For All Points-Of-The-View.
Belizean Mennonites’ recent 60th anniversary celebration highlights the little Caribbean country’s vibrant multiculturalism and the rapid growth of cultural tourism in Belize, according to The Lodge at Chaa Creek, a Belizean eco-resort with a focus on culture.
The little nation of Belize contains many big surprises for travellers – the world’s second largest barrier reef, the towering pyramid at the ancient Maya city of Caracol, immense cave systems, abundant exotic flora and fauna, and, according to The Lodge at Chaa Creek, one of the world’s most diverse and harmonious multicultural societies.
And Belizean Mennonites’ recent 60th anniversary celebration of settling in the former British Honduras is a timely reminder of that multiculturalism, Chaa Creek’s marketing coordinator says.
Roberto Harrison explained that the anniversary celebrations, held over the weekend of 16 March 2018 in the neighbouring farming community of Spanish Lookout, highlights how well Belize’s various ethnic groups have assimilated to create one of the region’s most culturally rich nations.
“Visitors are always remarking about what a fascinating cultural melting pot Belize is,” he said.
“At Chaa Creek alone, with our 160 staff members, guests of course hear English, which is Belize’s official language, but they also overhear people speaking Creole, Spanish, Maya, Garifuna, and, when our Mennonite neighbours are visiting or making deliveries, German.
“It’s something we don’t really notice, but guests often comment on,” Mr Harrison explained.
Belize is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and also one of the most ethnically diverse. The majority of Belizeans identify as Mestizo, mixed Maya and European descent, followed by Creole. Next in numbers come the Maya, making up nearly 12% of the population, with Garifuna at 6.1%, East Indian closely followed by Mennonites (3.9% and 3.6% respectively), and then Caucasian, Asian, and “other” according to the Index Mundi 2018 profile.
Mr Harrison believes that this colourful, eclectic cultural mix contributes to Belize’s appeal as a travel destination.
“Belize was first known as a divers’ paradise, especially after Jacques Cousteau made the Great Blue Hole off our Caribbean coast famous. And then, after independence in 1981, word got out about the beautiful rainforests, the ancient temples, cities, ceremonial caves and other remnants of the ancient Maya civilisation, as well as the huge bird population, exotic wildlife and many other natural attractions.
“And then Belize’s colourful cultures began attracting attention, and cultural tourism really took off.
“People discovered that, in addition to the Maya, we have all these other cultures, each with their own unique identity and story.
“The history of the Garifuna, for example, began around 1635 when a ship full of slaves from Africa wrecked off St Vincent’s Island and the survivors swam ashore and intermarried with the indigenous Arawaks, creating a culture that was later exiled by the British colonial authorities, and against all odds, made it to Belize and prospered.
“And the Mennonites have not only survived exile and hardship, but preserved their culture, religion and language and also prospered here. Since moving to what was then British Honduras from Mexico in 1958, they’ve become part of the fabric of Belize and have made huge contributions to the country’s development,” Mr Harrison explained.
Belizean Mennonites live in communities that have their own distinctive traits, such as the conservative, non-mechanised branch in Barton Creek, whose dress and horse and buggy transportation is similar to the Amish of the US state of Pennsylvania, to the “moderately modern” Mennonites of Spanish Lookout, who use tractors, trucks and mechanised farm equipment to produce a significant share of Belize’s food.
Much of the chicken consumed in Belize comes from Spanish Lookout, as well as cheese, eggs, honey, beans, melons, corn and other produce. Ice cream is another local product, and a stop at Western Dairies to see it being made is a must for many visitors.
“Spanish Lookout is a great day trip from Chaa Creek, starting with a pleasant drive through the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, crossing the Macal River over the historical Hawkesworth Bridge, and then taking a hand-cranked ferry across the Belize River.
“It’s also a stop on our weeklong, all-inclusive ‘Belize Cultural Grand Tour’ that takes visitors from traditional Mestizo and Maya villages to Spanish Lookout and then down to the Caribbean seaside village of Hopkins for an immersive Garifuna experience. The Grand Tour is a hands-on cultural immersion where guests make tortillas and learn about other ethnic dishes, explore ancient Maya temples, see how traditional Garifuna drums are made and played, and enjoy zip-lining and a variety of activities while travelling across Belize from inland jungles to the Caribbean coast,” he explained.
Mr Harrison said Chaa Creek’s owners and staff all joined in wishing Belize’s Mennonites a happy 60th anniversary.
“I don’t think any Belizean can imagine Belize without Mennonites,” he said.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek is a multi-award winning eco resort set within a 400-acre private nature reserve along the banks of the Macal River in Belize. It was recognised by National Geographic with first place honours at the 2017 World Legacy Awards held in Berlin.