Belize’s Toledo District boasts several grassroots tourism programs to get travelers into the upcountry villages of southern Belize . These villages are predominantly Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya, whose descendants fled to Belize to escape oppression and forced labor in Guatemala.
For the culturally curious traveler who doesn’t mind relatively primitive conditions (which vary between villages), the unique experiential accommodation programs in the Toledo District are a great way to go. These are poor villages, and the local brand of eco-tourism provides an alternative to subsistence farming that entails slashing and burning the rainforest.
In addition to waking up to roosters crowing, you’ll be guided to nearby natural attractions like caves, waterfalls, archaeological sites, and swimming holes. For nighttime entertainment, expect traditional dancing, singing, and music; otherwise it’s just stargazing and conversation.
Dem Dats Doin’ (office in Punta Gorda located next to Scotia Bank, demdatsdoin [at] btl [dot] net) has maintained the Maya Village Homestay Network since 1991, offering traditional village accommodations. Guests stay in a Maya home, perhaps in a hammock (not much privacy, but plenty of cultural exchange). The office in Punta Gorda  is open only Wednesday and Friday mornings. It’s less than US$20 per person per night for homestays and all meals. Families live in the villages of Aguacate, Na Luum Ca, and San José.
Maya Center is the gateway to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary . Cockscomb Basin is one of the most beautiful natural attractions in the region. A large tract of approximately 155 square miles of forest was declared a forest reserve in 1984; in 1986, the government of Belize set the region aside as a preserve for the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar. In the process, they relocated the Maya that were living inside the reserve, forming the village of Maya Center. The area is alive with wildlife and there are a few families of guides and guesthouses to accommodate your needs.
The people of Maya Center struggle to support their town with tourism. The village has a few places to stay, eat, and experience village life, literally right down the road from the famous reserve.
Julio Saqui (www.cockscombmayatours.com ) is a great guide and offers many services and tours including Victoria Peak. The Saqui family runs the Maya Center Maya Museum (tel. 501/660-3903 or 501/668-2194, US$10 pp), which provides hands-on cultural activities; learn how to make corn tortillas, process coffee beans, and take home Maya Coffee to share with friends while you retell your adventures abroad.
Nu’uk Che’il Cottages and Hmen Herbal Center (tel. 501/520-3033 or 501/615-2091, nuukcheil [at] btl [dot] net, US$10–30) offers tranquil accommodations. The guesthouse has experience hosting student groups and can arrange seminars on herbal medicine, cultural performances, and the like. Proprietress Aurora Garcia Saqui offers Mayan spiritual blessings, prayer healings, acupuncture, and massage (each for less than US$15). Aurora can also arrange homestays in the village (US$30 includes a one-night stay with a local family, one dinner and one breakfast, per person).
Tutzil Nah Cottages (tel. 501/520-3044, www.mayacenter.com , US$14–22) is owned and operated by the Chun family. Inventive trips are available, including kayak floats and night hikes.
In Belize, “bed-and-breakfast” sometimes means a simple village homestay—crashing in a family’s guest room. Tucked away on a red dirt road, the Mopan Maya village of Red Bank is famous for an annual local aggregation of scarlet macaws, which gather to feed on the ripe fruits of polewood trees. This phenomenon was unknown to outsiders until 1997, when conservationists learned that 20 birds had been hunted for table fare. (At that time it was thought Belize had a population of 30–60 scarlet macaws!) In response, Programme for Belize worked with the village council to form the Red Bank Scarlet Macaw Conservation Group, led by village leader Geronimo Sho.
The small community-based eco-tourism industry offers visitors accommodation, meals, crafts, and guide services. A reserve has been established about one mile from the village and visitors must pay a small conservation fee (ask around for Mr. Sho). The best time to visit is from mid-January to March, when the annatto fruits are ripe. As many as 100 scarlet macaws have been observed in the morning when the birds are feeding. To stay here, make a reservation at the Red Bank Bed-and-Breakfast (tel. 501/503-2233).
TEA is a cooperatively managed tourism program with village representatives and guesthouses in seven participating villages. Participants must arrange their visits from the central TEA office in Punta Gorda  (tel. 501/722-2096, www.plenty.org/mayan-ecotours ), pay the registration fee (US$5), then be briefed about the program and told how to get out to the village (villages participate on a rotating basis). One full day may be sufficient, as the villages are quite small; to explore the surrounding landscape, plan an extra day.
One night’s lodging and three meals run US$28 per person per night. Other activities, like storytelling, crafts lessons, and village tours, are US$3.50 per hour. Prices are standardized throughout the participating villages. Other activities, such as paddling trips, forest and cave tours, and music/dance sessions cost more, but are extremely reasonable—especially with a group. If visiting during the rainy season, be advised that trails and caves may be inaccessible.
Breakfast in Maya villages generally consists of eggs, homemade tortillas, and coffee or a cacao drink. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, often including chicken caldo, a soup cooked with Maya herbs, or occasionally a local meat dish like iguana (“bush chicken”) or gibnut (paca, a large rodent).