For such a small country Belize is an extremely diverse place. Within the Toledo District alone, visitors will find at least 7 distinct ethnic groups: Mopan Maya, Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Chinese, and a small settlement of Mennonites.
Our cultural tours will introduce you to some of the food, music, and crafts of the Maya and Garifuna people. As a visitor to Santa Anna, Crique Sarco, Barranco, or Blue Creek, you may be welcomed into village homes and given the opportunity to interact directly with local people and their families. English is the official language of Belize, allowing you to communicate freely with your hosts.
These tours generally involve limited walking on flat roads and paths. Any of these tours would be a good choice for older guests or those with limited mobility.
Corn, or maize, has always been an important crop to the Mayan people. The ancient Maya believed it was a gift from the gods and growing it was a sacred duty. In ancient times corn was prepared in many different ways, including warm drinks, sourdough breads, mixed into stews, steamed as tamales, etc. Corn continues to be a major part of the Mayan diet in southern Belize, though more recently store-bought white flour and white rice have also become popular.
While things are changing in Toledo, farmers in Santa Anna and other villages of Toledo still use the traditional milpa growing methods of their ancestors. They clear an area of the jungle with machetes, allow the cut brush to dry, burn it, then plant their crop. The ash improves the soil, but the fields can only be used for a few years before they lose nutrients and must be allowed to lie fallow. Mature corn is allowed to dry on the stalks, then picked and carefully stacked and stored, still in the husk, inside the home.
In this workshop you will learn how to prepare corn tortillas, a staple food in many Mayan homes. Mrs. Bo will host you at her home in Santa Anna village, two miles from Cotton Tree Lodge. She will show you how harvested corn is separated from the cob, soaked in lime, and ground to make delicious hot tortillas. Try your hand at preparing your own, and end your workshop with a delicious snack of tortillas, eggs, and tomatoes.
While in Santa Anna, you may have the opportunity to meet members of Mrs. Bo's family, as well as observe some facets of village life. You may pass the primary school, run into the Alcalde (village leader), see how the modern day cooperative corn mill operates, or stop in for a soda at the village store. This tour may be reached by horseback, horse-drawn buggy, or bicycle, or guests may arrange to kayak back to Cotton Tree from Santa Anna village.
Barranco is the southernmost village of Belize, and home to around 150 mostly Garifuna residents. The Garifuna people, or Garinagu (Garifuna refers to the language, Garinagu to the people), are descendents of shipwrecked African slaves who escaped to St. Vincent island in 1635 and the Carib Indians who already lived there. After the British displaced them from St. Vincent in 1773, Garinagu communities spread to Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize, formerly British Honduras.
The Garinagu people of Barranco still practice many of their cultural traditions and community guides offer informative tours through the village. Visit the Spirit House and learn about the Garifuna religion - a combination of Catholicism, African, and Carib beliefs which incorporates the practice of ancestor worship. Stop by the cassava bakery and see how this root vegetable is processed into a staple food - cassava bread. Displays in the Cultural Center will introduce you to traditional crafts, dress, and language.Your tour might include samples of traditional food like hudut - a fish and plantain dish.
Traditional Garifuna music draws on African influences, utilizing drums and strong rhythms. You may have the opportunity to see a drum and dance performance while at Barranco. The modern day 'punta rock' is a derivation of Garifuna music, and can be heard widely around Belize.The late Andy Palacio, recipient of the 2007 WOMEX World Music Award, grew up in Barranco and has performed Garifuna and punta music all over the world.
Near Barranco Village is the Temash Sarstoon Wildlife Sanctuary, consisting of 41,000 acres between the Temash and Sarstoon rivers. The sanctuary is home to red mangroves, jaguars, tapirs, manatees, monkeys, and beautiful birdlife. Community leaders from Barranco are involved in SATIIM, the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, which co-manages the sanctuary along with the Belizean government.
Traditional medicine and natural healing was once widely practiced throughout the Mayan communities of Belize. Using a combination of medicinal plants and prayer, shamans and healers treated both the physical and spiritual ailments of their communities. In the 20th century, western influences began to discourage the use of traditional medicine and fewer and fewer healers were trained.
Today the knowledge is all but lost, however, scientific communities from the western world have shown a new interest in the medicinal properties of tropical plants. For example, the National Cancer Institute started the Belize Ethnobotany Project, which has sent of 2,000 species back to the NCI to be studied for cancer fighting properties. Students from the New York Botanical Gardens are currently doing ethnobotanical research right in Toledo.The Belizean government has also recognized the importance of these plants, and in 1993 set aside 6,000 acres for the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve to transplant potentially valuable plants from areas of jungle in danger of development.
Medicinal plants still flourish in the old growth rainforests around Cotton Tree Lodge, and some are growing in the gardens between the cabanas and Main Lodge. Santiago Chub, a knowledgeable healer from Santa Anna village, regularly offers medicinal plant walks to our guests. Some tours stay on the property and trek into the dense jungle surrounding Cotton Tree. Other trips head to Santiago's home, where he has cut a medicinal plant trail into the hills behind his house and transplanted certain species to show you. Walks can last from 30 minutes up to an hour, depending on the interest of guests.
The medicinal plant walk at Santiago's home may be reached by horseback, horse-drawn buggy, or bicycle, or guests may arrange to kayak back to Cotton Tree from Santa Anna village.