Most tourists go to Belize for the coral reefs, diving, snorkeling, and the beaches. The true heart and soul of the country, though, can be found inland. In particular, the southernmost districts are gems with few tourists and more authenticity.
The Toledo District is the most southerly and least populated region in Belize, near the Guatemalan border, with views of Honduras across the sea. It is surrounded by lush rainforest, criss-crossed by meandering rivers and studded with living Mayan villages and several classic Mayan ruin sites, including Lubaantuun, the largest Mayan ceremonial center in Southern Belize. Explore rainforest grottoes and rivers where iguanas and crabs climb invisibly on tree branches of mangrove, mahogany, palm, and Spanish cedar. It’s possible to explore the culture and food of three distinct ethnic groups in one day — the Creole, Maya, and Garifuna cultures peacefully co-exist. The mix of these cultures — with influences from the Caribbean, Mexico, Africa, Guatemala, China, and India — make it an ideal place for a festival.
The town of Punta Gorda is the hub for exploring Toledo, with a number of lovely inns and lodges. Nearby Stann Creek District is home to a wildlife sanctuary and a national park and the villages of Placencia and Hopkins provide accommodations for those venturing through the area. There are a number of guides who can provide boats, equipment, and even lunch.
Once you’ve tried a few activities on this list, then head to Placencia’s or Hopkins’ beaches for a well-deserved rum punch made with the local One Barrel rum or for a Belikin, the national beer.
Here are 10 things you can do that don’t involve a beach:
1. The Cacao Trail Tour. The tradition of chocolate-making in Belize traces its origins back about 1,500 years to the Mayans. Cacaofest is an annual event in Toledo that takes place every May and celebrates the Mayan chocolate-making tradition. Cacao beans only grow in the south, which gets the most rainfall. You can do the Cacao Trail Tour any time of the year — visit a Mayan farm, tour the cacao orchards, and crack open a cacao pod to taste the fresh fruit, which is a bit slimy but tasty. The juicier the flesh, the better the fermentation and the higher the cocoa’s quality. Learn about the fermenting and drying process, watch the cacao being roasted and then see how the beans are turned into velvety chocolate.
Festival activities include a cacao pod-breaking ceremony at Maya House in Mafredi Village, a Chocolate Gala at Copal Tree Lodge (a decadent evening of wine, chocolate, cocktails, capapes, and music), a Cacao & Culture Day in Santa Cruz Village with chocolate-making demonstrations and cultural activities like traditional Maya deer dancing. Proceeds go to support the Mayan cacao farmers. You can try fresh corn tortillas made on a stone in the traditional Mayan way. Legend has it that tortillas were invented by a Mayan peasant to feed his hungry king and the recorded use of tortillas dates to 10,000 BCE. Jipijappa baskets and beautiful, hand-loomed shoulder bags can be purchased from Mayan women who have woven them in their homes and village. Participating in these activities can positively impact Mayan families who often survive on subsistence farming.
2. Visit a Butterfly Farm: Geek alert! Learn what makes a butterfly happy (hint: bananas). Marvel at the strenuous journey a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly whose life span is only two months. The worker/guides at Ya’axkin Butterfly Farm near the town of Dandriga in Stann Creek show visitors new eggs on a banana leaf, striped black-and-yellow caterpillars resting on tree branches, and a handmade frame created for the bright green pupa (or chrysalis), which looks like abstract art. The reward at the end of the tour is the sanctuary, where hundreds of brightly colored butterflies flutter. Photo ops abound for close-ups of the beautiful, fluorescent Blue Morpho and the aptly named Owl species. The farm is owned by Javier Saqui, a 24-year-old Mayan who just won the 2022 Belize Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Office of the Prime Minister of Belize.
3. Have a Mayan Ruin to Yourself. Toledo is an ancient center of Mayan culture and has the largest concentration of Mayan villages in Belize. The Lubaantuun site is nestled in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, above a tributary to the Colombia River, where wild coriander grows on the ancient paths that run through the unnamed, overgrown Mayan ruins. Lubaantuun is a Mayan city from the culture’s Classic Period (700-900 CE), home to the famous Crystal Skull, sought after in the 2008 movie “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull”. Reputed to have mythical qualities, the artifact was apparently found in Lubaantuun in 1924. While you might not run into Harrison Ford, you might meet a working archaeologist combing through the area. Lubaantuun consists of 14 major structures, including two ballcourts, grouped around five main plazas, and was built with large stone blocks laid with no mortar. (Travel Tip: Arrive for your visit early in the morning or after 3 pm for the best experience.)
Nearby and easy to reach in the same day is Nim Li Punit, another ruin site from the Classic Period, where the Giant Stone Heads, which represent ancient kings, can be viewed. Also in the area is Uxbenka, really off–the-beaten path, as it isn’t yet an official tourist destination. It can be reached through the village of Santa Cruz and is a bit of a thrill for those who’d like to see an ancient city in its “raw” state. You can observe how the Mayans used terracing to tame the jungle. Be your own guide or ask villagers for directions, which can be part of the fun. Uxbenka was an important ceremonial center when nearby city states, such as Nim Li Punit, Lubaantuun, Caracol (in Cayo District), and Xunantunich (also in Cayo), battled for domination with Tikal in Guatemala.
4. Tour a Spice Farm: See and smell a dazzling number of spice trees and flowers at the Belize Spice Farm and Botanical Gardens in Toledo. Pick nutmeg, coconut, limes, and vanilla beans off the tree. Photographers can take close-up shots of stunning flowers, including the Black Orchid, the national flower of Belize and the dramatic and colorful Bird of Paradise. The tour is on a comfortable, tractor-towed wagon-mobile driven by a knowledgeable and friendly Mayan guide. He takes you off-road through the rainforest on narrow trails with overhanging bougainvillea, stopping to point out the spices and flowers along the way. The large restaurant can accommodate crowds and the store sells fresh spices to take home. The Spice Farm is building a lodge on its property that is scheduled to open in 2024 — imagine waking up to the fragrant scent of rainforest flowers and spices and the sounds of macaw and toucan birds. (Travel Tip: Bring a camera!)
5. Visit a Garifuna Village: Learn about the rich history of the Garifuna people (Garinagu), and about the traditional drumbeats and dances that influence music throughout Belize and Central America. The Garifuna are of mixed free African and Indigenous ancestry who originated in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. They were exiled to the Honduran coast in the 18th century after a rebellion on the island and subsequently migrated to Belize, as well as the coasts of Nicaragua and Guatemala. They speak Garifuna, an Arawakan language, and Vincentian Creole. Today, their language is a mix of Arawak, English, Spanish, French, and west African languages.
Every November 19, a festival and public holiday called Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates the arrival of the Garinagu in Belize, with drumming and dancing starting the night before and running into the early morning, when the residents re-enact the arrival of their ancestors in small paddle boats. A feast features traditional Garifuna foods like cassava bread (ereba), conch soup, hudut (a coconut stew with fish and plantains), and darasa (banana tamales). The major festivities are in the town of Dandriga and also in and around Punta Gorda, with parades, street music, and traditional dancing. The drumming can often be heard throughout the year in the town of Santa Cruz, Toledo, and Dandriga and Hopkins in Stann Creek District. (Travel Tip: Bring a sense of rhythm.)
6. Dine (or Stay) at a Luxury Eco-lodge. Watch the sun set through the rainforest canopy from the attractive verandah of the Garden Table Restaurant at Copal Tree Lodge in Toledo, while sipping wine and eating a dinner made with rainforest herbs, spices, and fruits from the property, and finishing the meal with the house-roasted coffee. Copal Tree Lodge is surrounded by 12,000 acres of rainforest preserve in the Maya mountains. The lodge’s farm supplies most of the food served at the restaurant. You may be thinking “farm-to-table” or “bean-to-bar”, which it is, but with the recent introduction of a rum distillery on the property, the experience is in fact “farm-to-flask” as well.
After dark, howler monkeys can often be heard in the distance. The lodge offers on-site adventures including hiking in the Maya mountains, kayaking the Rio Grande River, horseback riding, chocolate-making classes, coffee cupping, cocktail mixology classes with Copalli Rum, and tours of the Jungle Farm.
7. Go On a Jungle Cave Tour. Near San Antonio Village, the Toledo Cave System was formed 200 million years ago by seeping rainwater that carved caves (actuns) from the rock. In ancient Maya culture, these mineral caves served as portals between the surface world of the humans and the underworld of the gods, called Xibalba. Echoes bouncing off the cave walls can play with your sense of time and space. Thousand-year-old artifacts of Mayan shamans can still be found in some of the caves. Cool breezes from deep in the earth suggest the presence of ghosts. The caves have wonderful rock formations and a rich variety of ferns, heliconia flowers and huge, shade-loving palms that flourish under the tall tree canopy.
8. Kayak on a Rainforest River: Tours are available in Toledo on the Rio Grande and also the Moho River. The Moho is a slow, meandering river in southern Belize that meets the Caribbean south of the town of Punta Gorda. The river is remarkably warm, owing to underwater heat vents along its course. Its relaxed pace means that after putting in, paddlers can follow the river in either direction, though generally starting by heading upstream makes the return trip easier. This is a true jungle experience and some of the tours combine guided paddles with hikes. Those looking to swim can find a spot on the banks to pull over and experience the warm waters of the Moho. (Travel Tip: Come prepared to get a bit wet!)
9. Visit a Waterfall: Escape the heat and go for a hike on a trail that follows the Rio Blanco river in the Rio Blanco Nature Reserve in Toledo. The river flows through wide, shallow pools before cascading over a 15-foot drop. Explore the park with a local guide and then chill out on your own, swimming in the pools. You can often see hummingbirds and dragonflies bathing in the spray of the water. (Travel Tip: bring a bathing suit.)
10. Go Birdwatching: Toledo is the southernmost district in Belize and receives the most rainfall. This makes the rainforest lusher and the moisture from the Caribbean Sea enhances the effect. The district has bird habitats from the coastal marshes to the ridge tops of the Maya Mountains. Think Mangrove/Littoral Forest, Wetland, Lowland Pine Savannah, Broadleaf, and Submontane Wet Forest. You can choose a two- or three-hour early-morning trek close to Punta Gorda, or a full-day outing, visiting numerous watering holes, nature reserves, and other bird-friendly spots.
MORE ABOUT VISITING BELIZE
Tours: Connect with local tour companies such as Toledo Cave and Adventure Tours and its owner, Bruno Kuppinger, or with Jo Audinett, owner of PG Tours. Cotton Tree Lodge and Copal Tree Lodge also set up tours for guests.
Additional Info: Visit the Travel Belize website.