-7-22119. A P.G. institution that provides many tour options. Quarters are basic: clean rooms with bunks and shared baths. Proprietor Chet Schmidt, an American expat married to a Belizean, arranges visits to Mayan villages and a remote campsite down the coast. Chet has a reliable boat for trips up jungle rivers and to offshore cayes.
The fanciest place is Traveler's Inn, located above the Z-Line bus station at 53 Main Street. US$70, 501-7-22568; with A/C, TV, and a restaurant. Operated by the Zabadeh family, Z-Line's owners.
For an unparalleled immersion into the fascinating culture of the modern Maya, travelers can take advantage of two innovative services that place visitors in local villages: the Toledo Host Family Network/Indigenous Experience Program (501-7-22470) and the Mayan Guesthouse & EcoTrail Program (501-7-22119).
The programs handle lodging differently, but under both schemes visitors eat meals prepared by residents and take outings guided by locals. (Although the Belizean Maya converse among themselves in their own languages, most are fluent in English, which is not the case in neighboring Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico.)
Under the auspices of the Mayan Guesthouse Program, rural villages operate communal lodges, maintain nature trails, and introduce travelers to the Mayan way of life. Guesthouses are found in San Pedro Columbia, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, San José, and Laguna. A sixth facility is scheduled to open in the Garifuna village of Barranco. Accommodations and meals are basic, and there is no electricity or indoor plumbing.
The guesthouse effort is coordinated as a profit-making venture through the Toledo Ecotourism Association, which has an office in the Belize Tourist Board information center on Front St. in P.G. The service was initiated by Chet Schmidt, who operates Nature's Way Guest House/Belize Adventure Travel in P.G. Part of the profits are used to support sustainable agriculture, a community fund, local government, and the construction of clinics. Accommodation rates are about US$10 a night, plus about US$3 for each meal and US$5 for guided tours.
Catering to overnight visitors who wish to stay in the actual homes of villagers, the Toledo Host Family Network involves residents of San Antonio, Santa Cruz, San José, Na Luum Ca, San Pedro Columbia, Silver Creek, and Santa Elena.
After contacting village officials (or Dem Dat's Doin'/Toledo Information Center) and paying a US$5 registration fee, tourists are paired with a Mayan family that will provide meals, a hammock (with sheet) to sleep in, illuminating conversation, and involvement in such daily activities as tortilla preparation, corn farming, "chopping bush," and land tilling. Guided trips are offered to nearby ruins, caves, and nature trails. Visitors pay their host families at a rate of about US$5 a day for room and US$2 per meal. Some of the money goes to host families and the rest is used for community service projects such as potable water systems and health clinics. In order to find out who coordinates the homestay in a particular village, ask for the name and address of the local alcalde or chairperson.
Significantly more upscale accommodations are provided at one of the most unusual attractions in the district: the award-winning commercial butterfly farm operated by English lawyer Clive P. Farrell and tropical plant specialist Ray Harberd. Farrell, who operates butterfly parks in the U.K. and Florida, developed this operation after his first farm shut down at the Shipstern Nature Reserve in northern Belize. Located in a stunning hill-top setting near Lubaantun, Fallen Stones Butterfly Farm primarily raises two species, popularly known as the blue morpho and the owl butterfly.
A tour (US$5) brings you into breeding cages where hundreds of insects feed, mate, and lay their eggs. It's an amazing experience to have these iridescent, neon-blue creatures land on your fingers-and even the tip of your nose. When they reach their chrysalis (pupa) stage, dormant animals are shipped by air to the U.S. and Europe, where they emerge as brand-new butterflies within a days of arrival.
The Fallen Stones Jungle Lodge (US$80, 501-7-22167), managed separately, offers comfortable bungalows, fine meals, and excellent guided tours of the nearby forest and ruins. The latter are often led by Acapito Requena, who spent many years as a chiclero (chicle-tapper) in the adjacent wilderness.
About 3 miles away, Dem Dat's Doin' has a basic room for rent (US$15, 7-22470, or www.belizenet.com/villoria/tvic/tcl) at the permaculture farm of Alfredo and Yvonne Villoria. Home-cooked meals are available for a modest fee and, for US$5, you can take an extensive tour of the this unusual operation. Using relatively simple, low-impact technology, the couple (who immigrated here from the U.S. in 1980) are almost completely food and energy independent. They grow fruits and vegetables (including such oddities as "flying potatoes"); capture and mount invertebrates for scientific use; raise fish, chickens and pigs; collect solar energy and harvest rainwater; and generate methane gas (for cooking and refrigeration) through a "digester" fueled by animal wastes. Their frangipani and ylang-ylang flowers are made into perfume, and other plants are sold in a small nursery.
If rainforest ecology is your thing, I recommend a stay at one of six bungalows at the International Zoological Expeditions field station and lodge near Blue Creek (US$130, including all meals; 508-655-1461; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). A special treat is IZE's canopy-level sky-walk which zigzags its way through the 100-foot-high forest canopy. Non-IZE guests pay a small fee for use of the sky-walk. Guides can be hired (about US$35 per day) for jungle hikes, cave exploration, and tours of Mayan ruins. Check the IZE website at www.ize2belize.com.
It's also relatively easy to find accommodations in the Toledo interior on your own. Many residents will take you in and feed you for about US$10 a night (or less). More formal options include Bol's Hilltop Hotel (no phone) in San Antonio and Oh's Travelers' Farm & Lodge (no phone) in San Pedro Columbia, where you can get basic rooms (US$14) and meals.
WHERE TO EAT:
The best breakfasts in town are served at Granny's and Nature's Way, both on Front Street. Recommended for Belizean dishes is Lucille's, also on Front. Many travelers rave about Punta Caliente, at 108 José Nuñez Street, near the Z-Line depot.
Consistently negative comments have been made about the food and rooms at the Mira Mar Hotel, 95 Front Street. The author's experience bears this out.
P.G. has long been a jumping-off point for travelers heading to Guatemala and from there to Honduras and points south. What was once a tiresome trip can be made much more easily now. The slow, chug-a-lug passenger ferry to Puerto Barrios which formerly ran two times a week no longer operates. It apparently could not compete with the independent water taxis which offer speedier and more frequent, albeit somewhat more expensive, service.
Requena's Charter Service (501-7-22070, Main Street) is one that offers daily 9 a.m. service to Puerto Barrios, for about US$12.50 one-way. If there are enough passengers (usually 8), some operators will make a trip when Requena's boat fills up. Other private boats also make the trip. You can try bargaining your way onto one of the supply skiffs that shuttle between Barrios and P.G. Requena's and others usually will stop at Livingston, Guatemala, which now has an immigration/customs office.
No matter how you depart, you must have your passport stamped by authorities in the Belize immigration office, at the foot of the municipal wharf. When I visited, there was no Belize exit fee; the land-border entry fee for Guatemala was US$2.50. Boat connections to Honduras can be made easily from Puerto Barrios. Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency, can be obtained at Grace's Shop, from arriving ferry passengers, or the money-changer who meets boats in Barrios. The bank in Punta Gorda does not handle quetzales, nor are Guatemalan visas available here or in Puerto Barrios. Note that some recent travelers to Puerto Barrios have reported being hustled for thinly disguised bribes by Guatemalan officials there.
Update on the Southern Highway
First-Person Report on Toledo Homestays
Rich Mahler's Take on Toledo District
Back to Main Menu Toledo: Remote and Beautiful