Belize: Just the spot for an idler Indiana Jones
By Charles Nevin
What, exactly, are your requirements for a jungle holiday? Just a machete, a dugout, a couple of reliable bearers and a packet of Lucky Strikes for applying the business ends to leeches? Or do you want something a little, well, less of a jungle out there?
My thoughts on this were clarified as I was paddling my canoe along the Macal River. I was admiring the deep surrounding greenery and my increasingly assured bladework, until the guide confided that some forthcoming rapids might be a touch testing. Rather than feel a rising thrill, I instantly became nostalgic for the splendidly appointed accommodation and interesting tropical cocktails I had so recently been enjoying.
The rapids proved more contrary current than raging, rock-infested waters. Nevertheless, our guide, Brian, sensitive to his clientele, suggested a U-turn.
We began a gentle drift back to the next cocktail through a bosky, dusky tranquillity, broken by a flash of flying colour from a hummingbird, howler monkeys noisily living up to their name, and a golden-fronted woodpecker having a last few taps before knocking off for the day.
Welcome to Chaa Creek, Belize, formerly British Honduras, up near the border with Guatemala. Chaa Creek has several descriptions: jungle resort, jungle lodge, adventure centre, rainforest reserve. And that’s before you add in herbal medicine trail, Mayan farm and natural history centre.
It is the sort of combination that leads you to paraphrase the question so famously asked by Mr Loyd Grossman: what kind of a person runs a place like this? Two, actually: an Englishman and an American woman in a lively partnership characteristic of relations between these two great countries.
Mick and Lucy Fleming met fruit-picking in Kent in the early Seventies. Lucy, from New Jersey, was going around the world, as you did. Mick had been the road manager for an east African rock band and lived with the Maasai, as you did, and was going back, until he met Lucy. In 1977, they were on their way to Argentina when they met a man in a bar in Belize City who had a run-down 140-acre farm to sell.
Mick is from a Sussex farming family. He and Lucy started growing vegetables and then added dairy products, selling them in the nearest town, San Ignacio, six miles away. Travellers of the relaxed variety heard about them, and began trekking to visit, often helping out. The farmhouse became too small to accommodate everyone – Mick and Lucy had also produced a boy and a girl – and so a guest cottage was built and the Lodge at Chaa Creek was born.
More than 20 cottages have followed. The Flemings’ kitchen and its table have been replaced by a bar and restaurant. There is a conference room and a swish spa. Trails have been cut for trekking, cycling and riding. There are more than 100 staff, including Brian and fellow guides expert in the local fauna and flora, and that exotic species, the tourist.
So: old hippies make good, in that accidental, serendipitous hippie way, here among the bougainvillea, the frangipani and the visiting toucans? Not quite. Lucy is a bit too American no-nonsense for that. Mick, a big man with a voice and manner honed by Repton, is very clear he is not “some huge tree-hugger”. And then there was the work involved. No road, for example: all trips to the market were made by canoe. Mick had to carry water up from the river: “Sixteen to 20 trips a day, with two five-gallon buckets… exceptionally good for the fitness levels.”
Plumbing arrived in 1985, the first hot shower three years later. In 1983, the Flemings had a visit from some British Army engineers (the Army has maintained a presence in Belize since the country became independent in 1981 for training and security purposes). The engineers volunteered for some practice: Chaa Creek is now connected to the outside world by an impressive bit of track which could happily accommodate a convoy.
As you can see, the Flemings like a challenge. Among other things, they have fostered eight Belizean children. Despite Mick’s unease with labels, they are committed to proving that tourism can provide employment and protect the environment. Few hotels supply rooms with a chrysalis that you can watch turning into a brilliant blue butterfly; it certainly beats cable.
Few hotels sponsor so many community projects, or employ so many more members of staff than strictly necessary. But then few hotel owners charge around the grounds in a little Japanese 4 x 4 accompanied by an elderly Labrador and a frisky Pomeranian.
It would be easy to describe the Flemings as some sort of neocolonialists. But almost everyone in Belize is a colonialist of some sort. The original Maya inhabitants declined, probably in the face of cataclysmic climate change, leaving behind a small number of descendants. They were joined over the past centuries by a rich mixture of accidental, adventurous and forced immigrants whose progeny have produced an even richer mixture.
The first newcomers were English buccaneers, followed by loggers, slaves, sons and daughters of the Empire, refugees from disappointing lives and inimical regimes, and even a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, the enterprising Lord Ashcroft, who famously based his financial services operation in Belize City.
On our Sunday at Chaa Creek, a family arrived for lunch – father and son in neat, short-sleeved shirts and dungarees, mother and daughter in spotted frocks. They were members of the strict Protestant Mennonite sect, and looked like a throwback to the American Midwest of the Fifties. It was during this decade that Mennonites first arrived from the United States looking for a society with fewer distractions and demands on their simple lives.
The Mennonites have prospered in Belize. But the old enemy, change, keeps on. Many are becoming more outgoing, more secular; and, in one of those little ironies in which the Great Scriptwriter seems to specialise, oil has been discovered on Mennonite land. It seems a wider symptom and symbol for Belize. Already, despite much opposition, which included the Flemings, a big hydroelectric dam has been built for the government upstream on the Macal River. Carbon footprints threaten nothing more closely than tourism, which accounts for one fifth of Belize’s gross domestic product.
The Flemings remain indefatigable. Mick, now 60, has just bought his first microlight. They were building a grand new swimming pool while we were there. He was also engaged in constructing a lake and finding a Mayan family to run his organic farm in the traditional way.
If you and your family, like mine, prefer jungle light to jungle heavy, this could be the place for you. There are instructive outings rather than extreme sports, as well as bird watching, night walks to spot kinkajou and armadillo, and Mayan ruins from which to gaze across to the temples of Xunantunich and think ozymandian thoughts. (Trips are also available to the mighty Tikal across the Guatemala border). And I did have another moment of excitement, when I almost turned the canoe over trying to disembark. Fortunately, Brian was up to it, as you would expect from a former member of the Belizean special services.
Some may prefer the anonymity of a less proprietorial enterprise. It is true that Chaa Creek does have an entertaining touch of (an efficiently run) Fawlty Towers about it: slight differences of approach between Mick and Lucy were entertainingly demonstrated by a handrail that was repeatedly repainted in the favoured shade of each until it was removed altogether.
But they did sit happily in the company of my 13-year old, and submitted enthusiastically to my 17-year old’s repertoire of magical effects, including his famous watch-stopping trick. And Lucy showed Sybil-like perspicacity in divining instantly that the more bracing (and economical) jungle experience of the River Camp (simpler cabins, shared shower and lavatory blocks, hurricane lamps) would not be “quite right” for us. The look, too, on Mick’s face as he mentioned that some guests had complained about gecko droppings from a cabin’s thatched roof was uncannily Basil-esque: “What do they expect? It’s the jungle!”
There again, you might be attracted by the celebrity of Francis Ford Coppola, the film director and Central America’s most famous hotelier, who has two well-regarded establishments in Belize. I think I prefer Mick’s style: when he entertained Mr Coppola to dinner, he forgot the great man’s connection with Apocalypse Now and confided, as loudly and endearingly as usual, “Christ! Slept straight through that one!