South of Belmopan lies Belize’s most rugged terrain. Population density in this part of Belize is low, with most of the towns and villages located on the water. Dangriga, the largest settlement, is home to the Garífuna people and is the transport hub for much of the region. Further south, the Placencia peninsula is the area’s focus for coastal tourism, boasting some of Belize’s only true beaches, and is also the departure point for the south’s idyllic cayes. The Southern Highway comes to an end in Punta Gorda, from where you can head to Guatemala or visit ancient Maya sites and present-day Maya villages.
Inland, the Maya Mountains form a solid barrier to land travel except on foot or horseback. The Belizean government, showing supreme foresight, has placed practically the whole massif under some form of protection. The most accessible area of rainforest is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a reserve designed to protect the area’s sizeable jaguar population.
Back on the mainland, the jagged peaks of the Maya Mountains rise to the west of the Southern Highway. The tallest summits are those of the Cockscomb range, which includes Victoria Peak (1120m), the second highest mountain in Belize. Beneath the ridges is a vast bowl of stunning rainforest, over four hundred square kilometres of which is protected by the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (daily 7.30am–4.30pm; Bz$10) – better known as the Jaguar Reserve. The basin could be home to as many as sixty of Belize’s 800-strong jaguar population, and though you’ll almost certainly come across their tracks, your chances of actually seeing one are very slim, as they are mainly active at night and avoid humans. Over 290 species of bird have also been recorded here, including the endangered scarlet macaw, the great curassow and the king vulture.
The sanctuary is at the end of a rough 10km road that branches off the main highway at the village of Maya Centre, runs through towering forest and fords a couple of streams before crossing the Cabbage Hall Gap and entering the Cockscomb Basin. Here, you’ll find the sanctuary headquarters, where you can pick up maps of the reserve. Beyond the headquarters, a system of very well maintained trails of varying lengths winds through tropical moist forest, crossing streams and leading to a number of picturesque waterfalls and ridges. For those who have the time – and have made the necessary preparations – it’s also possible to take the four- or five-day hike and climb to the summit of Victoria Peak. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, however, you can float down South Stann Creek in an inner tube, available for rent (Bz$5 per day) at the headquarters.
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.
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@example.com).
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.
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.
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.
Beyond Independence, the Southern Highway leaves the banana plantations, first twisting through pine forests, crossing numerous creeks and rivers, and arriving in the sparsely populated Toledo District, Belize’s least developed region. Here, the Mopan and Kekchi, the country’s two main Maya groups, comprise almost half the population. About 73km from the Placencia junction lies Nim Li Punit (daily 9am–5pm; Bz$10), a Late Classic Maya site, possibly allied to nearby Lubaantun and to Quiriguá in Guatemala. The ruins stand on top of a ridge, surrounded by the fields of the nearby Maya village of Indian Creek. The visitors’ centre has a good map of the site and explanations of some of the carved texts found here, which include eight stelae, among them Stela 15, at over 9m the tallest yet found in Belize. The site is only 1km off the highway, making it an easy day-trip from Punta Gorda.
Glover’s Reef, the southernmost of Belize’s three coral atolls, lies around 40km off the coast from Hopkins. Roughly oval in shape, it stretches 35km north to south, with a number of cayes in its southeastern section. Famous for its wall diving, which is thought to be among the best in the world, the atoll also hosts a stunning lagoon, which offers spectacular snorkelling and diving, as well as a staggering diversity of wildlife. The entire atoll is a marine reserve (Bz$20 entry fee, usually payable to your accommodation or tour guide), with a research station on Middle Caye.
Activities include sailing, sea kayaking, fishing, snorkelling and diving (including dive training), which is spectacular, thanks to a huge underwater cliff and some tremendous wall-diving. Glover’s is, meanwhile, something of an anomaly among the remote atolls: it offers accommodation within the reach of budget travellers.
The small village of Hopkins, south of Dangriga and stretching along a bay, is home to well over a thousand Garífuna. Garífuna Settlement Day, on November 19, is celebrated enthusiastically here, and the friendly villagers are rightly proud of their rich heritage. Garífuna continues to be widely spoken here and the village is a great place to learn more about this unique culture. You can see drumming at the Lebeha Drumming Center (they host a performance most nights), and there are plenty of artists’ workshops dotted throughout the village; visit Charlie Miller at his workshop near the school for his excellent local knowledge and charming wooden handicrafts.
You can rent kayaks at Tipple Tree Beya (the lagoon just north of the village is a great place for kayaking), located on the beach near the village's south end; windsurfing equipment at Windschief, also in the southern section of the beach; and bicycles (Bz$20/day) from Tina’s Bike Rental, on the road toward the village’s southern end. Many hotels can also arrange snorkelling or diving trips to the reef and cayes further out.
There are plenty of accommodation options here, with hotels, cabañas and resorts at all price ranges lining the beach. A good variety of restaurants serve simple Garífuna and Creole meals as well as cuisine with a more international flavour.
Southeast from Belmopan, the Hummingbird Highway heads towards Dangriga, passing through magnificent scenery. On the right the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains become visible, forming part of a ridge of limestone mountains riddled with underground rivers and caves, several of which are accessible.
Two kilometres past St Herman’s Cave, accessible from the highway or via a marked trail from the visitors’ centre, is Blue Hole National Park, centred on a beautiful pool whose cool turquoise waters are perfect for a refreshing dip. The “Hole” is actually a short stretch of underground river, whose course is revealed by a collapsed cavern. Other trails depart from here, including the Hummingbird Loop.
The guided cave and rappelling trips run by Caves Branch Jungle Lodge aren’t cheap (822-2800, wwww.cavesbranch.com; from US$85 per person), but well worth it for the experience. Many of the caves contain Maya artefacts – burials, ceramics and carvings. The best independent guide to the area is Marcos Cucul, based in Belmopan (t 600-3116, w www.mayaguide.bz).
About 19km out of Belmopan the road crosses the Caves Branch River, a tributary of the Sibun River. Just beyond, by the roadside on the right, is St Herman’s Cave (daily 8am–4.30pm; Bz$8, includes entrance to the Blue Hole National Park). After paying the entrance fee at the visitors’ centre, a ten-minute walk on a marked trail leads to the cave entrance, located beneath a dripping rock face; you’ll need a flashlight to enter, heading down steps that were originally cut by the Maya. Inside, clamber over the rocks and splash through the river for about 300m, admiring the stunning natural formations, before the section of the cave accessible without a guide ends. Behind the visitors’ centre and cave, trails lead through the surrounding forest and, after 4km, to a campsite. All buses between Belmopan and Dangriga can drop you at St Herman’s Cave or the Blue Hole.
Some 16km south of Maya Centre, a newly paved road cuts east from the Southern Highway, heading through pine forest and banana plantations before reaching the sea and snaking south down the narrow Placencia peninsula, immensely popular for its sandy beaches, which are among the best in Belize. Though accommodation throughout most of the peninsula, including the villages of Maya Beach and Seine Bight, is limited to upscale resorts and hotels, Placencia village itself has an abundance of budget options, mostly clustered around the northern end of the Sidewalk which runs parallel to the beach. Shaded by palm trees and cooled by the sea breeze, the village is an ideal spot to relax. However, a recent and unrestrained boom in the property market has led to justified fears for local ecology, along with concerns that the peaceful atmosphere of the peninsula may soon be a thing of the past. Apart from simply hanging out on the beach, Placencia is a good, if expensive, base for snorkelling and diving trips to the southern cayes and reef or a day-trip to the Monkey River.
Other trips from Placencia can include anything from an afternoon on the water to a week of camping, fishing and sailing. For excellent four- to six-day river and sea kayaking tours, head to Toadal Adventure. For day-trips inland, including trips to Maya ruins, caves and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, check with Sea Horse Dive Shop or Trip ‘N Travel (for both, ). If you don’t want a tour, Placencia’s lagoon is ideal for exploring in a canoe or kayak (Bz$70–80 per day, which you can rent from Dave Vernon of Toadal Adventure or a number of hotels, including Seaspray), where it’s possible to spot manatees. You can also snorkel near Placencia Island, just off the tip of the peninsula; here you’ll see a variety of fish and some coral.
Diving options from Placencia are excellent, but the distance to most dive sites (at least 30km) means that trips here can be more expensive than elsewhere. Trips usually cost around US$90 for a two-tank dive, and US$350 for open-water certification. You could visit uninhabited Laughing Bird Caye National Park, beyond which lie the exquisite Silk Cayes, where the Barrier Reef begins to break into several smaller reefs and cayes, or nearby Gladden Spit, now a marine reserve created to protect the enormous whale shark.
One of the best inland day-trips from Placencia takes you by boat to the virtually pristine Monkey River, which teems with fish, birdlife, iguanas and, as the name suggests, howler monkeys. The 20km, thirty-minute dash through the waves is followed by a leisurely glide up the river and a walk along forest trails.
For snorkelling, Sea Horse Dive Shop, near Gas Station Dock (t 523-3166, w www.belizescuba.com), offers the best instruction, excursions and equipment rental. Nite Wind Guides (t 523-3847, e firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ocean Motion Guides near the Main Dock (t 523-3363, w www.oceanmotionplacencia.com) also put on snorkelling and manatee-watching trips.
The Southern Highway comes to an end in Punta Gorda, the heart of the still isolated Toledo District. The town is populated by a mixture of eight thousand Creoles, Garífuna and Maya – who make up more than half the population of the district – and is the focal point for a large number of villages and farming settlements. In recent years, the town has placed increasing emphasis on its burgeoning trade in cocoa production. Though there are few other attractions in Punta Gorda itself, it makes an excellent base from which to explore the nearby Maya villages and ruins. Accommodation in Punta Gorda is generally inexpensive. For an alternative to staying in town, contact Nature’s Way Guest House (65 Front St), which operates a programme of guesthouse accommodation in surrounding villages in conjunction with the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA).
As the only transport hub in the far south, Punta Gorda serves as an important base for all of the region’s sights, including the beautiful and tranquil islands of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, the Mayan ruins of Labaantun and Uxbenka, and traditional Mayan villages such as San Antonio.
Four kilometres east of San Antonio and down a side road heading southwest, the village of Blue Creek's main attraction is a beautiful stretch of water running through magnificent rainforest. To get to the best swimming spot, a lovely turquoise pool, walk ten minutes upriver along the right-hand bank. Near the pool is Blue Creek Rainforest Lodge (t 523-7076, w www.ize2belize.com; US$45), which has bunk-bed accommodation in wooden cabins with porches overlooking the creek. The price includes three daily meals and a range of outdoor activities is available at reasonable prices. Alternatively, you could try to rent a room in the village. The creek’s source, Hokeb Ha cave, is another fifteen minutes’ walk upriver through the privately owned Blue Creek Rainforest Reserve. A guide can take you to Maya altars deep in the cave. To get to Blue Creek, take the village bus from Punta Gorda to San Benito Poite.
The Maya site of Lubaantun (daily 8am–5pm; Bz$10) is an easy visit from Punta Gorda via the bus to San Pedro Columbia. To get to the ruins, head through the village and cross the Columbia River; just beyond you’ll see the track to the ruins, a few hundred metres away on the left. Some of the finds made at the site are displayed in glass cases at the visitors’ centre, including astonishing, eccentric flints and ceramics.
Lubaantun (“Place of the Fallen Stones”) was a major Late Classic Maya centre, though it was occupied only briefly, likely from around 750 to 890 AD. The ruins stand on a series of ridges which Maya architects shaped and filled, building retaining walls up to 10m high. The whole site is essentially a single acropolis, with five main plazas, eleven major structures, three ball courts and some impressive pyramids surrounded by forest.
Lubaantun’s most enigmatic discovery came in 1926, when the famous Crystal Skull was found beneath an altar by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the daughter of the British Museum expedition’s leader. The skull was given to the local Maya, who in turn presented it to Anna’s father as a token of their gratitude for the help he had given them. Carved from pure rock crystal, the skull’s origin and age remain unclear, though much contested.
Six hundred square kilometres of the bay and coast north of Punta Gorda are now protected as the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, partly to safeguard the many manatees living and breeding there. The main reef has started to break up here, leaving several clusters of islands, each surrounded by a small independent reef. Hundreds of these tiny islands lie in the mouth of a large bay, whose shoreline is a maze of mangrove swamps.
North of Punta Gorda are the Snake Cayes, idyllic and uninhabited Caribbean islands that draw a small number of visitors for their stunning beaches. Further out in the Gulf of Honduras are the Sapodilla Cayes, now a marine reserve (Bz$20 entrance fee), of which the largest caye, Hunting Caye, is frequented by Guatemalan as well as Belizean day-trippers; though most visitors simply choose to relax on the beach, the reef, located only a few hundred metres offshore, provides excellent opportunities for snorkellers.
Some of these islands already have accommodation, and more resorts are planned, though at present the cayes and reserve receive relatively few foreign visitors and are fascinating to explore on a day-trip from Punta Gorda.
Perched on a small hilltop, the Mopan Maya village of San Antonio is one of the only towns served by daily buses from Punta Gorda (usually Mon–Sat only). The founders of San Antonio came from the village of San Luis, just across the border in Guatemala, and they maintain many age-old traditions, including their patron saint, San Luis Rey, whose beautiful church stands in the centre of the village.
The area around San Antonio is rich in wildlife, dominated by jungle-clad hills and swift-flowing rivers. Though most visitors come to town to relax and to learn about Maya village life, this stunning region also provides excellent hiking opportunities. In town, Bol’s Hilltop Hotel offers basic rooms with shared bath and superb views, and is a good place to get information on local natural history and archeology.
The Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association, set up in conjunction with the British chocolate company Green & Black’s, became the world’s first fairtrade cacao producers in 1993, and the product of this partnership, Maya Gold chocolate, is now sold internationally. 2007 marked the first ever Cacao Festival (wwww.toledochocolate.com), which has quickly established itself as an annual fixture in the town’s calendar. Local business has also profited, with several home-grown brands of chocolate springing up in the district. A great example is the Cotton Tree Chocolate Factory on Front St, which offers a complimentary tasting session and guided tour of their tiny workshop.
Some 7km west of San Antonio, towards the village of Santa Cruz, which is served by four weekly buses, the ruins of Uxbenka, a small Maya site, are superbly positioned on an exposed hilltop with great views towards the coast. As you climb the hill before the village you’ll be able to make out the shape of two tree-covered mounds and a plaza, and there are several stelae protected by thatched shelters.
If you do make it out here you can enjoy some wonderful waterfalls within easy reach of the road. Between Santa Cruz and Santa Elena, the Rio Blanco Falls tumble over a rocky ledge into a deep pool, and at Pueblo Viejo, 7km further on, an impressive series of cascades provides a spectacular sight. Trucks and buses continue 13km further west to Jalacte, at the Guatemalan border, used regularly as a crossing point by nationals of both countries, though it’s not currently a legal entry or exit point for tourists.