Hearing the Silence in Punta Gorda on Christmas

The flight to Punta Gorda, or PG Town as they call it, took us over the rolling mountains, citrus fields and streams along the beautiful coastal area of Belize.  The little Cessna plane flew close to the ground, so we could really see the roll of the land and each individual citrus tree. Our flight from Belize City to Punta Gorda was only 30 minutes long and we landed in what looked like a forgotten piece of land with a wooden shack.  Gathering our backpack, we walked into the town that would be the starting point of our journey into discovering the Garifuna and Maya culture.

Punta Gorda Airport

Punta Gorda Airport

Walking down the streets of the small town, our senses were awakened to peace and tranquility.  Roosters were crowing, plants were blowing in the wind and there was no one outside.  It was 9 am and the town was not awake.  Nothing, no one, no where.

On our flight we met Sebastian, a nice Mayan guy that was going home to his village to visit his mother for Christmas.  He walked around with us, looking for some sign of life and, more importantly, something to eat.  Everything was closed.  Every store.  Every restaurant. We had two children that were getting hungry, cranky and heavy on our arms. We were starting to think we may have to knock on someone’s door to ask to buy some food. Sebastian left us to catch his ride home, but invited us over the following day to visit his village.

After circling the town twice, we found the only little stall that was open in Punta Gorda.  This little shack near the central market was serving up beans, eggs and fresh flour tortillas. This was our only option and we were grateful!  We sat down, ordered some food and watched as the family pressed and cooked our flour tortillas. We sat at the rickety table drinking mildly warm instant coffee chatting with the locals. A local guy named Coach was BBQing some chicken and taught us a little phrase when the chicken was done – “relieve it from the heat”. It was the perfect introduction to PG Town.

Breakfast with Francisco & Byron

Breakfast with Francisco & Byron

Learning to Speak Ketchi

During breakfast, I learned my first Mayan Ketchi words from Francisco and Byron, two friendly, soft spoken Mayans.  I learned three phrases that are good to know for initial conversation:

  • Thank you :  “Pahn – tee- oosh”
  • Your Welcome: “ooos”
  • Hi, How are you?: “Chan-Cha-Quill”

Tate’s Guesthouse

We were re-energized by the food and conversation and were ready to find our place to sleep. We had called ahead to several places prior to leaving and none had availability except one, Tate’s Guesthouse.  This was our only sort of plan in our traveling with no plans plan.  Although we were unsure exactly where it was in town, after asking a couple of people for directions we arrived at Tate’s and were glad to get there in the morning because by early afternoon, there were many other backpackers stopping by looking for last minute, inexpensive place to stay.

We didn’t know what type of accommodations our $60 bzd ($30 US) budget was going to afford us, but had high hopes as we walked up to Tate’s.  The property is meticulously clean with a cared-for elegance in the landscaping of the front yard.  William Tate showed us a room with 2 beds, a queen and a twin, with its own bathroom and we plopped our backpack down on the chair with a sigh of relief.

Tate's Guesthouse in PG Town

Tate's Guesthouse in PG Town

Since there was nothing open in town, the rest of our day was spent relaxing and getting to know other backpackers from around the world. We first met a couple from Holland who were on their way to catch a boat to Guatemala, but returned a few hours later to spend another night because the boat was not running that day.  We spent time sharing our adventures and thoughts on the world as well as greeting other backpackers.  One of the benefits of traveling is meeting all sorts of people from all over.  On this trip, a majority of the backpackers were from Holland.

After searching the town again to see if any restaurants had opened for lunch, we found ourselves again at the little stall getting chicken, beans and tortillas to take back to Tate’s. We continued the afternoon relaxing, socializing and playing with the kids under the  gazebo at Tate’s. It wasn’t a traditional way to enjoy Christmas, but it passed the time.

Christmas Dinner and PG Town Comes to Life

For Christmas dinner we felt it only fitting (and it was our only option) to head back to the little stall with our new friends from Holland. What a unique way to spend Christmas – our family which consists of a Polish (S), two Americans (K and G), and a Costa Rican (I), and a couple from Holland all enjoying fried chicken, beans, eggs, and tortillas made by a Mayan family in Belize. It felt like a very small world at that moment in time.

After dinner we headed to the central park and found that the whole town had spontaneously come outside after being inside all day for Christmas. It was the first time all day that the town felt very alive.  The energy in the air was so jovial.  A hall near the center park was jamming dance music, people were chatting in the streets and there were so many children climbing the play structure in the park it looked like an ant invasion.

Garifuna costume

Garifuna costume

The Next Day – Some Frustration and a Change of Plan

The following day after Christmas was Boxing day, also considered a holiday which brought uncertainty to what was open and what buses would be running. Some stores and restaurants started to open early giving us options for breakfast, snacks, and water. After having breakfast at a local restaurant called Grace’s we set out to figure out the bus schedule to the villages, since we did have an open invitation from Sebastian to spend the day in his village. We called Sebastian to have him meet us where the bus drops us off near his village. With no cell phone, we bought a prepaid card and found a pay phone. Even though there was no answer from Sebastian we started asking around for the bus schedule.

Since nothing was open, including the Tourism office of Punta Gorda, our only resources were other travelers and locals. We asked around on how to get to the Mayan Villages and got different answers from the same people.  This seemed to be the norm in PG Town.  Ask a question and you’ll receive an answer that will contain any possible scenario, one of which may or may not be true.

Typical houses in Punta Gorda

Typical houses in Punta Gorda

The only consistency of our survey was that Bobby’s Bus kept coming up in conversation and we remembered that is the bus that Sebastian told us to catch. We waited for the 11am Bobby’s Bus for about a half an hour after it should have been there. Then we asked another person about the buses to the villages and were informed that they were not running that day.

In some places, no matter how long you stay, it’s not long enough.

But in Punta Gorda we stayed long enough.

We were frustrated at the holiday, tired of waiting and walking around town, tired of seeing trash in the streets, disappointed we couldn’t do any of the great experiences around town.  We were cranky!  We needed to leave for our own sake.  We caught the James bus line out of town, which was running and leaving at 12 noon. It’s the only bus that has an actual building as a bus station.

The old school bus was packed, but we did get a seat and planned on going to Nim Li Punit, a Mayan ruin along the highway. We wanted to salvage the day somehow by seeing some Mayan ruins.  The bus would drop us off at the entrance of the ruin, we’d walk a short 1/2 mile, visit the ruin for 1-2 hours, and catch the last bus to Placencia.  That was the plan.  And again, the plan did not work.  The weather didn’t look promising as we were getting close to the ruin and our children were sleeping in our arms.  Therefore, we had no choice but to stay on the bus and head for Independence, Belize.  From Independence, a short water taxi ride to Placencia would be our final leg of the day of doing nothing.

About Punta Gorda

The town itself was nicely organized with wide, wide streets, a central park with a beautiful clock tower that forever showed the time 1:06 and a colonial feel to the entire place.

Most days (except for Christmas and Boxing Day) the central market is filled with fruit and veggie vendors, mostly Mayan, that travel from their villages to sell their produce.  What we did see, we liked.  The variety of produce was colorful and abundant, certainly more than we get on our little island.

The beach at Punta Gorda was more industrial than relaxing.  We’d go for far to say that the beach in town was not a beach, just rocks and a dock used to fuel boats. There are probably better beaches just outside of the downtown area, but we didn’t venture out.

Punta Gorda was settled in the 1800s by the Garifuna people, a mix Carib Indians and African Blacks.  We were looking forward to sampling great Garifuna food and culture, but that is going to have to wait until next time.

Our Next Trip to PG Town

PG Town is great as a jumping off point for many adventures in southern Belize or Guatamala and on our next trip to Punta Gorda we will definitely do the following:

Mayan Homestay Program

We were looking forward to participating in the Mayan Village Homestay Program sponsored by the Toledo Ecotourism Association.  And we tried contacting them prior to leaving for our trip, but didn’t get an answer back.  But, we WILL do this before we leave Belize.

Cacao Fest

Being a chocolate fanatic, I’m particularly interested in the Cacao Fest in May.  A three day event that features food and exhibits about the various ways the Maya used the cacao bean.  Cacao was originally used as medicine (which is another reason I eat a lot of chocolate).

Cave Tubing & Mayan Ruins

Would we go again?

Yes, but not on Christmas!  Even though we didn’t get to do much in Punta Gorda because of our timing, we did get a great feel for the town and liked that.  It’s not a tourist town, it’s a real town with friendly people with surprisingly beautiful smiles.We’d go back just for the people alone! It was a good scouting trip and we will come back when we can actually do more interesting things.

Would we suggest you go?  Yes, indeed.  We had terrible timing, but PG Town is full of culture and possibilities. It’s biggest attraction is that it IS off the beaten track.  PG Town is real and probably won’t make glossy tourist magazines, but that’s exactly the reason you should go.

Next up: Placencia, Belize

Punta Gorda Photos

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