I fell in love this summer…a different kind of love…the kind that re-opens your eyes and makes you feel a sense of pride, child-like excitement, and even a sense of calm and peace when you lay your head at night.
My Beautiful Belize is about exploring and finding the beauty in our country. Luckily, I got the chance to travel to one of the least explored areas of Belize, and through a series of fortunate events, was able to have one utterly stunning stay in the Toledo District.
There were so many words that stood out to me about this two-day adventure: Kind, Genuine, Charming, Adventurous, Beautiful…and best of all, Proud.
The moment I found out I needed to be in Blue Creek Village to be a guest speaker at the Peace Corps’ GLOW Camp 2015; I needed to come up with an itinerary. Traveling to the end of the country is usually time consuming, but with Tropic Air flying regularly to the main town Punta Gorda, that time (usually feels like a day’s travels) was cut to two hours. What to do?! I had to make the most of this trip!
Oh, that’s right, I have a friend who comes from ‘down south’. I messaged her to ask which village exactly she was from…and how to get back and forth and explore…within 10 minutes of conversation, I had a place to stay at her parents’ home and her brother would be driving me around on my big adventure.
The beauty of Belize: everyone knows somebody…
The flight on Tropic Air showed me a glimpse of ALL that I want to see of Toledo. The ring of mountains promising adventure and fun, the villages nestled in valleys, bringing back memories of waking up to greet the mist and smells that only a mountain can truly bring…acres and acres of untouched, unspoiled land…the sounds of birds calling in the air…those shy smiles and greetings upon seeing a friendly face…a place that holds on to its culture tightly…proudly…
There are no bones about it… What I did have was a true Belizean experience. From my ride to the bus station, chatting away with the taxi driver who was pleased to see me taking so many pictures, to the lady sitting outside the station wondering what contraption I was holding (a GoPro) and why? To the smiling gentleman on the bike who did a double take, circled back and asked me a bunch of questions about my upcoming adventure, gushing about the GoPro and its possibilities for photos. Even the grumpy bus driver cracked a smile when I took a few selfies in the empty bus (Instagram followers had to be updated, you know?). I never once felt like I was forcing people into conversation. I wasn’t being hustled to, peddled to…no, there was genuine curiosity and a desire to share whatever they knew.
Once on the bus, I saw the homes of my dreams and my past: thatched roofs on wooden buildings, juxtaposed next to the modern cement buildings and colorful all-wood homes on stilts. Pastures and greenery for miles, few billboards, only names of upcoming villages like Mafredi, San Marcos…and others…goats, horses and cows, chickens pecking in front yards, and my absolute favorite sights: mango-laden trees, its fruit hanging like jewels in magnificent colors, so low I would have to crawl to get to them.
Toledo is known for many things, but its Maya culture stands out strong as it is home to the Ke’kchi indigenous group. Their Maya temples and dress, way of life and rules are alive and well down south. Toledo even has an incredible wealth of waterfalls and hiking trails!
Sylvia’s brother Luis was a most wonderful, patient guide, and his companion Suzie and I instantly became friends (we bonded over a love of mangoes). He drove us on the dirt road that takes visitors through villages, stopping to point out the creeks that seem to run rampant throughout the district. At San Pedro Colombia, an old church stood at the top of a small hill, sun shining down on its stone façade. More hills and twisting roads were lined with more traditional homes, and along the road, men walked in their rubber boots, machetes slung on their side, with a crocus sack fashioned into a backpack on their backs. Some were accompanied by their faithful dogs, ready to chase down a fat agouti that could possibly become a delicious dinner later that night.
We discovered that mangoes grow everywhere, including Lubaantun Maya Archaeological Site.
We were the first people to visit that morning, and our un-guided exploration provided tons of fun. We learned that if we stood at just the right spot, there was a breeze to cool us off immediately. The stacked stones of the old city spoke volumes of the hard work that went into the formation of these ancient temples. Below, the running creek provided cooling relief before we headed back out to another site: Nim Li Punit.
Nim Li had many slabs of stone that stood on grassy stretches, time-worn and blackened. Some had fallen over, ravaged by time. We could see the area where recently a most exciting Jade Pendant find took place, and I stood over what appeared to be an old tomb. Perhaps my ancestors once inhabited this particular hole, their physical bodies long lost to time, and their spirits living through us…
That afternoon, to cool off, we were ALL raring to go swimming in the cold, cold waters of the waterfalls that Toledo is so famous for. Luis’ sisters joined us, packing towels and blankets, and the baby, to go out and find the waterfalls of my dreams.
San Antonio Falls are very popular, especially for those wanting to jump the falls. It’s smaller and accessible, its roar not quite as intimidating. The water was cold – no 80+ degree salt water there for me! I braved the cold and enjoyed myself immensely, watching a few daredevils clamber to the top and throw themselves to the pools below.
We weren’t done yet however, as a bigger, louder waterfall had been promised, and wrapped in towels and sweaters, we sat in the back of the vehicle and drove through Santa Cruz village to the Santa Cruz falls. I could hear the roar halfway through the hike to the falls, and I could feel the air’s temperature drop. What greeted us was a gorgeous, immense waterfall that disappeared below sending mist spraying into the air. The heavy rains of the past weeks had given it vigor, and boy were we in for a treat!
Our afternoon was spent playing in the less angry pools above the falls, made accessible by stairs and flat, dry rocks. As the sun beamed down on us, and baby dipped his feet in the water and children shrieked and splashed, I could not envision a more euphoric day than one spent exploring Toledo.
On my return, I had to explore the local market. Happy to walk me around, Magdalena (Sylvia’s mom) took me from stall to stall, introducing me and letting me nose around and ask some of the silliest questions. I thanked her profusely for her patience, and her response? “I know what it’s like to not know where I am at, so it is good to help others.”
And I saw her pride in her culture, as she pointed out the way Maya women carry their babies (much like she carried hers back in the day). She kept bringing me back to look at the crafts being sold by Maya women, pointing out the Jipi Japa bowls and designs. She picked up the bracelets, their colors calling to her…she sampled, she held up, and always, always, encouraged me to take a closer look. She was right…craftsmanship and handmade wins over factory-made all the time. My little jipi-japa basket will be lined and hold flowers in memory of one of the best experiences I have had in my life. And I was proud to be able to live it.
Thank you, Toledo, for reigniting my passion for Belize.