Cultural, social and ecological diversity are the hallmarks of Southern Belize. It’s here in the south that open savanna and citrus-filled farmland give way to forested hills dotted with Maya villages and ruins, while towns like Hopkins and Placencia offer sun, sand and a bit of local culture. Adventurers will find no shortage of opportunities to get off the beaten path in Toledo’s jungles, while trekkers who wish to splurge can choose from a number of five-star jungle lodges tucked away in remote corners. Those of more modest means will be able to have a great time on the cheap in the small villages and communities of the Deep South.
The south also has cayes all of its own boasting stunning coral reefs, where snorkeling, boating and diving enthusiasts can experience Belize’s nautical wonders while avoiding the crowds (and the significantly higher price tags) of the Northern Cayes.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Dangriga is the largest town in Southern Belize and the spiritual capital of the country’s Garifuna people. Stretching along the coast, Dangriga has a funky vibe about it – it’s tumbledown and mildly untidy. Despite sharing a similar ramshackle exterior with Belize City, Dangriga exudes little of the larger city’s menace and is generally a safe place to explore. Dangriga is a proud, festive town, one that does its best to make the most of its vibrant Garifuna heritage. The cultural cache here entices visitors to spend an extra day.
Dangriga stretches about 2.5 miles along the coast and up to 1000yd inland. North Stann Creek empties into the Caribbean roughly in the middle of town. The main street, stretching most of the length of the town, runs through the names Havana St, St Vincent St and Commerce St. The main bus station is toward its south end (Havana St); most boats to the central and other cayes dock on South Riverside Dr, near the bridge over North Stann Creek.
Sitting right on the barrier reef 12 miles from Dangriga, tiny Tobacco Caye is 200 yards long, 100 yards wide, and mainly composed of sand, palm trees, and guesthouses. Part of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the caye is a great place for snorkeling, diving, fishing or hanging out on a hammock. Tobacco Caye is sociable, friendly and popular with travelers on a limited budget looking for a Gilligan’s Island experience.
SOUTH WATER CAYE
Three times as big as Tobacco but with half as many resorts, the 15-acre South Water Caye has excellent sandy beaches and an interesting combination of palm and pine trees. Like Tobacco Caye, it’s part of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. A seemingly bottomless 8-mile-long underwater cliff on the ocean side of the reef makes for excellent wall-diving, usually with good visibility. Snorkelers will find healthy coral reefs in the lagoon. Trips to Belize’s offshore atolls are possible from here and there’s excellent fishing, too.
If you’re serious about getting away from it all, Glover’s Reef is the place to come. Named after the 18th-century English pirate John Glover (who attacked Spanish merchant ships from here), the 16-mile-long by 7-mile-wide atoll is pretty much as far from mainland Belize as you can get. Lying like a string of pearls in a blue sea, Glover’s consists of half a dozen small cayes of white sand, palm trees, and a handful of low-key resorts, diving and kayaking bases.
Located off the main Southern Hwy, the friendly coastal village of Hopkins attracts travelers looking to soak up sea breezes and Garifuna culture. Smaller than Dangriga and more rustic than Placencia, beachy Hopkins is an excellent place to meet other travelers and to base yourself for explorations of the cayes, reefs and islands to the east, and of the jungles, mountains and parks to the west.
MAYFLOWER BOCAWINA NATIONAL PARK
Looking to get off the beaten path? This beautiful 11-sq-mile park offers jungle, mountains, waterfalls, walking trails, swimming holes and small Maya sites, and on most days the only other person you’ll encounter will be the park ranger who collects your entrance fee. You’ll probably see lots of birds, though, and the park is rumored to be home to a few larger mammals as well. And the roaring? That’ll likely be members of Mayflower’s resident black howler monkey population.
COCKSCOMB BASIN WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is Belize’s most famous sanctuary; at 200 sq miles, it’s also one of its biggest protected areas. On some maps the place appears simply as ‘jaguar reserve,’ but despite the moniker, your chances of seeing a jaguar here are slight at best. This great swath of tropical forest became the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in 1984, thanks to the efforts of American zoologist Alan Rabinowitz. Today, this critical biological corridor is home to an estimated 40 to 50 jaguars and a vast array of other animals, bird, and botanical life.
Perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula, Placencia has long enjoyed a reputation as ‘the caye you can drive to.’ This is more true today than ever since the 27-mile road from the Southern Hwy is no longer spine crushing, having now been fully paved. How you wind up feeling about Placencia really depends on what you’re looking for. If it’s laid-back ambiance, varied accommodations and some of the best restaurants in Southern Belize, this beachfront paradise may well prove to be your personal Margaritaville. If it’s an off-the-beaten-path adventure and cheaper living you’re after, Placencia might serve better as a way-station. Come on down for a few days of sandy beaches, sunny skies and great seafood before heading off to less trodden paths.
Bordering Guatemala to the south and west and the Stann Creek and Cayo Districts to the north, the 1669-sq-mile Toledo District encompasses an area most Belizeans refer to lovingly as ‘The Deep South.’ Around 27,000 people live in this huge area, and about half the district is under protection as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves or nature reserves.
Toledo’s attractions – jungle trails, lagoons, wetlands, rivers, caves, waterfalls, countless birds – and its archaeological heritage are much less trumpeted than those of Belize’s other districts, which makes them all the more magnetic to those looking to get off the beaten path. Toledo’s capital, Punta Gorda, is also its only major town.
Most casual travelers in years past didn’t make it as far as Punta Gorda (or PG as it’s called throughout Belize); if they did, they only used this low-key seaside town as a jumping-off point into Guatemala. Recently though, the worm seems to be turning (at a typically slow Belizean pace, naturally), with the number of visitors coming to chill out in this unpretentious southern town increasing. Some base themselves here for longer-term trips out to the southern cayes or for lengthy explorations of Belize’s deep Maya south.
SAN PEDRO COLUMBIA
About 20 miles northwest of Punta Gorda is the village of San Pedro Columbia, the largest Kekchi Maya community outside Guatemala. Columbia (as locals call it) was established by Kekchi families who left Pueblo Viejo to look for new farmland around 1905. The village has seen boom and bust, with mahogany and cedar felling, chicle collection and, in the 1970s and 1980s, marijuana cultivation. There are currently around 1500 residents. The village has one restaurant, Maggie’s, by the crossroads, which serves uninspired fare and cold beer, and there are several shops where handicrafts and food can be bought.
Just down the road from San Pedro Columbia, this Kekchi village of 400 people is on the road close to the Lubaantun ruins and the Southern Hwy. You can walk to Lubaantun or make a little expedition to Tiger Cave, 1½ hours’ walk away, returning by canoe along the Rio Grande.
The Maya ruins at Lubaantun, 1.3 miles northwest of San Pedro Columbia, are built on a natural hilltop and display a construction method unusual in the ancient Maya world of mortar-less neatly cut black slate (rather than the more typical limestone) blocks. In 1924, Belize’s then-chief medical officer Thomas Gann, an amateur archaeologist, bestowed the name Lubaantun (Place of Fallen Stones) on these ruins. Perhaps the name has to do with the mortar-free composition of the structures. Or maybe Gann’s naming of the site was inspired by his own practice of dynamiting temple tops to remove earth and rocks. History doesn’t tell. More professional work has taken place since 1970 and much of the site is now cleared and restored.
About 13 miles northwest of Punta Gorda, Laguna is just 2 miles off the Southern Hwy and quick and easy to get to. About 300 Kekchi Maya villagers live here. The lagoon the village is named for, about a two-hour walk away, is at the heart of the 8.6-sq-mile Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary, an extensive wetland area. The area provides great bird-watching and is home to flocks of ibis and woodstork, many raptors including ospreys, plenty of kingfishers and herons and the odd jabiru stork. There’s a visitor center on the trail from the village. The hike can be wet and muddy and is sometimes impossible at the height of the rains.
The largest Mopan Maya community in Belize (population about 2500), San Antonio was founded in the mid-19th century by farmers from San Luis Rey in El Petén, Guatemala. A wooden idol (of San Luis) was taken from the church in San Luis Rey by settlers who returned to Guatemala to retrieve their saint. The idol remains in the beautiful stone church in San Antonio, which has wonderful stained-glass windows with Italian and Irish names on them (because the glass was donated by parishioners from St Louis, Missouri). The Feast of San Luis, a harvest festival where the famous Deer Dance is performed, is celebrated in town from about August 15 to 25.
NIM LI PUNIT
The Maya ruins of Nim Li Punit stand atop a natural hill half a mile north of the Southern Hwy, 26 miles from Punta Gorda. Buses along the highway will drop you off or pick you up at the turnoff. Only discovered in 1976 by oil prospectors, Nim Li Punit was inhabited from some point in the middle Classic Period (AD 250–1000) until sometime between AD 800 and 1000. It was probably a town of 5000 to 7000 people at its peak, a political and religious community of some importance in the region.
RÍO BLANCO NATIONAL PARK
Halfway between Santa Cruz and Santa Elena sits the 105-acre Río Blanco National Park. The protected wildlife area is home to a variety of flora and fauna, but the highlight is definitely Río Blanco Falls, a beautiful 20- foot-high waterfall leading into a clear blue swimming hole (considered one of the best swimming holes in the country). After paying your entrance fee at the ranger station, the falls are a five-minute hike. Other activities in the park include bird-watching, nature-trail hiking, and kayaking.
This village of some 250 people, part Kekchi and part Mopan, does indeed have a pretty, blue-tinted river running through its center. Howler monkeys inhabit the surrounding hilly jungles, otters live along the creek and green iguanas are plentiful. Blue Creek is a tourist stop for the Blue Creek Cave, a walk of about 0.75 miles along a marked jungle path from the bridge in the middle of the village. The cave has a ‘wet side,’ where you swim and wade up to an underground waterfall (about one hour in the cave), and a ‘dry side’, where you can try a more difficult venture involving climbing, and emerge at a different entrance. Guides are obligatory inside the cave. Another good hike here is up the hill known as Jungle Height (about 1½ hours to the top), which affords great views.