I had no idea what to expect from Punta Gorda, the southernmost town on the only highway in Belize. “It the outback,” one guidebook said. “It’s the end of the line – and it feels like it,” quipped another.
I was traveling in Belize with my father, a rabid fisherman on a lifelong quest to catch a giant “permit.” Permit are a species of flat and bony game fish with striking forked fins. They live in shallow tropical waters – such as those found off the coast of Belize and feed largely on crabs. Apparently they are a terrifically fun to hunt and land (for the very few people who succeed in doing so), and with fishermen being the obsessive types that they are, they’ll willingly go wherever they need to in order to have a shot at catching one. Where they need to go is Punta Gorda, Belize, so that’s where we went.
Punta Gorda is on the Caribbean coast of Belize, but it’s not a beach town. The water’s edge is flanked by mangroves rather than sand, so the sunbathing and swimming set doesn’t come here. Visitors are fishermen, backpackers on their way to Honduras, and folks curious about the cultural heritage of Toledo, the southernmost of Belize’s districts.
That cultural heritage is an interesting one, as the roughly 5000 residents of Punta Gorda are a diverse crowd. According to the town’s website, the majority of the population is Garifuna (more on them in a moment), followed by Mestizo, Kekchi Maya, Creole, East Indian, and Mopan Maya. Two percent are “other” – probably the handful of British and American expats and the Mennonites who own the construction companies nearby.
The Garifuna (Garinagu in their language), are a fascinating culture that emerged from a rather tragic series of events. In 1635, two slave ships carrying Nigerians to the New World shipwrecked off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Many of the slaves escaped and came ashore, where they were received warmly by the indigenous Carib population. Over time, they groups intermarried, forging a new creole culture that thrived until 1795 when the British took control of St. Vincent. The British believed that although the souls of all of the “colored islanders” were in peril, the lighter skinned of them could potentially be saved. The darkest 5000 residents were thought to be beyond redemption, and were therefore deported from St. Vincent to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. About half of them died in transit, and the 2500 or so that survived the journey to Roatan found nothing there to support them. They successfully petitioned the Spanish government to allow them to live on mainland Honduras and subsequently relocated there. From Honduras, the Garifuna have spread to coastal Guatemala and Belize (as well as New York City).
Today, they are a proud Creole culture with their own language – one which combines Carib, Arawak, French, Spanish, English, and Creole. They are officially Catholic, but there are a host of shamanic and ancestor worship practices woven into their religious tradition, which some say bears a strong resemblance to the voodoo traditions of Haiti. The Garifuna are people of the sea, and the majority of the ones who live in Punta Gorda are fisherman.
One of the most distinctive features of the Garifuna culture is their music – particularly their drumming. I had a chance to hear Ray McDonald of the Warasa Drum School, a Punta Gorda resident with a resume of global musical performances, sing and drum one evening, and I was enchanted. Ray played the “segundo” – the “second” drum, which interprets and “riffs on” the steady rhythm of the “primero” or “first” drum. Both the melody of the chant and the voice that carried it were haunting. Many of the melodies are meant to be danced to, and one of these dances, the “John Canoe” or “Jankunu” was being performed in the community on Christmas Day. Dancers paint their faces white, or wear white masks, mocking the slave owners of days past.
While there are many Mayans in Punta Gorda, the majority of the descendants of this ancient Mesoamerican culture live outside of the village, maintaining a lifestyle of subsistence agriculture.
Lately, there has been a growing interest in the cacao produced by Toledo’s Mayan farmers, with some conoisseurs claiming that the area’s raw chocolate is the best in the world. Cacao is endemic to the Yucatan, and the Mayan people have been cultivating the crop there for at least 2000 years. Today, the majority of the farmers sell their beans to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, who in turns sells to large chocolate companies in Germany and the United States. There are also seven Belizean chocolate producers whom the Cooperative makes sure receive a healthy portion of the crop. I visited one of them, the Cotton Tree Chocolate Factory, in Punta Gorda. Their facility was about 200 square feet in area, and contained toaster ovens used for roasting the beans, a DeWalt drill body used to power the bean grinder, and a few large Kitchen Aid-sized centrifuges spinning the ingredients for the two days necessary to fabricate a smooth final product. Not exactly what I expected to see, but it worked. And their chocolate was good.
It didn’t look to me like life was easy for anyone in Punta Gorda. Making a living off of fishing, subsistence farming, cacao growing, drumming, or a small tourist economy at the end of a nation’s paved road has got to be a struggle. I think it is this struggle that lent a detectably gritty feel to the village. Still, people were friendly, and there was much to be discovered by anyone who bothered to poke around below the surface of the community’s somewhat dilapidated exterior.
I keep returning to that theme in my explorations – this idea that there is always something amazing to be learned, appreciated, or experienced if you look hard enough. I’m glad that philosophy was reaffirmed for me at the end of the road at the end of the year.
(Note: The visuals of the following video aren’t great, but the melody is wonderful. This is Ray McDonald playing a traditional Garifuna song entitled “Baba,” also recorded by the famous Garifuna musician Andy Palacio)