The Maya, mostly a group called the Manche Chol Maya, established sizable ceremonial centers and midsize cities in Toledo beginning almost 2,000 years ago. Uxbenká is one of the oldest centers, dating to AD 200. In the Classic period, Lubaantun, which flourished in the 8th and 9th centuries, is thought to have been the administrative center of the region, but for reasons still unclear it was abandoned not long after this. In southern Belize as elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization began a long, slow decline a little more than 1,000 years ago.
Spanish conquistadors, including Hemán Cortés himself in 1525, came through southern Belize in the early 16th century, but the Maya resisted Spain’s and, later, Britain's attempts to control and tax them. The British, who arrived as loggers, tried to put the Maya in "reservations," and eventually, in the 18th and 19th centuries, moved nearly the entire Manche Chol population to the highlands of Guatemala.
In the late 19th century, groups of Mopan and Ket’chi Maya began moving into southern Belize from Guatemala, establishing more than 50 villages around Toledo. Around the same time, Garífuna from Honduras settled in Punta Gorda, Barranco, and Punta Negra.
Southern Belize, with its rain and remoteness from Belize City, has languished economically for most of the 20th century. The paved Southern Highway and new road from Guatemala should help boost tourism and development in the region in coming years.