When planning a trip to Belize, most travelers opt for the northern islands and cayes world-renowned for the offering of dive opportunities. Other times, people plan a stop in Belize as part of a big Central America trip, coming from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and heading on to Mayan ruins like Tikal in Guatemala.
But what about southern Belize?
Rich in lush rainforests, tropical flowers, mountainous terrain and iconic Mayan culture, the Toledo district in southern Belize is a world of its own. The “forgotten district” among the government and tourists alike is one that holds more cultural charm than any other place I’ve been.
By the time I’m finished with this post, I hope to encourage you all to wander the path less traveled and make it a point to spend a few days in the Toledo district of southern Belize.
Here’s the Toledo District of Southern Belize: Where, What and Why You Should Visit:
The Toledo district is comprised of Belize’s southern portion, running west and south to the border of Guatemala and east to the Caribbean Sea. It’s located nearly 150 miles from Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE).
Toledo District Belize
Options for getting to the Toledo district in southern Belize:
Bus service is available for about $24 BZ or $12 USD. While the ride is the most budget-friendly option, there is no air-con, seats are usually always full so you may have to stand and the trek takes no less than 5 hours, with multiple stops being made along the way.
Click here for a bus schedule.
Some accommodations offer all-inclusive packages, which may include domestic flights to Punta Gorda. Otherwise, you’ll be looking at no less than $100 USD per person to fly to the south, not including baggage fees.
Check out the flight options for domestic travel in Belize through Maya Island Air or Tropic Air.
We went with the more adventurous option and rented a car through Dollar Rental. The drive for us took about 5 hours, only stopping a couple of times for gas (which is very expensive! About $10 BZ or $5 USD a gallon).
Read More about Renting a Car in Belize: Costs + Tips
Where to Stay
Accommodations range from small sleeping rooms in traditional Mayan homes to actual hotels in the capital of Punta Gorda.
The perfect option of a place to stay to get the traditional Mayan feeling in a comfortable environment is the eco-adventure resort, the Cotton Tree Lodge.
I’ve never stayed in a place as unique as the Cotton Tree Lodge. 12 traditional thatch-roofed cabanas span gorgeous jungle grounds next to the Moho River. Each cabana is equipped with the most comfortable hammock to spend the day swaying in while listening to the tropical birds, jungle bugs, howler monkeys and iguanas plopping into the water from the trees.
The all-inclusive option include three meals a day, which are completely curated from their organic garden in the farm-to-table food feature.
*Disclaimer: I was super fortunate to be hosted by the Cotton Tree Lodge during my stay. As always, all experiences, photos, thoughts and opinions are all my own!
What to Do
Literally every sort of adventure is possible here in the Toledo district of southern Belize. Mayan ruins exploring, deep sea fishing, river kayaking, ziplining, hiking, cultural experiences, you name it and you can probably find it!
If you’re staying at the Cotton Tree Lodge, they have the ability to plan just about any adventure you were wanting to embark on here in the south of Belize. One of the best activities on site is kayaking down the Moho River.
Head on down to Big Falls Extreme Adventures to take part in some jungle ziplining or river tubing. There’s also a hotel here as well so accommodations and all-inclusive meal plans can be added to your adventures.
Explore the markets in Punta Gorda, held every other Saturday, offering just about any sort of souvenir or fresh foods you could think of.
Head on over to Eladio’s Cacao Farm to walk with him on the cacao trail while he gives all the information about your favorite dessert. End the tour with a dream come true: chocolate making and tasting!
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, put on your rubber boots (available to borrow from the Cotton Tree Lodge) and get to hiking through the lush rainforests. Beautiful tropical flowers dot the landscape with the most gorgeous hazed-view of the mountains as the backdrop.
Visit the primitive Rio Blanca National Park with its flowing waterfalls and swimming holes that have cliffs high enough to jump off of into the water.
Drive through the primitive roads between Mayan farms and watch as these hard-working laborers spend their days whacking away at their lands with machetes.
Dive yourself straight into the traditional Mayan culture by visiting the lesser-known villages of the Kekchi and Mopan Mayans. We spent hours talking with a local Kekchi who actually married a Mopan woman, something that was frowned upon years ago but is becoming more popular today. The largest population of Kekchi Mayans in one village is in San Pedro Columbia, a small community based near Lubaantun Mayan ruins here in the Toledo district. The Catholic church in San Pedro Columbia, built in 1952, was actually constructed from slate stones taken from the pyramids at the Lubaantun ruins.
Explore the ancient history of the few Mayan ruins here in the south of Belize. While these sites aren’t nearly as popular as those found in Guatemala and the Yucatan in Mexico, they hold so much significance to the secrets of the Mayan world. We were able to visit Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun all in one trip as they’re only about 15 miles away from each other.
Why You Should Visit
On the surface, I totally get why most people bypass the southern districts while on a trip to Belize. It’s primitive, further away from civilization, tourist activities and accommodations are less frequent and finding a way there only adds more time and expenses to the budget. But, in all honesty, it was one of the most cultural places I’ve been in all of my travels.
The primitive nature of southern Belize is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. I absolutely thrive on visiting less popular places; give me the choice between a busy city vacation or one where I’m off the grid in the mountains with no one else around and I’d choose the latter every time. The fact that hardly any other tourists existed down here really aided in us getting to know the natives. We completely felt as if we delved ourselves into the culture, like we were one with Belize, instead of just a visitor.
Most tourists prefer the northern parts of Belize, specifically the cayes and islands that pull people in with their slow lifestyles and convenient access to Belize’s Barrier Reef.
I feel like I’m credible in recommending travelers to visit the Toledo district in southern Belize because, after spending 3 nights here, I continued on to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye and then Caye Caulker. While I absolutely loved these islands and the vibes they emitted, I didn’t feel as if they supplied me with the cultural involvement I seem to always seek when I travel.
Read More about San Pedro, Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker
The locals are so friendly up on the islands but the hospitality and warmth from the natives down here in the Toledo district was untouchable to any other place I’ve been in the world. As we were driving down undeveloped dirt roads through Mayan farmland, a man was walking towards us holding his machete in one hand and waving at us with his other, all while wearing the biggest smile across his face. Never thought I’d ever see something like that because if you’re in the U.S. and a man’s walking towards you with a machete, you run the other way!
Another amazing experience with the locals was when we came across a family of Mayans standing in the middle of a rough dirt road one evening. The man and his wife waved us down, pointing up to the jungled trees above. After pulling over and walking up to them, we noticed a family of howler monkeys in their natural habitat in the trees above. We stood in the road and talked with them about the monkeys and the vegetation around this area until the sun went down.
Wildlife in the southern district of Belize differs immensely from the northern parts. Howler monkeys, toucans and even jaguars can be seen on a regular basis in the jungles. While the animals are incredible, the unique vegetation sprinkled throughout the rainforest really steals the show. Shol, a descendant of the Mayans who constructed Lubaantun, taught us so much about the various uses for different plants, most of which are only found here in the Toledo district. Cacao beans used for cocoa and chocolate are planted in masses but, perhaps the most interesting of the vegetation are the trees found throughout that act as antidotes for various medical issues.
The biggest thing I took away from our visit down here in the Toledo district was the realization as to how fortunate we all are to have everything we need. At first glance, this area of Belize seems run down and poor but that couldn’t be further from the truth: they literally have everything they need. After seeing how these people spend their days outside, working on their land, talking with their neighbors instead of watching television or using a cell phone, I was truly inspired. With all of the resources we have on hand, we’re spoiled beyond our wildest dreams but, the locals of the Toledo district are so HAPPY, much happier than most people in the world seem. Seeing this was probably the most moving aspect of our entire trip to Belize.
While Mayan ruins do exist in the north of Belize, we felt like we really got a taste of the Mayan culture down here in the Toledo district where the largest population of Kekchi and Mopan Mayans are found. After visiting Nim Li Punit, we headed on to Lubaantun where we spent hours talking with a direct descendant about Mayan culture and history. The type of things he told us was first-hand knowledge from his ancestors and villagers, giving us more information than we would have ever gotten had we just researched them online.
If you’re looking for a place to get completely off the grid and escape that fast-paced lifestyle, come on down to the Toledo district in Southern Belize. You won’t find a Starbucks or McDonald’s and you probably won’t be able to answer any emails but spending your days swinging in a hammock by the same river Mayans used to carry goods down thousands of years ago, I mean, what more could you want out of a trip to another country?!
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