By Domini Hedderman
Five hours of driving on paved highways with jaw-dropping views of mountains and farmland brought us from the international airport in Belize City to our destination: Monkey River Village in the Toledo District, the southernmost area of Belize. We parked our truck and hopped on a boat taxi for the five-minute ride to our new but temporary home, a two-story Caribbean-style home that we are house sitting for six months.
Our journey here began when my husband and I had decided to get off the “earn-and-spend” treadmill. Belize offers that—and the chance to teach our four children the value of a simpler life, away from materialism and consumerism.
Here, in the Toledo District, you get a respite from strip malls and over-development, from pollution and stress. There’s no Wal-Mart in sight (I have heard the closest one is in Mexico). And there’s not one fast-food restaurant in the entire country.
We wake each morning to a cool breeze and the sounds of the jungle and the sea: the lapping waves, the calls of exotic birds and, occasionally, howler monkeys making their racket in the trees.
Our village is home to only about 300 residents who rely mostly on fishing and tourism for their income. It’s an authentic Creole fishing village where everyone knows everyone else. Neighbors help neighbors. When I needed a lift across the river (where we park our truck at a friend’s house), a local guy was happy to give me a ride. Another new friend brought to our dock a lovely gift of lobster. “For the kids,” he said, smiling.
And when we want to sit awhile over a Fanta or Belizean-brewed beer Belikin (each in returnable bottles), and ask questions about Belize, the locals are always willing to chat at our neighbor’s Barebones Bar up the beach or Ivan’s Cool Spot in town.
On the days when we head into town, we pass an elderly Creole gentleman, Horace, who sits on his neat porch, as if he has nothing but time. He greets us each day with the same refrain: “Good morning, mon! Have a good day, mon.”
Once we reach the town of Independence, which is just across the line into Stann Creek District, we hit the shops and are met with smiles and waves by shopkeepers. They all recognize us—and they are always willing to help.
Like the time we needed to buy a long-sleeved shirt for our two-year-old, who is too fair for the tropical sun. A little girl, about 10 years old, happily led us around to all the stores in town that sold clothing, offering her sweet and child-like perspective on the place she lives. Her mother, who owns a local restaurant, smiles and calls out a greeting every time she sees us drive by. She also makes a mean plate of stewed chicken, rice, and beans. Lunch for two, with fresh orange juice—better than I’ve ever tasted—will set you back just $9.
When we want a day in the “big town,” we head into Punta Gorda, or “PG,” the largest town at the south end of the district, about 1.5 hours away from us.
Views of the rugged Mayan Mountains provide the scenic backdrop as we drive south. Thatched roofs dot the countryside. Every local passing on foot or bicycle offers us a friendly wave as we pass by.
These locals farm the land to provide for their family’s needs and rely on fishing for their livelihood. Many still bathe and wash their clothes in the rivers and streams. They cook in outdoor kitchens, letting the rich smells of fried plantains, chicken soup, and spicy beans float into the open air. They wake up and go to sleep with the sun, in a natural human rhythm as old as the earth itself.
When we reach PG, we head for one of the multitude of shops and restaurants here. Or else, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we visit the lively market where we can buy eight bananas, a huge bouquet of cilantro, and three big bunches of chives. Each of these costs us only 50 cents.
There’s more to the Toledo District than food, though. The Sapodilla Cayes—and the area around Monkey River Village, as well—provide adventure seekers with fishing, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and diving, all activities we’re looking forward to enjoying as a family. We’ve already tried zip-lining and cave tubing at Big Falls Extreme Adventures—where we talked to the fun and engaging staff in between zipping from tree to tree and floating down the peaceful, cool Rio Grande River.
We’re also planning to soak up as much education as we can while we’re here. We’ve taken our kids on history tours of Maya ruins, with their smooth stones and deep shadows. And now that the kids are on Christmas break from the village school, we’ll set out to explore both banana farms and the ecological preserves to learn more about sustainability and preserving the earth.