Belize’s Toledo District and Punta Gorda

Welcome to Punta Gorda Belize sign at the entrance to Punta Gord Town

The Toledo District is 210 miles by road from Belize City. With the new Southern Highway, traveling south by car or bus is a scenic ride through the rolling hills of the Hummingbird Highway, then onto the Southern Highway.  A tattered palapa and a beautiful welcome sign line the entrance to Punta Gorda. The town has a magnificent view of the Caribbean Sea and the mountains of Guatemala looking to the south. Toledo has some of the most extensive caving systems in the country. With many caves in remote areas part of the fun is the jungle hike to get there. They should be visited as part of organised tours with specialist guides and safety equipment.

Silhouettes of the Maya Mountains tower over lush, green rainforest, valleys, pine ridge savannahs and the coast. To the west of Punta Gorda you will find more than 30 traditional Maya villages with their tidy thatch roof homes constructed much the same way their ancestors built homes thousands of years ago. To the east lie several cayes sitting on the brilliant aquamarine waters of the Bay of Honduras.

Toledo’s richest asset may be its diverse culture. The Maya make up more than half of the Toledo District’s population. They cultivate corn, including the rare Maya variety easily denoted by its purple and yellow color, cacao, peppers and fruits. They skillfully weave the famous Jippi Jappa baskets including the miniature versions sought by collectors. Their artisans carve exquisite bowls from the mahogany and rosewood wood that is abundant in their forests, and host eco tourists in their homes under the Maya homestay program (your tour operator will have more information on this).

Driving To Punta Gorda, Toledo

Many visitors fly to Punta Gorda as it is the fastest, more comfortable and economical way to get to this most remote populated area. In the past the road was an unpaved and arduous trek more suited to explorers. Today, the highway is paved and worth the drive for those who do not like puddle jumpers or who simply like driving and taking in the scenery and experiencing the local villages and stops along the way. If you are staying more than a couple of days in Toledo, it may be advantageous to have your own transport. Taxis are expensive, for e.g. a 9 mile run from a lodge outside town to P.G. will cost you $22.50 With your own transport you can eat and snack where you want and explore the nearby villages, Maya ruins and other attractions at your leisure paying only for a tour guide to accompany you if you wish. Toledo is a great area for birder. Check out this article on The Great Potoo by Birds of Belize author H. Lee Jones.

Punta Gorda Belize Town Clock
Punta Gorda Toledo Town Clock

Traveling from Belize City, you head west to the City of Belmopan and exit via the Hummingbird Highway running south. The first major intersection is right after the Shell gas station before reaching Dangriga. Thereafter you head south east and continue south after the roundabout at the Placencia junction. From there it is almost a straight run to P.G as Punta Gorda is called. The last major intersection is at the junction that runs to Independence Village. The driver takes a right, then another run to Big Falls, then a left and it is straight to P.G. The exits to the two main Maya Sites, Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun are on your right as you approach P.G. and being tourist attractions, have prominent and legible signs.

The southern highway is one of the better highways in the country. The run from the City of Belmopan to Punta Gorda is about two and a half hours. Look out for the many bumps and pedestrian crossings especially when approaching populated areas. There are several villages along the way and the view of the Maya Mountains makes this a scenic ride. But for the most part this is a lonely journey, especially after passing the Placencia roundabout.

Motorists should consider filling up at the City of Belmopan and ensure they have a spare tire and jack and that their vehicle has been serviced. The next gasoline station is at the junction of the Hummingbird and the Southern highway. This is a Shell gas station, an oasis, well-equipped with restroom and mini-store where you can buy food, periodicals, soft drinks, snacks and ask for directions. The only drawback is that it closes at 5:30 p.m. There are only two more gasoline stations on the route – one at Big Falls and the other at P.G. itself. Many of the road signs nearing P.G. are dilapidated and unreadable – a sign of the poverty levels of the district – the highest countrywide. If you are not sure of your way, stop and ask. It is better to ask than to take a wrong turn and burn up a lot of fuel getting lost.

The best place to stock up on snacks is at the Shell gas station at the intersection of the Hummingbird and Southern highways outside Dangriga. The small convenience story is air conditioned and has a good selection of juices, sodas, cold bottled Starbucks, bottled water, candy, chocolate and fast food such as sandwiches, burgers and rice and beans dinners. The shop is hygienic and the cool environment makes for safe storage of the food and snacks offered. The only other pit stop (but no fuel) we would suggest is at the village of Bella Vista where you will find the inevitable Chinese grocery.

Hanging out in downtown Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize.
Hanging out in downtown Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize.

Local air travel is also available, with both Tropic Air and Maya Island Air having offices near the airstrip in Punta Gorda, the main town in the Toledo district. Toledo is the home of several interesting destinations for the traveler and these include Monkey River Town and Toledo Settlement, the villages of San Pedro Columbia and Silver Creek, Blue Creek, Dolores, Graham Creek, Juventud, Otoxha Village, San Benito Poite, Xpicilha Village, Jacintoville, and San Felipe.

Toledo is often called the “Forgotten District.” But this was not always the case. The inland hills of Toledo are dotted with ancient Maya sites. Five of these— Pusilha, Uxbenka, Lubaantun, Xnaheb, and Nim li Punit – contain both impressive stone architecture and multiple examples of carved sculpture containing Maya hieroglyphics. These monuments discuss the history of the inhabitants of the district from roughly A.D. 400 to 800, people who at the time of the Spanish conquest were called the Manche Chol.

Toledo’s rainforests are home to howler monkeys. Image Credit Bruno Kuppinger.

For the archaeologists who can read these monuments, the ancient Manche Chol of Toledo District are no longer forgotten. Nim li Punit, situated above Indian Creek Village, is one of the most visited and easily accessible Manche Chol sites in the country’s south. The modern name means “Big Hat” in the Q’eqchi’ language, and was chosen by Dr. Joseph Palacio, Belize’s Archeology Commissioner at the time, because of the enormous headdress worn by a king on Stela 14, the second biggest ancient sculpture found in the Maya world.

Covering an area of some 1,700 square miles in the deep south and with the highest rainfall in Belize, Toledo is home to Belize’s true rainforest coupled with dozens of complex cave systems, exotic wildlife and some of the most beautiful offshore islands found in Belize which include the Sapodilla Range.

Punta Gorda – The Town

Toledo Maya woman prepares Belize chocolate drink from cacao bean
Maya woman shows visitor how to prepare traditional Belize chocolate drink from cacao bean.

Sitting on the coast of the Caribbean emerging from the lush, green rainforest, sectioned by fast-flowing vibrant rivers and mountain streams and against the majestic backdrop of the Maya Mountains is Punta Gorda, a town reached by the world-class Southern Highway and by puddle jumper – the gateway to Mayan villages, jungles and waterfalls. The town itself is packed with colorful markets selling fresh local produce, tasty food and cool tropical fruit drinks. Punta Gorda has a a population of about 6,000 inhabitants. Its residents are mostly of Maya, Latino, Garifuna, East Indian, and Creole descent. Punta Gorda is a seaport and fishing center on the Caribbean Sea. It has rich natural attractions and a serves as gateway for nearby Honduras and Guatemala. Punta Gorda is about ten feet above sea level. To the visitor Punta Gorda may appear to be a miniature version of Belize City but cleaner, more friendly, easy going, a more diverse multi cultural outpost and almost no crime. Toledo is well-know for Belize chocolate.

The town proper is the end of the line – there is no other paved road except back to the Southern Highway. Streets are narrow and most houses are mixed concrete and wooden structures. The center of town is dominated by a small park, a few shops and downtown hotels, the banks, telephone company and a seedy market on the seaside. The market was modernised in 2014 but retains most of its seedy character. A few feet down south of the new market, the detritus of Punta Gorda are camped out in defiance in a new sticks and plastic tarpaulin settlement replete with live drumming and herbs.

Catholic church at San Pedro Columbia Belize.
The largest population of Kekchi Mayans in one village is in San Pedro Columbia, a small community based near the Lubaantun Mayan ruins. The Catholic Church in San Pedro Columbia, built in 1952, was constructed from slate and limestone taken from the pyramids at the ruins.

The Kekchi and Mopan Maya (two different but related indigenous ethnic groups), the Gariganu, Latinos, East Indians and Creoles – all speaking their separate languages make Punta Gorda a tiny melting pot in the extreme south. P.G. is a town small enough to easily stroll through on foot. Locals circulate freely through its 5 narrow streets on foot, bicycle, scooters and cars.

Front street is busy on the market days of Monday, Wednesday and Friday when fishermen bring in their catch to display at the market. Maya women throng the streets hawking fruits, vegetables and traditional Maya artifacts such as bracelets, Jippi Jappa art, paintings, wood and stone carvings and other items such as bracelets, pendants, and ear rings.

The side streets around Front and Middle Streets near the main park are lined with hole-in-the wall shops offering items from neighboring Guatemala including clothing, shoes, kitchenware, and native shawls and hammocks in all colors and sizes.

The nice hotels are mostly located outside of the town. Cotton Tree Lodge, Machaca Hill Resort and The Lodge At Big Falls are favorites with travelers.

Seafront at Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize
The seafront at Punta Gorda Town Belize north side

You can explore caves at Hokeb Ha and Yok Balum; waterfalls at Rio Blanco, Maya sites of Lubaantun (also known as Lubaantan in Spanish), Nim li Punit and Pusilha, biological diversity at Paynes Creek National Park and save the best for the last – the awesome offshore islands in the Sapodilla Range. Toledo has many traditional Mayan experiences to offer such as the Deer Dance Festival or staying at a traditional Maya home and participate in the preparation of fresh ground corn tortillas, game meat and Maya chocolate.

Toledo is well known for its sports fishing and today fishermen still practice traditional small-scale fishing from their dug-out canoes, as well as diving for conch, lobster and sea cucumber. Located north of Punta Gorda Town, the Port Honduras Marine Reserve is a protected area. The waters of the Toledo districts are the place to catch Permit. Traditional fishermen often double as fly-fishing guides through the alternative livelihood projects offered by local conservation groups such as TIDE.

Tourism is a relatively new service industry for Toledo and rapidly expanding. Once regarded as the “Forgotten District”, Toledo has new tourist accommodations and more in under development. Several conservation groups call Toledo their home and the district enjoys a high proportion of protected areas. Wildlife is abundant in the area and the small population makes for excellent birding while the offshore islands, especially the Sapodilla Cayes are some of the most enticing in the area.

Belize Map of Toledo southern Belize
Map of Toledo with attractions and places to stay

The Toledo District – A Visitor’s Perspective

Belize attorney Audrey Matura writes about her sojourn to Toledo.

One of my favorite places in all of Belize is admittedly the Toledo District – it is still a place where people greet each other with the hour of the day as they pass by and children are still respectful to adults. Also, nowhere else will you find it all… yes, ALL, of the best of Belize that Mother Nature has gifted to us. In Toledo you experience the splendor of our coast facing us and the majesty of our mountains surrounding us. All in one place you can find some of the most marvelous attractions. Want to go swimming in the river? Take your pick from the Sarstoon, Temash or Moho and all their hundreds of creeks and tributaries… want to go experience the graceful flow of a waterfall… there is one in Blue Creek, San Antonio and even Santa Cruz. Then there is the magnificence of the various most gem-like cayes. From the Sapodilla Range to Ranguana Range in the middle of the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea… the Sapodilla Range is most coveted by visitors for very good reasons.

Keyhole Cave in the Bladen Nature Reserve is a spectacular and way cool attraction in the Toledo District. Image Credit: Ya’axche Conservation trust.

“If it is inland excitement you want, then there are several archeological sites – Pusilha, Uxbenka, Lubantuun and Nim Li Punit are the most known in this region, but surely there are yet unexcavated ones to explore. There are nature trails – the Sarstoon Temash National Park, the Columbia Forest Reserve, the Bladden Nature Reserve and all the historic villages such as Barranco, Jalacte, Otoxcha, just to name a few. In terms of cultural diversity, we find the Ketchi and Mopan Maya, the East Indians, Garifuna, Creole, and the more recent arrivals such as the Indians, Chinese, and the various Central American immigrants.

“Indeed Toledo has it all, thus it is unfortunate that too often it is referred to as the forgotten District — but there is nothing to forget about this district. It is a visitor’s haven, and for me who likes to be on the ground with the people, it is one of the most splendid places for me to visit and mingle with people from all walks of life and backgrounds. The interaction is always rich and revealing.

However, for Toledo to keep on attracting visitors and claiming its rightful place as a tourist destination, there is need to invest in developing some basic infrastructure and prepare the residents to be the best in the hospitality industry.”