The many magnificent Maya sites that scatter the landscape of Belize are testament to this incredible civilization. The Maya built amazing cities, they traded in jade and obsidian, they had their own calendar, they were arguably the inventors of chocolate in the form of a spicy drink and wait for it…. they were the inventors of chewing gum…
Chewing gum as we know it was originally a white rubbery sap known as chicle, that came from the Sapodilla tree that was common in Belize and Central America. The Maya used this chicle to help keep their breath fresh and to stop hunger and thirst.
In 1866 a certain American called Thomas Adams was introduced to Chicle in Mexico and thus began the chewing gum industry. In Belize there were four types of chicle, Female, crown gum, male and Bull. Female was considered the best and was more abundant in Northern Belize. The ‘chiclero’ was the man responsible for extracting this precious resin. It was an arduous and dangerous task, involving camping out during rainy season and climbing huge trees before cutting grooves in the bark and collecting the sap in bags. The chicle was then cooked in iron pots to the required consistency and then poured into moulds and shipped to Belize City, where companies such as Wrigleys would import it to America. The chewing gum industry reached its height in the 1930s and 40s. However over production eventually led to its demise. Each chicle producing tree needed 3- 8 years before it could be tapped again and it became unsustainable. As a result companies started looking for an alternative in artificial gum and sadly the chicle industry along with its chicleros became defunct.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of hype surrounding the trailer for the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s classic film “It”. The scary clown has horror fans champing at the bit for its release in September of this year.
People are fascinated by scary characters, and here in Belize, we are no different. Long before television, cinema and YouTube, a cast of terrifying characters every bit as frightening as that clown, dominated Belizean legends and folklore. Their stories have been passed down from generation to generation and the different cultures have merged to produce a motley crew of characters. Here are just some of them.
Perhaps the most famous of these creepy creatures (because they certainly do not resemble anything human) is Tata Duende. Claimed to have been seen by many, this character lives in the Belizean forests. He is tiny, wears a big wide brimmed hat and his feet are on backwards! Oh and yes he doesn’t have any thumbs, so hide yours or he will steal them. Legend has it that he is a brilliant horseman, a good guitar player, a whistling guardian of the forest. He has a good side and a bad side. So we advise, you err on the side of former and treat him well.
Every folkloric tradition also has a temptress. Belize has several with Xtabai being the most well known. She is said to ensnare men with her long white dress and beautiful long straight hair. Parents would warn their children to be home before dark lest she capture them and take them into the jungle. She particularly likes drunk men, so take care not to drink too much Belizean rum. She is also a bit of a chameleon, often transforming into a snake, and a snarling monster with turkey and goat legs.
We also have our version of Bigfoot, the Sisimoto, who is a big hairy gorilla type figure that haunts the forest and caves and likes the flesh of humans.
Then there is Ole Heg. She leaves behind her skin after sucking the blood of children. There’s nothing good about this one! However, there is good news, you can protect your children by getting them to wear blue and sprinkling your doorstep with sesame seeds. So next time you see some at your local market stall, make sure to stock up.
As with all legends, a healthy dose of imagination and storytelling ability is also required.
Belize’s abundant cultural interaction makes for an incredible diversity of foods. As tourism has increased, so has the availability of international cuisine countrywide and whilst the mainstay of Belizean fare is undoubtedly stewed chicken,rice and beans served with plantain, potato salad or coleslaw, every region has at least one or two specialties based on its cultural heritage.
Corozal maintains a strong Mexican influence. Corn is a staple here and used in the making of tamale, a corn based dough called masa surrounding chicken, wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf served with a juicy tomato based sauce. Traditionally the tamale was prepared by the ancient Maya for feasts. Today they are eaten by everyone. Dukunu another delicacy is made from the ground and roasted corn kernels steamed in corn husks.
Most street corners in Belize towns, have their own taco stands and local favorites but Orange Walk arguably has the best. Tacos, a rolled corn tortilla with meat filling can be spicy or not, and make for a delicious breakfast. Orange Walk tacos are shipped countrywide by Tropic Air via our cargo department, so wherever it is likely that will be able to enjoy them or you can get them flown in specially.
The cuisine of Ambergris Caye one of the main tourist destinations of the country has absorbed influences from around the country and here you will find every kind of Belizean delicacy, as well as international cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood. With dishes ranging from Japanese sushi, to Italian pizza, to Salvadoran pupusas, your taste buds won’t be disappointed. Lobster and Conch are seasonal and the local specialty of ceviche, is usually made with either of these raw and then “cooked” with lime juice, cucumber and habanero pepper.
In the South, in Placencia and the Cayo district, similar international cuisine is abundant whilst in Hopkins, and Dangriga (Stann Creek district), the traditional flavors reflect the strong Garifuna culture. Coconut milk, banana and plantain, fish and cassava root are all popular ingredients used to make the specialities of this region, which include Sere, a coconut based fish soup, and Hudut, consisting of mashed plantain.
As well as the staple, chicken with rice and beans,in Belize City, a diversity of fried chicken restaurants, offer a variation on a theme, creole and spicy, others oriental and crispy, all served with orange Fanta infused ketchup. With nicknames such as “kick down fence”, “Nice and Nasty”, “Freetown Kentucky” and “Greasy Bag”, who can resist this artery clogging indulgence!
Healthier fare is on offer in the Toledo district, where the indigenous Maya have a mainstay diet of corn and beans and whatever else is grown on their farm. The Midday meal is often caldo a clear soup eaten with tortillas and accompanied by the Maya cacao drink Kukuh which is a mixture of ground cocoa beans, pepper, corn and water. Along with the Maya there is a strong East Indian influence here and the local spices are added to make delicious curry.
Throughout Belize you will find three countrywide staples. The “Johnny Cake” a heavy bread eaten plain or with ham/cheese or chicken, traditionally cooked over an open flame, “Fry Jacks” deep fried flour tortillas, or “Pepper”. No Belizean meal would be complete without a bottle of hot sauce made with habanero chile peppers. This stuff is addictive and once you’ve tried it you will have it on everything, just like the locals do and be sure to take a bottle home for your friends.
For Andy Palacio, one of Belize’s most loved and famous musicians, music was “the soundtrack of life”.
Perhaps the most beautiful demonstration of this statement can be found in the music of his people, the Garinagu, one of the many cultures that make up the melting pot that is Belize. Product of the indigenous Arawaks of South America and shipwreck prisoners destined for slavery, the Garinagu claim St. Vincent as their homeland. Forceful exodus from the Caribbean lead to Central American settlements in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.. Throughout migratory pathways, the Garinagu have continued to use music in daily life and work to retell their story from elder to younger generation, to diminish the boredom of everyday chores, to accompany sacred rituals that maintain intergenerational bonds and to recreate a sense of shared identity despite borders.
The main instrument used in Garifuna music that requires musical accompaniment is the drum. Traditionally these drums were made from a hollowed out trunk of hardwood, covered with animal skin usually a deer, peccary or sheep which was stretched over the trunk and tightened with rope and wooden pegs and they were always played solely with the hands. Today the design is very much the same, although the hollowing out is normally done with a machine rather than by hand. In the majority of everyday secular music, two drums are involved. The main and largest drum provides the bass and is known as the Segundo. Its namesake drummer provides the regular beat. The Primero drum is usually smaller and its player uses a more complicated pattern of beats and is considered the more skilled musician. In Garifuna rituals a third larger drum is used with the central instrument, the Lanigi Garawoun (the heart drum) providing the lead for the other two drummers.
For social occasions, one of the most popular music genres and dances of the Garifuna is the Punta. This was traditionally a dance performed by men and women representing a dialogue between the two sexes performed at social gatherings and wakes. The drums and rattles accompanied the narrative text written mostly by women provides comment on the many challenges of life. Traditionally families socialized together and young people would be under strict supervision. The Punta was a way through which couples communicated interest in each other without alarming the audience or creating suspicion. Today couples doing the Punta try to outdo each other with complicated movements of the feet that sway the rest of the body, producing an impression of moving hips and bottoms. Other dances such as the Chumba, Gunjei, Wanaragua, Paranda and Hüngü Hüngü are often played in social settings.
This traditional Punta music has evolved into one of the most popular and ubiquitous style of music in Belize: Punta Rock. The artist Pen Cayetano is largely regarded as the originator of this genre of music during the 1980s. It is a faster version of traditional Punta with the addition of electric instruments such as drum, bass guitar and synthesizer and the dance accompanying it is every bit as provocative as the original. Today one of the most popular Punta artists is Supa G.
Paranda is another example of how the music has evolved over the years as the Garifuna have assimilated other musical influences from their surroundings. A gentler genre of music and dance traditionally performed by the Garifuna men, Paranda songs were used as serenades in which a group of guitar-toting performers would to from house to house in their communities performing their compositions. The singing providing the narrative accompaniment is very much the call and response, leader and chorus arrangement that is typical of some music of the Garifuna and talks about what is happening in the singers’ lives. Though the musical form is known to have been around since the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 2007 when Andy Palacio elevated Paranda to international fame with his acclaimed CD, “Watina”. After his unexpected death, the Garifuna collective, the group with which Andy had toured to promote Watina, continued to build on his legacy, creating a reputation for this more soulful exploration of Garifuna music.
The Wanaragua provides yet another “soundtrack to life”. Otherwise known as the Jonkonnu or John Canoe, the traditional dance is thought to have been created or adopted on the island of St. Vincent. Similar dances created by the slaves were performed on special occasions around Christmas; however, oral history refers to Wanaragua dancers using a guise lo lure European colonizers into Garifuna communities during the wars they fought on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century. Today the dance is usually performed between Christmas Day and Día Rey, January 6th or the feast of the epiphany. Accompanied by drumming, performers dress up in pink masks as a mocking representative of Europeans and dance from house to house for a small monetary token.
Whilst the majority of Garinagu are located in the Stann Creek district around Dangriga and Hopkins and in Barranco in the Toledo district, any visitor to Belize is sure to encounter one of the above genres of music and dance particularly around November as they celebrate the uniqueness of their culture and soundtrack of their life.
Want to experience the sounds and sights of the Garifuna culture? Then book your flight with Tropic Air and take a trip this November 19th to beautiful Dangriga.
Belize is a country of celebrations or jump ups as we call them and Belizeans love to party. Most months of the year have at least one holiday or anniversary commemorating or celebrating something of national significance. In November, all of Belize celebrates Garifuna Settlement Day on the 19th of the month. This holiday commenced in 1943 in the Stann Creek and Toledo districts of the country and in 1977 it became a national Holiday throughout Belize.
The Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) or Black Caribs first arrived in Belize, then British Honduras on November 19, 1802. They were the descendants of Carib Indians and Black Africans from St Vincent. According to history, they arrived in dug out canoes or dories and the re- enactment, called Yurumei, has become part of the Garifuna cultural ritual that occurs every morning on November 19th.
Belize has Garifuna communities living throughout Belize with approximately 15,000 people making up 7% of the population. The highest concentration can be found in the Stann Creek district and in particular Dangriga. The word Dangriga is from the Garifuna language meaning “sweet water”. Here the celebration lasts all week with parades, drumming, live music, dancing and much fun. The women and men dress in their traditional and colorful clothes and a Miss Garifuna pageant is held where young ladies showcase their knowledge of traditional dancing and language. In nearby Hopkins, traditionally a small fishing village, the children still learn and speak the Garifuna language .
The Garifuna culture is a strong and proud one. They have their own yellow, white and black flag symbolizing the sun, peace and the people. The food is also different from the ubiquitous rice and beans with Hudut, bundiga and cassava bread being just some of the delicacies to be found.
Let Tropic Air fly you to experience the Garifuna culture.
Toledo the southernmost district of Belize is arguably one of the richest areas of our country in terms of culture and topography. Cradled by high mountains, dense jungle and the blue Caribbean sea, the area is abundant in nature reserves, pristine rainforests, extensive cave systems and some of the best off shore cayes and yet historically it is one of the least populated and visited. Formerly frequented by the hardier eco traveler and backpacker, Tropic Air’s daily scheduled flights from almost anywhere in Belize including the International airport, to Punta Gorda the areas capital ,coupled with the increase in a variety of accommodation ranging from luxury lodges to bed and breakfast inns has opened up this diverse area to the mainstream traveler. Visitors can even stay in a traditional Maya home in a thatched cottage in one of the many Maya villages. This homestay project offers the chance to experience the Maya way of life. Food is authentic Maya fare of corn tortillas made on the fire, with corn ground on a traditional metate handed down over the centuries from family to family. This is served with caldo a tasty chicken stew with potatoes and vegetables grown on the family farm.
Whilst the Toledo district like the rest of Belize, is culturally diverse, the Maya culture dominates here, more than any other area of Belize. Some 30 villages inhabited by the Kekchi and the Mopan Maya dot the surrounding countryside. San Antonio located 25 miles outside of PG has one of the largest Mopan Maya communities in Central America and one of the centers for the annual deer dance. Villagers wear colorful costumes and dance to marimba music. The dance symbolizes the relationship between man and nature. The Maya maintain a strong link to the past through rituals, folklore and family. Fiestas dancing and traditional music remain important as several festivals and celebrations occur throughout the year.
The most recent annual event is the Toledo Cacao Festival held in May in Punta Gorda and throughout the district. Activities range from a wine and chocolate tasting evening to cookery competitions and a craft fair, trips to the outer Cayes and a cacao trail tour in Toledo’s chocolate country.
Other festivals in the district include the feast of San Luis during Easter, Garifuna settlement Day and the East Indian Festivals. In October The Tide fish fest is a weekend annual event dedicated to raising awareness of environmental issues. The weekend consists of a seafood gala with delicious food on offer, a youth conservation competition and a fishing tournament.
In November the Battle of the drums showcases local musicians as they display their talents in 5 different categories of Garifuna drumming.
This is a city rich in culture, shopping, amazing eats, art and architecture. Merida is the capital city of Yucatan and is considered the safest in Mexico. You can enjoy a scenic stroll where its avenues or the main boulevard called the Paseo consist of hidden gardens, boutique hotels, cafes and mansions dating to the mid-19th century. Getting around is very easy. You have access to taxis, bikes and if you’re looking something romantic, horse and carriage rides around the Paseo Montejo.
How to get there: it’s an hour and forty minute scenic flight from Belize on Tropic Air, who operate Cessna caravans on the route. They currently have a summer special starting at $355USD roundtrip (enter promo code MID when booking), see website for restrictions and conditions.