A History of Toledo District, Belize
Are you aware of the fact that 45 nations throughout the globe are home to cities named “Toledo?” History suggests that the original city of Toledo was either in Portugal or Spain, so as both nations gained footholds in the Western Hemisphere, the name Toledo was chosen by settlers as an homage to their European homeland. In fact, the U.S. has 11 Toledos and Columbia has 5.
Belize is no exception, but the name Toledo is more than a city; it’s an entire district. Toledo District is home to so many cultures, other Toledo cities couldn’t compete if they tried. Societies represented in this comparably small district include Mopan and Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, Kriol, East Indians and Chinese, each culture proud to call the rugged Maya Mountain uplands and the wet coastal lowlands home.
Intuition may reveal this district’s roots. This southern Belize area’s earliest inhabitants were ancient Mayas, thus a wealth of ruins testify to the district’s ancient past. Included in the mix are Uxbenka (“The Old Place), perched on a hill outside Santa Cruz Village, Nim Li Punit (“Big Hat”) — only discovered in the 1970s and an epicenter of stele — and Lubaantun (“Place of the Fallen Stones”). Based on design, artifacts and architecture found at Lubaantun, historians believe that this was most likely the religious, administrative, political and commercial center of the region.
Once abandoned by the Maya, these cities were reclaimed by Mother Nature who lavished a dense jungle canopy over the landscape, hiding these exotic locations from view. By the time explorers and colonizers gained a footing in Central America, the few members of the Chol society who were the direct descendants of the Maya had immigrated, been enculturated or wiped out by diseases conquistadors brought to the New World.
Because jungle had reclaimed those magnificent cities and buildings, Toledo remained a hidden empire of treasures until the mid-1800s when the Garifuna people arrived on the southern shore of Belize and claimed the land as their own. Punta Gorda, Punta Negra and Barranco were all founded by Garifuna who brought their unique ethnic heritages — comprised of Carib Indian and African Black roots and traditions — to the area.
Most people don’t realize that after the U.S. Civil War, Confederate soldiers fled the U.S. and came to the Toledo area beginning in 1868. While the district flourished as a direct result of a burgeoning sugar industry that sprung up due to the agricultural promise of the land, this industry only thrived for few short years, ultimately collapsing due to labor shortages around the start of the 20th Century.
These days, visitors to Toledo are impressed by this exotic area’s history because it’s filled with migrations, the inclusion of new members of migrating Maya families who had settled outside the nation and that wonderland of ruins. Communities continued to spring up throughout the lowlands and along Toledo’s web of rivers, many fed by the Caribbean Sea.
Having already cited the diverse cultural mix of the people who live in this district today, it should come as no surprise that Toledo District hosts more than 30 thriving communities, most located along the coastline. Each of these villages is unique and testifies to the nation’s willingness to become a melting pot of cultures, but it’s the beauty and history found within this district that visitors and historians prize most.