Toledo District in the Deep South has Belize's only extensive, genuine rain forest, and its canopy of trees conceals a plethora of wildlife, including jaguars, margays, tapirs, and loads of tropical birds. The area's rich Mayan heritage is just being unearthed, with archaeologists at work at Pusilha, Nim Li Punit, Uxbenká, and elsewhere. Contemporary Maya—mainly Mopan and Ket’chi (other transliterations into English include Kekchi, Kekche, Q'eqchi', and others)—still live in villages around the district, as they have for centuries, along with the Garífuna, Creoles, East Indians, and others who constitute the Toledo population of about 31,000.
Lush, green, tropical Toledo also calls to chocolate lovers, as it's home to hundreds of small cacao growers. Cadbury's Green & Black gets some of its organic chocolate for Maya Gold chocolate bars from Toledo, and several small Belizean chocolate makers, including Cotton Tree, Goss, Ixcacao, Belcampo, and Kakaw, create gourmet chocolate from organic Toledo cacao beans. In 2007 a cacao festival was organized, and it continues annually as the Chocolate Festival of Belize, held on Commonwealth Day weekend in late May (dates vary—see www.chocolatefestivalofbelize.com).
Toledo also has rice plantations, citrus orchards, and stands of mangos, pineapples, bananas, and coconuts, so you'll never go hungry here.
For many years, ill-maintained roads, spotty communications, and the country's highest annual rainfall—as much as 180 to 200 inches—kept Belize's southernmost region off-limits to all but the most adventurous of travelers. The precipitation hasn't changed, but with improvements to the Southern Highway—beautifully paved the entire way from Dangriga to Punta Gorda—and the opening of new lodges and hotels, the riches of Toledo District are finally becoming accessible. The San Antonio Road, from the area called "The Dump" on the Southern Highway to the Guatemala border, is currently being paved. When the road is completed, and an anticipated customs and immigration facility constructed, likely by late 2014 or early 2015, it’s expected that a new, legal land border crossing between Belize and Guatemala will further open the Deep South to tourism and development.
Local residents are split on the wisdom of this. Some say it will mean not only more tourism dollars but also new Guatemalan markets for Toledo farm products. Others worry that the new border crossing will create new problems for Toledo.
Other areas of Belize (not to mention Guatemala and Honduras) may have more spectacular ruins than Toledo, but where the Deep South shines is in its contemporary Mayan culture. Dozens of Mopan and Ket’chi villages exist much as they have for centuries, as do the Garífuna villages of Punta Negra and Barranco and the town of Punta Gorda (PG). You can visit some of the villages and even stay awhile in guesthouses or homestay programs. If don’t have time to do an overnight, you can participate in a new, one-day Maya learning experience tour in local homes in Big Falls village.
Don't expect to come to Toledo and lounge on the sand. The area doesn't have good beaches except for a few accessible only by boat. The coastal waters of the Gulf of Honduras are often muddy from silt deposited by numerous rivers flowing from the Maya Mountains. What can you expect? Exceptional fishing (Toledo has one of the world's best permit fisheries) and cayes off the coast that are well worth exploring. The closest are the Snake Cayes; farther out are the Sapodilla Cayes, the largest of which is Hunting Caye, with a horseshoe-shape bay at the caye's eastern end with beaches of white coral where turtles nest in late summer. The downside is that visits to the cayes and to inland sites usually require expensive tours, as distances are considerable, and public transportation is limited. The completion of the new road to Guatemala in 2014–15 should make trips and tours to many inland sites easier and, perhaps, cheaper.