Belize is divided into six different jurisdictions called districts, and Toledo is the southernmost district in the country. Bordering the nation of Guatemala both to the south and the west, Toledo is one of the least-visited areas of the country.
Known for its spectacular natural beauty, Toledo District measures some 1,800 square miles (4,700 square kilometers) and is home to pristine jungles, beautiful rainforests, fertile lowlands, an extensive series of caves, and tropical islands.
Toledo District has a unique population, an excellent representation of the melting pot nature of Belizean society. In Toledo District, you can find Creoles, Spanish-speaking Mestizos, several communities of Maya, German-speaking Mennonites, East Indian entrepreneurs, and a well-established community of expats that began with American confederates who left the United States at the end of that country’s civil war.
Despite being somewhat isolated geographically, Toledo District is increasingly becoming a popular destination as visitors are drawn to the unspoiled natural beauty, charming village life, and the rich assortment of adventure opportunities available in the district. The Southern Highway is a modern, paved road that connects Toledo to points further north and both Maya Island Air and Tropic Air provide domestic air service to all major destinations in Belize.
Toledo District is perhaps best known for its fertile soils that provide a bounty of fresh, organic produce, including citrus fruits, corn, beans, rice, potatoes, root crops, and avocados. But two of the most famous products grown in Toledo District are coffee and chocolate. Used for millennia by the Maya, the cacao grown in Toledo is used to make world-famous chocolate like Maya Gold and interesting products like chocolate soap and chocolate beer.
Fishing remains important to many of the traditional communities in Toledo District. Still primarily done by local fisherman by free diving or using individual boats and dories (a kind of rowboat), the waters of Toledo District yield a rich catch of lobster, shellfish, conch, and fish.
Tourism is slowly becoming one of the most important aspects of the local economy in Toledo District. With the completion of the Southern Highway and regular air service, more visitors now have the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the area. Well-trained local tour operators now conduct canoeing expeditions, trips to the offshore islands, and other adventures in this region.
One of the top draws for visitors in Toledo District is the Sapodilla Cayes, a group of offshore islands that are the perfect place to enjoy swimming, kayaking, diving, and snorkeling. The protected wilderness areas in Toledo District are ideal for wildlife spotting and bird watching as well.
Archeologists have determined that the Maya have been living in what is now Toledo District for at least 10,000 years. Today, approximately half of the people living in Toledo District are the living descendants of the ancient Maya that built colossal sites like Xunantunich, Nim Li Punit, and Caracol. Today’s Maya speak two different dialects called Kekchi and Mopan, and are the living inheritors of the artifacts and archeological sites that can be found throughout the district.
One of the signature ancient Maya sites in Toledo District is called Lubantuun, a Mayan phrase that means “Place of Fallen Stones.” This enormous city-state is home to temples, plazas, and pyramids that were built during the height of the Classic Period of ancient Maya civilization. Another eminent Maya site in Toledo is called Nim Li Punit (“Big Hat” in Mayan) that is home to a royal palace and distinctive temples. Other Maya sites include the recently-opened city of Uxbenka (“Old Place” in Mayan).
The capital of Toledo District is Punta Gorda (literally “Fat Place”), a small town of approximately 5,500 people. Other inhabited areas in Toledo District are the villages of Monkey River Town, Indian Creek, Santa Cruz, San Antonio, and Barranco. Punta Gorda is commonly referred to as “PG” by locals, and can be reached in about four hours by car from Belize City. Boat taxis provide transit to the offshore cayes (islands) as well as the town of Puerto Barrios in Guatemala.
The Toledo Ecotourism Association operates a Village Guesthouse Program that connects tourists with a network of 13 villages in the district, allowing visitors to experience life for Mopan Maya, Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, and Creole peoples along with tours of the nearby nature, including jungles, waterfalls, and caves.