Culture, Culinary, Farm, Jungle and Wildlife!
When we visit one of the many great fishing lodges we represent at Frontiers, much of the time is spent on the water with a fly rod in hand, leaving little time to discover the destination. This trip was an exception and I had the luxury of spending three days exploring Belcampo, the District of Toledo and the surrounding region.
The quality of the guiding, both on the water and off, was outstanding. Desmond, voted Tour Guide of the Year at the 13th National Tourism Awards this year, was with us for two full days. He was a treasure-trove of knowledge – everything from the history of the country to the flora and fauna and he showed a genuine passion for his country. He is a local to Punta Gorda and is well-respected in the community.
This part of Belize is less touristy and you really get a genuine feel for the multicultural ethnic melting pot of Toledo, which may be its strongest asset. The Maya make up more than half of Toledo District’s population. The Market in Punta Gorda where farmers come from all of the surrounding villages to sell their wares is open each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The arts and crafts sold at the market are representative of the Mayan lifestyle and focused on the production, harvesting and preservation of food.
Maya are advanced in the field of agriculture and their main crops are corn (including the rare purple and yellow Maya variety), beans, cacao, peppers and fruits. The Maya developed the skill of basket weaving using the “jippi jappa,” which is a palm plant that grows wild and is abundant in the rainforest. These are used primarily for storage of food and spices. Miniature collectible versions were available for purchase throughout the market.
After the market, we had a traditional Belizean lunch at Coleman’s Café before heading to Nim Li Punit, a small hilltop ruin situated above Indian Creek Village. The site was established around 150AD and is one of the oldest Mayan sites in southern Belize. The ruins contain both impressive stone architecture and multiple examples of carved sculpture containing Maya hieroglyphics. These monuments tell the history of the inhabitants of the district who at the time of the Spanish conquest were called the Manche Chol. Nim li Punit is one of the most visited and easily accessible Manche Chol sites in the country’s south.
Our first day was spent “snorkeling with the chef.” Chef Renée Everett is the Chef and Culinary Director at Belcampo Lodge and designs her menu each morning based on what is ready for harvest at the lodge’s farm and agricultural center. Renee was originally from the United States and obtained her degree in Culinary Arts from the Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. You may have also recognized her from the cooking show called, “The Taste.”
This guided day cruise commences at the dock of the Belcampo Lodge on the Rio Grande River as you make your way to the Gulf of Honduras. The shaded river cruiser is outfitted with tables and benches, a Weber grill and easy-access steps into the water so you can spend as much time onboard, in the sun, or in the water! In addition to Chef Renee, we had Captain Jackie Young at the helm, as well as Mark the barman and Desmond. We enjoyed a morning of snorkeling in the warm, clear blue Caribbean Sea with Desmond as our guide. We saw an impressive array of sea life and coral, and were fortunate to dive for conch and lobster, which we enjoyed later for lunch.
Belcampo Lodge defines itself as “agritourism-chic: a jungle lodge, organic farm and a 12,000-acre nature reserve.” The lodge offers a 90-minute guided tour which is a great introduction to the farm. Nearly 70% of the food that is served at the lodge is produced on property with expansive organic gardens, a large herbal garden, a greenhouse for starting tender, young plants and a pasture full of free-range lambs, pigs and chickens. The farm is certified organic for their cacao and coffee crops. They also are committed to conservation and serve only sustainable, line caught seafood purchased directly from local fishermen.
The Belcampo Belize Rum project is the company’s most ambitious undertaking to date. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, the Belcampo Belize property was a sugar cane plantation and rum distillery making Rocky Run Rum. They have located some of the original heirloom cane varieties and are working to produce an organic, heirloom cane with great flavor to bring the fine art of distillation back to southern Belize.
The Bean to Bar Chocolate Making Class is a unique opportunity to understand and participate in the entire process of transforming high quality organic cacao into chocolate. We started by cracking open a pod to taste the pulpy white, cacao fruit in its original state fresh off the plant. We then learned about the fermenting and drying process, before grinding the dried cacao beans into a paste the traditional way, on a metate. The next step was to enter the lodge’s air-conditioned chocolate workshop where we rolled up our sleeves and donned an apron to learn to temper the chocolate, both by hand and machine, and finally mold our own chocolate bar. After seeing the entire process and the time and energy it takes to transform a cacao bean into chocolate, I will certainly savor each delicious morsel with more appreciation.
The birding expert at the lodge is Emanuel Chan. We hosted a Bonefish & Tarpon Trust group and two of our clients came to the lodge a few days early to enjoy the birding, which is phenomenal. They also traveled to Costa Rica with Frontiers and loved both experiences. Belcampo can provide entry level birding for a couple of hours during the early morning all the way up to full day extensive birding. Our clients came back with over 160 different species of birds and several were additions to their “life list.”
Insider Tip: While at the Punta Gorda Airport, be sure to stop at MayaBags. The business was founded in 1999 by Judy Bergsma, Jovita Sho and five Maya artisans from different villages in the Maya Mountains of Belize. Their mission is to empower Mayan women by fostering ancient skills to create unique and creative bags. Today the MayaBags talented team of shareholder / artisans has grown to over 90 Maya artisans.
Back at the lodge, there is hiking, mountain biking, kayaking on the river, a beautiful pool, spa and exercise room! Whether you want to take a couple of days off from fishing or want to choose a wonderful eco-tourism destination, Belcampo is a great fit for couples and families. I look forward to returning!