When you hear the word village, what do you think of? Do you picture thatched huts with dirt floors? No indoor plumbing, electricity, or communication with the outside world? Naked children running around and no cars? That is what our family experienced during our 4 day Mayan home-stay in Belize…and you can too!
It’s a place where many people live their entire lives without leaving the village, something that us travelers cannot begin to imagine. As travelers we reach out, search for and embrace new experiences. Most of the village people know what has been passed down to them from their community, which is an extraordinary amount of knowledge of plants, nature, farming and nutrition. Life for some of them outside the village is unimaginable. The short time that we experienced living with a Mayan family in Southern Belize was eye-opening, educational and, of course, fun.
We’d like to share with you some of what we experienced and what you can expect if you participate in a Mayan Homestay Program in Belize.
Mayan Home Construction
The typical Mayan home is basic, dark and solely designed for function. It is not going to win any design awards from HGTV, but it does work in harmony with the jungle that surrounds it. Nothing is wasted and everything is functional. Almost all the materials to build the house are grown on the property.
Most Mayan homesteads are set up with at least 2 home structures. One is the cooking house and the other is the sleeping house (those are my terms). It’s a good design actually. The kitchen is where a fire is kept lit, so it tends to be warm, something you don’t need in the tropical jungle. By separating the two spaces, the sleeping area is kept cool and smoke free.
The walls of the houses are simply constructed with wood planks that don’t fit together tightly, but they don’t have to. The roof is constructed with Cohune Palm leaves and will last 5-7 years. Cohune palms grow all over our family’s property. It’s a sustainable way to build and creates a beautiful naturally geometric, albeit dark, interior ceiling. There is also another palm with leaves that will last 25 years but it is not as plentiful. So, similar to asphalt roofing, they have a 7 year and a 25 year option.
The height of the walls on the houses are constructed for a typical Mayans, short! Even at K’s stature of 5’8″, he had to duck through doorways and roof overhangs. There were even areas that if he had not ducked, serious head damaged could occur – nails sticking out, low hanging sheet metal. But he got used to walking around bent over.
The kitchen is the heart of any home. The Mayan kitchen is purposefully minimal. It looks nothing like a westerners kitchen. There are no cabinets, no tables, no chairs. The heart of the kitchen is the traditional Mayan cooking stove. It has three sections, each of which can hold a wood burning fire. Mayan women do all of the preparing and cooking of food. They squat down, sometimes on a little stool, to work by the fire making fresh corn tortillas or stirring soup. If larger fires are needed when cooking for big groups, they just go right outside the kitchen and build a fire or two.
The sleeping house had a large open area with hammocks hanging from the posts and 2 partially sectioned off rooms for beds. Whenever extended family came to stay they would sleep in the hammocks and children on the floor. It was dark inside with the only light during the day was coming from the open doors, the open areas in the roofline, and the cracks between the boards on the walls. At night, the only light came from a single bulb hanging from an extension cord. Many times the floor is dirt but our family had upgraded from dirt to concrete. Little do they know that concrete floors are the new thing in high end construction in the US.
Where we slept:
We were expecting to sleep in hammocks, but our family had a full size bed available for us: a thin piece of foam with a sheet on a wooden base and a beautiful lace mosquito curtain over it. It was comfortable and we were grateful. I’m not really sure how we would have slept on hammocks with our 2 kids, but we were totally open to it.
Oh geez. A muddy dirt trail led to the unmistakeable scent of The Outhouse. I’m not sure I want to explain more…an outhouse is an outhouse. It stinks, you hope no one has ‘messed’ the seat and you get in and out as fast as you can. Enough said.
We did miss the conveniences of indoor plumbing, that was the biggest thing. Walking across the mud just to pee in an outhouse became a chore, especially when trying to potty train a 1 year old. Brushing our teeth in a cup of water to avoid going to “the pipe” at night, and waiting until someone finished dishes or laundry to shower, was a little inconvenient, but I guess we are spoiled that way. It felt like we were camping.
The Food We Ate
We had a subtle variety of food during our Mayan Homestay.
Corn tortillas were freshly made three times a day, just like everyday. For breakfast, we had beans or eggs with tomato and onion, all served with corn tortillas. For lunch and dinner they typically have rice and beans and tortillas with an occasional chicken, but since we were there during a celebration there was plenty of pork and chicken. One day they made a “local” chicken, or one that they raised. The texture and taste was far different than typical commercial chicken. It had a tougher, meatier texture and flavor that we really enjoyed. We also found the food to have a little spice to it, which we really enjoyed. They cook a lot with local peppers.
Caldo (Pork Stew) was prepared for the celebration (more on this later).
Poch, similar to tamales, but the masa is fermented and then steamed in a large tub. They way the women knew they were done was from the smell and the sound. Poch eaten alone is super bland, but when used as a side item for the spicy caldo is a perfect balance to the meal.
Cocao drink: Far and away, the Mayan Cacao drink was our favorite. Cacao beans are ground and then mixed with hot water and a little sugar. It wasn’t rich like hot chocolate, the chocolate flavor was subtle. The Mayans drink this throughout the day to sustain their energy and it works well. It is normally drank out of a natural cup made from a squash type fruit called Kalabash.
Most meals were eaten around the fire in the kitchen, in one of the many hammocks, or on a bucket. We were special guests, so a small child-like table was given to us to eat on.
The Mayan people are a very kind, soft spoken, and reserved type of people. We felt very welcome in their home and were treated with care. Many of them do speak English and were open to talking with us and sharing their experiences in life and of the village. The native Mayan language is Ketchi.
The children were also very quiet and reserved. There was no running around screaming and yelling that you would find with other cultures. They all were very behaved and each had their chores for the house. They also sat quietly during meal time and finished their food.
Our family’s mother was amazed at the way we parented our children with no yelling and no swatting. She was also amazed that K did the packing. In the Mayan culture, the women do all the packing.
The life of the man in the family revolves around maintaining the property, farming, hunting, and fishing. They work long hours each day, taking Sunday off.
Things around the house were minimal, but there were some things that surprised us. The women are always in the kitchen preparing the next meal and the men, on their day off or evenings, are lounging in hammocks in the sleeping house. Sort of like many households in the US. Also similar to the US, which surprised us, was that the men and children were gathered around a TV watching B rate war movies with a DVD player, no cable here.
And speaking of hammocks, we Americans mostly use them for relaxing and napping, especially by the beach under some palm trees. The hammocks in the Mayan home are used as couches, chairs, beds, and cribs.
To keep some food longer and drinks cold, our family had a small chest freezer in the corner of the sleeping house.
Although the family we stayed with did not own a car, there were quite a few other homes that did have a car or two out front.
Water – Until recently, each home had a well with a hand pump in the front yard, where buckets would be filled and brought back to the house. Now, they have built a community well that pumps water from the ground into large tanks then gravity feeds it to all the houses. The water comes out in the back yard at “The Pipe”, the only water source at the house. Each home pays $10 BZ per month for water, unless you own a car then it is $15 BZ per month.
Electricity – Electricity comes from Mexico and is distributed by a local commercial utility company and each house is metered. Very little electricity is used in the house. The only uses we saw were two light bulbs, the TV and DVD player, a radio, and the small chest freezer.
Telephone/Cable/Internet – These utilities are not yet available in the village. The local chocolate store and restaurant had a satellite for internet.
Cell Phone – We were able to get a signal from a few spots in the village, but it was very weak.
There were quite a few animals running around the property which kept G and I entertained during our stay. Many chickens with little chicks, pigs with a ton of little piglets that roamed around the yard and the village.
Even though most Mayan families survive on the land around them, they still need money for other things they cannot grow, raise, or make. Money is needed for utilities, grinding corn, and transportation. Our family raised pigs and chickens to sell, but they had also built a little store in front of the cooking house and sleeping house to create some additional income. They sold flour, rice, beans, aspirin, drinks, and some other little commodities. We did not see many customers come but I’m sure it provided a little.
Visit a Mayan Village in Belize
We were lucky enough to have a Mayan friend that invited us to spend time with his family. But if you are interested in visiting a Mayan Village in Belize, please contact the Toledo Ecotourism Association (aka: TEA Belize). TEA organizes homestays in remote Mayan villages and is committed to spreading income among all participants while funding community development. 80% of the fee goes directly to the service providers family, 10% to the village healthcare and education and 10% to operating expenses.
Where: Near Punta Gorda, Belize.
How to get there:
BY BUS: The bus is a 6 hour ride from Belize City to Punta Gorda ($22 bzd). The Mayan Village bus (named Bobby’s Bus) only runs Monday-Wednesday-Friday from Punta Gorda. Coordinate with TEA Belize to make sure you’ll be able to get to your village homestay. Otherwise, you’ll have to spring for a taxi.
FLY: Punta Gorda has a small airstrip with flights from TropicAir and MayaAir.
What to bring:
Bring your basics and travel light: clothes, personal hygiene items, hiking boots & mosquito repellant (if you want to explore the area) and a water bottle.
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