Punta Gorda, or “PG” as Belizeans call it, is one of the most off the beaten path towns and Toledo the most fascinating district I’ve visited so far.
Most tourists tend to head to the Cayo District for jungle activities because it’s closer to Belize City. But Punta Gorda is worth the 50-minute flight from there.
Why? Because in my opinion it’s everything that’s great about Belize, in one district. The lush rainforests, the caving, the proximity to the Cayes (up to 40 nearby) for some amazing snorkeling or fishing (PG is on the coast), the seaside views, a diverse population (from Garifuna villages to the highest concentration of Mayan villages in the country), and a safe, peaceful environment that is so authentic to Belize.
If you ask about PG when you’re in Cayo, you might get responses like “oh that’s far!” or “there’s nothing there!”
But I think if more travelers knew about Punta Gorda – how accessible it is and how much there is to do, they’d add it to their itineraries. And it’s worth more than just a two-day stop on the way to Placencia.
With easy domestic flights from Belize City via Tropic Air or even with tour guides who offer a varied adventure itinerary – like Bruno Kuppinger – squeezing the Toledo District into your vacation is well feasible.
I felt inspired enough about PG that I wrote a poem while I sat having dinner by the water one night. That says it all doesn’t it?!
And while I normally dislike comparing two places or countries, it hit me while I was in Punta Gorda why I felt so confortable there and why I appreciated it so much: it reminded me of the Northeastern side of Jamaica. The parish of Portland and the more “rural” and real Jamaica of years ago. The stunning coastline, the friendly town folks, the fruit stands everywhere, the fresh breeze and the lack of that tourist-town feel.
The irony, though, is that I went to PG still healing from a bad foot. Combined with heavy rains during my stay, the caving activities were canceled.
Instead, I found myself immersed in cultural exploration – which turned out to be just as fascinating. And it goes to show, there’s a lot more to Punta Gorda than meets the eye.
Here’s what I loved from my time in the Toledo District (please note that I’m only mentioning those activities and places that I enjoyed and would recommend).
1. Stay at the Coral House Inn
It’s simple: I loved the Coral House Inn. It was just the type of guesthouse I look for – small enough, yet cozy and private. A beautiful swimming pool, and to the back, the Bay of Honduras for a nice seaside walk at sunset. It was an easy and safe walk to town from the hotel and convenient when I just wanted to get food and come back. On my last day, I had a 6:30am flight back to Belize City, and when I reached the airport I realized I had left my cell phone in the room. After I called the guesthouse, the owner came to my rescue and brought my phone just minutes before my flight took off! Yep, I’d definitely stay there again.
2. Visit Eladio Pop’s Cacao Trail and see how chocolate is made
When I met Eladio, I didn’t realize that by the end of my morning with him touring his property, I would taste five different types of bananas, fresh honey and learn about a whole bunch of new medicinal and cooking plants I hadn’t heard of yet. But that’s Eladio – in love with nature and sharing everything he learned himself from scratch by trial and error.
After a tour of the land he farms and watches over, looking at cacao trees and sampling fruits, we headed back to his home where he and his wife made us hot chocolate from scratch while we watched: roasting, crushing, grinding and mixing with hot water. Pure, real chocolate.
Who knew there was even chocolate in Belize? I sure didn’t. The Toledo District sells 90 percent of its cacao production to Green & Black’s under a fair trade agreement.
Every year there’s a Cacao Festival in the Spring in Punta Gorda. And two years from now, there will a very first House of Chocolate here.
3. Book a tour with Bruno Kuppinger, tour guide extraordinaire – or with Tide Tours
If you’re looking for a guide who “gets” what off-the-beaten path and adventure mean, Bruno would be it. A German who relocated to Belize 15 years ago to make a different life for himself, after tiring of the corporate world of banking, Bruno traded his concrete jungle for a real one. His real passion and business are adventure tours, jungle expeditions and cultural tours, on which he spends 300 days of the year.
And the unique thing about Bruno’s tours, is that he doesn’t limit you to Punta Gorda. He helps custom-design a week-long package trip where you can see highlights of Belize, from Punta Gorda to Cayo to the Cayes. It’s definitely for the more adventurous folks at heart and with his knowledge of the country, you simply can’t go wrong.
Even the cultural visits he took me on were fantastic. He introduced me to Leela Vernon, a Creole lady who has worked for over 35 years promoting the Creole culture in Belize and is known as the Queen of Brukdown, a Creole dance. Just this year she was the recipient of the “Culture Woman of the Year” Award from the National Institute of Culture and History.
To contact Bruno, call (501) 604-2124.
Another great tour provider is Tide Tours. When I had my tour of downtown Punta Gorda, he didn’t just drive me around – he parked the car and we walked all the main streets. I thought that was pretty fabulous and gave me a better feel for how to get around on my own later.
4. Visit the Garifuna village of Barranco
It’s a rough road and a close to two-hour journey from Punta Gorda to get there, but once you are you’ll forget about everything and fall in love with Barranco. One of the residents will walk you around the village, explaining the history of the Garifuna and telling real stories from his days of growing up in the village. I got to see Andy Palacio’s home and sadly, his grave as well. I learned about the Garifuna’s spiritual beliefs and even saw a Garifuna temple. I have a photo essay on Barranco coming, so stay tuned for more on that.
At the end of the day, I sat with a group of folks by the main and only store at the entrance of the village, where everyone hangs out. There weren’t any folk stories told, but lots of dirty jokes… maybe something to do with the fact that it was mostly men there!
All I can say is – this was one of my favorite days in Toledo. The icing on the cake was heading back from Barranco to PG by boat – just the same way the Garifuna used to travel back and forth to PG. And it was only a thirty minute ride before I was back at the Coral House Inn.
5. Have an “Ital” or vegeratian food: lunch at Gomier’s and dinner at Asha’s
When you’re in PG, stopping by Gomiers’ for a meal is a must. Not just is the food absolutely delicious – and I’m not even a vegetarian but the veggie burger was to die for – but also Gomiers is a super nice man and host with lots of interesting stories about his life and how he ended up in Belize. The most shocking part was finding out that he also passed through the Ivory Coast, years ago, where I grew up! What are the odds.
Besides running his vegetarian and seafood restaurant, Gomiers offers tofu cooking classes all-year long and bakes fresh wholewheat bread which he sells to residents. For classes, feel free to drop by and set up a time.
For dinner, you must try Asha’s Culture Kitchen – an outdoor thatch-hut restaurant that just launched a couple of months ago. It’s run by a young Rastafarian who not only cooks but also catches his own fish. Everything is made fresh and doesn’t even take that long. It was one of my best meals for sure and I’m glad I ventured out for it. It’s not on the water but with food that good, and some great reggae music in the background to boot, I really didn’t even notice.
6. Walk around downtown PG: visit the market, the city park
An easy and fun way to get a good glimpse of life in Punta Gorda is to walk around town, particularly on a Wednesday – the week’s biggest market day. Lots of folks from nearby Mayan villages flood into town and it’s one bustling scene. The town also has a beautiful park where you can sit and watch the world go by.
7. Sample East Indian food at Marian’s On The Sea
There’s a large population of East Indians in the Toledo District and Punta Gorda in particular. The result, is some great restaurants to choose from and some Caribbean-East Indian fusion food. One of my favorites were Marian’s, for home-cooked food in a beautiful seaside setting. It’s also a great spot for a drink at sunset from 6pm, while you wait on dinner service to begin.
8. Have a drink at Walluco’s
Located just across from the coast, Walluco’s is a perfect place for a sunset drink or one later into the night.
9. Visit Lubaantun
I was warned that there wasn’t much to see at Lubaantun, one of the Maya sites in the Toledo District. But when I got there, I was amazed at how unique it was, particularly to photograph. There are no big temples here but the Mayan structures are surrounded by massive trees that have sunk their roots onto the stones, creating a truly mystical feel to the site.
10. Meet one of Belize’s cultural heroes
It turns out that Punta Gorda is the birth place of several of Belize’s most amazing and prolific singers, entertainers and cultural heroes. To name a few: Paul Nabor, the late Andy Palacio and Leela Vernon, the Queen of Brukdown.
I had the honor of meeting Paul Nabor – thanks to my host Bruno Kuppinger – and I heard Belizean Paranda music for the first time from his guitar, which he played for almost two hours while telling me stories of his life as one of Belize’s most recognized and culturally significant artists.
I have more tales coming from meeting him and Leela Vernon. But mostly, I had no idea that Punta Gorda had such cultural wealth. So if you’re looking for a break from caving or other activities for a day, I’d try and explore the cultural side of this district, it won’t disappoint.
What I didn’t get to try but would love to next time I visit: the Warasa Drumming School, swimming in the Moho river and going on the Blue Creek Cave excursion.