Belize town is ideal base for exploring Maya ruins

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PUNTA GORDA, Belize -- When the paving of the Southern Highway that runs parallel to the Caribbean coast is completed, the largest town at the end of the line will be Punta Gorda, 15 miles from the Guatemala border.

But full paving has not yet reached the resort of Placencia, some 75 miles north, so there is no need to rush to beat the crowds to this sleepy fishing port, some 200 miles and four hours of overland driving from Belize City.

Punta Gorda is the largest town is southern Belize's Toledo District.

Most travelers take the 90-minute (with two stops), scenic flight operated by Maya Island Air and Tropic Air between Belize City and "P.G.," as the community is known locally.

An Indian couple comes home from work at the end of day. In Punta Gorda they are likely to find chickens roaming freely between clapboard houses, wheelbarrows full of produce being rolled along unpaved streets, children playing in front of unpretentious churches and fresh-caught fish being dressed for sale in the covered market.

The town is most active on market days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the open-air markets along Front Street throng with a unusual mix of peoples, including the Kekchi Maya, the Mopan Maya, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Chinese and European.

Guatemalans, and other visitors, come and go daily on scheduled boat service across the bay between Punta Gorda and Puerto Barrios in neighboring Guatemala.

Punta Gorda is a good base for trips to the Toledo District's more than two dozen Maya villages and several major Maya ruins; for kayaking on rivers and at sea; for exploring the cave system of the Blue Creek Conservation Area; for exploring its rain forest canopy on a walkway 100 feet above Blue Creek; for scuba diving and snorkeling around offshore cays, and for sport fishing.

Fishermen staying at my hotel said this is the place (for the experienced angler) for permit, tarpon and bonefish, or for sea or river catches of snapper, tarpon and snook.

And the place to hang one's sombrero is the new Sea Front Hotel, a comfortable and friendly inn owned by Larry and Carol Smith, who came to Belize as missionaries and have lived here for a quarter century.

Rooms (14 of them) are simple and spacious and come with private bath and air conditioning; the open-air dining room on the second floor overlooks the ocean and serves up a hearty breakfast.

Other meals can be served upon request, but guests mostly head along the waterfront into town for Belizean dishes (conch soup, seafood, stewed pork, fried chicken) at Lucille's Kitchen or Punta Caliente.

The Smiths provide airport transfers for their guests, and they themselves or another staff member guide the local excursions.

The great eye-opener for me was a visit to the Maya archaeological ruins of Lubaantun.

When I was there in the early 1990s, it was just a pile of rocky mounds, but this peaceful Late Classic site has been recently excavated and reconstructed.

There are 11 pyramid platform structures built around five main plazas and three traditional ball courts, and a new visitor center contains artifacts, small figurines and pottery from the site.

Nim Li Punit is another ceremonial center in the region, noted for its two dozen pillars, eight of which are carved.

The site is near a half-dozen traditional Maya villages, offering up-close and personal experiences of traditional culture.

In the village, guests can sleep in thatch-roofed Maya huts, or sample caldo, a tasty Maya-made lunch of homemade tortillas and chicken stew.

Maya women don gaily colored orange, yellow and royal-blue dresses and fashion crafts to be sold to visitors.

Maya families act as dinner hosts as part of the Toledo Ecotourism Association's (TEA) Guest House Program, and lodging in private houses is available in about a dozen villages.

Maya guides take visitors on tours to caves and waterfalls, point out toucans and hummingbirds, introduce medicinal plants that cure all kinds of ailments, play their music on the harp and marimba and tell folkloric tales.

The visit is priced at $42 per person, which includes an overnight at a guest house, three meals and two tours.

The largest Mopan Maya community in Central America is the village of San Antonio, where Maya children spread cacao (chocolate) beans for drying in front of their thatched huts.

Every August, San Antonio is the site of Deer Dance, a nine-day celebration of Maya culture.

Other popular trips from Punta Gorda include tours to Rio Blanco Falls in the Rio Blanco National Park, San Antonio Falls and the Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch that breeds butterflies for conservation and export amid a splendid rain forest. (The view into Guatemala from the Fallen Stones Lodge is gorgeous.)

There is lots of rain in this part of Belize, and travel therefore is recommended during the dryer months from February through May.

For further information on travel to the Toledo District, contact the Belize Tourist Board at (800) 624-0686; its Web site is located at www.travelbelize.org.

For more information on the Sea Front Hotel in Punta Gorda call (011) 501-7 22682; e-mail [email protected].

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