Sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten district’ of Belize, sleepy Toledo's pristine rainforests, traditional Maya villages and idyllic offshore islands remain largely untouched by tourism. For many travellers, it’s a too-hard-basket scenario – with Belize’s Southern Highway dead-ending in Punta Gorda and no land crossing through to Guatemala, it's often easier to stick to the Belizean coast rather than delve into the interior of Toledo and have to retrace your steps back out.

But the deep south's days as a remote, geographical cul-de-sac are coming to a close owing to the ongoing widening and paving of the once barely navigable 23mile-long road from Big Falls Junction (an otherwise nondescript point on the Southern Highway not far from Punta Gorda) to the tiny village of Jalacte, near the Guatemalan border. Once completed (reputedly in 2015) this road will connect the Toledo District with Guatemala, making the region an integrated part of the Pan American highway.

There's no doubt that the new road, while offering some conveniences to locals, will also bring big changes. So to appreciate Toledo in its charming, step-back-in-time splendor, go now.

Maya house, Toledo District. Image by Joshua Samuel Brown

Visit village communities

The tiny villages of southern Belize are all (save one) Maya communities. San Antonio (a picturesque, hilly hamlet with a pretty stone church) and San Pedro Columbia (another attractive local village intersected by the Colombia River and within hiking distance of the Lubaantun ruins) are two of the larger ones. Smaller villages like Santa Cruz and Santa Elena (within walking distance of each other and good bases from which to explore the nearby Rio Blanco National Park Falls and Uxbenka ruins) boast populations of a few hundred each, give or take.

San Antonio, Toledo District. Image by Joshua Samuel Brown

Though most villages in Toledo – especially those along the new road – have electricity, power can still be sporadic (and in some cases, nonexistent) in more remote ones. Nearly all have small village stores that are good places to get information on things like which villagers offer home-stays, meals and tours around the area.

The southernmost village, Barranco, is an anomaly; unlike the other villages of Toledo, the people of Barranco aren't Maya but Garifuna, descendants of Africans escaping enslavement in the Caribbean. Though small and lacking all but one very basic guesthouse, visitors to Barranco can hang with local drummers at night and arrange river tours through the nearby Temash River Forest Reserve.

The best (and cheapest) way to experience village life in rural Toledo is to coordinate a village stay with the Toledo Ecotourism Association, or TEA (teabelize.org). TEA arranges village home-stays operated by the villagers themselves, who profit directly from all ecotourism going through TEA. Home-stays include three meals, basic accommodations with a local family, and an unforgettable variety of local activities.

Enter, the jungle

Lush green rainforests with waterfall-fed swimming holes all lie within an hour's travel from Punta Gorda, giving visitors to the Toledo District unique opportunities to hike through broadleaf forest and pine savannahs. Don't let Toledo's increasing easiness fool you, though – many of its best hiking spots, including Bladen Nature Reserve, Golden Stream Corridor Preserve and Columbia River Forest Reserve (which boasts one of the largest tracts of undisturbed rainforest in Central America) are remote enough to require both guides and permits.

For those looking for more easy to access beauty, two of Belize's most stunning waterfalls (both of which happen to be connected to refreshingly cool, crystal clear swimming holes) are located walking distance from the road to Jalacte. Rio Blanco Falls and San Antonio Falls are both set in protected nature reserves. Further down the same road, the Pueblo Viejo Falls are popular spots with villagers who come to the falls and river to bathe and do their laundry.

Lubaantun, Belize. Image by Dennis Jarvis Flickr

Marvel at the remnants of an ancient civilization

Though sparsely populated now (around 20,000 people today call Toledo home), during the Classical Maya period the area was purportedly bustling with up to a quarter of million people. This alone is reason for many to visit Toledo, as the district's three main Maya sites (Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun and Uxbenka) are not merely spectacular, but on most days completely void of visitors. You may even have to track down a ranger to take your entry fee.

Of the three, Lubaantun is easiest to get to by bus, but if you've got your own transportation you can visit all three in a day.

Hunting Caye, Toledo District. Image by _Higher_ / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Swim, dive and snorkel away from the crowds

Most divers and snorkellers stick to Belize’s more accessible northern cayes, but those who take the time to make the trek down south rarely regret the trip. The protected Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (a whaleshark hangout roughly between March and September) is about two hours by boat from Punta Gorda, and proffers excellent snorkelling and diving.

Garbutt’s Marine and Fishing Lodge (garbuttsfishinglodge.com) in Punta Gorda can help arrange transportation, fishing and scuba tours, as well as and camping on the white-sand beaches of Lime Caye.

Cacao drying, Toledo District. Image by Renée Johnson Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Did we mention…Chocolate?

Finally, Toledo is increasingly becoming known for a product as highly valued today as it was in the days of the Ancient Maya - cacao! The Chocolate Festival of Belize (formerly known as the Toledo Cacaofest; chocolatefestivalofbelize.com) takes place each May in Punta Gorda, bringing together cacao growers and chocolate lovers from around Central America.

For chocaholics who can't make it to the festival, head down the road to San Felipe village, home of Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate (formerly Cyrilla's Chocolate). A working cacao farm, visitors to Ixcacao are invited to get involved in all aspects of chocolate making from harvest to production, followed by a multicourse meal of cacao-laced dishes.

Where to sleep in Toledo

Belcampo Belize     

Belcampo Belize (belcampobz.com) sits on a hilltop overlooking the jungle and is easily among the finest eco-resorts in Belize. From its rainwater catchment system to on-site organic farm, Belcampo's management has gone the distance to leave as light an environmental footprint as possible. Belcampo can also arrange every aspect of your visit in the deep south, including activates and transport. Naturally, Belcampo's accommodations are top shelf in every way.

The Lodge at Big Falls     

Perfectly situated close to Big Falls junction, Marta & Rob Hirons' L@BF (thelodgeatbigfalls.com) is an excellent base from which to explore the area. One of Belize's original eco-resorts, L@BF has hiking trails, a lovely swimming pool, river access, an excellent restaurant and a lovely air of British elegance. G&T, anyone?

Hickatee Cottages 

Just a mile away from Punta Gorda, this jungle B&B has Caribbean cottages, well maintained nature trails and regular drum performances by local drummers (hickatee.com).

Author of 13 Lonely Planet guides, including three editions of the LP guide to Belize, Joshua Samuel Brown (josambro.com) published his most recent collection of short stories, How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & Other Tales of Travel Madness, in 2014.

Explore related stories