"Upcountry" is a loose term used to describe the Toledo District settlements to the west of Punta Gorda. Most villagers are Q’eqchi’ or Mopan Maya, whose descendants fled to Belize to escape oppression and forced labor in their native Guatemala.
Anthropologists now believe that the Mopan were probably the original inhabitants of Belize, but that they were forcibly removed by the Spanish in the late 17th century. The Q’eqchi’ were close neighbors with the Mopan and the Manche Ch’ol, a Maya group completely exterminated by the Spanish.
The older folks continue to maintain longtime traditional farming methods, culture, and dress. Modern machinery is sparse—they use simple digging sticks and machetes to till the soil, and water is hand-carried to the fields during dry spells. It’s not an easy life.
On the outskirts of each town, the dwellings are relatively primitive; they often have open doorways covered by a hanging cloth, hammocks, and dirt floors. Chickens and sometimes dogs wander through the houses in search of scraps. People use the most primitive of latrines or just take a walk into the jungle. They bathe in the nearest creek or river, a routine that becomes a source of fun as much as cleanliness.
As you walk into town, past the thatched homes on each side of the road, it becomes apparent that the effects of modern conveniences are only beginning to arrive. When a family can finally afford electricity, the first things that appear are a couple of lights and a refrigerator—the latter allows the family to earn a few dollars by selling chilled soft drinks and such. After that, it’s a television set; you can see folks sitting in open doorways, their faces lit by the light inside.
To get to Maya country from Punta Gorda, you have several choices. If you plan an overnight with the homestay or guesthouse programs, TEA will assist you. They may simply direct you to the appropriate village bus from Punta Gorda.
The Chun Bus (tel. 501/722-2666) makes the run to San Antonio Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (about US$4 round-trip). This bus doesn’t stop in San Pedro; instead you will have to leave the bus at the road and trek in several miles. You can also catch a bus as far as Pueblo Viejo, “the edge of the known world.” Catch the Chun Bus at Jose Maria Nunez Street to ensure getting a seat. Remember: No buses run on Sunday.
If traveling by car, you have the option of exploring every little road you see (four-wheel drive recommended). From the turnoff for Punta Gorda at Mile 86 on the Southern Highway, take the road north. At about Mile 11/2, there will be a turnoff on the right that heads for San Pedro and other villages.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition