Mayan Pyramids, Crystal Caves and Cracking Coconuts in Belize

Alysa Landry - Tourists walk through the ruins of Xunantunich.

Alysa Landry

8 ways to encounter Native culture while visiting

Native culture thrives in Belize, a small Central American country bordering Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. Although smaller than the state of Massachusetts, Belize boasts a population of more than 300,000 people and eight distinct racial groups.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or already acquainted with Belize, here are eight ways to encounter Native culture while you’re there:

Experience the simple life on one of the many islands—or cayes—off the east coast of Belize. Opportunities abound to learn how early residents of these islands lived and explored the Caribbean coast. Book a stay at International Zoological Expeditions on South Water Caye, and learn from Mayan guides how to crack open coconuts, identify native birds and wildlife and dive near the coral reefs.

Get to know the unique Garifuna culture through dance in the coastal town of Dangriga. The Garifuna are descendants from renegade African slaves who were shipwrecked in 1675 on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. Lirahunu Satuye is a group of female dancers who tell stories about life and culture through movement, song, humor and audience participation.

Make a Mayan broom or cook tortillas on a traditional Mayan fogon at duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge in western Belize. More than one-third of this lodge’s staff is Mayan, and they are on hand to answer questions about traditional or contemporary indigenous practices.

Suffering from halitosis? Try the citron fruit. Craving chewing gum? Grab some sapodilla. Learn from experts the traditional uses for native trees and plants at Belize’s only botanic garden, located at duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge.

Shop for hand-made crafts and locally grown produce at outdoor markets like the one in San Ignacio, a village located on the banks of the Macal and Mopan rivers in western Belize. Many artisans depend on these markets to sell their wares and earn an income. Other villages like Blue Creek, in southern Belize, offer a look at Mayan populations that retain their cultural identity through isolation.

Canoe through caves used by the ancient Maya for ceremonies and other sacred purposes. At Barton Creek Cave, a guide will point out pottery shards, cathedral chambers, rock carvings and even human remains visible from the water. For the more adventurous tourists, Actun Tunichil Muknal—or Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre—offers views of skeletal remains, ceramics and stoneware, all completely calcified to the cave floor. In Mayan culture, caves often represent Xibalba, or the path to the underworld.

View threatened or endangered animals at a variety of sanctuaries. See jaguars and the rare scarlet macaw at the Belize Zoo, handle the threatened green iguana at the Green Iguana Conservation Projectand feed bananas to howler monkeys at the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

Explore the ancient past at Caracole, Xunantunich or the dozens of other archaeological sites open to the public. Climb limestone steps to the tops of ancient pyramids, tour interior rooms and view intricate carvings from the pre-Columbian period.

This in no way represents a definitive list—it only offers some ways a visitor to Belize may experience the culture while there.

This story was originally published June 11, 2014.