Belize is a small but ecologically diverse Central American nation that offers an abundance of natural riches to those willing to make the trek.
These days, eco-conscious travelers who don’t mind spending a few extra dollars can choose from among several lodges which aim to protect Belize’s unique bio-diversity through the practice of sustainable tourism.
Here is a roundup of some of the most notable properties that are doing their part to preserve the environment by integrating natural habitats, employing community programs, and practicing organic food cultivation and extensive energy conservation.
BELIZE LODGE AND EXCURSIONS
Belize Lodge and Excursions (BLE) is a conservation-minded eco-tourism “estate” located in the Punta Gorda region of southeastern Belize. A bio-diversity hot spot, the area is dotted with coastal lagoons, wetlands and offshore cayes.
BLE was the brainchild of New Yorker Ken Karas, who spent 15 years making wildlife films with National Geographic before leaving city life behind to follow his vision of creating a unique eco-lodge experience.
BLE’s four lodges sit on more than 1.2 million acres of private and nationally protected wilderness that contain seven separate ecosystems. Each lodge has its own distinct feel, as each one is located in vastly different terrain.
Dozens of green initiatives exist on the property, including agro-foresting, 24-hour anti-poacher patrols, species preservation, and indigenous cultural preservation and employment.
The howler monkey program was developed to bring back the spider and howler monkey populations, which were decimated by the yellow fever epidemic during the plantation days. The program reintroduces these primates to the wild deep in the reserve, where volunteers work to restore the ecosystem.
The Animal Care Center is a wildlife rehabilitation program that helps victims of the pet trade – non-releasable animals born in captivity. Residents include two brother jaguars, spider and howler monkeys and various birds. Construction is finishing on a new lodge called Ballumna, and the two jaguars will have a new home. The newest lodge will be built around the jaguar enclosure, and rooms will offer guests intimate views of the two jaguars.
BLE employs about 100 local people, and is the largest private employer in the area, accounting for 40 percent of the payroll for the district. Thanks to the lodge, a community school has been built, and more than 100 acres have been donated to the village. Jobs provide food so that the local indigenous people don’t have to poach game from the forest.
Indian Creek Lodge
This lodge sits on the site of an old banana plantation that was originally slated to become shrimp colonies. After Karas bought it, he began restoring the land to its original environment, turning two basins into lakes to facilitate the return of wildlife, and planting hundreds of trees. Citrus, avocados and coconuts are all grown on the property, as well as cacao, of which BLE is the largest grower in southern Belize.
The lodge is situated amid 13,000 protected acres in the Boden Creek Nature Preserve, and is adjacent to the 60,000-acre Golden Stream Conservation Corridor, a broad-leaf forest preserve that links the foothills of the Maya Mountains with the coast. Just steps away from the lodge are the ruins of Nim Li Punit (Big Hat), a small but significant archaeological site that includes the second-largest carved monument in the Mayan world.
Indian Creek Lodge has a minimally invasive ethic. It was built with wood collected after Hurricane Iris and has traditionally thatched roofing. Forget about air conditioning, television, or telephone – instead, ceiling fans cut through the air, and screened windows allow for surprisingly successful airflow. There is wireless Internet access, powered by electricity purchased from Mexico (blackouts are still common in Belize).
Each cabin is nestled in a grove of trees and tropical flowers, and each has a private verandah. By day, the veranda offers stunning views of the nearby savannah and jungle, all the way to the horizon. By night you might have trouble keeping count of all the stars.
Jungle Camp is a bush luxury lodge accessible only by taking a boat down Golden Stream. The journey is magical; ceiba trees are interspersed throughout the 360-degree jungle panorama, howler monkeys play in the canopy, and hummingbirds whiz by. Tapirs and jaguars are known to swim through the water.
Blending in with the tree canopy, Jungle Camp is built on a high bank, overlooking a creek that turns into a river during the rainy season. Built with salvaged wood and thatched roofs, its 12 raised cabins stand 16 feet off the ground. Each room offers picturesque views of the river from a private veranda, where you can hear the sounds of the forest, the rush of the water, and the nocturnal calls of the wildlife.
This deep in the jungle, there is a feeling that anything can happen. Not for the faint of heart, this lodge is the dream of every would-be Indiana Jones. It offers both nature and adventure: You can partake in early morning bird-watching while harnessed 90 feet above the ground in a ceiba tree; go kayaking on Golden Stream; or take a jungle hike on a local trails.
Moho Cay lodge sits on a two-acre private island hideaway in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, downriver from Jungle Camp. Here, fresh water mixes with salt in the crystal-clear waters of the Bay of Honduras, dotted with mangrove islands.
The lodge is on a real tropical island and offers the quintessential castaway experience: clear water, white sand beaches, blue skies and perfect sunsets, with views of the whole bay from Belize to Guatemala and Honduras. Marine animals such as iguanas and tortoises will be your neighbors.
Rooms feature raised luxury-style African safari tents with thatched roofs and double beds perfect for reading, lounging or loving.
Energy-wise, Moho stands out as being completely self-sustaining. Power comes from solar panels on the main lodge’s roof and a busy wind generator, with inverters converting DC to AC current. Four drums of sun-warmed water rely on a gravity feed to travel to the sinks and showers in the lodge’s 11 cabins. The water can sometimes be slow to heat up, but there are no carbon emissions. A diesel generator serves as a backup, but is almost never used.
With a maximum capacity of 25 guests, a staff of seven and two licensed guides, the lodge has a quiet, relaxed vibe. There’s an inviting, open-air mahogany bar and restaurant that overlooks the ocean, and the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world is not far away.
Getting there: Tropic Air flies directly from Belize City to Rio Dorado Airstrip.
Rates: Nightly rates start at $285 per night (double occupancy). Packages start at $1380 per person for four nights, not including airfare.
TURTLE INN AND BLANCANEAUX
Leave it to one of the most respected filmmakers of our time to create a piece of heaven. Turtle Inn and Blancaneaux Belize are two properties built and owned by Francis Ford Coppola, who was involved in every aspect of their design, including selection of the staff and services.
While flying over the Belizean forest in 1981, Coppola fell in love with a mountain pine ridge that reminded him of the Philippine jungle in which he filmed Apocalypse Now. Shortly thereafter he bought an abandoned lodge on the ridge, and turned it into a private retreat for friends and family.
In 1993, Blancaneaux was opened to the public. Located about 1,500 feet above sea level deep in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, it sits on 90 acres above the Privassion River.
Blancaneaux is remote, and that’s part of its charm. With rugged surroundings and relaxed lodging, it is the perfect place to unwind and re-charge your creative juices. A thinking chair perched on a rock overlooking the river is the perfect spot to receive the lightning bolt of inspiration. In fact, Mr. Coppola comes here to do his writing.
The lodge is green by necessity. Accessible only by one rocky road or by plane (the lodge has its own airstrip), Blancaneaux’s remoteness means there is no grid to plug in to, so electricity must be generated by other means. A hydroelectric plant produces 27 kilowatts of power at a time, with excess energy used to generate heat for one of the six pools on the property, including Mr. Coppola’s inventive hot pool which is kept at more than 85 degrees at all times.
The infinity pools on site are treated with non-chlorine solutions of sodium, chloride and salt. All water used by the lodge is purified by ultraviolet light to kill any bacteria, and is then filtered for sediment. All kitchen and drinking water is passed through charcoal filters. Waste water is processed using an aerobic biological treatment, then used for landscaping.
Heliconia, bromeliad and ferns on the property are landscaped with compost and fertilizer made on-site. Pine trees are currently on the rebound after being ravaged by the pine bark beetle, and reforestation efforts continue to be implemented to help stabilize the property’s natural ecosystem.
Most of the food on the lodge’s menu comes from a three-acre organic garden that produces vegetables, herbs, fruits, a flower garden, as well as fresh eggs from free-range chickens.
Blancaneaux is a self-sustaining innovator: the model for what an eco-lodge should be: self-sufficient, self-powered, with flawless service, fresh cuisine, and a roaring mountainous river. It is the Triple Crown winner of eco-lodges.
Turtle Inn is a beach getaway lodge with coconut palms and white sand beaches located in Placencia, a sleepy but charming seaside fishing community. Built in 2000, Hurricane Iris swept Turtle Inn away a year later. Under Coppola’s direction, the property was rebuilt in 18 months.
Walking into Turtle Inn, you’re greeted by water turtles swimming in a pond under the walkway. The feel is upscale, relaxed eco-chic, designed to bring you closer to nature: no air conditioning, no television and no telephone.
Rooms encourage interaction with the surrounding environment. An open-plan design promotes airflow, and reduces energy needs and emissions. Rooms are Balinese cabanas designed by Austrian architect Made Wijaya, furnished with regional textiles and fabrics, antique doorways and exotic artwork. Shell phones allow guests to communicate with the reception desk. Each suite has a private walled garden with outdoor shower, screened veranda, airy bedrooms, spacious bathrooms with Japanese tubs, all just steps away from the clear blue waters of the Caribbean.
Everything here is devised for long-term sustainability: suites are built from locally sourced thatch, hardwood, bamboo and pine. The organic garden produces fresh herbs and produce that are both healthy and tasty. Purple basil, eggplant, tomato, oregano, herbs, mint, basil, thyme, arugula, Chinese convolvulus, leek, and leaf lettuce are all grown organically without insecticides. Fresh coconut cream and hibiscus syrup, made on the property, add flavor to fresh mint mojitos and hibiscus daiquiris. Fresh fish from the ocean is served daily.
The lagoon across the street is the perfect launching point for scuba and fishing trips. During the months of May and June when whale sharks begin their annual migration off Placencia, it is possible to go snorkeling with the 45-foot long gentle giants. Barracuda, king mackerel and snapper are among the species of fish you’re likely to catch if you go fishing – which the chefs will happily cook up for dinner.
Getting there: Air, sea and road are all options for transportation. Both Maya and Tropic Air offer speedy service from Punta Gorda to Placencia for around $50. If you want to save money, catch a bus in Punta Gorda on the James Bus Line for less than $5 up to Mango Creek, then take a water taxi for about $2.50 to Placencia.
Rates: Turtle Inn starts at $285 per night (double occupancy), Blancaneaux from $230 per night. Rates do not include airfare and vary according to season. Some seasons require a minimum stay of 2-3 nights.
By Adam Popescu for PeterGreenberg.com.
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