Santa Cruz, Belize: Mayan village fights to preserve traditions as tourism looms

(CNN) — A bumpy 10-passenger plane ride from Belize City takes you over verdant jungles, rugged peaks, and scrabble along the vibrant Caribbean Sea, dotted with idyllic atolls, before landing on a airport to a strip, a touch of dusty red in the middle of thick treetops.

This is the airport in Punta Gorda, the southernmost town in Belize, which has a population of 5,000.

It’s remote, but it’s a bustling metropolis compared to Santa Cruz, a Mayan settlement that’s a 50-minute walk inland. The humidity greets you like a warm embrace and the bustling jungle wildlife provides a looping soundtrack of birdsong, monkey howls and the occasional roar.

It is here, nestled in the safety of the jungle, that the Mopan Maya live. Originally from Belize and Guatemala, the Mopans are one of the 28 ethnic subgroups of the Maya people. About 10,000 people in Belize identify as Mopan, representing less than 3% of the country’s population. Culture is therefore closely protected by its people.

Belize was home to some of the earliest Maya settlements, and today the Maya make up around 11% of the country’s population.

Santa Cruz is accessed by a rough, unpaved road that winds through the mountains to open into a small valley. Here, tight-knit communities living in thatched-roof dwellings grow corn, potatoes and cocoa.

It is a way of life that has remained almost unchanged for centuries, partly by choice and partly by circumstance. Their very existence revolves around a daily communion with nature, their routines dictated by the seasons.

Santa Cruz is a Mopan Maya community in southern Belize.

Courtesy of Lucy Sherriff

Balancing change with tradition

“We live in harmony with the Earth, the sun, the rain”, explains Jose Mes, one of the community leaders of Santa Cruz.

He wakes up to the crow of the family rooster and his days depend on what needs to be done at that time of year. Maybe he’s helping a neighbor cover his roof, harvest corn, or plant seeds for the fall. Their way of life is determined by earth and sky, which can be a blessing and a curse, especially now that they are surviving in a world ruled by technology.

Despite this, the delivery of electricity to the remote area has been slow. The village, like several others nearby, is far from the national power grid, making it logistically difficult and costly to electrify their communities. “We have solar panels on some houses,” says Mes, “but it’s rare.”

Electricity comes with its own set of challenges.

Jose Mes explains how plants are used for their medicinal properties.

Jose Mes explains how plants are used for their medicinal properties.

Courtesy of Lucy Sherriff

“Our way of life here is very sheltered from the rest of the world,” says Mes. “We’ve had to fight hard to protect our lands and our homes here, and as the world changes rapidly, it’s getting even harder to do so.”

Bringing electricity to the village will undoubtedly make their lives easier, but could in turn threaten their traditions.

In Mes’s house, a large circular structure topped with a reed-woven roof, his wife tends to a small fire while she tears off palm-sized pieces from a large ball of corn dough. White. She deftly uses the heel of her hand to shape the dough into a tortilla, alternating with her fingertips to perfect the shape.

When Mes opens his home to tourists, which he does with careful planning and the help of Bruno Kuppinger, a German tour guide who has worked in Belize for 25 years, he is keen to offer them an immersion into the daily life of his community.

Visitors are invited to lift the impossibly heavy pestle to grind corn, shape it into dough, and try their hand at shaping tortillas, a surprisingly complex task for untrained fingertips. Mes takes his guests on a culinary exploration of everything he grows: cocoa, beans, chilies, to name a few, all pure, unrefined and straight from the earth.

The women of the community prepare food from what is grown on the land, including corn tortillas, which are eaten at almost every meal.

The women of the community prepare food from what is grown on the land, including corn tortillas, which are eaten at almost every meal.

Courtesy of Lucy Sherriff

Fears of uncontrolled tourism

Mes and his family benefit from the arrival of tourists to their home, but they are also aware of the pitfalls.

Tourism accounts for approximately 41% of Belize’s GDP, so it is vital that it is developed consciously and in collaboration with local communities.

“We are not convinced that we will be protected by the government if this suddenly becomes a major tourist destination, as has happened in other parts of Belize,” adds Mes.

Belize’s Ministry of Tourism is planning a large-scale expansion of transport infrastructure in the region, hoping to attract more tourists to Toledo, the southern district bordering Guatemala.

Currently, many major US cities are connected to the country, but there are no European flights.

“We believe we can continue to build the tourism industry [in Toledo] if we build airports and air links in the country,” says Anthony Mahler, Belize’s Minister of Tourism. “[We also need] to invest in infrastructure that supports tourism, such as hotel rooms, roads to archaeological sites and national parks.”

There are numerous archaeological sites throughout the country, including in the Toledo region and around Santa Cruz, which are a key attraction for foreign visitors.

“Obviously you need to focus on the sustainability of our cultures, our natural resources and training our employees to ensure they are ready to work in the tourism industry at a high level,” adds Mahler. “We are updating our Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, which guides what we are doing to address today’s issues.”

The corn dough is wrapped in a large foil to keep it fresh.

The corn dough is wrapped in a large foil to keep it fresh.

Courtesy of Lucy Sherriff

“I am a bit worried”

Bruno Kuppinger, who works with Mes, has carefully developed relationships with Mayan communities.

“I don’t think anything will realistically happen in the next five to 10 years,” Kuppinger said. “But Mayan villages definitely need some kind of protection.

“I’m a bit concerned that Toledo will be the next emerging destination, and there won’t be any safeguards in place to prevent anyone from visiting the villages.”

Mahler is adamant that the government will work closely with communities to consult with them on any expansion and that the country’s extensive tourist guide training program will ensure that mass tourism to Mayan villages remains contained.

“We believe we have enough quality guides to conduct tours in these [Maya] communities,” adds Mahler. “And the infrastructure that hundreds or thousands of people would need to get to that area just doesn’t exist. So by the nature of the lack of infrastructure, you’re not going to see that level of tourist activity in these communities like Santa Cruz.”

Involving visitors in the Mayan way of life helps preserve their own traditions, but it’s a delicate balance against the threat of overtourism. It’s a story that takes place all over the world.

“We are moving more into the modern world because our way of life is so hard to maintain in the times we live in,” says Mes. “But we would like to be able to manage our involvement in the outside world and not have strangers come to us without our permission.”

However, if handled with care and sensitivity, tourism activity could provide a sustainable future for Santa Cruz.

Mes relishes the opportunity to share his traditions and indigenous knowledge with outsiders – and also learns from tourists himself. “I’m not against people visiting our village, I appreciate the conversations and the connections.

“It’s a good opportunity to learn about our way of life, and maybe they can take something with them. And of course, we also learn from tourists.”

Top image: Bird’s eye view of the jungle in Belize’s Toledo District. (Courtesy of Lucy Sherriff)

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