My first evening perched in a treetop resort in the jungles of Belize was rudely disturbed by a long, strange, and ear-splitting sound. While the unique architecture of my room included an airy veranda with a simple screen separating me from the rain-forest’s natural inhabitants was pleasing, at that moment I must admit that I longed for the classical wall structure. But nature won out that night as I fell asleep in the lush tropical setting despite the mysterious groans that continued to emanate from above.
Nature throws you a loop in Belize. That first evening was a sign. Coming here, be it hidden away in the secluded south or even on the quiet agricultural northern highways, as a traveler you are propelled far away from the cookie-cruncher tourism of vast resorts, grand pools, and flocks of weary travelers. In Belize, you are a guest among others at nature’s reality show.
What this small nation lacks in fine sandy beaches or grandiose developments, it is even more appealing for its verdant natural beauty, romantic secluded settings, spectacular aquatic life, and the unique cultural mix of people who call this land home.
An image that I came to Belize with was from “Three Kings of Belize,” a documentary of first-time Canadian filmmaker Katia Paradis. In her slow-moving portrait she tells the stories of three of the country’s notable musicians and their daily existential struggles. The mix of an aging Garifuna composer, an ethnic Mayan harp player, and a Creole accordionist and their simple lives in the jungles somehow prepared me for this world of unsung kings and quiet natural diversity.
The next day began with a patio breakfast overlooking the dense forest canapé at the Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge. This sprawling resort occupied my first days in the southern corner of the country. At breakfast, staff pointed out a pack of howler monkeys roaming the treetops. These are the largest monkeys of the America’s, I was told. I was less surprised to hear that they are also the loudest. They venture in groups, and the howls of the night before were likely two male monkeys setting the territorial boundaries straight.
Located on top of Machaca Hill overlooking an expansive swath of protected rainforest of the Rio Grande River, the property spans an incredible 12,000 acres in a lush jungle setting. The resort includes twelve perched treetop cabanas, a newly-constructed Jubalani spa, a private gourmet restaurant, and a landscape with few boundaries, literally or physically. With a vast swath of pristine rainforest as far as the eye can see, Machaca Hill is lodged in an area of an abundance surrounding jungles, coral reefs, and untouched azure-blue waters.
A boat-ride towards the open ocean begins on the river's edge that is a short walk down the forested hill. Manatees occasionally bob up and down in the calm waters. They inhabit a winding waterway of mangroves and cays. Innumerable birds appear and floating lilies pervade this part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve.
Machaca Hill works hand-in-hand with the Toledo Institute of Development and Environment, a conservation organization which works in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, a one million acre area that stretches from the Maya Mountains to the Belize Barrier Reef, an area that was described in 1842 by Charles Darwin as, “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.”
The reef straddles the coast of Belize about 300 meters from the shore and is the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
As we reach our destination, I stop to take out my snorkeling gear and flop into the warm waters. Amazingly, swimming a few feet away from the reef is a sprawling view of large and small multicolored fish that swim around hardly taking note of your presence. So close was this stunning reality show that I searched for the schools of hundreds of fry being guarded over in this limitless natural aquarium.
The surrounding towns, villages, and even archeological sites of this southern Belize outpost range from the humdrum and the curious to the outright fascinating. The local town of Punta Gorda is nondescript. Found here are stall-like stores, a small local market, or an assortment of craftspeople selling their wares. There is even a mobile ice-cream stand that plays tunes like a true-to-life European music box.
While far from the significance in archeological terms of sites in neighboring Guatemala or the Yucatan in Mexico, the ancient Mayan settlements of Nim Li Punit or Lubaantun – which are 40 kilometers or 45 minutes from the resort, give you an idea of the stone craftsmanship of the ancient Maya. These sites were also part of the vast network of interconnected settlements of the Maya, peoples who flourished during the Classical period between 250 AD and 900 AD. These settlements and interconnected roadways ranked this civilization among the most densely populated and most structured in the world at the time.
A short distance away from here is the sleepy village of Barranco, where a lonely crowing of a rooster reverberates through the hamlet. This small village is host to a lesser-known but storied community of peoples who escaped slavery and settled on the coast of the Caribbean over three centuries ago.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d bumped into Garinagu (also referred to as Garifuna) settlements, whose history on the Atlantic coast dates back to the early 17th century when this West African peoples haphazardly escaped the fate of slavery as they landed on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. I had already ventured to the sleepy Garinagu village of Livingstone in nearby Guatemala and was tuned in to the good vibes and music that these people are largely known for.
Considering these Black Caribs enemies during a territorial war between the British and Spanish, the British deported the Gariguna to Roatan; a small infertile island, leading to the death of about half of the population. They were forced to flee.
“Many suffered and eventually left for Belize, which became a safe-haven after landing here in 1802,” Mr. Alvin Loredo, one of Barranco’s one hundred and thirty Garinagu inhabitants tells me as we walk through the village, “They originally came to Belize City where they were granted permission by the then governor of the country to settle in these lands.”
Mr. Loredo shows me around the village, its church and a tiny post office. There is even a dibujaba - a thatched-hut construction, which is a place of prayer and dance for families who gather to connect with their forbearers, an important preoccupation for the Gariguna.
In Belize, the Gariguna settled primarily in the coastal towns of Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight, Georgetown, Punta Gorda, and Barranco. While the Gariguna population in Belize is said to be over thirteen thousand, pockets of the ethnic group are also found in neighboring Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua amd Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines.
Barranco is the birthplace of singer, songwriter, and Gariguna cultural advocate, Mr. Andy Palacio, who contributed to bringing the sounds of the unique African-Indigenous people to the world. Palacio, who died in 2008, championed Garifuna music that is characterized by fast-paced hand drumming on hollowed-out hardwood instruments that reverberate African traditions, accompanied as they are by vibrating snares. But even here the sounds of Gariguna are less heard today.
“There are no industries close to Barranco,” lamented Mr. Loredo, “There are mostly older folks and younger kids here, because the working-age groups is what we have lost to migrations to cities like New York, Chicago, Las Angeles, or even Belize City or Belmopan.”
The next chapter of my journey through Belize took me north from Machaca Hill in the southern Toledo District town of Punta Gorda, north to Belize City before heading to my next destination – another of the nation’s many secluded resorts. Traveling up the coast is done by way of a small aircraft that makes swift and periodic stops along numerous smaller settlements with tiny runways and curious names like Placencia or Dangriga.
The modern aircraft feels like a flying hop-on-hop-off bus ferrying small groups of passengers along the coast that from above looks much like fresh broccoli heads floating on the waters bellow.
I pass briefly through Belize City, which is more of a stopping-off point towards San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel, or my destination, a hideaway on St. George’s Caye, 14.5 kilometers or twenty minutes by boat from the capital.
Heather Sellors and her friendly giant dog, Sam, greet me at the docks of St. Georges Caye Resort. Ms. Sellors is a Canadian from Fort Nelson who left the frigid north to manage this quiet resort property of oceanfront cabanas, which face the Caribbean Sea. Giant umbrella-like palm trees shade the resort with its winding pathway and tropical plants. The resort even has a vocal yellow head parrot, Lorry, who rolls his r’s like a Frenchman and laughs something like a crazy witch.
St. George’s Caye Resort also offers a varied pallet of activities to bring you closer to nature. Underwater adventurers dive deep into the nearby Blue Hole, a natural wonder discovered by Jacques Cousteau. A Mecca for scuba enthusiasts, this sinkhole is located within the Lighthouse Reef Atoll and spans 1,000 feet in diameter and measures 400 feet at its deepest point.
Day trips in the area also take you to a baboon sanctuary located in the rainforests, or there are visits to the ancient Mayan sites of Atun Ha or Lamanai, which feature monumental architecture, temples, and terraces of the Mayan Classic and Pre-Classic periods.
Then came a BBQ in the open sea. A boat brought me out to a shallow sand dune out in the ocean where our chef was cooking brochettes in knee-deep waters. It was an out-of–this world experience as he cooked up a storm in the middle of a scenic sand dune. It was literally fine dining at sea, leaving moments of reflection watching the pristine azure-blue waters and fine sandy shoals.
While the property is another natural playground, I also went inland to look for the cultural mosaic of this area. I found communities that had settled the lands here in an organic but somewhat haphazard way. The first stop was Hattieville, a town originally set up as a refugee camp after Hurricane Hattie ravaged Belize City in 1961, hitting the community with damaging winds and a deadly tidal wave. The refugee camp slowly developed into the town not far from the country’s capital city of Belmopan.
In the south it was the Gariguna, but here it was another people who had found shelter in the natural paradise of Belize that peaked my interest. It wasn’t hard to notice the Mennonites in these parts because they were distinctive in their appearance and there was a strict adherence to their cultural roots.
The much-misunderstood Mennonites are conspicuous in their use of horse-drawn carriages led by men dressed in their suspenders, straw hats, and simple one-color shirts. Women wear conservative long plaid dresses and even bonnets. In my mind, the scene had more to do with these people’s northern European roots than an alternate model of living.
“About fifty years ago after a circuitous route from Mexico and Canada, a group of Mennonites decided to settle here and make a place where we could farm and have our own schools,” Mr. Peter Reimme, a local Mennonite and owner of the Good News Bookstore in Spanish Lookout told me.
The Mennonites live largely on agricultural industries and came to Belize with promises of being able to live largely outside of the systems of the state and respect their refusal to pay taxes or to support the military.
“The government of Belize provided us with an agreement that we would be exempted from military service, which was a key point in our move to Belize,” Mr. Reimme said. “After, quite a few people were drafted in the military. This concerned the church, which had been concerned to keep our young people back home instead of going to kill people.”
In 1959, 3,000 Mennonites were relocated to Belize, and were promised a life free of religious persecution and relief of the pressures of modern society. Uniquely, after concluding an agreement with the Belize government, these peoples were exempt from military service, certain taxes, and were guaranteed the right to practice their distinctive form of Protestantism. To this day, they farm within their own closed communities and run their own schools, banks, and businesses.
Like the Gariguna before them who escaped slavery in Africa and landed at these shores, Belize also provided the Mennonites a quiet space in a lush setting where unsung peoples go about their everyday lives in a tolerant and beautiful space.
“All of this has developed with a lot of hard work and efforts,” said Mr. Reimme, “Many people have been very diligent and committed to make a go of things here.”
ABOUT ANDREW PRINCZ
Montreal-based journalist and cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel site ontheglobe.com. He is involved in country awareness and tourism promotion projects globally. He has traveled to almost sixty countries around the globe seeking to communicate the stories of the diverse peoples and cultures that he comes across, from Nigeria to Ecuador, Kazakhstan to India.