Central America and the Carribean

BELIZE: The Less-Traveled Corners

An expert assesses tourism in Belize and its less-traveled places, and we add our own comments about several outstanding resorts.

By Rod Lopez-Fabrega

Steve Schulte, CEO of Tropic Air, Belize's oldest and most experienced in-country airline is in a position to know every nook and cranny of this tiny, English-speaking country located on the eastern flank of Yucatan in Central America. His airline, Tropic Air links all parts of Belize and is the principal means for tourism to access much of what this remarkable little country has to offer tourism.

In a recent interview, Steve Schulte put it this way, "Belize is a multi-faceted country that you can get around it quite easily in a week. It's a great place to vacation, and it's an easy place to sell because of its diversity. San Pedro and Ambergris Caye up in the northern part of the country still tends to be the popular destination for first-time visitors. It's the most well developed part of Belize and offers the most amenities. So, for people who don't want adventure tourism or want more shoulder rubbing with other tourists, San Pedro and Caye Caulker are two destinations with well developed resorts, lots of places to eat and lots of sites close to the great reef. But for most travelers who have been there, done that, Belize is still unspoiled. Belize is not a Jamaica. It is not an Anguilla. It is not a St. Martins or a St. Johns nor is it like any of the other islands of the outer Caribbean that have been into tourism for years." Mr. Schulte adds that tourism has only taken over as a major industry in Belize in the last six or seven years.

He suggests that Belize's lesser known areas offer great opportunities for the more adventurous traveler interested in exploring "the next great place". He adds, "Tourism development is moving south. The very southern part of the country is largely undiscovered. There are only several functioning resorts down in Punta Gorda at the Guatemalan/Honduras borders. Now there is a fishing lodge that is first-class, another river lodge that is promoting tourism to the Mayan villages and archaeological sits, and there is a Mayan coop started by a couple from Colorado that offers an interesting student tourism hostel plan."

Following Mr. Schulte's suggestion about exploring Belize's less-traveled areas, ROMAR TRAVELER can recommend several resorts:

The Lodge at Big Falls:

Located 18 miles from Punta Gorda in the heart of Toledo, Belize's most southern district, the Lodge at Big Falls is situated on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tributary that winds around the property for almost one mile. The lodge's cleanly detailed interiors and unobtrusive exteriors of the individual cottage style cabanas blend well with the manicured lawns and bordering rainforest surrounding them. Properly classified as an eco-lodge, the property has been created more like a tropical garden with easy access to the rainforest but not actually in it.

The lodge is only into its third season. It is the culmination of five years of planning on the part of Rob and Marta Hirons, a young British/American combo who, following the lead of several other innkeepers in Belize, jumped into the deep end of inn keeping in the wilds. They chose a location that is between the coast and inland, on the edge of the rainforest but also accessible from the coast on an excellent paved highway. The lodge offers individual cabanas, each with river frontage, a wrap-around roofed deck (with hammocks), en-suite bathroom, tiled floors, ceiling fans and splendidly minimalist décor. The main house includes an attractive bar and a small dining area separated by an awesome stone wall, a spacious lounge area and the backstage kitchens and management offices.

Activities offered include jungle hiking and trekking; bird watching of the 490 species that live or pass through the area; sea and river trips through mangroves to view howler monkeys, iguanas, otter, turtles and the occasional crocodile; kayaking; archaeological explorations of the nearby Mayan sites of Nim Li Punit and Lubaantum; and caving. During dry season it is possible to swim some 600 meters (wearing life vests and headlamps) into a stygian cave system that is a journey into the Mayan underworld.

Any time of the year is good for visiting the Lodge at Big Falls, but officially high season is November until April 30 and low or "Green Season" (a.k.a. rainy season) is from the first of May until October 31.

For additional information, prices and reservations contact The Lodge at Big Falls directly at info@thelodgeatbigfalls.com or go to the Lodge's website at http://www.thelodgeatbigfalls.com

Rum Point Inn:

On the coast, a short hop by air from Punta Gorda is the peninsula of Placencia that includes sixteen miles of some of the country's best natural sandy beaches, a wilderness of coral-studded cayes, a virgin mangrove-fringed lagoon, nearby rivers and pristine rainforest, Garifuna, Creole and Mayan cultures and ancient Maya ruins. What is more, this coastline faces a portion of the great Belize barrier reef, a paradise for SCUBA diving and snorkeling. Placencia offers the visitor a number of B&B-type establishments, one of Francis Ford Coppola's elegant lodges
( http://www.romartraveler.com/RomarPages/CoppolasBelize.html ), and Rum Point Inn, the first lodge in the area and the undisputed grande dame of tropical tourism establishments. The ambience is right out of the pages of writer Somerset Maugham's South Seas novels. Rum Point offers all the easy friendliness one expects of a relaxed and informal authentic old-time Belizean resort, with its sand walkways, totally unpretentious island ambiance and always friendly staff.

Owner and proprietor Corol Bevier explains that her late husband George Bevier was an adventurous engineer who had no use for straight lines. The undulating curves of many of the resort's ten seaside cabanas are evidence of his talent with reinforced concrete. In addition to George's architectural follies, Rum Point offers 12 spacious air-conditioned suites housed four to a building. All have private baths, personal safe and refrigerator. Facilities include the main lodge with its hammocks, raised beachfront veranda, louvered tropical dining room and Placencia's largest library of well-used volumes that include an impressive collection of scholarly tomes about the ancient Maya.

Rum Point Inn is a member of the PADI International Resort Association and offers dive and snorkel trips to nearby cayes and the great reef. A world-noted event takes place off these shores around Easter time each year. That is the visitation of the whale sharks, gentle giants that come to feed on Red Snapper roe. It is a once-in-a-lifetime to dive right among these enormous, friendly creatures, and divers come from all over the world to do so.

Also offered are trips to the Jaguar Reserve, the only park in the world set aside for the protection of this rare jungle cat. Getting to the reserve from Placencia entails a bone-jarring ride of about two hours over a yet-to-be-completed highway, but once there, chances are good of spotting the shy cat; and most tours include an unforgettable float on inflated automobile inner tubes down a rainforest river or swimming in a pool formed by an impressive tropical waterfall.

For reservations contact the lodge at:
( http://www.rumpoint.com/rumpoint/form.html )

The Lodge at Chaa Creek:

In the interior highlands of western Belize, near the border to Guatemala is the city of San Ignacio, reachable in about two hours on an excellent highway from Belize City. The Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Center, Rainforest Reserve and Spa, an internationally recognized eco-lodge, is located a short drive away from San Ignacio.

Situated on the banks of the Macal River, this luxurious lodge offers 23 rooms in individual cottages and duplex cottages, each with its private veranda or screened lanai. Interiors are elegantly furnished with museum-quality artifacts from Guatemala and Belize, large mahogany beds, original artwork, private bathrooms with hot showers and five-star amenities. Paved pathways interconnect the cottages with a handsome conference center, a new hilltop spa, the reception building, the bar with its spacious veranda overlooking the rainforest and outbuildings that include a fascinating butterfly farm where thousands of Blue Morpho butterflies are hatched.

Not least is the dining pavilion, serving a mixture of Caribbean, Mexican and Belizean dishes and equipped with its own temperature-controlled wine cellar. The open-sided dining pavilion juts out into the forest with views of tropical foliage only partially screened by more intricately detailed artifacts--primitive angels, devils, fanciful animals and fine ceramics.

While this resort is a bit pricey, it offers an interesting option for the traveler on a budget. A riverside trail from the main grounds leads to a campground within the Chaa Creek Nature Reserve. The campground provides screened, canvas-roofed cottages, communal hot-water shower stalls and a thatched-roof casa with tables and benches for socializing and home-style Belizean stick-to-the-ribs food. The price for these accommodations if very moderate.

Many tours and activities are offered. These include a day trip across the nearby border into Guatemala on a much improved highway to visit the ancient Maya metropolis of Tikal. Even closer to Chaa Creek is the site of Xunantunich, one of the most impressive Mayan citadels in Belize. Getting there includes crossing a river on a unique hand-operated car ferry, with you and your car literally pulled to the other side by a lone boatman working a crank and pulley. Other possibilities for entertainment include horseback riding, hiking and canoeing on the Macal River.

Mirroring the observations of Steve Schulte, Lucy Fleming, co-founder and proprietor of Chaa Creek along with husband Mick, says, "Belize has successfully branded as a nature-based, multi-cultural country that speaks English and has something for those people interested in nature-based activities. That is why we appeal to the kinds of people who come here for completely different reasons than others head for Cancun." She agrees with Mr. Schulte that "Belize is the next great place."

For additional information, prices and reservations, contact the Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Center, Rainforest Reserve and Spa directly at: http://www.reservations@chaacreek.com

Photo Credits: Rod Lopez-Fabrega