If there is any place that we would re-visit in Belize, it’s the Toledo District in the southern part of the country.
Toledo has lots to offer to nature-loving travellers: jungles, plains, wildlife sanctuaries, caves, and waterfalls. You can snorkel and dive the offshore islands, tour the district’s organic farms and botanical reserves, go horseback riding or ziplining in the forest, or visit Mayan ruins and craft-making villages.
Toledo is also home to many ethnic groups, including Mopan and Kekchi Mayans, Mestizos, Creoles, Garifuna, East Indians, and Mennonites.
Most importantly, Toledo has amazing chocolate.
A lot of people who drive the Pan-American Trail tend to skip this part of the world because there is currently no southern road connecting Toledo to the neighbouring country of Guatemala (it’s in progress, though). The only way into Guatemala from Toledo is to backtrack northward towards San Ignacio and cross the border from there.
For us, our visit to Toledo was well worth the backtrack. The vibe in Toledo is different from the coastal vibe that we felt in northern Belize. It’s still laid-back, but also feels very alive and productive.
From Placencia, we drove towards San Antonio following the nicely paved Southern Highway for most of the way.
As we drove into Toledo, the surrounding forest changed from broad-leaf palm trees to delicate spruce-like trees. We felt the air getting mercifully cool and dry.
We visited Rio Blanco National Park to check out the waterfalls and hike the jungle trails.
Gregor and I visited two of Toledo’s Mayan ruins: Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit.
The Farm Inn
We explored Toledo from our “home base” at the Farm Inn. We actually found this place by accident…
Originally, we were going to camp in Rio Blanco National Park, near San Antonio village. On our way there, I noticed the Farm Inn on our maps.me app.
We couldn’t actually see the farm from the road because it was surrounded by thick jungle forest. But I saw the sign at the inn’s entrance.
At the last second, I told Gregor to turn onto the inn’s driveway. He blew past the turn (a common occurrence since I don’t ever seem to give him enough warning at intersections), but he was able to steer Lucky back towards the inn without too much hassle.
“Why are we turning here?” he asked.
“My Spidey senses told me to turn,” I replied. “Maybe they’ll let us camp on the property.”
We descended the inn’s narrow gravel driveway, palm trees licking at Lucky’s sides. We emerged onto a gravel parking pad next to a manicured lawn surrounded by jungle.
As Gregor stepped out of the van, two barking German shepherds came running out of the jungle towards us. “Oh my gawd, they have killer dogs!” I yelped. Large barking dogs terrify me, especially ones that look like canine police. There was no way I was leaving the safety of my passenger seat.
A second later, a grey-bearded man came up behind the shepherds, yelling at them to hush and stop pestering the guests. He then smiled at us and said, “I hope you don’t mind dogs.”
That was our first encounter with Kevin Brown. He and his wife, Renee, run the Farm Inn, a beautiful property comprising a guest house, a restaurant, and a cacao farm in an idyllic jungle setting. The entire farm is off the grid (running on solar power and a generator) and the plantation is 100% organic.
Gregor asked Kevin if we could camp in the parking lot for a few nights. “Not a problem,” Kevin said, “Let me show you around”. Impressed with the beautiful grounds, we negotiated a camping fee (25 BZD/16 CAD) and then headed for the restaurant’s bar. Over the course of several days, we shared many stories (and rum drinks) with Kevin at that bar.
Originally from South Africa, Kevin and Renee fell in love with Toledo and bought their current property on a whim. They started building the Farm Inn nine years ago and are continuing to expand the guest house and cacao farm as part of their retirement plans.
Before coming to Belize, Kevin and Renee spent 16 years living and travelling in a sailboat with their three school-aged children. They both honed their mariner skills in the navy, and at shipping ports and boat charter companies. Their kids are now grown and are all accomplished sailors. Now Kevin and Renee live in the jungle, about 30 minutes away from the sea.
Gregor and I found it absolutely fascinating that Kevin and Renee raised their family on a sailboat. We were also impressed by how laid-back and easy-going they were, like they belonged in Belize. Most expats we’ve met like to complain about their adopted country and the people in it, but Kevin and Renee seemed genuinely happy to be here. Perhaps living on a sailboat for 16 years teaches you to be more in-tune with your surroundings.
I once asked Kevin if he finds it difficult to deal with the slow pace in Belize, particularly when trying to run a business. He chuckled and took a long drag from his cigarette. “Well, let me tell you,” he said, leaning back and waving the ashy end of his Pall Mall, “There’s no point in getting your knickers in a twist here, ye knowattamean?” By that time, we had spent three weeks in Belize, so we knew exactly what he meant.
From Cacao to Chocolate
One of the things I wanted to do in Belize was to visit a cacao farm. So you can imagine how happy I was when Kevin offered to give me and Gregor a private tour of his cacao plantation. We learned how cacao is grown and how to make chocolate in the traditional Mayan way. It was a really interesting and intimate experience.
We would have loved to stay at the Farm Inn indefinitely, but the cell reception and WiFi there wasn’t good enough for Gregor to work his compulsory two days per week. We decided to drive to Punta Gorda, the district capital of Toledo, and worked from there for a couple of days.
Toledo Cacao Festival
Toledo district’s annual Cacao Festival was held in Punta Gorda from May 22-24, during Belize’s Commonwealth Holiday weekend. It’s a celebration of Toledo’s fantastic chocolate as well as the district’s diverse cultural heritage. We pigged out on all things chocolate and had fun watching the colourful crowd.
Chocolate, colourful people, and a rascally South African cacao farmer. Those are the things we liked most about Toledo, and those are the things that would bring us back.