Belize from the Jungle to the Sea
Article and Photos by Ann Nelson

 

 

Visiting and surrounding myself in a tranquil and peaceful setting is something I appreciate more each day. When the world is complicated, I find myself looking for simplicity. When the time comes to choose a travel destination, I now ask myself one major question before deciding where to go. Do I believe the destination I'm considering will feed my soul? If the answer is no, I don't go. If the answer is yes, I go. It's that simple.

Michael Crichton in his book Travels, says "Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines... you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who is having the experience. That's not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating."

I chose Belize as a destination for many reasons. One reason is no more important than another. I will list them in alphabetical order. Adventure, animals, bird watching, exploring caves, kayaking, food, historic ruins, indigenous people, luxury, mangrove coasts, rustic surroundings, simplicity, secluded islands, snorkeling, sun, winding rivers, and spas. And yes, I wanted to see the second largest barrier reef in the world!

The country of Belize, shaped like a tiny rectangle the size of New Hampshire, is located just 150 miles south of Cancun on the Caribbean side of Mexico. English is the official language. The history of Belize dates back to 1,000 BC and today consists of a successful blend of many cultures.

Presently the Creoles form about thirty percent of the population and forty percent of the population consists of the Mestizo descendants. The Creoles are descendants from the early British settlers and African slaves. The Mestizos are mixed blood descendants of the Mexicans and Yucatan Mayans.

About twelve percent of the population is represented by indigenous Mayas. They lived here before the pre-Colombian period. It is widely believed that the Mayas produced one of the greatest civilizations of the Americas. Besides its diverse people, Belize is  also  known for its ancient archaeological sites, tropical rain forest, and a huge, blue ocean filled with every type of marine life. Eco-tourism is a cornerstone of Belize's foundation. Forty-four percent of the land is reserved in the national park system. Belize is alive with hundreds of bird species, colorful exotic tropical plants and animals.

Prior to visiting Belize, I did my homework regarding where to stay and what to do. I knew I wanted to stay in Belize City for one night and then venture out to the middle of the jungle and to the sea. I was well aware of my budget, and was looking for high-quality, value-packed, unique destinations.

I traveled to Belize with my friend Susie, and we spent our first night close to the airport at the Ramada Inn. The hotel was located in an historic part of the city, directly on the ocean. We were within walking distance to the boat that would take us to Ambergris Caye the next morning. After a scrumptious buffet breakfast, and a brisk walk around the historic district, we were ready for our journey.

There were no roads that led to our next destination, Tranquility Bay Resort. A speed boat would take us there in 30 minutes from the main dock. The location of Tranquility Bay is private, intimate and charming. Quaint little cottages dot the shoreline, colorful hammocks swing in the wind, kayaks and small sailing boats are waiting at the shore. The second largest Barrier Reef in the world is only a quarter-mile away. The beach, unhampered by sea grass, is perfect for swimming.

Susie and I loved our quaint two-story beach cottage, complete with a kitchen. We flipped a coin to see who would stay upstairs ­ me!! The sunsets and sunrises from the second-floor vantage point were among the best I experienced during the entire trip. I'd run outside early in the morning just waiting for a magical moment to happen!

We dashed across the sand to the Tackle-Box, an over-water restaurant, for our early morning coffee. Then we'd pack our day with as many adventures as we could squeeze in. We'd go snorkeling out by the barrier reef, take long beach walks, go swimming, and have delightful dinners at the Tackle-Box.

After three heavenly days at Tranquility Bay, it was time to say goodbye. The next morning we flew back to Belize City to catch a domestic flight to Punta Gorda. We touched down in the southern part of Belize in about an hour.

Hugo Panti, our personal guide during our stay at Machaca Hill, picked us up at the airport. Delightful, well mannered and intelligent, we found Hugo to be a treasure to spend time with. He knew the area like the back of his hand, and introduced us to intriguing, new places to explore each day.

Driving the short distance from the airport and up the narrow, curvy road in the open-air Land Cruiser to Machaca Hill Rain Forest Canopy Lodge was an exhilarating experience in itself. I felt like a four year old with my nose glued to the window. The beauty of the land was breathtaking.

I knew ahead of time from my research that Machaca Hill was a distinguished all-inclusive pristine eco-retreat destination situated on an 11,000 acre private reserve. What I didn't know was how this place would affect me emotionally. It was evident that pure heart was behind every detail that went into the recent remodeling of Machaca Hill.

Soon after my initial exploration, it was obvious that someone intimately involved with this place truly understood the importance of wrapping nature, eco-tourism and an incredible destination into a package that will forever leave a footprint in your heart. I felt spiritually embraced the entire time I was there.

Our guide, chef, and the massage therapist were all hand-picked and truly some of the most special people I've ever met. The manager, Brian Gardiner, a modest and incredibly talented visionary was involved with every detail in making the lodge into what it is today. Born in Zimbabwe, Brian dedicated himself to the eco-luxury business throughout South and East Africa for more than twenty years. His efforts have been recognized internationally by notable publications including Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.

The property consists of 12 luxurious tree-top cabanas. Each day I spent time alone in the private veranda of my room viewing the world from a bird's perspective. It felt still. I felt humbled. The world is vulnerable and so are we. From the vantage point of the private perch in my room, I realized more than ever how important it is to protect nature and all that we have.

Our days at Machaca Hill were filled with exploring new places. The possibilities were endless. We could visit a marine reserve, Mayan ruins, reefs, rivers, cultural and geological sites, and a chocolate factory. Or we could tend to the on-site organic garden.

My personal favorites were swimming in the underground river at Blue Creek Cave and visiting a chocolate factory. We also spent many blissful hours exploring the property. Clearly marked nature trails wind through the park. Canoes, kayaks, mountain bikes and fishing equipment are all available at a moment's notice.

After our explorations each day, we sat down for an exquisite gourmet dinner on the outdoor veranda. Chef Ken Gundu creates memorable recipes by fusing Pan-American and Caribbean influences together with fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. His dishes are self-created, simple and light. Ken's reputation is impressive. After his vast experience as the Executive Chef for many of the luxury lodges in Africa, he was promoted to Group Executive Chef for Abercrombie & Kent. Now he's creating his magic at Machaca Hill!

The time came for us to leave Machaca Hill. It was not easy to say goodbye to the people who touched us so deeply. We were excited about exploring more of Southern Belize. We would be on our way early the next morning.

Our next stop was Belize Lodge & Excursions, which  has put together a one-of-a-kind treasure trove of enchanting luxury lodge destinations in Southern Belize. I felt like Robinson Crusoe, venturing from our thatched-roof bungalow in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, then to a lodge in the middle of the jungle, and finally venturing across the ocean to a tiny island that looks as big as a dot from an airplane.

Mysterious rolled-up introduction notes, fresh flowers, and tropical welcome drinks awaited us at each new destination. Our adventure began at Indian Creek, when we landed on the private air strip. Indian Creek, surrounded by two fresh water lagoons, consists of twelve bungalows scattered along a winding stone path. Private verandas offer endless views of the nearby savannah and rain forest. The lodge is minutes away from Nim Li Punit, a significant archaeological site.

Our guide Pablo, met us for early morning walks through the jungle, kayaking, and bike rides. We also visited the Jaguar habitat and the wildlife rescue center. During our walks, I asked Pablo about his background. He told me he walks for four hours from the lodge through the jungle to visit his parents in the small village where he grew up. Walking through the jungle with Pablo felt comforting. He was at home. And so was I.

Our journey continued on-to Jungle Camp. We arrived at our destination after venturing down Golden Stream for two and a half hours in an Adirondack Canoe. Jungle Camp, a hideaway built high above the river in the middle of the jungle turned out to be a total surprise. Upon disembarking from our canoe, we were met by a steward offering us cold towels and colorful tropical drinks.

I was not expecting to be surrounded by the elegance and rich architecture of a lodge located in the middle of the jungle. The wood used for the creation of the lodge, rich in texture and color, consisted of rosewood, cedar and santa maria wood. A good portion of this wood was collected after hundreds of trees blew down during Hurricane Iris in 2001.

Since the wildlife wakes up early at Jungle Camp, we did too. We met our energetic guide Anthony, at the crack of dawn and kayaked down Golden Stream. The fish were jumping to catch their breakfast of insects. The jungle is alive with Apir, Paca, Coati and Howeler and Spider Monkeys. We were hoisted up in a sling to a 110' high viewing platform in a giant ceiba tree. I felt like a bird spying into the jungle. From the upper canopy of the forest we could see everything. I wanted to stay in the tree forever, but I knew at some point my feet would need to hit the ground again.

After bidding goodbye to our friends at Jungle Camp, we headed down Golden Stream in a small electric boat to our final destination, the tiny island of Maho Cay. A speed boat picked us up near the mouth of the ocean and we zipped across the turquoise water heading for the island.

Within minutes of our arrival, I timed myself to see how long it would take to walk across the entire island - four minutes!! I still have a difficult time describing the feeling of accomplishment after walking across an entire island that quickly!

If you've ever wanted to feel like a castaway, where your sole companions are white sand, blue water and palm trees, I can't think of a better place to be. It would have been easy to fill the days with snorkeling and kayaking excursions, but I felt so drawn to the island, I didn't want to leave.

We stayed in raised luxury tents with thatched roofs. At night we followed the lighted walkway to the cozy open-air lodge for cocktails and dinner. Falling asleep was easy. I listened to the ocean and dreamed I was a castaway in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

The Nature Reserve of Belize Lodge and Excursions is committed to the preservation of tropical rainforest's ecosystems, and has partnered with Conservation International, Eco Logic Enterprise Ventures, and The Nature Conservancy in order to more forward with this effort.

 

IMPORTANT CONTACT INFORMATION:

Tranquility Bay Resort: (888) THE-CAYE (843-2293) www.tranquilitybayresort.com . Low season (May 1- Dec-14) Double occupancy rates begin at $185.00 a night. Includes breakfast.

Machaca Hill Rain Forest Canopy Lodge: 001 (501) 722-0050 (from U.S.)  www.machacahill.com . All inclusive packages begin at $650 per person per night.

Belize Lodge & Excursions: (888) 292-2462 www.belizelodge.com . All inclusive packages for 5 nights at 3 lodges begin at $1,745 per person.

 

Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently living in San Diego, California.

 


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