Saving A 3000 Year Old Culture - An Unexpected Meeting

The silhouette against a shimmering sea, which started as a spec in the far off distance, was now right before us. Who was she? Where did she come from? What was her story? The questions were ripples in an ocean of curiosity. In silence, she dropped her heavy rucksack – it was obvious she had been on a long journey. Her skin was a dark Bordeaux, her clothes bright blue. Holding her back, she took a final step forward, pulled back her head band and with a friendly smile, in a gentle voice, simply said… “hello”.

Santa Ical from Big Falls, Belize.

We met Santa Ical on that humid, scorching day, walking along the shoreline in Belize. She was already into her sixties – a real Mayan elder from the village of Big Falls in the southern Belizean district of Toledo. Her ancestors had ruled southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador from 2000 BC until the late 17th century. Although their civilization came to pass, the Mayan culture survived to this very day, preserved within remote villages scattered throughout the region.

The Mayan’s are too often portrayed as barbarians. The movies have embedded within us images of naked men, adorned with feathers and animal bones, standing atop stone temples, holding bleeding, still beating, human hearts. But the truth is far from this fiction. The Mayans were a highly advanced culture of mathematical scholars, astronomers, botanists and doctors. They lived in peace with nature and had the highest respect for their environment – a civilization that created a star calendar more accurate and precise than our current 24-7-365 system – with a complex social structure that thrived for more than 3000 years. They were anything but barbarians.

Their dominance ended with the coming of European conquerors and in a short span of time, most of the once bustling stone cities and temple complexes were abandoned. The Mayans that survived fled deeper into the jungles. Their customs and ancient wisdom was rapidly fading and seemed destined to be forever buried in time.

However, the tough Mayan people did not give up on their ancestral legacy. They continued to make arts and crafts in an effort to preserve their way of life, history, spiritual beliefs, and legends – an active struggle ongoing for the past 300 years. Today, Santa is of the older generation of these cultural freedom fighters. She makes and sells handcrafts – and is now already teaching her granddaughters how to carry on the tradition.

Weaving bracelets and making ornaments to sell along the beaches is her only source of income. Her husband, Felipe, is sick with an undiagnosed lung condition and can no longer work. She told us he had been employed on an orange farm, spraying chemicals, which they blame for his now worsening condition. She works 6 days a week with her daughter-in-law Balbina and her grandchildren, Marleni and Jenifer. On the 7th day, they all leave their village at 4:45am to make a 3-hour journey by bus, hitchhike and on foot to the coast where they try to sell what they can. Even Felipe does his best to contribute by carving wood into bowls and symbolic figures.

It’s a rough journey and the only food they have with them are some empty tortilla wraps. Often this is their entire meal for the day.

From left to right: Balbina Ical, Jenifer Ical, Santa Ical & Marleni Ical.

Few foreigners have the opportunity to witness their way of life. In their communities they still live close to how their ancestors did all those years ago. Their homes have hand-made thatched roofs with one or two walls, but mostly completely open – rarely can you spot a door.

They have no fear of theft or crime as they all live together in mutual respect and harmony. They grow most of their own food on the green land around their homes and you often see chickens running freely from house to house – who they specifically belong to is anyone’s guess. They do have electricity, and water is supplied to the villages, but it is too expensive for them – they still prefer to wash in their pristine unpolluted rivers. As we were passing by we saw a group of 5 or so children joyfully jumping and swimming in the crystal clear flowing waters – shouting excitedly to each other in their native tongue.

Jenifer Ical, Santa's granddaughter, 9 years old, likes The Little Mermaid... with Dimi.

They have so very little, yet their smiles paint a picture of calm content.

We could not help but admire how courageous and tough these people are. In the face of hardship, they remained at all times so polite, so kind-hearted and friendly and so positive. It was a truly humbling experience never to be forgotten.

Marleni Ical, Santa's granddaughter, 12 years old, wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

Upon saying our farewells, Marleni thanked us for buying her crafts as it was the only way she could help her mother earn enough money to buy them much needed school supplies. She explained that this was one of the biggest problems for the children in her village.

Thank you, Ical ladies of Big Falls, for allowing us a glimpse into your lives. Our thoughts will always be with you.


Before leaving we wrote down our new friends’ postal address and we’ll be putting together a bunch of school supplies to send to their village, which they can share amongst all the children. If you would like to help Jenifer, Marleni and their young friends that are struggling to gain an education, you can do the following:

(1) Get whatever school supplies you can together (a list of recommended items can be found below). Used or new. It all helps.

(2) Take a photo of yourself with what you are donating and email it to us: We'd love to feature you in a follow up post!

(3) Mail the supplies directly you:

Santa Ical & Family
Big Falls Village
Toledo District
Punta Gorda Post Office


  • Notebooks
  • Backpacks / book bags
  • Calculators
  • Pencils / Pens / Colored Pencils / Crayons
  • Rulers
  • Erasers
  • Pencil Cases / Boxes
  • Graph paper / square paper
  • Pencil Sharpen
  • Dictionaries

In the end, anything you feel like giving will be much appreciated and will be received with immense gratitude.

Thank you. Together we can make the world a happier place.


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