Discovering Monkey River and Punta Negra’s Tourism Value
The pristine sandy beaches of San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia and the inland destinations, such as the Cayo District, are known to attract visitors from all over the world. But there are other locations lesser known, that have the attributes to beckon those looking for niche tourism. This week, TIDE, invited the media for a first-hand look at the inroads the organization has made in areas such as Monkey River and Punta Negra in southern Belize. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
There’s a lot to see along the Monkey River, as it winds its way lazily downstream from the foothills of the Maya Mountains. The northern headwaters of this grand course begin in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where the Swasey Branch empties the East Basin in that nature reserve. Further south, the Bladen Branch discharges the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. Together, they combine to form Monkey River, one of Belize’s major tributaries.
Doyle Garbutt, Tour Guide, Monkey River Tours
“There’s a lot of things out here to expect, you know, there’s jaguars, pigs, deer, coatimundi, raccoons, opossums. Lots of different animals out here that you could see.”
On either side of this meandering waterway there is an abundance of wildlife. In fact, it is teeming with flora and fauna. A short distance away, a night heron is perched on a mangrove branch overlooking the murky water below. It is among several species of freshwater birds found in the area. Perhaps, what Monkey River is most famous for is its many troops of Guatemalan black howlers, an order of primates that live in this tropical evergreen forest.
It’s a call and response that our tour guide has mastered over time. Many years spent in this dense wilderness has taught Doyle Garbutt the language of the baboon.
“We do different calls and they don’t respond to it and so as we go along, you know, I try and try until eventually I get it, you know. Not everybody could do it. It’s just the monkeys that react to certain calls.”
The expanse of jungle in these parts serves as an ideal location for nature lovers.
“Along the banks of the Monkey River sits the Payne’s Creek National Park. We’re here at a monkey trail which spans four hundred yards in diameter. Inside the thick canopy are black howler monkeys and other forms of wildlife, including wild bamboo shoots.”
This protected area in the Toledo District encompasses a hundred and fifty-two kilometers of land, including the dominant broadleaf forest which stretches along the lower reaches of the Monkey River.
Visiting the eponymous coastal community for the first time is an American family that has flown into the country from the state of Virginia.
Janine Pirkle, American Tourist
“The experience was fantastic, really interesting. So our guide took us up the river and showed us… It’s phenomenal what he can see that’s right in front of us that we weren’t able to see without him; but he showed us iguanas and howler monkeys and a tarantula next to a bamboo area. It’s really remarkable.”
“In terms of the biodiversity that you guys have been able to experience here, is this something you’re gonna go back and talk to your friends in United States about?”
Kevin Pirkle, American Tourist
“Absolutely, absolutely. And I think the nicest part of it for us is the tour guides. Like, I mean, our [tour guide] Alex, grew up on the Monkey River. So he grew up here.”
It’s that sense of familiarity that is being packaged along with the sights and sounds, as well as the homeliness of this seafront locale. Monkey River is the northernmost village in Toledo District and stands as one of the last remaining Creole communities in Belize. The livelihoods here are fishing and ecotourism.
Caroline Oliver, Sales & Marketing Manager, TIDE Tours
“We’ve been looking at tourism development. So in Monkey River we’ve helped to develop nature trails and trained local guides in tour guiding.”
The Toledo Institute of Development and Environment, TIDE, has been instrumental in assisting residents of Monkey River to create a visitor experience unlike any other in this part of the Jewel.
“The more tourists we can get down here the better. We’re also, at TIDE Tours we’re diversifying our tourism market and we’ve started bringing in volunteer groups, study-abroad groups down to Toledo and when possible we bring them down into these villages too. So we’re beginning to set up kind of student projects, social projects and so through both of these new enterprises we’re able to kind of expand and open up into even more markets.”
And that’s the kind of economic stimulus that is so desperately needed in the remote seaside villages of Monkey River and Punta Negra. Once a booming town that was mostly engaged in the lumber and banana industries over a century ago, Monkey River has since been reduced to a small population of roughly two hundred and eighty-five persons. According to Garbutt, tour guiding has become the livelihood of choice.
“My dad, he first started this guiding into this area. First, I started out as a captain, you know, and as I go along I get to like this so I decided to take a course and do the tour guiding, you know. And I really love it. I like this job.”
Elsewhere on our tour, we visit Punta Negra, a fishing village with an even smaller population. There are only ten primary school students enrolled in a multi-grade system here. Adults, for the most part, have migrated to other parts of the country for job opportunities. Those who have stayed are looking at alternative livelihoods which include the manufacturing of coconut oil by fire hearth.
Martin Ack, Tour Guide, TIDE Tours
“Many people have moved out because of opportunities. There are no jobs around so they move out. So visiting these sites today, they still have lots to offer in terms of tourism. As we noticed earlier, we saw a lot of visitors in Monkey River and Punta Negra, it has a potential of that type of activity as well, especially the beach. If you may have seen the beach it’s really welcoming and then the people of Punta Negra are welcoming as well. They are more into fishing but tourism could be an alternative for them.”
The experience for these first-time visitors has been invaluable.
“We’ve got two girls with us, our daughters, ten and fourteen. And so Alex was able to tell us stories of what they did in the jungle, in the rainforest as they were playing and, you know, using the leaves as shields and showing the kids how to make it more relevant to them which was awesome.”
Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.