Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | April 23, 2014

The Toledo Howler Spring issue 2014

Marta and I and the other contributors to The Toledo Howler are pleased to make the latest issue available on-line. You can also find a link to the paper on the Facebook page of Toledo BTIA ( Belize Tourism Industry Association). Enjoy reading and make your arrangements to visit Toledo during the chocolate Festival of Belize on the weekend of 23-25 May.

Howler 7.2 webhowler image1 copy

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | January 21, 2013

House Construction Mayan Style

The Chiac family who I wrote about in a previous post have received a small grant from the Sustainable Tourism Programme of the Belize Tourism Board.  The grant is for infrastructure and other improvements to develop their fledgling tourism business focused on home craft making.  Part was to be spent in the construction of a new building where guests get to try new craft skills themselves.

On Friday, 18 January, Carlos and his father Juan were hard at work erecting the frame for the house that will be 20′ x 30′.  That is ample space to set up different craft making areas and display their products for sale. Some of their crafts are not commonly found. Little more than a year ago all Juan and Hilaria’s sales were to other villagers. Juan makes hammocks and bags from natural fibres he weaves himself and large, useful baskets from the tai tai vine for storing bread, fruit and vegetables; for presentation of other items or a thousand other things.

The great thing about the style of twenty-first century Mayan house construction is that it is exactly the same as first century house construction. Same poles, same ropes, same leaves that have grown in the same place for all that while. And as someone once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Framing a Mayan house

Carlos and Juan erect the house frame.

The following day, Saturday, it was still just the two of them who set to work to put up the roof beams. They also had all the cohune palm leaves delivered; 440 leaves in total.

cohune palm leaves

The complete frame with leaves ready to be put up.

The entire frame was lashed together with a combination of vines collected from the forest and bark from the Macapal tree. No nails or man-made materials were used. Everything is natural and everything is renewable.



On Sunday morning, 20 January everything was ready for the the thatching. Miss Hilaria was up at 1am to season the chicken and then at 5am the kitchen was full with women washing the corn to make tortillas. The thatching itself began at 7am. The entire team consisted of nineteen men. There were eight on each side of the roof, one on the ground on each side handing up the leaves and the last delivering leaves to those two.

Thatching the roof

The thatching is halfway complete

The teams om either side of the roof.

The teams on either side of the roof.


Each man supports himself by leaning back against the roofing pole


While the men are busy thatching, the women are preparing corn tortillas and caldo, a rich soup made with pieces of chicken, recado spice and cilantro and probably other things besides. The recado comes from the annatto or achiote shrub and is made from the powder that surrounds the seeds in their case. This is the same spice beloved of scarlet macaws and its red pigmentation gives their plumage its dazzling red colour.

Making and baking the corn tortillas.

Forming and baking the corn tortillas.

The tortillas are are cooked on  top of the iron "comal" above the fire fed with wood

The tortillas are cooked on top of the iron “comal” above the fire fed with wood

While the women are busy making corn tortillas (they finished up with two buckets full to the brim with tortillas) Hilaria is busy outside tending the caldo which is cooking over another wood fire. Her husband Juan gets in the picture by waving one of his palm fans and trying to look useful.

Juan pretends he is helping

Juan pretends he is helping

The caldo is prepared in an enormous cauldron.

The caldo is prepared in an enormous cauldron.

After  little more than a couple of hours of intensive labour the thatch is complete and the workers are ready to sit down to the meal of caldo and corn tortillas. The thatch should last around five or six years before needing to be redone.

The completed thatch.

The completed thatch.

It's help yourself time after all that work.

It’s help yourself time after all that work.

That tastes good!

That tastes good!

The fajina system of exchanged labour still persists in Mayan communities. For this project the workers were paid. Normally one day spent assisting a neighbour will be repaid later when you for example might need your own roof rethatched. As more people find jobs in offices, or as teachers the system erodes and paid help begins to replace the system of exchange.

The caldo was excellent by the way.

To arrange a visit call Marta Chiac on +(501)-623-4585 or e-mail

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | May 27, 2012

The Way We Lived Then

The Cal family arrived in Big Falls around 1961 from Crique Sarco close to the southern border with Guatemala. They arrived to work on the new citrus plantation being established at the time. There was no paved road, no electricity and no mains water. All that came much later; but when it did arrive things changed rapidly. The Cal family home visit aims to preserve some of the old ways of the Kek’chi Maya before they disappear.

Traditional Mayan bed from tree bark

Judy tries out this traditional Mayan bed

One of the features of the home is this Mayan bed. The “mattress” is made from the rolled out bark of the macapal tree which is then secured to the frame by vine ropes. It is remarkably comfortable and when Judy saw it she was overcome by fatigue and just had to try it out.

The boys give Alva a ride around the garden.

While Judy was resting Osbaldo and Cornelius were giving their young sister Alva a ride around the garden on a large “spathe”. This is taken from the coconut tree and is a kind of sheath from which the flowers and fruit grow and as these kids know it makes a fine sled on grass.

Four kinds of corn

White, yellow, red and black corn varieties

Cris has four types of dry corn hanging in his kitchen although the family, like their neighbours, uses mainly white corn for making tortillas. The yellow corn tends to dry out more quickly when made into a tortilla but is good for fattening the chickens. The black corn is used for making tortillas.

Mayan corn storage

Cris recounts some family history

On the left in the picture above is a wooden frame for the storage of dry corn and beyond it next to the door an ancient pestle and mortar for grinding corn and other foods. All the hooks and hangers in the house are made from dried twisted lengths of vine found in the forest.


Ricardo Cal with his prize end of season cassava

Cris’s father Ricardo was one of the original group of Mayan settlers in Big Falls village who arrived in 1961 from Crique Sarco about 50 miles/80 kilometres south of here. There were no roads at the time so they paddled their dug out canoes down the Temash river to the sea before turning north and paddling north up the coast to Barranco and finally Punta Gorda. Here they were met by their new employer Don Owen-Lewis who transported them up to Big Falls.

Grinding cocoa for a drink on an old grinding stone made from volcanic lava

Mrs Cal grinds the cocoa to make a drink.

Cris’s mother Basilia grinds some cacao (cocoa) beans to make her guests a drink. The old grinding stone is made from a coarse volcanic lava found in Guatemala.

Tortilla making

Amina and Marvila prepare tortillas for the day

Anita and Cris’s daughters, Marvila (left) and Amina meanwhile are busy working on the family’s supply of tortillas for the day. Once cooked on top of the “comal”, the iron plate above the fire hearth, the tortillas are stored and kept fresh in the large brown calabash sitting on the table between them.

Soap berry tree

Judy lathers and washes her hands with the soap berry before eating

Before eating Cris offered Judy and Cheryl the chance to wash their hands using the  brown cherry-sized soap berry. When the berry is crushed in the hands and run under water it creates a very effective soap. Mrs Cal used to keep a sack of these to use throughout the year.

Mayan cuisine

Anita unveils the tuba fish cooked in banana leaves

Anita had been cooking a meal of tuba, a freshwater fish found in Rio Grande that flows through Big Falls.  The fish was delicious when seasoned with a fresh hot pepper sauce that Amina made and wrapped in warm tortillas from the calabash

Drinking cocoa from a calabash bowl

Cheryl (r) with Marta Chiac and Judy drinking cocoa from calabash bowls

After lunch they all shared a cocoa drink served in calabash bowls. this was the finale to a wonderful visit that gave the visitors a real appreciation for the way in which the forest had provided the Maya with all their needs from food to  medicine and even soap. It is a wonderfully varied visit and visitors have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and help out as one of the family. It also includes a garden walk to see all the herbs and fruit and vegetables that grow wild around them.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | May 13, 2012

Craft Making in Big Falls

Last Wednesday afternoon I had the opportunity to visit the Chiac family home here in Big Falls village. I went along with Judy Karwacki and Cheryl Chapman from British Columbia. They are both consultants in cultural tourism.  Judy comes with years of experience in the travel business and international experience consulting in the develop of cultural sustainable tourism. Cheryl comes with first hand experience of establishing cultural tourism businesses with her First Nation people in Canada. She is a leader in the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC  Her real name translates as “Sun rise when salmon come”

The Chiac family home on Big Falls is a new cultural tourism experience in Big Falls village with a focus on craft making. What makes this different is that the family make their living selling their crafts to other villagers rather than tourists, although that is likely to change when visitors learn of the incredibly fun learning experience to be had there.

cultural tourism among the Maya in southern Belize

Marta welcomes her guests and introduces the family

Marta introduced her father Juan and mother Hilaria as well as her own older daughter Melody.  More of the family gathered as the visit went on, with brothers and sisters returning home from school and her brother Carlos getting back from work at The Lodge at Big Falls.

Mayan cultural tourism in Big Falls

Juan selects fibres to spin into yarn

Her father Juan was in the middle of spinning some yarn from fibres that come from a large succulent forest plant with long six to eight foot long leaves.  He chooses the fibres, dusts the board on his knee with ash from a burnt termite nest (between his feet) and spins and joins the sections by hand to create an amazingly strong yarn.

Making fibr4es from "henikin"

Juan shows the fibrous insides of the leaves

The fibres come from inside the leaves of a plant known locally as “henikin” which he collects from the forest. The leaf is normally roasted and dried first to make it easier to work with.

Handmade fibres for making hammocks and bags

Cheryl examines the fibres from the “henikin”

Cheryl was fascinated by the fibres which she had thought at first were horses’ hair. They will eventually be made into bags or hammocks like the two hanging on the wall behind Marta.

After spinning yarn and hammock making we learnt about basket making using cane derived from the taitai vine which is also gathered from the rainforest and is a nasty looking thing with sharp needle like spines an inch or more in length. It needs handling with great care.

Tai tai vine

Carefully removing the outer skin from the vine with a machete

Apart from providing flexible cane for making baskets there is a treat waiting in the soft end of the vine where the new growth is. The heart of this end of the vine can be eaten raw and is quite tasty as Judy and Cheryl found when Juan offered them a piece.

Mayan home visit in Big Falls

Yum, yum!

Basket making in Big Falls

Cheryl tries her hand

After a short training session Cheryl tried her hand at basket making supervised by Juan and Marta. She was a very quick learner coming as she does from a culture with similar weaving and craft making traditions.

Kek'chi Maya weaving in Big Falls

Mrs Chiac sets up the loom and gives a demonstration

Marta’s mother weaves using this hand loom. The loom is attached to the wall. The tension is set by the her body weight pulling away from the wall. Once again after brief demonstration and refreshments of coconut milk served in a calabash bowl Cheryl was ready to be strapped in to do her stuff.

Weaving in Big Falls Chiac family

Cheryl gets her big chance

Cheryl was given a different piece to work on, something where she couldn’t do much harm, but once again she proved herself an adept and fast learner. The visit moved quickly with lots of laughs, from hammock making to basket making, to carving rosewood to weaving and finally everyone made a barbeque fan made from the plaited leaves of the cohune palm.  The two hours flew by and at the end of it all new friendships had been made.  The visitors also had much admiration and respect for people who not only made fine crafts by hand but also made their materials starting with the plants provided by the abundance of the forest interior.

Craft making in Big Falls

That’s all folks!

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | March 1, 2012

Cocoa is a Win/Win for People and the Environment

Imagine that you had invested in a hotel in little piece of paradise on the beach, by a lake, in the jungle or some other local beauty spot. Then the local council comes by and decides to empty raw sewage into the sea next to your pristine beach or a company builds a nuclear power station next door. Your paradise is gone and your business evaporates overnight. Just one of the things that can keep a hotelier awake at night. Some people can afford to buy buffer lands around their property to protect themselves against this kind of event but the effect on a country or industry can be quite devastating.

In inland Belize the greatest threat comes from environmental degradation. If the forest in Toledo disappears, will anyone want to come and visit? Threats to our forest come from illegal logging of primary hardwoods such as mahogany, tropical cedar and rosewood. They also come from the traditional system of slash and burn farming where the fields to be planted are cut at the beginning of the dry season and burnt just before the arrival of the rains. When a piece of land used like this is abandoned the forest takes many years to rejuvenate itself. Milpa farming on leased plantations in Belize replaces social security systems in other countries; even if no paid work is available, the family can still grow its own food and survive. So there are strong pressures to continue this form of subsistence farming.

Balaam; used as currency by the ancient Maya

Archaeologists studying the Maya collapse “find evidence that the Maya population exceeded the carrying capacity of the environment including exhaustion of agricultural potential and over-hunting of large animals.”  So any contemporary tourism business in Belize has a vested interest in understanding these processes and working to find ways to make the environment and their business sustainable.

Simply put, more paid jobs mean less slash and burn farming and less slash and burn farming means less environmental degradation. Tourism is the one of the most effective ways of creating jobs and income but one other development in the past twenty years offers enormous potential to help families move from subsistence farming to commercial farming. This is the cultivation of organic cacao (cocoa) which has been grown here for centuries.

organic cocoa farming

Miguel Choco explains his organic farming techniques

The Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association(TCGA) has an agreement with Green & Black’s in the UK to take all its cocoa bean production for the manufacture of “Mayan Gold” an organic Fairtrade orange flavoured chocolate. The agreement extends back to the early nineties and “Mayan Gold” was one of the first European Fairtrade products.

organic cocoa pod

Freshly opened cacao pod

Armando Choco is the general manager of the TCGA which is busy expanding its production of organic cacao to 150 tons a year.  He says ” The 50 tons we harvest now come from just 30% of the acreage.  The trees are already in the ground and we just have to wait three or four years before we reach that target.

We want TCGA to be a sustainable and vibrant industry in the south by increasing both membership and also productivity.  Between 2003 and 2006 membership increased from 230 to 900 members and since then acreage has increased from 400 to around 3800 acres at present

TCGA improves the income and livelihood of subsistence farmers and we are well on our way to achieving these aims.  Our ultimate aim is to provide high quality beans to both the international and domestic markets.  Right now our focus is on improving productivity and our education programme covers cacao biology, high yielding tree selection, grafting, orchard maintenance and post-harvest methodologies like fermentation and drying.”

So how does this help tourism and conservation? Cacao is a sub-canopy species that grows best in the shade of other larger forest trees. Growing cacao discourages farmers from cutting other trees. In fact it encourages them to leave trees in place or inter-crop with other species that yield cash crops such as black pepper or the indigenous allspice. And the more the forest flourishes the better the long-term prospects for sustainable tourism. Cacao growing and the TCGA Fairtrade agreement has done more than anything else to produce sustainable livelihoods for local farmers over the past twenty years. Long may it continue.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | November 29, 2011

Preserving the Mayan Musical Heritage

Mayan music and culture

Visitors accompany Florencio Mes

Sustainable cultural tourism is one of the most significant ways in which a culture’s music, dance, language and traditions can be kept alive and declining trends can be reversed. The Lodge at Big Falls has been taking its guests to visit Florencio Mes a Mayan harpist at his home near the village of San Pedro Columbia for the past eight years.  In 2007 he was filmed by Katia Paradis for a documentary titled the The Three Kings of Belize.  the other two “kings” of Belizean music were Mr Wilfred Peters, now sadly passed away, and Paul Nabor the Garifuna exponent of the Paranda style of music.

Florencio Mes has been keeping the musical traditions of the Maya alive for the past fifty years or more.  Now seventy-four years old, he was born in 1938  close to the village of Santa Cruz on the road to San Jose.  Tragically his father died when he was one year old and his mother when he was four so Florencio was brought up by his brother Bartolo who is ten years older and even today Florencio refers to Bartolo as “my father brother”.  He had very little schooling and cannot read or write but has risen above these disadvantages to become a great ambassador for Mayan culture and music.

Florencio Mes plays his harp

Florencio Mes, Mayan harpist

It was not until the age of sixteen that he began to practice and play Maya instruments and between then and the age of twenty-two he went and studied with Chalio Mes in Guatemala and with Jose Che a harp master from Cotton Creek.  In Guatemala he learned more of the legends behind the music.  None of the music Florencio plays with other musicians from San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia has lyrics but there is always a story behind each piece.

Florencio Mes and his Kek’chi Maya Strings have been recorded by Stonetree Records and have performed around the world at music festivals. In 1992 he played in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City along with musicians from eighty-six other nations and the year 2000 found him and his group in Venice, Italy which he remembers as “twice more hot than Belize because there are no more tall trees”.  Florencio’s most recent overseas adventure was when he attended the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia in July 2005.  This event brought together musicians from every continent to share their music, with representatives from Australia to Algeria and Peru to Pakistan.

Fernando Ash of San Pedro Columbia taught Florencio how to make Mayan harps, violins and guitars and he often has some works in progress to show visitors to his home, near Queso Creek (on the right hand side if you are traveling from San Miguel to San Pedro Columbia village).  All the instruments are made from tropical cedar (cedrela mexicana) which is strong, light and has good acoustic properties. He now uses nylon strings which have advantage of being durable but do not have the same sound quality as the cow gut and cohune palm fibers which were traditionally used.

Mayan musical traditions

Florencio plays one his recently completed violins

Florencio enjoys receiving guests at his home and during a visit of an hour or more will play his harp for guests, demonstrate his instrument making techniques and give them a tour of his kitchen garden where they can touch, taste and smell a variety of plants and fruit which are grown either for food or medicine.  It is a fascinating experience giving a glimpse into a vanishing world.  A world whose disappearance is still being hastened by the interference of outsiders.  Florencio is aware of the need to keep his cultural traditions alive.  He lost some promising pupils when their parents were converted by missionaries who preached that music was the work of the devil and he now has no students to pass on his skills and learning.

So if you want to learn to play the Mayan harp then Mr Mes would be a willing and able teacher and if you want to buy a Mayan instrument then he is the man to see. If you want to hire Mayan musicians for a special event then Florencio Mes is the man to talk to.  And if you just want to meet and talk and find out a little about the world of the Kek’chi Maya you can hardly do better than call by and introduce yourself.  You cannot make an appointment but if he is there visitors will be made welcome. His house is on the road between San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia villages. Ask a local for directions.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | November 11, 2011

Zipline comes to Big Falls

zipline in Big Falls, Belize

Carlos Chiac glides towards the landing platform

Staff at the Lodge at Big Falls had the opportunity last week to test out the new zipline that has been constructed along the banks of the Rio Grande just east of the bridge in the village. The zipline at present has four sections that run in a loop crossing the river twice at a height of about 60 feet above the ground.  At one point the zipline lands on the ground, at another guests launch themselves from a platform constructed high up in a tree.

Zipline in Big Falls, Belize

Eduardo Cal lands safely

The zipline was the brainchild of Andrew Caliz and David Franco who were both born and bred here in Big Falls and adds an extra dimension to the adventure options for visitors and locals here in Toledo. This new zipline is the third in Belize coming after the ziplines at Jaguar Paw and Calico Jack’s in Cayo district.

I had to overcome my lifelong fear of heights and just about managed. It was a grey and drizzly day and the camera around my neck felt more like a millstone. Will I do it again? Probably, but next time unencumbered by extra equipment. It did feel safe and with two cables (one is for insurance) and three carabiners attaching to the trolleys that whisk you along the cables there was no chance I was going to take the quick way down. The safety briefing was clear and all the staff there are taking great care to reassure any nervous aerial travellers. Two more runs are planned, also crossing the river and including a practice run for those who may not fancy the full experience.

Call + (501) 634-6979 and ask for Andrew to make your own arrangements to visit and join the birds above Big Falls.

zipline in Big Falls, Belize

Martina Coy flies free above big Falls

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | September 29, 2011

Yoga and Wellness Retreat

Wellness Retreat The Lodge at Big Falls is introducing a new offering with a wellness and yoga retreat run in partnership with Caroline Barnes who has recently arrived in Belize from Phoenix, Arizona. there is a brochure attached to this post for anyone who is interested. The retreat will introduce a relaxing mix of yoga, massage and visits to local Mayan archaeological sites, organic cocoa growers and medicinal herb gardens. so open up the brochure and have a look.

The meals will be designed to complement the yoga activities and vegan, vegetarian or fish and seafood meals will all be on offer.

It should be a great week. Send an e-mail to to sign up.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | September 27, 2011

The Toledo Howler

This blog has fallen silent for the past few weeks.  Marta and I were working on producing the next edition of The Toledo Howler.  This is a publication that we produce four times a year on behalf of the local chapter of the Belize tourism Industry Association. Howler 5.1 final web  Its aim is “to promote the development of tourism in Toledo.  It  showcases destinations, activities, tour operators, transport services, accommodation, restaurants, craftspeople and other businesses directly or indirectly benefiting from visitors to Toledo.” It is all about getting people to Toledo and does not have any real “community” function. Because there are three months between each edition this is a role it could not realistically perform.  It is also about getting as many copies out of Toledo district as we can, so that we are not talking to ourselves but the world outside. We produce 4000 copies and spread them around Belize and get as many electronnic copies out also.

If there is any reader of the blog who would like to subscribe to receive a pdf of the Howler then send your e-mail address to and we will add you to the distribution list.

Enjoy the Howler and I hope to post more regularly in future. The picture below was taken when I was interviewing the women for an article about their new tourism venture.

Yum Kax women's group in Indian Creek village.

Yum Kax women's group in Indian Creek village.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | August 12, 2011

Hoist upon their own petard

The extract about extraction below is taken from the Channel 7 News bulletin of 11 August.In our last post I began by talking about bay leaf palm and ended up touching upon rosewood. The italics below are my own comments.

“The issue of Rosewood extraction in Southern Belize has been exciting public opinion in the Toledo District for some weeks now.

The Maya Leaders’ alliance issued a statement today saying that there is, quote, “rampant extraction of this very rare species with no intervention from the relevant authorities including the Forest Department.”  When the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance complains about lack of  intervention from the relevant authorities” one has to remember that they have spent the past three years in court trying to prove that the government of Belize has no right over these lands and is therefore not the relevant authority. If the government is not the relevant authority then presumably the Maya Leaders’ alliance is and it is up to them to demonstrate leadership and control the lands they own and manage.

Of course, the wrinkle in this is that Land Rights Case where the Ministry of Natural Resources is limited from making stipulations upon land considered to be maya communal property. So – the Mayan leaders alliance claims that Forestry personnel have been telling the Maya people that it is their lands (sic) and therefore they can do whatever they want including extract rosewood without a license. The leader says business owners then come and buy or credit these logs at anywhere from $3.50 -3.75 per board foot – with the Forest Officer who then stamps these logs.

So what do the Mayan leaders have to say about their own people facilitating the rosewood plunder? We quote: “our communities have been manipulated to leap for this rash economic opportunity and in these ever challenging times – How can we blame them?” End quote.

The release does close by saying that, quote, “Finally, we encourage the Maya people to stand up and realize that you are selling out too cheap.” So it is perhaps not that they are extracting the rosewood at all that is the problem but that they are selling it too cheaply.

This is a wonderful example of a group cherry picking those aspects of citizenship they find amenable. A supreme court decision established their rights to the land and they do not accept the government’s right to tax timber extraction. When the government desists from licensing, taxing and stamping , those very same people ask the government to step in and stop it. You cannot have it both ways.  No doubt the same people who claim ownership of land and refute the government’s right to tax will want to take advantage of Belize’s healthcare system and social security and any other benefits on offer.

The Maya Leaders’ Alliance have talked themselves into this corner and should now start showing some leadership. Being a leader is a responsibility not a social status with privileges attached.

Older Posts »