The pick-up truck – now coated in an inch-thick layer of dust – sends us flying over another deep pothole in the road. With my white-knuckled fists clenched tight on the edge of the truck, I blink the dirt out of my eyes and look ahead.
I can’t see another person, car or house – just a single track snaking its way through an endless canopy of emerald-green trees. This unmarked road, our driver shouts over a whirring engine, will lead us into the belly of Belize’s “deep south”, a 1,795mi2 (4,649 km2) jungle wilderness, home to more than 20,000 indigenous Mayan people.
Despite persecution from European colonialists and, now, little support from the Belizean government, the Qʼeqchiʼ Maya have managed to retain a way of life similar to that of their ancient Maya ancestors, most notably through food, crafts and music.
My journey into the remote jungles of the Toledo region begins at the only bus station in Punta Gorda, Belize’s southernmost town. I wait patiently – my forehead damp with sweat from the intense jungle humidity – in a long line of Qʼeqchiʼ Maya women. Each of them carrying their weekly supply of salt, sugar and soap in hand-woven sacks, they take their seats aboard the beat-up yellow school bus and turn their attention to me.
“Where are you going?” one of the ladies – smartly dressed in a lilac puffed-sleeve dress – asks in a Belizean English accent I’d never heard before. “We don’t usually see tourists on this bus.”
Over Bob Marley’s Don’t Worry About a Thing and the hot Belizean wind flapping through my broken window, I tell her I’m going to San Miguel to live with a Qʼeqchi’ Maya family.
Two hours later, I make it to San Miguel. A Toledo district village of just 600 people, this tight-knit community is home to some of Belize’s last remaining Maya.
As my ride speeds off into the distance and the cloud of dust begins to settle, I get the first glimpse of my new home: a handful of thatched-roof houses – each made from nothing but wood, straw and thick vines. I peek through a thick web of low-hanging banana leaves to see a man napping in a hammock; a skinny brown horse chomping on sharp blades of grass; a chicken sprinting across the empty expanse of green.
Suddenly, a little boy – barefoot and soaking wet from playing in the nearby river – comes rushing over to me. “Are you Jessica?” he asks.
Before I can agree, he hurries me down the village’s only path. We pass a pen of feeding chickens and pigs, duck under a washing line strung with purple and blue shirts, and, finally, we burst through the wooden doors of a thatch-roofed cabaña.
The house – a simple room with hammocks strung up on one side and a kitchen on the other – is dark and smoky from the kitchen's open fire hearth. But, I can just about make out 20 eyes looking at me: most of the town, it seems – generations of Qʼeqchi’ Maya mothers, fathers, grandfathers and aunts – have been waiting for me to arrive.
I had arrived later than expected, so we don’t waste any time preparing dinner. I’m told by my host mum, Cecilia, that a traditional meat stew served with corn tortillas and spicy black beans is on the menu this evening.
Tortillas – perhaps the most laborious part of any Maya meal – are still made here in the same way they have been for more than 1,000 years: entirely by hand. First, I am put to work de-husking a sack of corn harvested earlier that day (which, by the way, requires some serious thumb strength). We then wash the corn and, with the help of a flat stone mortar, we grind them until the yellow kernels turn into silky-smooth corn flour. With the addition of a little water, we’re finally ready to shape the tortillas.
“You have to use the tips of your fingers and keep spinning fast,” Cecilia tells me as she expertly turns balls of dough into perfectly shaped circles. “Otherwise you end up with a thick, soggy tortilla nobody wants to eat.”
Despite Cecelia’s gentle encouragement, I catch her quickly re-shaping my tortillas before she puts them on the stove. I’ll work on my tortilla-making skills some more tomorrow, she says.
While our tortillas and meat stew cook over the smoky fire hearth, Cecilia and her sister teach me some reed-weaving under the shade of a palm tree. The reeds – flexible yet durable – are collected by the men for the women to weave into sacks, bowls and table mats. While I struggle over a simple coaster, next to me Cecilia’s sister is working on an intricate embroidery of the ancient Maya God of Maize, Hun Hunahpu.
“We are Christians now,” Cecilia’s sister tells me, “but that does not mean we have forgotten our past.”
Despite no longer believing in the Maya gods and deities, Cecilia and her sister tell me that they still teach their children about Maya beliefs, history and culture through music and crafts.
“It’s not about religious beliefs – it’s about keeping our culture alive. If we don’t do it, nobody else will. We are different from the ancient Maya now, but we learned a lot from them about how to live in nature. We won’t let our children forget that.”
With a belly full of corn, beans and meat, I lay under my mosquito net listening to the sounds of the jungle: a deafening orchestra of crickets, chirping birds and the occasional howl from a monkey somewhere in the distant canopy. As I peek at the star-studded sky through the tiny slats in my wooden cabaña, I realize something.
For decades, tourism boards and travel companies have been exclusively promoting the blue seas and white sands of Belize’s northern cays, leaving the South, and its inhabitants, forgotten to much of the outside world. But, it’s the “forgotten south” – Belize’s capital of Maya culture, tradition and hospitality – that I’ll remember forever. This isn’t the Belize I’d read about, but it’s certainly the one I was searching for.
You can organize trips to the Deep South with TEA for as little as US $12 per night (this only includes your accommodation in a guest cabana with bunk beds).
Food and activities – including cooking lessons, craft workshops and guided walks through the jungle – have an additional cost of anything between US $4 (for a home-cooked breakfast or lunch) to $20 (for a guided tour of the nearby Maya ruins or caves).
In total, you can expect to pay between US $30 – US $50/day for your accommodation, food and activities. You can arrange all the extras with your host family once you arrive.
The jump-off point for all Toledo homestays is the small port town of Punta Gorda. There are buses to Punta Gorda from Belize City (seven hours), Belmopan (5½ hours) and Dangriga (3½ hours).
From Punta Gorda, TEA will guide you on how to get to your chosen homestay (there are currently four Maya villages taking part in the TEA program, and you can choose which one you’d like to go to based on which activities you’d like to do).
Whichever village you choose, chances are you’ll be taking at least one bumpy chicken bus and a 4x4 pickup to reach your new home.
This ramshackle port town doesn’t offer much in the way of activities for travelers, but it does have enough accommodation and food options for a short stay. If you’re on a tight budget, check out Nature's Way Guest House or, if it's a pool and ocean view you're after, Coral House is your best (and only) luxury option.
From here, most travelers journey onwards to Guatemala or Honduras, both of which are just a short boat ride from Punta Gorda.
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Your trip shouldn't be hampered by bringing home an unwanted souvenir of yellow fever or any other disease. Check out our guide to vaccinations for South America.