Here are some excerpts from the PG/Toledo section of my new Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize.
Belize First Magazine http://www.turq.com/belizefirst/
copyright 2000, all rights reserved
DEEP GREEN COAST
Punta Gorda Town and Toledo District in Far Southern Belize
• Real rainforests • Real rain • Maya villages and Maya sites • Empty hotels • Missionaries • End-of-the-road atmosphere
Ratings are on a scale of 0 to 10. Best is 10.
Natural Beauty: 8
Wildlife & Birding: 7
Health & Hygiene: 4
Diving & Snorkeling: 7
Maya Sites: 6
Cultural Tourism: 9
Overall Rating: 7
What to Expect
You’ve probably heard stories about Punta Gorda being the end of the earth and all that. You may be surprised, then, at how inviting and interesting a town it is. With close to 4,000 people, a mix of Mopan and Ketchí Maya, Garifuna and a dollop of Creoles, Lebanese and Chinese, plus a few American missionaries, dreamers and Voice of America workers — VOA has a broadcasting tower here — PG, as it’s known in Belize, is bustling (all things being relative), colorful and friendly. There’s usually a breeze blowing from the Bay of Honduras. On Saturdays, the downtown market draws Maya from surrounding villages.
Hotels in and around PG stay empty most of the year. The official occupancy rate is just 10%. Even if some operators fudge the numbers a bit to save on taxes, clearly most rooms are empty most of the time. Only a few tourists bounce down the Southern Highway from Placencia, and some hard-core backpackers pass through on their way to cheaper towns in Guatemala and Honduras. Once the paving of the Southern Highway is completed — in a few years, give or take a few years — the conventional wisdom is that PG will explode with new hotels, real estate developments and other businesses. We’re not so sure that will happen to any great extent, but certainly things will get busier.
Lay of the Land
Outside of PG, the land in Toledo District is lush, wild and wet, fed by 160 inches or more of rain each year — the only dry months are February through May. Emerald-green valleys lay between low peaks of the Maya Mountains. Rice grows in flooded fields, and giant bromeliads line the roads. There are no beaches to speak of in Toledo, but the rocky shorelines are cooled by near constant breezes from the Bay of Honduras. Offshore are isolated cayes and the straggling end of the barrier reef.
The Maya have lived in this part of Belize for millennia. They were joined in the early 19th century by Garifuna from the Bay Islands of Honduras and, after the American Civil War, by a group of former Confederate soldiers and their families who attempted to settle here, with relatively little success. In modern times, Punta Gorda has held a strange attraction for missionary groups, mostly fundamentalists from the YooEssAye, out to convert the heathen Maya and Garifuna. But we aren’t making fun; if it weren’t for the missionaries, a lot of the hotels in PG would be out of business.
In the mid-1990s, the Belize government granted logging concessions to large tracts of land in Toledo to a Malaysian company. Indigenous groups fought the logging, but as in so many aspects of Belizean life, the Indians and their environmental allies were, in the end, just voices in the wilderness.
Via the Southern Highway, PG is about 100 miles from the junction with the Hummingbird/Stann Creek Valley Highway near Dangriga. The northernmost section from this junction to around Independence is being paved, and paving of the final 25 or so southernmost miles of the highway was completed in 1998. The sections in between eventually will be surfaced, but at present they are dusty in dry weather and muddy, occasionally nearly impassable, in wet. With construction slow-downs, by car figure at least 3 1/2 hours between Dangriga and PG; add another 2 to 3 hours if coming from Belize City, depending on whether you take the Hummingbird, or Coastal, highway.
From Belize City there are four Z-Line buses and one James bus daily, taking about 8 hours and costing US$11. Both Tropic Air and Maya Island Air have several flights a day from Belize City to PG; from the international airport to Punta Gorda, the fare is about US$162 roundtrip and from municipal, US$125.
There is regularly scheduled water taxi service between PG and Puerto Barrios and Livingston, Guatemala. The Requeña (tel. 501-7-22070) boat departs PG at 9 a.m. daily, arrives Puerto Barrios around 10 a.m.; it departs Puerto Barrios for PG at 2 p.m. The Paco’s boat departs PG at 8:30 a.m., arrives in Livingston at 9:10 a.m. and at Puerto Barrios at 9:35 a.m.; it departs Puerto Barrios at 1 p.m. One-way fare is US$10. Note that if you are coming to Belize from Guatemala, you must pay a US$10 exit fee to the Guatemala government. When departing PG for Guatemala, you must pay Belize a US$3.75 conservation/PACT fee. Save your receipt, as this fee may be applied to your exit tax when departing from the international airport — whether it actually is or not often depends on the airline check-in agent who collects your exit fee. The US$10 border fee (likely rising to US$15 after January 1, 2001) that applies to land border crossings at Corozal and Benque Viejo does not apply to departing from PG by boat. Note the information in Crime and Personal Safety below.
What to See and Do
Sightseeing and activity ratings are based on a scale of one to five stars.
PPPPP Extraordinary — don’t miss it.
PPPP Outstanding — one of the best of its type in Belize and worth a detour.
PPP Noteworthy — worth your time.
PP Interesting — above average of its type.
P Try to visit if in the area.
PPP Maya Village Guesthouse and Home Stays. Staying in a Maya village is a sure fire way to get a real heads-up cultural experience. There are (at least) two different ways to do this: The more “deluxe” is the village guesthouse program organized by the Toledo Ecotourism Association. You stay in a basic but clean guesthouse (not a private home) in one of 10 Maya villages in the area. Then you visit local Maya homes for meals. English is spoken, and you are taken on walks to nearby Maya ruins or to a waterfall. You’ll pay around US$48 per person for the overnight stay with three meals and two activities. Contact the TEA at 501-7-22096. Alternatively, through the Maya Village Homestay Network you can sleep in a hammock in an actual Maya home — a very, very basic place — for around US$5 per person and up, with simple meals running about US$2 each. This is for the adventuresome who do not need luxuries such as cold showers or inside toilets or screens on the windows. To set up a home stay, ask the alcalde (head person) in the village, or contact Dem Dats Doing (tel. 501-7-22470). The Belize Tourist Board also can put you in touch with people in the homestay program.
PP Blue Creek. Here you can go swimming in the river, go underground in a massive cave system or walk over the jungle on a “skywalk” 80 feet above the ground. All that makes this one of the most interesting outdoor experiences in Toledo. The Skywalk canopy walkway was built by the Jason Foundation and then donated to International Zoological Expeditions, which operates Blue Creek Rainforest Lodge (tel. in the U.S. 800-548-5843; e-mail [email protected]
here, catering mostly to educational and student groups. An adventure on the Skywalk — you’re strapped into a harness and then have to climb ladders up to the platform — costs US$20. Directions: From PG, go about 16 miles north to the junction with the road (unpaved) to San Antonio. Go about 3 3/4 miles and turn left on a track to Blue Creek village and Mafredi Agricultural station. The Moho River runs through Blue Creek village. Walk upriver a few hundred feet and you’ll come to a swimming hole and the Blue Creek Rainforest Lodge. If you continue walking upriver you’ll soon come to Hokeb Cave, also known as Blue Creek Cave. There are extensive cave systems in the area, but you need to explore these with a guide. Tours from PG to Blue Creek cost US$25 and up.
PPP Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch. This is one of the top butterfly farms in Belize, with an extraordinary display of blue morphos. For information, see Fallen Stones Lodge and Butterfly Ranch below, and also page 170.
PPP Maya Villages. Inland from PG are a number of small Maya villages. Among these are San Antonio, a Mopan Maya village (the largest of all the villages in the area) with a church, San Luis Rey, built in the 1950s from old stones taken from Lubaantun and elsewhere; San Pedro Columbia and Aguacate, both Kekchí villages, along with the villages of San José, Salamanca, San Miguel, Santa Cruz and others. These villages are much like they have been for centuries, with cohune thatch and stick cottages. Women wash clothes in the river and prepare caldo and poch, a tamale-like dish. Things are beginning to change, though, with tee-shirts and cargo pants or jeans replacing simpler dress, and punta and rap music replacing marimba or traditional music. If you like it and decide to stay, consider a Maya homestay or the guesthouse program (see above) or for around US$10 per person you can stay at Bol’s Hilltop Hotel (no phone, no credit cards, no problem) in San Antonio village. Directions: From PG, go about 16 miles north to the junction with the road (unpaved after a few hundred feet) to San Antonio. Go about 1 1/2 mile and turn right on a dirt track to the villages of San Pedro Columbia and San Miguel; instead of turning right, if you go straight you will go toward the villages of San Antonio, Salamanca, San José, Pueblo Viejo and others. Buses, operated by one-bus entrepreneurs, run from PG to most of the villages; ask in PG for current times. Tours are offered from PG by Galvez (tel. 501-7-22402), Romero’s Charters (501-7-22924) and others. Expect to pay around US$37.50 per person for a five- or six-hour tour including lunch in a Maya village.
PPP Boat Trips to the Cayes. The Port Honduras Cayes, Snakes Cayes and the Sapodilla Cayes, part of the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, have plentiful fish and bird life, many manatees and superb snorkeling. A full-day fishing and snorkel trip runs about US$40-$50 a person, usually with a four-person minimum. Bamboo Chicken (tel. 501-7-22475) and Fish & Fun (tel. 501-7-22670) are among those doing boat trips to the cayes. Windsong Charters (Orange Point Marina, Punta Gorda; tel. in U.S. 303-983-3739, fax 303-623-7352; e-mail [email protected]
has MacGregor 26s, either bareboat or captained, for charter. Bareboat rate for a weekly charter is US$1,850. Provisioning is available from around US$230. While these boats are less expensive than most other charter boats in Belize, some who have chartered them complain that the small MacGregors aren’t ideal on the choppy seas around PG.
PPP Side Trip to the Río Dulce. Is it sweet? Yes. Is it safe? Probably, but see the crime and safety notice below. Livingston and Puerto Barrios are two Spanish-speaking towns on Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast. Puerto Barrios remains the quintessential muggy, steamy banana port, though its United Fruit Co. banana days are past, as the “fingers” are now shipped from a neighboring town. Livingston is a town of around 3,000, including many Garifuna, with brightly painted shacks and a few more-prepossessing colonial houses. Its appeal comes from the fact people get around here on foot or by boat, not cars, as there are no roads. Lanchas (motor boats) can be hired to take you on the Sweet River up through a high gorge. If you’re staying over, the Hotel Tucán Dugú is the best hotel in the area. The Hotel Río Dulce is the backpackers’ fave. See Getting There above on how to get to Livingston and Puerto Barrios.
PP Kayaking. Both river and sea kayaking are possible in Toledo. The wild Temash-Sarstoon National Park, an area of mangrove forest, is best visited with an experienced guide. Day kayaking trips on the Upper Moho River are operated by Bamboo Chicken Tours (tel. 501-7-22475) and others, for around US$45 including lunch.
P Barranco is a small Garifuna village of about 200 people south of PG. The lack of a good road and bridges to the village means that villagers have to travel to and from PG by boat. In 1999 several villagers going by boat were drowned in a storm. Andy Palacio, Belize’s best-known punta musician, was born in Barranco, went to high school in PG and later taught school in several parts of Belize. His work in Garifuna villages made him realize the value of Garifuna culture. In the 1980s, he led the way in popularizing punta rock, not only in Belize but in England, the U.S. and elsewhere.
History: Lubaantun (“Place of Fallen Stones”) was occupied only from around 700 to 900 AD, mostly in the Late Classic period.
Excavations: Thomas Gann was the first archeologist to visit the site, in 1903. Following his visit, T. A. Joyce, Eric S. Thompson and Norman Hammond worked here. The famous, or infamous, “crystal skull” was supposedly discovered here in 1926 by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, on assignment from the British Museum. The head is still in the possession of F.A.’s now elderly daughter, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who lives in Canada.
What You Can See Now: Visitors may wander freely around the site, which is kept chopped and free of jungle growth. If you’ve visited other Maya sites in Belize, you’ll quickly note the difference in building style here. Structures at Lubaantun were were laid without mortar. Each flat stone was carefully measured and cut to fit exactly. There are 11 structures grouped around five plazas. Santiago Coc, the caretaker, will greet you. He has much information to share.
How to Get There: From PG, go north on the Southern Highway 16 miles to the junction with the San Antonio Road, at a Shell Oil station. Turn left (road becomes unpaved) and go 1.6 miles. Turn right on unnamed road (look for sign to Lubaantun). Continue on road until you see the sign on left to Lubaantun. After a rain, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle with high road clearance.
Hours and Cost: Open daily 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.; admission US$2.50.
PP Nim Li Punit
History: Nim Li Punit (“Big Hat”) was occupied about the same time as Lubaantun, in the Late Classic period. At its height, several thousand people may have lived there.
Excavations: The site was discovered in the early 1970s, reportedly by a team exploring for oil. Limited excavations, by Richard Leventhal and others, have been done.
What You Can See Now: Nim Li Punit is known for its stelae, among them the highest one ever found in Belize. Unfortunately, vandals damaged some of the stelae kept here. The site is small, but the setting, on a hillside, is very nice. A modest visitor center opened in 1999. Mayas from the nearby village of Indian Creek offer crafts for sale at the site. The children are so beautiful and appear so sweet that only a hard-hearted person would not buy something.
How to Get There: Nim Li Punit is about 1/2 mile west of the Southern Highway at about Mile 75 (measured from the Dangriga junction). Look for a small sign on the highway.
Hours and Cost: Open daily about 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; admission US$2.50.
Among other notable Maya sites in the area is P Uxbenka (pronounced Ush-ben-ka and meaning “Ancient Place”). Uxbenka is small, with six structures around a central plaza, but there are carved stelae and wonderful views from its hilltop location.
Crime and Personal Safety
Punta Gorda long has had a reputation as a quiet, peaceful small town without the hassle associated with Belize City or even Dangriga. While the friendly small-town atmosphere remains, crime is increasing, in part due to the proximity of Caribbean Guatemala where poverty rules and where the rule of law is not exactly the order of the day. In fact, one of the worst crimes in modern Caribbean Coast history took place in on May 30, 2000. It happened not in Belize but in waters off Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, on a Belize-owned boat, the water taxi Mariestela operated by the Requeña family in Punta Gorda. Three Guatemalan men boarded the water taxi, giving false names, in Puerto Barrios. About 10 minutes into the journey, when the water taxi reached international waters, the three Guatemalans without warning opened fire with revolvers on two members of the Requeña family, Julio Jr. and Ernesto Requeña, and on other passengers, including Larry Smith, co-owner of the Sea Front Inn, an American who holds Belizean citizenship. After the passengers jumped, or were thrown overboard, the three Guatemalans escaped with the boat. Before it was over, six people, including Julio Jr. and two other Belizeans, two Guatemalans and a Honduran, were dead. Larry Smith, shot in the back, managed to survive some 17 hours in the water, trying to stay afloat and to help others, before he was rescued. The motive behind the hijacking has not been determined — it did not appear to be robbery. The Requeña water taxis have now resumed operations on a daily basis.
Water and Electricity
PG has reasonably dependable municipal water and electricity supplies, but rural areas and Maya villages generally do not. Some Maya villages are lucky to have a single community telephone and a village well. Except where you are certain the water comes from safe sources, you should drink bottled water.
Price categories are for in-season double without meals, not including 7% hotel room tax or service charge, if any. To make comparisons equitable, rates for hotels which include meals or other items in the tariff are adjusted, reflecting an estimated cost for room only. However, specific rates shown in the listings below are actual rates but do not include 7% hotel room tax, 8% sales tax on meals or service charge, unless otherwise stated.
Most hotels listed, except low-cost budget places, receive a star rating of from one to five stars. Only a few hotels in the country are rated five stars. Keep in mind that, although there is no direct correlation between the price of a hotel room and the hotel’s star rating, three- to five-star hotels are likely to be considerably more expensive than average. Some travelers may be willing to accept a lower level of amenities and services in exchange for a lower price, or they may even prefer staying in inexpensive lodging to better appreciate the local culture.
HHHHH One of the top hotels in the Caribbean, well-run with striking location and/or facilities.
HHHH One of the best hotels in Belize, with a dependably high level of hospitality.
HHH Excellent accommodations, with above-average amenities, service and/or hospitality.
HH Good accommodations and often a very good value.
H Functional accommodations, meeting basic needs, and often a good value.
HHH Sea Front Inn. This is Punta Gorda’s best hotel, and a delightful place it is. Larry and Carol Smith, U.S. expats with Belizean citizenship who have lived in PG for more than 20 years, designed and built a striking four-story building across the road from the sea. They’ve since added apartments in the back, making a total of 12 rooms, 2 suites and 4 apartments. All of the rooms in the main building are decorated differently, and they’re of differing sizes, but all are attractive. One room, a cozy nook up Stairmaster-style stairs on the fourth floor, may remind you of your favorite attic hideaway when you were a kid. Rooms have air-conditioning and cable TV, and most have sea views. The third-floor restaurant (now open only for breakfast) sports rosewood tree trunks etched with Maya carvings. This commons room is lined with windows where you can sit and look out over the beautiful Bay of Honduras. Beverages are available from the fridge on the honor system. Rates: US$48 to $67 double; apartments with kitchenette US$110. Some discounts may be offered off-season. Prices include pick-up from the PG airstrip. AE, MC, V with surcharge. Front St., P.O. Box 20, Punta Gorda; tel: 501-7-22300, 7-22682; e-mail [email protected]
HH TC’s by the Sea. Owner TC Benson brings a touch of the USA to this new place on the seafront. It has five rooms, one with a king-size water bed and all with fans and cable TV (“including R and X-rated movie channels,” notes TC). There’s a restaurant serving porterhouse steaks, ribs, ham, and Southern-style fried chicken. Rates are US$25 to $70 double, about US$5 less off-season, and include breakfast, use of a canoe and pick-up from airstrip, bus terminal or water taxi landing. MC, V accepted. Front St., Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22963; e-mail [email protected]
HH Traveller’s Inn. This modern 12-room hotel, owned by folks who operate the Z-Line bus company, is next-door to the Z-Line terminal. It’s a shame this place isn’t on the seafront, but at least it does have air-conditioning. The last time we were by this was locked up tight, but we’re told it is now open. Rates around US$70. José Maria Nuñez, Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22112.
Dem Dats Doing. Alfredo and Yvonne Villoria, who came here from Hawaii, have a pleasant room they rent on their organic ecofarm. Near San Pedro village; tel. 501-7-22470.
H Nature’s Way Guesthouse. This rambling, funky old guesthouse appeals to the hippy backpacker in us. It has a nice location, on the water toward the south end of town, and guests here are often well-traveled, with stories to tell. At these prices — starting at US$8 per person and running up to about US$22 for a double — don’t expect a Hampton Inn. Last time we were by, owner Chet Schmidt, an old Toledo hand, ardent environmentalist and supporter of the Maya, and quite a character to boot, was talking about selling or leasing the inn, so changes may be ahead. 65 Front St., Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22119.
H St. Charles Inn. Probably the best of the bunch in the low-moderate category. Centrally located; some rooms have air-conditioning and all have TV. Doubles from US$20. 23 King St.; tel. 501-7-22149.
H Tate’s Guest House. Run by William and Olive Tate, this is a fine choice for the frugal. A couple of the rooms are air-conditioned. Doubles around US$24. 34 José Maria Nuñez, Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22196; e-mail [email protected]
HHH Fallen Stones Jungle Lodge and Butterfly Farm. The setting of this lodge is fabulous, on 42 acres on a hilltop near the Lubaantun ruins with grand views of the Maya Mountains and into Guatemala. Be warned: The road to the top of the hill is a doozy, but it’s worth the ride up the rocky, steep road. Welchman Ray Harberd, a world traveler and noted butterfly expert, is your host. Elsie, Ray’s wife, is sometimes here also, though she journeys back to England from time to time. The wood cabins are set down the hillside, two individual units and three larger cabins each with three double rooms. All have baths en suite with hot-water showers and electric lighting, powered by a solar system. Follow the steps down the hill and you’ll come the the butterfly farm. One screened room has thousands of blue morphos — an amazing site! Rates: US$105 double Nov.-May, US$84 the rest of the year, including hotel tax. Meals are a bit pricey but good, at US$7.50 for breakfast, US$12.50 for lunch and US$22.50 for dinner. The lodge offers a variety of tours to nearby Maya sites and villages. MC, V accepted. No children under 10 except by advance arrangement. P.O. Box 23, Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22167; www.fallenstones.co.uk.
Directions: From PG, go north on the Southern Hwy. 16 miles to the junction with the San Antonio Rd. Turn left (road becomes unpaved) and go 1.6 miles. Turn right on unnamed road (look for sign to Lubaantun). Continue on road past turn-off to Lubaantun. Look for sign on left to Fallen Stones. After a rain, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle with high road clearance.
If you make it to PG with an RV or travel trailer, you deserve a medal. The Maya village homestays are like camping, complete with hammock (see above.) Camping is also possible on private property around PG, but ask first.
Restaurants and Nightlife
Exile 360. This new option in a thatch palapa serves tasty chicken, fish and other mainly Creole dishes. You can have dinner and a beer for around US$10. Just off Front St. north of the Sea Front Inn near TC’s by the Sea; tel. 501-7-22718.
Mangrove Inn. Fresh and well-prepared seafood and other dishes, at moderate prices. 3 Front St. just south of Seafront Inn; tel. 501-7-39910. Closed Sun., dinner only Tues.-Thurs.
Punta Caliente. At first blush this looks like a Belize version of a blue plate diner, but then you notice the Garifuna artifacts on the walls. It’s a mini-museum of Garifuna culture, with tools used to make cassava bread, herbal teas and traditional medicines. The food here is some of the best in southern Belize. There are traditional Garifuna dishes, along with seafood and some Creole items. The menu is on the wall. Punta Caliente also has hotel rooms at around US$22 double. 108 José Marina Nuñez St., Punta Gorda; tel. 501-7-22561; e-mail [email protected]
Punta Gorda Practicalities
Banks: Belize Bank and Barclays have branches in PG.
Internet Access: An Internet café opened in PG in early 2000. Called the Cyber Café, (tel. 501-7-22356) it’s run by Arlene Miller, from Virginia. It’s on Front Street, in a house next to Sea Front Inn, on the south side.
Car Rental: No big outfits here, but Clive Genus (30 Wahima Ave., tel. 501-7-22068) can drive you around and perhaps rent you a car.
Gifts and Crafts: Several small shops in town sell Belizean and Guatemalan crafts, among them Tienda La Indita Maya (at the park near the clock tower, tel. 501-7-22065).
Groceries: Wallace Supaul Store on Main Street and Southern Grocer on King Street may have what you need.
Medical: Punta Gorda Hospital (south end of Main Street, tel. 501-7-22026) can provide basic emergency care; you may want to upgrade to the Southern Regional Hospital in Dangriga or to Belize City.
Real Estate: It seems like everybody in PG has 10 acres or a house or a farm to sell, usually at highly optimistic prices. Start asking around about real estate, and you’ll get people coming to you with deals. One of the real estate consultants in town is Bonita Mommé (tel. 501-7-22270).
Taxis: Try Galvez’s (61 José Maria Nuñez St., tel. 501-7-22402).
Travel Information: T.I.D.E. (Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment) has been active in promoting responsible tourism in the district, though its main missions are education, management of protected areas and patrolling Belize waters to try to control illegal fishing and hunting of manatees and other species. T.I.D.E.: tel. 501-7-22129, e-mail [email protected]
or stop by their office at Joe Taylor Creek. The B.T.I.A. has a tourist information center on Front Street (tel. 501-7-22531). Or try Toledo Visitors Information Center, also on Front Street at the wharf (tel. 501-7-22087).
What Readers Say
One day we took a trip, by boat, to Punta Gorda to see the local market. We spent the morning walking around “people watching,” then walked several blocks up the hill to PUNTA CALIENTE where we ate lunch. This was without a doubt the best lunch of our trip. We ordered the special, which was pan-fried snapper, and it was outstanding. They had the whole place decorated for Valentine’s Day and gave us each a balloon as we left ... and a hug! Mary Hood Pearlman, Asheville, North Carolina