The Toledo District, Belize's most southerly region, recently emerged as an upscale option to the Cayo District. Visitors can now enjoy luxury accommodations on a private 12,000-acre rainforest preserve that also shelters ocelots, kinkajous and tapirs. The region is gaining additional attention for its accessible Maya sites, scenic caves and waterfalls, and pristine reefs.
Lubaantun, 25 miles northwest of the coastal port of Punta Gorda, is the largest ceremonial center in southern Belize. The settlement's eleven major structures are clustered around five plazas. Unlike most Maya cities, Lubaantun was constructed without the extensive use of mortar. Accordingly, the masonry here is of very high quality. The site is also famous for a controversial crystal skull, reportedly found here in 1926.
Five miles northeast of Lubaantun is the Maya ceremonial center known as Nim Li Punit. This site dates to the Classic Period, and was likely occupied between the 5th and 8th centuries. Several stelae have been unearthed here, including one that depicts a local ruler wearing a large headdress. (Nim Li Punit means "big hat" in Kekchi Maya.) Visitors can also tour a small on-site museum. Nearby, Kekchi Maya villages produce organic cacao—the raw ingredient for chocolate.
Most outings to these Maya sites end with a refreshing visit to Blue Creek Cave, also known as Hokeb Ha or "Where Water Enters the Earth". This limestone river tunnel begins near the village of Santa Cruz and ends five miles away outside the town of Blue Creek. Outfitted with life jackets and headlamps, visitors can hike or swim to underground waterfalls and float beneath shimmering stalactites.
Near the coast, the Rio Grande River and its neighboring mangrove lagoons are home to the endangered manatees and the rare hicatee turtles. Guided river trips also allow you to observe howler monkeys, iguanas and dozens of bird species.
Offshore, divers and snorkelers can explore the Belize Barrier Reef—the second largest barrier reef in the world. One excellent location is the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve on Snake Caye, approximately 40 minutes by boat from Punta Gorda. The reserve is home to sea fans, coral, colorful reef fish, seahorses, rays, eels and sea turtles.
Daily flights connect Punta Gorda to Belize City in just over an hour. Charter flights are also available to Ambergris Caye (75 minutes). Placencia, roughly 100 miles to the northeast, can be reached by road (two hours) or air (20 minutes). The drive from Belize City to Punta Gorda takes about 4.5 hours.
The best time to visit Southern Belize is from December to May. Rainy season extends from June to November, with hurricane potential from July to mid-November. Temperatures are fairly constant year-round, with highs in the mid-80s and lows in the 70s.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."