Village Guesthouses and Homestays
For the culturally curious traveler who doesn’t mind using an outhouse, the unique experiential accommodation programs in the Toledo District offer a three-fold attraction:
- 1) first-hand observation of daily rural life in southern Belize;
- 2) a chance to interact with one of several proud, distinct cultures while participating in a world-renowned model of ecotourism; and
- 3) a unique way to go deep into the lush, natural world of the forests, rivers, caves, and waterfalls of southwestern Belize.
Simple guesthouse and family home networks in participating villages offer a range of conditions and privacy, but most are simple, primitive, and appreciated most by those with an open mind. Activities include tours of the villages and surrounding natural attractions. For nighttime entertainment, traditional dancing, singing, and music can usually be arranged; otherwise it’s just stargazing and conversation.
These are poor villages, and the local brand of ecotourism provides an alternative subsistence farming that entails slashing and burning the rainforest. Additionally, the community-controlled infrastructure helps ensure a more equitable distribution of tourism dollars than most tour operations (members rotate duties of guiding, preparing meals, and organizing activities).
Dem Dats Doin’ (office in Punta Gorda next to Scotia Bank, demdatsdoin [at] btl [dot] net) has maintained the Maya Village Homestay Network since 1991, offering traditional village accommodations, in which you stay in a Maya home, maybe in a hammock (not much privacy, but plenty of cultural exchange). The office in Punta Gorda is open only on Wednesday and Friday mornings. It’s less than US$20 per person per night for homestays and all meals; families are in the villages of Aguacate, Na Luum Ca, and San Jose. The same folks run the Toledo Botanical Arboretum (US$5 pp).
You’ll usually pay about US$11 for three meals. Breakfast in Maya villages is generally eggs, homemade tortillas, and coffee or a cacao drink. All meals are ethnic and lunch is the largest meal of the day; it is often chicken caldo (a soup cooked with Maya herbs) or occasionally a local meat dish like iguana (“bush chicken”) or gibnut (paca, a large rodent). Fresh tortillas round out the meal. Supper is the lightest meal of the day and generally includes “ground” food (a root food such as potatoes) that the guide and visitors might “harvest” along the jungle trail.
The comal (tortilla grill) is always hot, and if you’re invited to try your hand at making tortillas, go ahead—this is a wonderful way to break the ice with the usually shy Maya women.
In a Garifuna village, be prepared for simple but traditional cooking, like sere, or fish in coconut milk. If you have special dietary needs your hosts will do their best to accommodate you.
For the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) program, a registration fee, one night’s lodging, and three meals run US$28 per person per night. Other activities, like storytelling, crafts lessons, and village tours are US$3.50 per hour. Prices are standardized throughout the participating villages. Other activities, such as paddling trips, forest and cave tours (US$14 pp), and music/dance sessions cost more, but will be extremely reasonable—especially with a group. If visiting during the rainy season, be advised that trails and caves may be inaccessible.
TEA is the umbrella organization for the guesthouse program, which is cooperatively managed and includes village representatives in their respective towns. At last count, there were 7 participating villages, down from 12 a few years ago. Participants must arrange their visits from the central TEA office in Punta Gorda (tel. 501/722-2096, teabelize [at] yahoo [dot] com, www.plenty.org/mayan-ecotours), where you will pay the registration fee (US$5), be briefed about the program, and told how to get out to the village (the villages are on a rotating basis). One full day may be sufficient, as the villages are quiet small; if you would like to explore the surrounding landscape, plan an extra day.
Bring comfortable walking shoes, bug repellent, a poncho, a swimsuit, a flashlight with extra batteries, and lightweight slacks and a long-sleeved shirt. Photos of your own family and home—or postcards of your hometown—are appreciated and good icebreakers. Be sure to fill out the evaluation form afterwards to help TEA improve the program.
TEA is doing the best it can in the face of relatively low interest in the program. Though TEA still successfully hosts travelers from all over the world, the overall low number of visitors makes it difficult to properly maintain some facilities—not to mention villagers’ interest. In addition, TEA doesn’t have funding for a person to work at the Punta Gorda office full-time (it’s too much of a commitment for farmers and housewives); the position is sometimes filled by international volunteers. If there is nobody at the TEA desk in the BTIA office, contact Chet Schmidt at Nature’s Way (tel. 501/702-2119). Despite these challenges, TEA is an engaging community-based tourism project that is well worth supporting and experiencing.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition