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Old bridge over the Rio Grande
To the south of Belmopan Belize really is at its wildest. Here the central area is dominated by the Maya Mountains, sloping down to the coast through a series of forested ridges and valleys carved by sparkling rivers. As you head further south the climate becomes more humid, promoting the growth of dense rainforest, rich in wildlife. The forests here have evolved to cope with periodic hurricanes sweeping in from the Caribbean and have in the past been selectively logged for mahogany. The coastal strip south of Belize City is a band of savannah, swamp and lagoon. Large stands of Caribbean pine grow in the nutrient-poor savannah soils, looking strangely out of place in the tropics. Beyond Dangriga the shoreline is composed of sandy bays, peninsulas and mangrove lagoons. In the far south the estuaries of the slow-moving Temash and Sarstoon rivers, lined with the tallest mangrove forest in Belize, form the country's southernmost national park, adjoining protected land in Guatemala.

Population density in this part of Belize is low, with most of the towns and villages located on the coast. Dangriga, the largest settlement, is the home of the Garífuna people -descended from Carib Indians and shipwrecked, enslaved Africans - and allows access to a number of idyllic cayes, such as Tobacco Caye and South Water Caye, each with a range of places to stay. These cayes sit right on top of the barrier reef, and form the focus of South Water Caye Marine Reserve which protects a vast area of sea stretching from just south of Dangriga almost to Placencia. The villages of Gales Point, on Southern Lagoon, north of Dangriga, Sittee River and Hopkins, on the coast to the south, are worth visiting to experience their tranquil way of life. Further south, the Placencia peninsula has become established as the focus of coastal tourism in southern Belize. Based here you can visit Laughing Bird Caye National Park, the stunning Silk Cayes beyond, just inside the reef, and beyond them the unique Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, the only sanctuary on the planet established specifically to protect whale sharks - the largest fish in the world.

lnland, the Maya Mountains remain unpenetrated by roads, forming a solid barrier to land travel except on foot or horseback. Successive Belize governments, showing supreme foresight, have placed practically the entire mountain massif under some form of legal protection, whether as national park, nature reserve, wildlife sanctuary or forest reserve. The most accessible area of this rainforest, though still little visited by tourists, is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a reserve designed to protect the sizeable jaguar population and a perfect base for exploring the forest. You'll come across plenty of tracks - but don't count on seeing a jaguar. The Sanctuary is also starting point for the Victoria Peak Trail - an arduous but rewarding trek to the summit of the second highest mountain in Belize. The newly-paved Southern Highway comes to an end in the sleepy coastal town of Punta Gorda, from where you can head south to Guatemala or visit Maya villages and ruins in the southern foothills of the Maya Mountains.

The Rough Guide to Belize
Culturally as well as physically Southern Belize is very diverse. Despite the small numbers of people there are communities here representing almost every ethnic group in the country. Along the Hummingbird Highway south of Belmopan are several villages established by people who originally fled from war and persecution in other Central American countries - particularly from El Salvador - in the 1980s. They and their children are now proud Belizean citizens, growing fruit and vegetables on the fertile land and providing much of the market produce in the country.

Here and there are small settlements of Mennonites, a religious group similar in many ways to the Amish of Pennsylvania, who are industrious and successful farmers. Although some have adopted a modern way of life and use motor vehicles and electricity, you'll still see Mennonite families wearing severe-looking pioneer-style homespun clothing, the women with long skirts and bonnets and the men bib-and-braces overalls and straw hats, driving horse-drawn buggies.

At first glance a visit to the slow-paced Creole village of Gales Point is like a journey back in time, yet the skills of local drum makers and players are so much in demand overseas that they're quite familiar with North America and Europe. Placencia too is a relaxed Creole village, and as you'd expect it's a fishing village, though nowadays almost all the inhabitants are also involved in tourism and more likely to be taking you sport fishing than baiting a hook for a catch to sell in the market.

The Garífuna village of Hopkins was also until recently a fishing and subsistence farming community, but its location on a long sweep of beach has made it a magnet for laid-back tourism. Garífuna culture is still very much alive however, and everyone speaks the Garífuna language. Drumming and dancing are universally popular - sensual, sensational Punta Rock is the Garífuna national dance. You'll be encouraged to take part yourself; energizing, exhausting and utterly enjoyable.

The first Maya village you're likely to encounter is Maya Centre, right on the Southern Highway at the entrance to the Jaguar Reserve. The villagers here are among the few genuine practitioners of the concept of "ecotourism" and are without doubt the best guides to the reserve. As you head further south, into Toledo District, you'll come across the main region of Maya villages in Belize. Here are Mopan Maya from Petén and Kekchí Maya from the Verapaz highlands of Guatemala. For the most part each group keeps to its own villages, language and traditions, although there are mixed communities. Both groups are partially integrated into modern Belizean life and most Maya can speak English (or Creole) to outsiders.

Along the last stretch of the Southern Highway and in Punta Gorda are some of Belize's East Indian communities. The ancestors of these people were originally brought to Belize from India as indentured labourers. Most stayed here when their term of indenture was over and today they are fully integrated into Belizean society, with almost no vestiges of their Indian culture remaining.

Heading South. Once remote and way off the main tourist routes, Southern Belize is now very accessible. Flying is convenient but relatively expensive - though you do enjoy great views of the coast and cayes. The domestic airlines, Maya Island Air and Tropic Air, each have four or five daily flights from Belize City to Dangriga, Placencia and Punta Gorda.

With the paving of the Southern Highway bus travel is no longer the all-day bone shaking experience it once was. The journey from Belize City to Punta Gorda can take as little as 5 hours if you use the new express service; regular buses take around 7 to 8 hours. Two bus lines head south, with about eight daily runs between them. Southern Transport operates from the Novelo's terminal in Belize City, and has express services to Dangriga and Punta Gorda. This company is the only one with a bus service to Placencia; 3 runs daily, including Sundays. The James Bus leaves from the main road near the Novelo's terminal in Belize City, and has the fastest regular services to the south. Most buses heading south use the Hummingbird Highway, so you can catch the bus in Belmopan if you're leaving from San Ignacio.

Using a rental car in the south is now much easier, and you can drive from Belize City or San Ignacio to Punta Gorda in around 3 ½ hours. Having your own car will also make getting around in the far south easier too. Most of the Maya villages are connected to the Southern Highway by unpaved roads and also have a basic bus service from Punta Gorda, though this only runs on market days and there's no service on Sundays.

At the time of writing the only unpaved section of the Southern Highway is a nine-mile stretch from Golden Stream Bridge to Big Falls village, and work has already begun to prepare for this for paving. At the same time the road heading west through the Maya villages from the Southern Highway at "Dump" junction, 15 miles from Punta Gorda, will be paved to the Guatemalan border. There will also be a new border crossing and the potential for tourists and business visitors to enter Southern Belize directly rather than needing to travel up through Petén to the Melchor border. Now almost certain to go ahead, this is nonetheless a controversial proposition, as some Maya communities feel they will be marginalized as international developers follow in the wake of the highway.

copyright Peter Eltringham 2003
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