A bird's eye view of the jungle in Belize's Toledo district
CNN  — 

A bumpy, 10-passenger plane ride from Belize City takes you over lush green jungles, craggy mountaintops and skims along the vibrant Caribbean Sea, dotted with paradisiacal atolls, before coming to land on a one-strip airport, a slash of dusty red in the midst of thick treetops.

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

It’s remote, but it’s a bustling metropolis compared with Santa Cruz, a Maya settlement that lies a 50-minute trek inland. The humidity welcomes you like a warm embrace, and the jungle’s bustling wildlife provide a looping soundtrack of birdsong, monkey howls and the occasional roar.

It’s here, tucked into the safety of the jungle, that the Mopan Maya live. Native to Belize and Guatemala, the Mopans are one of the 28 subethnic groups of the Maya people. Roughly 10,000 people in Belize identify as Mopan, making up less than 3% of the country’s population. So the culture is closely protected by its people.

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

Santa Cruz is accessed via a rough, unpaved road that winds through mountains to open up to a small valley. Here, tight-knit communities living in thatched-roof dwellings grow maize, potatoes and cacao.

It’s a lifestyle that has remained almost unaltered for centuries, partly through choice and partly by circumstance. Their very existence revolves around a daily commune with nature, their routines dictated by the seasons.

Santa Cruz is a Mopan Maya community in southern Belize.

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 with the crow of the family’s cockerel, and his days are dependent on what needs to be done at that point in the year. Perhaps he is helping a neighbor rethatch their roof, harvesting maize or planting seeds for the fall. Their way of life is determined by the land and the sky, which can be a blessing and a curse, particularly now they are surviving in a world ruled by technology.

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

Electricity comes with its own set of challenges.

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

“Our way of life here is very sheltered from the rest of the world,” says Mes. “We have had to fight hard to protect our land and our homes here, and as the world is changing rapidly, it is becoming even more difficult to do so.”

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

In Mes’ home, a large circular structure topped with a reed-woven roof, his wife tends to a small fire while she tears off chunks the size of her palm from a large ball of white maize dough. 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 up to tourists, which he does with careful planning and the help of Bruno Kuppinger, a German tour guide that has been working in Belize for 25 years, he is keen to give them an immersion into his community’s everyday life.

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

Women in the community make food from what is grown on the land, including corn tortillas, which are eaten with almost every meal.

Fears about unchecked tourism

Mes and his family benefit from bringing tourists into their homes, but they are aware of the pitfalls, too.

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

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

Belize’s Ministry of Tourism is planning wide-scale expansion of transportation infrastructure in the region, with the hopes of bringing more tourists to Toledo, the southern district bordering Guatemala.

Currently, many of the 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 connections into the country,” says Anthony Mahler, Belize’s minister of tourism. “[We also need] to invest in the infrastructure that supports tourism, such as hotel rooms, roads leading to archaeological sites and national parks.”

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

“Obviously you need to focus on the sustainability of our cultures, natural resources and train our people to ensure that they are prepared to work in the tourism industry at a high level,” Mahler adds. “We’re updating our sustainable tourism master plan, which guides what we do to deal with modern-day issues.”

Maize dough is wrapped in a large leaf to keep it fresh.

‘I am a little worried’

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

“I think realistically nothing is going to happen within the next five to 10 years,” Kuppinger says. “But the Mayan villages definitely need some sort of protection.

“I am a little worried that Toledo may be the next emerging destination, and there won’t be the safeguarding in place to stop just anybody from visiting the villages.”

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

“We believe we have enough quality guides to lead tours in these [Maya] communities,” Mahler adds. “And the infrastructure that would be needed for hundreds or thousands of people to go into that area is simply not there. So by the nature of the lack of infrastructure, you’re not going to see that level of tourism activity in those communities like Santa Cruz.”

Engaging visitors with the Maya way of life helps preserve their own traditions, but it is a delicate balance against the threat of overtourism. It is a story that is happening the world over.

“We are moving more into the modern world because our way of life is so difficult to sustain in the times we live in,” Mes says. “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.”

If handed delicately and sensitively, however, the business of tourism 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 am not against people visiting our village, I enjoy the conversations and the connections.

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

Top image: A bird’s eye view of the jungle in Belize’s Toledo district. (Courtesy Lucy Sherriff)