The Maya Heartland

Drive a few miles out of town, and you find yourself in the heartland of the Mayan people. Half the population of Toledo is Maya, a far higher proportion than in any other region. The Toledo Maya Cultural Council has created an ambitious network of Mayan-run guesthouses, and in 1995 it initiated the Mayan Mapping Project. By collating oral history and evidence of ancient Mayan settlements, the project hopes to secure rights to land that the Maya have occupied for centuries, but that the Belizean government has ceded to multinational logging companies. There's also a separate Mayan homestay program, where you stay in local homes rather than in guesthouses.

Several notable jungle lodges also are in the Mayan Heartland, including Belcampo Lodge, The Lodge at Big Falls, Cotton Tree Lodge, and The Farm Inn. However, the largest and most ambitious group of lodges, Belize Lodge and Excursions, owned by Europeans and run by an American, was closed in 2012 after Ya’aché Conservation Trust rangers found one of two captive jaguars at Indian Creek dead of starvation, and a second captive jaguar near death in an emaciated condition. Local villagers working at the lodges complained they had not been paid for months. Later in 2012, much of one of the BL&E lodges burned down, allegedly by angry local villagers.

The Maya divide into two groups: Mopan Maya and Ket’chi-speaking peoples from the Guatemalan highlands. Most of the latter are recent arrivals, refugees from repression and overpopulation. Each group tends to keep to itself, living in separate villages and preserving unique traditions. Among the Ket’chi villages in Toledo are Crique Sarco, San Vincente, San Miquel, Laguna, San Pedro Columbia, Santa Teresa, Sunday Wood, Mabelha, and Corazon. Mopan Maya villages include San Antonio, Pueblo Viejo, and San José.

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