From the junction of the Hummingbird and Southern highways, it’s 10km to Dangriga (formerly known as Stann Creek), the district capital and the largest town in southern Belize. Dangriga is the cultural centre of the Garífuna, a people of mixed indigenous Caribbean and African descent, who overall make up about eleven percent of the country’s population. The town is also home to some of the country’s most popular artists, including painters and drum-makers, and you may catch an exhibition or performance. Still, for most travellers the town is of little interest unless you’re here during a festival, though it makes a very useful base for visiting tiny, stunning Tobacco Caye, the Jaguar Reserve near Hopkins and the small village of Gales Point, where visitors can learn the art of traditional drumming.
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Some 14km along the Hummingbird Highway back towards Belmopan from Dangriga, a coastal road heads north to the small Creole village of Gales Point. The village straggles along a narrow peninsula that juts into the Southern Lagoon, a large, shallow body of water which – along with Northern Lagoon, to which it’s connected – comprises Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary, a breeding ground for rare wildlife, including jabiru storks, turtles, manatee and crocodiles. The area is bounded to the west by limestone hills, riddled with caves and cloaked with mangroves. Gales Point is also a centre of traditional drum-making; you can learn to make and play drums at the Maroon Creole Drum School (t 603-6051, e [email protected]).
Gales Point is served by two weekly buses in each direction on the Coastal Road, usually leaving Belize City and Dangriga on Mondays and Fridays; other traffic passes the junction, 4km from the village, and hitching is relatively easy.
About 20km offshore from Dangriga is Columbus Reef, a superb section of the Barrier Reef. Tobacco Caye, idyllically perched on its southern tip, is the easiest of the cayes in the area to visit and has a number of places to stay. The island is tiny: stand in the centre and you’re only a couple of minutes from the shore in any direction, with the unbroken reef stretching north for miles. The reef is so close to shore that you won’t need a boat to go snorkelling or diving, and several of the resorts, including Reef’s End Lodge, have dive shops that rent gear even to those who are not guests; snorkelling gear costs US$7.50 and diving gear US$25. Boats (40min; Bz$35) leave daily from near the bridge in Dangriga, though there are no scheduled departures; ask at the Riverside Restaurant.
The Garífuna trace their history to the island of St Vincent, in the eastern Caribbean, where two Spanish ships carrying slaves from Nigeria to America were wrecked off the coast in 1635. The survivors took refuge on the island, which was inhabited by Caribs, themselves recent arrivals from South America. At first the Caribs and Africans fought, but the Caribs had been weakened by disease and wars against the native Kalipuna, and eventually the predominant race became black with some indigenous blood, known by the English as the Black Caribs, or Garífuna.
For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries St Vincent fell nominally under British control, though in practice it belonged to the Garífuna, who fended off British attempts to gain full control until 1796. The British colonial authorities, however, would not allow a free black society, so the Carib population was hunted down and transported to Roatán, off the coast of Honduras. The Spanish Commandante of Trujillo, on the Honduran mainland, took the surviving Black Caribs to Trujillo, where they became in demand as free labourers, fishermen and soldiers.
In the early nineteenth century small numbers of Garífuna moved up the coast to Belize. The largest single migration took place in 1832, when thousands fled from Honduras after they supported the wrong side in a failed revolution to overthrow the government. It is this arrival that is today celebrated as Garífuna Settlement Day.