There's very little in the way of attractions right in town. A stroll through Punta Gorda is the best way to enjoy the Caribbean atmosphere. If you get a little antsy at such a slow pace, there are plenty of cultural wonders and natural adventures within easy reach of Punta Gorda. There are a host of tour operators and guides in P.G. Your hotel and the information center listed in "Planning a Trip" can probably hook you up with a good guide or adventure operator. Alternatively, you can check in with the folks at Tide Tours (tel. 722-2129; www.tidetours.org), a local ecotourism initiative that integrates environmentally and socially aware practices with their wide range of tour and adventure options.
Reaching These Attractions
Most of the villages and attractions discussed here (such as Nim Li Punit) are located along the highway and have regular bus service every day. Buses to and from the other villages and attractions generally run at least once daily. Buses tend to leave for the villages from Punta Gorda between noon and 2pm, depending upon which village or destination you are traveling to. These buses all leave from the market area in front of the Civic Center along Queen Street.
The time of departure from the villages to P.G. varies but is usually early in the morning, sometimes right around dawn. There's often only one bus per day, but some villages have two or more daily buses. Ask in P.G., or in the actual village, as schedules are subject to change. Fares run around BZ$2 to BZ$8 per person each way.
Another alternative is to hire a taxi or go on an organized trip. Ask at your hotel or the information center and you should be able to set up a trip. You can usually hire a car and driver/guide for BZ$180 to BZ$360 per day. This price will usually cover a group of four.
The truly adventurous might want to tour this area by mountain bike. You can reach most of the above sites and villages in an athletic couple of hours of riding. Leave early to avoid the oppressive midday heat, and expect slow going and lots of mud in the rainy season.
None of Belize's southern ruins is as spectacular or actively restored as the more famous sites in the northern and western parts of the country. Still, the ancient Maya did have substantial cities and trading posts all up and down the Belizean coast, and several impressive reminders can be found near Punta Gorda. Travelers interested in the ongoing Mayan tradition will find themselves in a region of numerous small Kekchi and Mopan Maya villages, many of which have taken tentative steps to enter the tourism industry with homestay programs or basic guesthouses.
Lubaantun -- The largest of the nearby Mayan ruins is Lubaantun. The name, which means "Place of the Fallen Stones" in Yucatec Maya, was given to the site in 1924 and it was descriptive of the state of the buildings at that time. This Late Classic Maya ruin is unusual in that the structures were built using a technique of cut-and-fitted limestone blocks rather than the usual rock-and-mortar construction technique used elsewhere by the Mayans. Set on a high ridge, the site features five plazas and two ball courts. The highest temple here rises just 15m (50 ft.) or so, and it's still mostly in ruins, with trees growing out of the rubble. Although largely unexcavated, the ancient city's center has been well cleared, and the surviving architecture and urban outline give a good sense of the former glory of this Mayan ceremonial center.
Lubaantun is perhaps most famous as the site where a crystal skull was allegedly discovered by a young Canadian woman in 1926. There's much debate as to the origin and age of the skull, which some say was planted as a surprise present for Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who just happened to discover the carved skull on her 16th birthday while accompanying her father, who just happened to be leading the archaeological expedition. Others claim that the skull was a plant that had actually been purchased in London by Mitchell-Hedges. There are also claims that the crystal skull is the work of extraterrestrials, and that it has shown remarkable healing powers. The skull is currently kept in a vault in Canada.
Lubaantun is located about 32km (20 miles) northwest from Punta Gorda, about 11km (7 miles) from the well-marked turnoff on the highway near Big Falls, and 1.6km (1 mile) from the small Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia. Admission is BZ$10.
Nim Li Punit -- Nim Li Punit, meaning "Big Hat" in Kekchi Mayan, features 26 stelae, including the largest Maya carved stele in Belize, measuring almost 9m (30 ft.) tall. This stele bears the depiction of a local ruler wearing a large, broad diadem, or "big hat," hence the name of the site. Only discovered in 1976, Nim Li Punit is a relatively small site, with four compact plazas and one very well preserved ball court, with a stone marker in its center. One of the plazas served as an astronomical observation area, with a platform and stone markings indicating the point where the sun rises on the equinoxes. There are three Royal tombs that have been discovered and partially excavated, and you can peer down into two of them. However, overall, very little excavation or restoration has been undertaken. Nonetheless, the eight carved stelae, and in particular, stele 14, make this a worthwhile stop. The best-preserved stelae, including stele 14, are currently housed at the small museum and visitor center at the entrance to the site.
Nim Li Punit is set on a high hilltop, and on a clear day, you have a great view over the flat southern plains, all the way to the Caribbean Sea. It is believed that this Late Classic city had close ties to Copan, Honduras. If you can only visit one of the Mayan sites in southern Belize, I recommend Nim Li Punit over Lubaantun.
Nim Li Punit is located about 3.2km (2 miles) off the Southern Highway, near the village of Indian Creek, 40km (25 miles) north of Punta Gorda. A dirt road leads from the highway to a parking area near the visitor center. Admission is BZ$10.
Other minor ruins in the area include Uxbenka near Santa Cruz and Pusilha near Aguacate.
A Botanical Garden
The Toledo Botanical Arboretum (tel. 722-2470), is a sustainable farm and botanical gardens project that accepts day visitors. In addition to a broad variety of ornamental flowers and orchids, tropical palms and bromeliads, they grow over 100 varieties of tropical fruit, and something is always ripe for a just-picked treat. The Toledo Botanical Arboretum is close to both the Kekchi Maya village of San Pedro Columbia and the Lubaantun ruins. A 2-hour guided tour of the facility costs around BZ$10. Visits and transportation should be arranged in advance.
Each year in late May, P.G. pulls out all the stops for the Toledo Cacao Fest (www.toledochocolate.com). The festival, which runs over a weekend, includes a wide range of events and activities, including live concerts, fireworks, cacao farm tours, and of course plenty of opportunities to taste all sorts of dishes and creations made from or with cacao and chocolate.
The Mopan Mayan village of San Antonio is the site of the Deer Dance, a 9-day traditional Mayan cultural celebration, which takes place in late August and early September. Although this traditional cultural ceremony coincides with a Catholic religious holiday, the Feast of San Luis, its roots are traditional Maya.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.