Escape the real world at a hidden jungle lodge in Toledo
Bolting upright with goose bumps and a racing heart is my least favorite way to wake up in the pitch black of a jungle night. Sweaty air and the otherworldly roar and rasp of what sounded like a T. rex synced with my marauding dinosaur nightmare. Then I remembered last night’s dinner talk about very big sounds made by very small critters. Oh, yeah. Howler monkeys.
It was a fittingly dramatic ending to my first full day in Belize, a cultural cacophony of chocolate-making with Mayans, banana-beaked toucans whizzing through 50 shades of jungle green, swimming in the dark through a giant cave, blonde Mennonites trotting their watermelon-filled horse-drawn carts along potholed roads. Then there was that caretaker at Lubaantun Mayan ruins who showed off yellowing newspaper clippings about a spooky crystal skull allegedly found amid the rubble by the daughter of an adventurous Brit named F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones character.
And this place has never been on my bucket list?
When my longtime friend, chef and food activist, Mara Jernigan, left Vancouver Island in 2011 to manage a jungle lodge for three years in Belize, I had to ask Google where that was. Before leaving the lodge in 2014, Mara finally convinced me to visit, but since she was ensconced in the remote, rural southernmost district of Toledo, I hedged my bets with a potential exit strategy of scuba diving the world’s second biggest barrier reef off Northern Belize.
I never left Toledo.
Belize is a rare English-speaking country in these Spanish-speaking parts. In the 17th century it was the pirate-haunted Spanish Main, then the British Honduras until independence in 1981. About the size of Massachusetts, it’s wedged between Mexico and Guatemala. My small plane hopscotched south from Belize City to Toledo’s Caribbean-flavoured-and-paced main town of Punta Gorda or “PG” (pop: 6000) with its funky mix of dreadlocks, expats and rickety seaside watering holes.
When I arrived it was market day, and fishermen and farmers displayed their goods in street side stalls. There were many Mayans, but also an ethnic kaleidoscope that included descendants of American Confederates, Caribbean slaves, British buccaneers, Garifuna, East Indian indentured labourers and dairy-dealing Mennonites.
Toledo is off-the-beaten-track. There are only a few B&Bs in Punta Gorda and its surrounds, as well as several farm inns at jungle locations. Come here to go exotic bird watching, saltwater fly-fishing, hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, caving, and visiting Mayan ruins and villages. I bumped along a 20-minute shuttle from PG to a hilltop perch where Mara was the general manager of Toledo’s only luxury lodge, Belcampo Belize, an agri-tourism eco-resort set amid a 5000-hectare nature reserve.
I have a pet peeve about resorts branding themselves “eco” when they simply ask guests to hang up their towels for a second use. At Belcampo, all the laundry is line-dried and the furniture crafted on-site from sustainably harvested wood. Kitchen and table waste are composted or fed to chickens and pigs residing on the resort’s farm which Mara helped set up when she first arrived. It’s the source of the organic dining room’s free-range eggs nestled alongside cinnamon-bark-house-smoked bacon, freshly squeezed orange juice and papaya marmalade. When I asked her how far my breakfast travelled to reach my plate she did a quick count: “about 500 metres.”
Roughly 70 percent of the food they put on the table is local (imported wines and spirits make up much of the rest), she told me, and what they don’t produce themselves they source from nearby farmers whose practices they know well. The resort is the region’s biggest private employer and it’s owned by Oakland-based Belcampo Inc. whose mandate it is to manage land and animals in an organic, sustainable and humane manner — and make a profit. And they’re doing it on a bigger scale than has ever been attempted before. Belcampo Belize is part of a three-country project that includes olive oil-growing in Uruguay and ranchlands near Mount Shasta in California, the source of the grass-fed, free-range meats sold in their first Belcampo butcher shop/café in Larkspur, north of San Francisco, with five more slated to open statewide by year’s end.
Next on Belcampo’s menu? Indigenous Belize products.
I signed up for the lodge’s Bean-to-Bar chocolate-making workshop. It started with plucking almond-sized beans from freshly harvested cocoa pods. Then we headed into one of three new pavilions to taste the beans throughout the entire roasting, grinding and tempering processes until we finally poured satiny liquid into our very own chocolate bar forms. Cocoa is “Mayan gold” and is still used as currency in Belize; by 2015 Belcampo will be the country’s biggest producer.
The other two pavilions will soon be used for similar hands-on workshops with estate grown coffee and sugarcane for artisanal rum — two stills are currently under construction — some flavoured with homegrown spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Working with San Francisco-based Blue Bottle Coffee and Chicago’s Vosges Chocolate, the plan is to take organic, ethically-produced high-grade rum, coffee and chocolate from the farm to the US marketplace while supporting much-needed jobs in Toledo and building a global market for Mayan products that were made in a country with no McDonalds, Walmart or Costco. “I want Belcampo to be a benchmark for success in sustainable agriculture,” said the company’s intense and passionate California-born CEO, Anya Fernald, over dinner.
Rainforest to ruins
A forgotten corner of Central America, Toledo is lucky to have retained about 75 percent of its rainforest. Drenched with an average of four metres of annual rain, it’s home to iguanas, jaguars, ocelots and more than 500 species of birds. I joined a small group of keen birders and trotted out at first light along a network of jungle trails with guide Emmanuel Chan, binoculars combing the gumbo-limbos to put faces on the avian chatter that awakened me every dawn after the monkeys had settled down. There were toucans that croaked like frogs and hummingbirds the size of chickadees aptly named melodious blackbirds. Every bit as obsessive were the early morning saltwater fly-fishermen we crossed paths with, hell bent on pursuing the elusive saltwater trio of tarpon, bonefish and permit.
Much of Toledo is protected as parks or reserves, including marine regions with lush offshore cays. Over the following days, I kayaked along the snaking Rio Grande River meandering past the base of the resort, hiked along jungle trails and lazily bird watched from the hammock on my meshed-in deck with rainforest surrounding me like wallpaper.
When Mayan guide Vince Ical took us to the ancient Lubaantun ruins we passed the welcoming Earthship Belize, a castle-like eco-house built of discarded bottles and trashed tires by a colourful expat British couple. Toledo’s end-of-the-road jungle scene attracts plenty of quirky fringe-dwellers.
“There’s Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and hippies looking for a place to live sustainably,” Dr Mandy Tsang had told me at dinner the previous night. Her partner is also a physician and they live off-the-grid themselves, supplementing their income by hand making organic soap from coconuts on their land as well as bush-distilling an innovative range of tropical alcoholic elixirs that put a kick into Belcampo’s cocktails. “There’s a lot of crazies like us down here,” she confessed.
After prowling Lubaantun’s crumbling temples and ball courts, and hearing horrid tales of human sacrifice, it was time for lunch in Vince’s own Mayan village of Blue Creek, one of 36 such villages in the region. His wife laid out a delicious traditional Belizean feast at their home. Our meal included curried heart of palm that Vince harvested himself, marinated grilled chicken thanks to the free-range backyard critters, corn from their field ground into fresh hot tortillas and homemade haberno salsa. We dined overlooking a bright turquoise stream that we then followed upstream to the gaping Hokeb Ha Cave. Slipping on life vests, we swam with headlamps into the vast cool blackness towards a small waterfall, headlamps spotlighting sparkling stalactites dangling from the high ceiling.
On another day, in the Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia, I met cocoa farmer Eladio Pop who sells much of his product to Britain’s Green & Black’s for their premium “Mayan Gold” bars. His wife and several of their 15 kids took part in roasting beans over a fire, grinding them on a stone metate that’s been handed down through generations, then passing out calabash shells filled with real-deal, genuine Mayan hot chocolate sweetened with killer bee honey. Their simple, foil-wrapped bars sprinkled with home-grown sesame seeds didn’t have the smooth mouth-melt of machine-processed chocolate, but the flavour gives the world’s best a run for its money, especially when it’s tasted so close to its source.
On my last day, I went Snorkeling With the Chef cruising down the mangrove-lined Rio Grande into the Caribbean ocean where we snorkelled and helped Captain Jackie — whose Confederate grandmother emigrated to Belize after the Civil War to grow sugarcane — free-dive for conch. Chef Brandon Genus speared two snappers and headed aboard to slice and dice while we explored the warm waters off tiny Moho Cay in the company of barracuda and sergeant majors. On the sail back, Brandon delivered conch and snapper ceviche. We scooped it up while swishing freshly picked allspice leaf around in our Mayan Sunset cocktail.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.