memorable, comfortable, affordable ... Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize

responsible tourism...

So what is it? Responsible tourism means different things to different people - eco-lodges, recycling, low-impact, environmentally-friendly to name but a few! In this age of 'green-washing' it's easy to get confused, but it involves a lot more than simply switching to energy-saving lightbulbs. A large part of our personal approach was learned from our parents and grandparents who, having lived through a world war, rationing, and a struggling economy, simply called it 'not wasting anything' and 'being a good neighbour'!

Our philosophy at Hickatee Cottages is one of minimal impact to the environment, and maximum benefit to our adopted community. We are committed to providing guests and visitors with a sustainable, quality product that protects the environment and conserves natural resources, whilst promoting and protecting the local culture and economy. We reduce, re-use, and re-cycle wherever and whatever possible, and care deeply about our adopted homeland.

We have participated in Programme for Belize's implementation of Rainforest Alliance's "Best Management Practices" and have seen a 22% increase in our 'green' score over the past 18 months. We have also been assessed by WholeTravel.com, receiving 4.5 feathers out of a maximum 5. Recent improvements include our new formalised composting system, and the elimination of plastic water bottles (which are not recyclable in Belize). Having unearthed our fabulous 'grolsch-top' adapters purchased many years ago in France, we now re-cycle our empty bar spirit bottles into water bottles for use in the cottages and the restaurant, and provide guests with insulated sports bottles for use on day-trips, and unlimited free water refills.

Ian is still working with Renco Batteries in Belize City to try and introduce a battery re-cycling scheme in Toledo, although the purchase of old batteries by a Guatemalan salvage operation (albeit with no evidence of appropriate disposal of acid) has seriously hindered progress. We shall keep on trying!

Exterior and bathroom lights are now all replaced with energy-saving bulbs, and we have fitted a water meter. The majority of our water is now supplied by rainwater collection, with the well supply used as a back-up, and the meter will help us to identify whether there are any leaks. So far, our average water consumption per person comes out slightly more than the UK average consumption per person, but considering we have significantly more laundry and washing-up than the average household, isn't a bad start!

The second Toledo Cacao Festival (see www.ToledoChocolate.com), with its aim of promoting responsible tourism within the Toledo District, was a huge success attracting many domestic and international visitors, and generating considerable cultural awareness and pride, particularly with the special performance of the Deer Dance. Plans are now underway for CacaoFest 2009 , working with many groups and individuals in Toledo, as well as the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH).


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Power system
Renewable energy is an important part of our philosophy and we continually strive to reduce our use of non-renewable energy. Our power system is a combination of three sources - solar panels, a battery-invertor system, and a generator (required by Belize hotel legislation). The generator is run for a minimum number of hours each day - usually two hours in the morning, and around three hours in the evening. We endeavour to carry out all our 'power-hungry' tasks (such as laundry and ironing, pumping of water into the site's holding tank, and the use of power tools) whilst the generator is on, so as to maximise its use and minimise fuel consumption.

Additionally, whilst running, the generator charges up a bank of deep-cycle batteries, and it is this battery bank that supplies power to the site for the majority of each day, with additional charge supplied from our solar panels. Since opening in November 2005 we have successfully reduced our generator useage from an average of ten hours per day to less than six hours each day, through efficient use of the generator, the installation of our battery-invertor system, and the more recent addition of the solar panels, nicely timed to coincide with the start of the rainy season! As they burn out, we are now replacing the majority of our light bulbs with 'energy saving' bulbs.

We ask guests to help conserve battery power by switching off fans and lights when they are not in their cottages, and by using hairdryers and other 'power-hungry' items only when the generator is running. We are happy to offer a laundry service, but only when the generator is running and when there is sufficient washing for a 'full load'.

Water system
Unlike many parts of the world, water supply really is not a problem in Toledo! The District averages in excess of 150 inches of rain annually (thankfully the vast majority of it at night), and we have a 100 feet well which supplies us with 10 gallons of water each minute even through the dry season. We are mindful, however, of our water consumption because whatever is used has to be disposed of!

The cottages, bar-restaurant, and our own house each have their own water treatment systems, with grey water being filtered through a leach field planted with bananas, and the black water treated in a rotoplas 'biodigestor' septic system. The septic system consists of two chambers, the first of which contains cut plastic bottles (a good use for the 'Crystal' water bottles we used to purchase) and where the microbial action breaks down the waste, which then passes through to a second chamber which eventually filters clear water through to the leach field.

Our water heaters, efficiency-tested shower heads, and hot taps are sited as close together as possible, and water heaters are switched off when the cottages are not occupied. 

Our gardens are landscaped with local plants hardy enough to withstand the dry season, and therefore do not require irrigation. The only area of our land which we irrigate is our small farm, and this is is carried out by the regular 'draining' of our reserve tank, which forms part of our preventative maintenance plan.

Our policy is to change linen and towels every three days, unless otherwise requested. We ask our guests to be mindful of their water consumption, to turn off taps when not required, and to report any leaks immediately.

The environment
We have re-developed only a small portion of our land (15%) which was cleared some years earlier for small-scale farming, and this area was cleared entirely by hand so as to retain the maximum number of trees which had re-grown over the 5+ year period. The lion's share remains in its original natural state, and we allow no logging, hunting, or fishing. In addition, our night-watchman deters poachers on adjoining land.

We are growing trees for re-planting both on our land and neighbouring land to maintain a wildlife 'corridor', including rosewood, marimba tree, swamp cauwey, and other butterfly food plants such as the 'hot lips' found on our jungle trails.

We use a minimum of agricultural and horticultural chemicals on our farm and, where choice exists, purchase products that are least harmful to the environment, such as neem-based pesticides. Garden and appropriate kitchen waste is composted, and additional organic matter is provided by rice waste from the local mill. The exceptionally acidic forest soil is corrected through the use of 'Punta Gorda dolomite', allowing vital nutrients to be released to the plants. We use only natural cleaning products, including vinegar, citrus oil products, and bicarbonate of soda, or environmentally friendly biodegradable products.

We provide the use of free bikes for our guests, encourage them to 'tread lightly' and not to remove any items from their home - whether seashells and fragements of coral on the Cayes, pieces of pottery at the Mayan sites, or plants, seeds or flowers from the bush. It may be something of a cliche, but "take only pictures, leave only footprints" is a fairly good start. We also have a range of books on Belize's flora and fauna, including field guide laminated sheets for guests to take on our trails for easy identification purposes!

Recycling
We recycle wherever and whatever possible, whether natural products or man-made: our log bridge was formed from the 'waste' of an illegally logged tree, as were our woodland seats, and smaller creek bridge, with the much smaller pieces of 'waste' wood being transformed into orchid baskets. Our guest house and trail signs come from cross-sections of a small rosewood blown down in heavy winds.

Some of our cohune nuts are donated to an organisation in Placencia which is developing soap using only natural ingredients, leaving more than enough nuts to feed the gibnuts and agoutis on our land.

The majority of our glass bottles are recyclable in Belize, and are returned to the local drinks' 'depot' for return to the bottling plant. Wine bottles, for which there are no formal recyling facilities, are donated for botttling coconut oil, or aken to a small store in town where they are sold at minimal cost for bottling locally-produced honey and home-made wine, or to the Mayan ladies who use them as fish traps, by making a hole in the 'dimple' at the bottom of the bottle where the fish can swim in, but cannot swim out again! Our few non-recyclable plastic bottles (left by guests) are cut into strips for plant labels, or turned into sleeves for young trees in yet another experiment to deter the leaf cutter ants and head them off to the hibiscus hedges that they love! Milk bottles are sterilised and donated to a local Mennonite family for bottling their own milk.

Paper is recycled wherever possible, with printer paper saved and the reverse side used, and subsequently donated, along with all our newspapers, for craft projects. Egg cartons are returned to our local grocer, and also used as soundproofing for the generator room.

Plastic bags are washed, sterilised and re-used wherever possible, and we donate any 'spare' bags to the PG fish market. We are also working with a grocery store in town to implement a bag re-cycling scheme, where they pay a small sum for clean plastic bags, or offer a reduction in the bill in return for people re-using their own plastic bags.

Our boxed lunches are packaged in reusable plastic containers, we provide guests with jam-jar ashtrays, and ask them to bring their garbage back with them. We encourage guests to refill water bottles by providing free refills from our larger bottles which are themselves recycled by the bottling plant. 

Sophisticated waste management systems are not available in Belize, and we are constantly mindful of the 'cradle to grave' principles with our waste management systems.

Local community and culture
The many unique and diverse cultures that exist in Toledo are fragile, and have already been impacted through inter-group marriage, the increasing levels of secondary and tertiary education, migration to town, US cable TV and the numbers of family members living abroad, as well as the former long-term British Army Presence.

We are committed to raising awareness and educating our guests in the different local cultures, and the impact that their presence may have. We do feature Garifuna music nights at Hickatee Cottages, as part of effort to help preserve the culture in 'Peini' (the Garifuna name for their original settlement of ' Punta Gorda') and raise awareness of their rich heritage. Traditional cultural events are not 'staged' however, and should our guests be privileged enough to be invited to attend a local Dugu ceremony, or to view the Mayan Deer Dance, we advise them of their expected behaviour and especially in not taking photos or videos of these events.

We have established a small but growing library of books on Belizean and Toledo history and culture, both fiction and non-fiction, with diverse titles from the "Chravl Buk enna Kriol ahn Inglish" (a Kriol-English travel dictionary!) to Zoila Ellis's "On heroes, lizards and passion", and Sir Colville Young (the Governor General's) "Pataki Full" to "Confederate Settlements in British Honduras".  We also feature local and Belizean art in our cottages, and Charlie's Bar. We play only Belizean music at Hickatee - from the late, great Andy Palacio to paranda, punta rock, and brukdown music. 

We are active supporters of the local community and various projects, hosting interns from the Julian Cho Technical High School twice a year, and donating to various causes (Mother's Day celebrations, PG Police Week, Education Department's School Christmas Party etc).

Purchasing
We are committed to purchasing as many goods locally as possible, and, from our accounts, estimate nearly 90% of our day-to-day requirements are purchased within 3 miles of Hickatee Cottages. We give preference to local (Toledo) and then Belizean produced goods and services, those that are environmentally friendly and from sustainable resources, and those that are eco-labelled and from socially responsible manufacturers. When we have no alternative but to buy imported goods we purchase these locally first, and nationally second, giving preference to CARICOM produced goods. Our non-local purchases include solar panels and batteries, bed linen and towels, generator and truck servicing, and building supplies for our new unit.

Our purchases cover a wide range of products from our beautiful hardwood floors (which feature mixed hardwoods from Loskot's, who are committed to the environment and use only wood from sustainable sources, including from certified forests) to the Toledo produced goods in our gift shop (such as the Mayan ocarinas which are replicas of those found at the ancient Mayan site of Lubaantun), and from our range of local spirits and wines, to the locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables purchased from PG market to supplement those grown on our farm.

We also work with local providers of goods and services to improve the range of goods available locally (such as encouraging our local grocer to become an agent for the wine merchant in Belize City), and to make products more environmentally friendly through the use of natural or recyclable packaging (such as the copal incense being wrapped in jippi-jappa leaves, and Toledo Coffee sold in brown paper bags.). Our gift shop stocks only Belizean items, and features three ranges unique to Toledo - MayaBags, handmade ocarinas, and hand-made clay necklaces.

We use only registered Belizean tour operators, who themselves employ only Belizean certified tour guides, and those who operate using responsible tourism practices.

All our income is received in, and stays in Belize. We do not transfer any money out of the country.

Employment
We consider staff training an integral element in ensuring long-term sustainability of the tourism industry in Toledo, and we are committed to training, empowering and supporting our staff in all aspects of their work.

We operate an equal opportunities policy, and employ four local permanent members of staff., as opposed to high-season only employment. We provide our staff with a safe working environment and with comprehensive health and safety training, and terms and conditions in excess of those required by legislation. They are provided with written letters of employment and employment contracts, and we strictly adhere to the employment laws of Belize.

We involve staff in both the day to day running of the business and the longer term development of our product, and support those who wish to further their education or training wherever possible. Darrell has now completed the first step of his  tour guide training processing, successfully completing his First Aid training! All staff receive training in the areas of resource conservation and environmental impact, and at least one member of staff is involved in annual reviews of policy documents, and our interim walk-through monitoring exercises. 

 

 

Only around 25% of our power comes
from our regularly serviced generator.
The majority of our power is from solar panels, and our bank of 8 deep-cycle batteries

Bananas (the world's largest herb)
are planted in our leach fields

Tree seedlings grown for re-planting
on our own and neighbouring land

Orchid baskets made of illegally logged
'waste' wood

Our log bridge - reclaimed from
the results of illegal logging

Non-recyclable bottles are used as fish
traps - at least they get one more use!

Signs are created from reclaimed
rosewood, lost in high winds

Our cottages feature mixed hardwood
floors from sustainable sources, local
Belizean art, and locally made furniture

'Garifuna night' at Hickatee Cottages
helping to preserve  the rich cultural
heritage of the Garinagu

Gloria, our former Assistant Manager (who is now training as an environmental health officer), furthering her knowledge of bats.


Meet the team! Darrell, Mel, Mr Rafel, and Mr Shal - our team who, between them (and us), keep Hickatee running. Their hours of work are designed around their other farming, education and family commitments.



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We are not saints, and constantly have to consider the requirements of our guests and the provision of a quality product, whilst endeavouring to make any impact on the environment and community a positive one.

An example of the considerations when we make any decision is in our choice of building style: our Cottages are of a traditional Caribbean-style, a part of Belize's heritage which we love, and one which is rapidly disappearing. Whilst this style does not use the traditional Maya 'thatch', that thatch itself is not necessarily sustainable and often involves bugs - literally - dropping on people's beds or in their food. The considerations therefore in reaching this decision were culture and heritage, the use of natural and sustainable materials, and guests' comfort.

Another is the use of our clothes dryer - you should sun-dry sheets and towels they cry! And give our guests scratchy towels,  stained with bird droppings, likely to mould during many months of the year before they dry, and spend more energy on ironing out creases on the sheets than the dryer takes? We operate our clothes dryer ONLY when the generator is run in the evenings, and fit laundry in around generator useage, not the other way around.

What we have tried to do is respect and improve the environment wherever possible, and integrate and actively participate in our community. Please click on the links if you would like more information on our philosophy!

Hickatee Responsible Tourism Policy

Hickatee "A to Z" information folder