Get Back to Nature
By Bob Friel
I’m certain that one of the Ancient Maya sat in this very spot above the Macal River and marveled at this same sight: a brilliantly colored toucan following a sine-wave flight path along the forest verge, its small wings battling the weight of its improbable bill.
The Maya believed that every object contained a life force and that toucans were sacred spirits, messengers between the gods and man. Inspired by this toucan’s passing in the early evening’s golden light, the Maya craftman might have begun carving its image into a limestone frieze on a ceremonial temple. As for myself, I retain just enough life force after a long day of exploring the rainforest to toast the toucan with another rum and fresh papaya, one of the bird’s favorite fruits.
Studies show that connecting with nature improves both our physical and psychological well-being. It shift the mind into a more relaxed and receptive mode than what we experience in our over-wired, work-obsessed world. The ancient Maya, who lived in harmony with the forests and rivers, offer an excellent model for a back to back nature escape. Here on the Macal River, in Western Belize, near the border town and adventure-tourism center of San Ignacio, the Maya established several settlements, each with farms, a trading post and an administrative center active during the civilization’s classic period, more than 1000 years ago. Today this site is home to Chaa Creek, one of the world’s premier Jungle Lodges.
At Chaa, it’s easy to get into the spirit of the Maya. You will reside within a sprawling village of cottages, garden villas, tentlike casitas and forest-luxe treetop suites, all topped in traditional thatch and decorated with indigenous art-work. The 365-acre property includes a farm – Worked by Maya Family who supplies organic vegetables fruits, and herbs to Chaa’s excellent restaurant – and a medicine trail, where staff naturalists introduce guests to local plants used for millennia to treat all manner of disorders. Nearly six miles of trails wind through natural areas along the river and in the forest, leading to the resort’s natural history centre, butterfly farm, and three archeological sites. Exploring just beyond the lodge’s manicured lawns by foot, horseback, mountain bike or canoe immerses you in Belize’s fabled biodiversity. Once you are inside the lush greenery of rosewood, mahogany and allspice, the jungle comes alive with the buzz of hummingbirds, the firecracker pops of white collared manikins, the hoots of motmots and the cricket like chirps of keel-billed toucans. More than 300 species of birds have been counted in and around the Chaa Creek Nature Reserve. Ocelot, coatimundi, jaguarondi, agouti, and giant iguana prowl beneath the forest canopy here in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and on other worldly night hike, our guide tickled a tarantula out of its lair while we were given a hair-raising serenade by howler monkeys and heard the peeps and shrieks of wide-eyed, nectar-gorging kinkajous high in the trees.
If you are going to use your vacation to connect with nature, you want to make sure nature’s being well taken care of. Chaa Creek was an eco lodge before the term existed. Modern eco-consciousness, though, is a far cry from a hammock and a hut, as evidenced by Chaa’s new pool and the river-view Jacuzzis in the decks of its honeymoon-happy Tree House Suites. But the lodge’s ultimate luxury is experienced at its hillside spa, where a wonderful things happens with an ancient Maya Staple.
Astronomy, art, architecture and written language aside, the Maya proved just how advanced a civilization they were by cultivating cacoa trees, and transforming the seeds into a thick elixir – a little something we call chocolate. These days, if there’s one thing that can renew your life force and shift you into a relaxed and receptive mode, it’s stripping down and communing with Belize’s natural cocoa butter as Chaa Creek’s masseuse performs a fully-body chocolate massage.