Off the Beaten Path
The Toledo district is quite off the beaten path, with locals referring to their home as the “forgotten land”. However, in the last few years travelers have begun to discover its many sights and activities resulting in a steady increase of visitors. Punta Gorda (or PG for short) is the main town with about 5,000 residents, primarily Garinagu and East Indian. The pace of life is slow, even by Belizean standards. Nestled by the sea, the waterfront is lined by seawalls and pebbly dark sand with parked dories (carved wooden canoes). Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days, which are always bustling with activity as farmers and fishermen come to sell their goods. More than 10,000 Kekchi and Mopan Mayas live as subsistence farmers in dozens of traditional villages scattered in the countryside. They fled to Belize to escape oppression in their native Guatemala. Those with an interest in Mayan culture will surely appreciate visiting these villages and experiencing their lifestyle. South of PG is Barranco, a small and isolated Garinagu village by the sea which has produced some of the country’s best musicians and painters.
While PG can be seen in half a day, it is the surrounding landscape that makes visiting this district quite an experience. The Bladen River Nature Reserve covers 92,000 acres of broadleaf forests on the southern slopes of the Maya Mountains. Adjacent is the Colombia River Forest Rerseve which a 1993 study found to be the most biologically diverse ecosystem in Belize. The Temash River has the largest and oldest mangroves in the country which along with other major rivers (filled by the heavy annual rainfall) nourish the land. There is abundant wildlife and birds; Toldeo has won the annual Christmas bird count several years in a row. Rio Blanco National Park features nature trails and a waterfall that empties into a pool 20 feet below. Blue Creek (also called Ho Keb Ha), one of the more popular sights, offers waterfalls, pools and an extensive cave system. The Maya ruins of Lubaantun are composed 11 major structures, 5 plazas and 3 ball courts. Built entirely without mortar, its rounded corners are unique as other Mayan ruins have straight edges. There are also nice views of the Colombia River Valley and the Caribbean 20 miles beyond. Nim Li Punit is a smaller site but known for the 25 stela (stone pillars with hieroglyphs) including one that is 30 feet and among the tallest in the Maya world.
The coast and offshore waters of Toledo offer just as many sights and activities as the land. The barrier reef separates itself further from the coast as you move south. In Toldeo, it lies about 40 miles east ending at the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve as the water deepens into the Bay of Honduras. The Sapodillas (a UN World Heritage Site) cover 80 square miles of barrier reef and coral islands with fringing reefs. The boat ride is long, but the islands (most with nice beaches) along with the snorkeling are worth it. Just north of Punta Gorda, close to the coast, is the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve which covers 500 square miles and is Belize’s largest marine protected area. Rivers drain silt into the reserve, which along with the over 100 mangrove islands produce prime feeding grounds for fish and other marine life. This makes for excellent fishing along the river mouths, channels, coral reefs and flats. They are particularly known among fly-fishermen for permit, which has given Toledo a reputation as the “permit capital of the world”. The easiest islands to get to, just 17 miles northeast of PG, are 4 islands called the Snake Cayes, with picturesque white sand beaches and crystal clear water. Their easy access makes them popular for picnics and snorkeling.