By Sharon Barr
Chaa Creek, Belize – A friend of mine once told me that here ex-husband, who was prone to reinventing himself, once spent a year on the beach in Belize – doing what, exactly, she wasn’t sure. Having recently returned from Belize, I can well understand the reinvention urge. During my trip, I fantasized about my transformation into a jungle explorer, rainforest activities, archaeologist, and deep-sea diver.
For the uninitiated, Belize is a Central American country about the size of Massachusetts but with a population of only 320,000, and is becoming more and more well-known because it’s a popular port for cruises. It borders the Caribbean Sea on the east, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the north, Guatemala to the west and south.
Belize also comprises more than 200 islands ranging in size from a few hundred feet to 25 miles long and four miles wide, mostly inside the 200-mile-long Barrier Reef. Once called British Honduras, the nation became independent from Britain in 1981, but is still part of the British Commonwealth.
Belize is the only Central American country in which English is the official language, and it is home to a fascinating ethnic mix: Hispanic, Creole (African-European), Mestizo (Spanish-Indian), Mennonite, Garifuna (African-Indian), Mayan, Anglo-European, Middle Eastern and Asian.
My husband, Pete, 11-year old son Adam, and I arrived in Belize with the usual luggage of Teva sandals, nylon pants that unzip to shorts, hats, and sun glasses but also carrying jaguar cub food and Easter-egg dying kits, both at the request of Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo. (More on the zoo later but call me before you pack jaguar food on you Belize trip).
We started our Belize journey at the Lodge at Chaa Creek, which bills itself as “Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa.” We took advantage of all three.
Chaa Creek, the granddaddy of Belize jungle lodges and eco-tourism, began in 1979 when, according to official history, Mick and Lucy Fleming, who still own the place, purchased an overgrown 140-acre farm from someone they met in a Belize City bar.
Farming the land led to the addition of guest cottages which led to the addition of a bar and restaurant. In the ‘80s, a road and electricity arrived, and the Flemings eventually developed a full-fledged jungle resort with nature center, butterfly farm and spa.
The Flemings are blessed with a flair for design and a gift for marketing, as well as a sense of adventure. They’ve created an inspired combination of luxurious hospitality and thatched-roof rusticity that caters to burgeoning eco-tourism.
The luxury accommodations at Chaa Creek are elegantly appointed in the landscaped and flowering grounds overlooking the Macal River. To further cultivate our new image as adventurers, however, we opted for the truly rustic, and much cheaper, accommodation alternative at Chaa Creek – the Macal River Jungle Camp.
The Jungle Camp, a 10-minute walk from the main lodge through the forest along a ridge overlooking the Macal River, comprises ten tent-cabins on stilts set back into the woods, surrounding a bonfire pit and an open-air, thatched-roof dining room. The tent-cabins have no electricity; showers and baths are in a shared building.
A Mayan local, Teodocio Juarez, attends to your needs; chats with you about Belize and its history, flora and fauna; and lights the kerosene lamps in your tent at night. His wife cooks a spicy and filling Mayan breakfast and dinner every day. The tent-cabins have comfortable twin beds and a covered porch with a brightly colored hammock.
Adams most relished the hammock after a day of activity. Although we tried reading under the kerosene lights at night, we found ourselves falling asleep not long after dark and waking up as the sun came through the canvas roof of our cabin. Most of the Jungle Camp visitors were stirring by 6:30, as they headed to early morning bird walks, hikes, caving, tubing, and visits to Mayan ruins.
Jungle Camp visitors can make full use of the rest of the lodge’s facilities; I had a relaxing facial at the spa. We rented mountain bikes and toured the environs of Chaa Creek and San Ignacio, the nearby town, under skies that were alternately not and sunny and raining.
The terrain is rolling and lush, reminding me of Lancaster County, but with palm trees. Perhaps not surprising, then, is the presence of a significant Mennonite community, whose members have become the most successful farmers in Belize.
The rainforest is a source of endless discover. It would take me far longer than a week in Belize to become nonchalant about seeing and hearing spider and howler monkeys overhead, catching brilliant glimpses of scarlet macaws and keel-billed toucans, watching practically domesticated coatimundis nosing around at our feet, and seeing a very shy tarantula peek out of its hole outside our cabin. And that was just one day.
We arranged a side-trip to Tikal, Guatemala – among the most significant Mayan temple sites in all of Central America – through Chaa Creek. At $300 per person (including lodging and meals), the trip wasn’t cheap, but we soon identified its value.
We had our own van and driver all the way to Tikal and back, and another Guatemalan tour guide at Tikal. The ride to Tikal from Chaa Creek is about 2 ½ hours over minimally paved roads. Here are the two main values of a local driver/guide, in addition to imparting useful information about Tikal and Mayan history: (1) getting us through the scam du jour at the Guatemalan border crossing, and (2) knowing every potentially cataclysmic pothole between Belize and Tikal.
One of our best decisions was to make the Tikal trip an overnight one, rather than a day trip from Chaa Creek, as many do. Reserving a night at a place called the Jungle Lodge allowed us to be at the temple sites at dusk, when the air had cooled and the crowds had vanished. We reached Temple IV, a bi-level pyramid more than 200 feet high – the tallest pre-Columbian building in the Western Hemisphere. We climbed a ladder to a ledge 160 feet above the ground and crouched on it with the folks who had stayed to watch the sun set.
We could see across the rainforest to the mountains on the Belizean border, and the waning light cast a glow on the ancient temples.
A Philadelphia connection is critical to the modern history of Tikal. Archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum led the excavation of Tikal for two decades until it was turned over to Guatemala in 1969. Many mysteries of Mayan culture and decline remain unexcavated under the blanket of the rainforest, but what is there to see is awe-inspiring.
Our last jungle stop was at the beloved Belize Zoo. The zoo, operating on a shoestring, is carved out of the rainforest, the animals in simple enclosures built into the foliage. The animals are all naïves of Belize, in their natural habitats.
Some disclosure is in order: My husband is the president of the Philadelphia Zoo and had contacted Sharon Matola, the Belize Zoo director, to arrange a few hours with her. Not every visitor will get a few hours with Matola, but you may just catch her wandering around the zoo, calling each animal by name, and feeding it some goodies out of her jumpsuit pocket.
Matola, an indefatigable American, was working on a wildlife documentary film in Belize in 1983. When it finished shooting, she started a zoo with the animals that appeared in the film. In 20 years, the Belize zoo has been visited by nearly every student in Belize and has become a national center of environmental education and political activism around habitat protection.
A budget lodging option in Belize is the zoo’s Tropical Education Center, where you can stay in dorm-type rooms and learn about the tropical habitats, too, as have Cameron Dias and Bobby Kennedy Jr.
We spent our last three days in Ambergris Caye, the largest and busiest of the cayes, which are islands and are islands and are pronounced keys. Though bustling and charming, the main town, San Pedro, has no paved roads and no high-rise hotels. Its motto: “No Shoes, no shirt, no problem.” We whiled away the hours on the beach at Xanadu Island Resort, a perfect combination of comfort and, of course, down home Belizean charm.