MORE RAMBLES IN BELIZE,
By Lan Sluder
It’s always a pleasure to return to the rolling green hills of Cayo. Belize’s best collection of jungle lodges and cottage country cabanas is here, along with lots of hard-working friendly folks and almost no bugs. These days, the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena are bustling. San Ignacio’s narrow streets are dotted with tourists, in town to grab a quick meal at Fast Food (good, but not as good as places like Cactus Plaza in Corozal Town) or to check e-mail at Eva’s or one of its recently opened Internet competitors. Bob Jones at Eva’s flattered me by giving by son free Internet access. Belizean students go on-line free at Eva’s, and Bob says I’m in Belize enough to qualify as an honorary Belizeans (hah, tell that to the Belize Tourist Board!)
Not a great deal is new in Cayo. The biggest addition is the Princess Casino at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (* * *). It’s mostly slots and video poker, but there’s live action for blackjack and roulette. One of our favorite budget lodges, Clarissa Falls, (* * ) has a new palapa. Mopan River Resort (* * * *) in Benque has a new swimming pool. We’re told this pioneering all-inclusive had an excellent year -- value works, I’d say. Mopan River is closed for the summer, and we didn’t get to stop by this trip, but we did see Jay Picon boating up the river. Hotel Aguada (* * +) remains Cayo’s best value. This popular spot has added attractive new rooms in back on the second floor, with prices still at a remarkable US$25 double, including air conditioning and the use of the swimming pool. The hotel bought Larry and Carol Smith’s -- they run the Seafront Inn in PG -- old black London taxi, and Aguada is using it for runs around town. Aguada also has two Mercedes vans for airport shuttle runs. We’re happy to note that the Orchid House at duPlooy’s (* * * *) is farther along. It’ll be a great addition to the Belize Botanical Gardens there when completed. On a less happy note, Ken duPlooy remains ill with congestive heart failure, but Judy and the staff seem to be holding up well. At Green Heaven Lodge (* * * +) , the beautiful Anne-Karine (my son was smitten with her French accent), husband Dominique and new baby are holding down the fort. Anne-Karine says the hotel has had a pretty good year, although she suffered through a bout of dengue fever a couple of months ago.
The newly established Elijio Panti National Park is a wonderful addition to the already extensive Belize national park system. It comprises 100,000 acres of land around the villages of San Antonio, Cristo Rey and El Progresso. Let’s hope that the elimination of hunting in this park will contribute to the return of more wildlife in western Belize. Administration of the park is in the hands of the Park Committee, headed by a local lady, Maria Garcia of San Antonio village.
Publicly at least, folks in Cayo don’t seem worried about the recent spate of violent crime in the Petén, which has spilled over here and there into Cayo. Not long ago, a Chaa Creek van returning to the lodge from a day of rivering was held up by a gang of masked Guatemalan bandits. The bandits robbed the driver and guests, then fled in the van. The vehicle was recovered, and one bandit arrested. Chaa Creek paid for the victimized guests to have a quiet vacation in San Pedro.
Down on the Hummingbird, Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Lodge (* * * +) was busy with happy campers (and more upscale travelers, too.) But most of the crowd at the bar and restaurant looked irritatingly young and fit, and except for yrs truly, no couch potatoes were in sight. Ian himself looks like he spends his mornings rappelling down ravines and slurping through caves. The lodge offers something for most everyone, from camp sites for backpackers to cabanas with private baths for the more financially able. Two more “deluxe cabanas” are being constructed across the road from the main lodge area.
Up in the Mountain Pine Ridge, things are not so copacetic. The Southern Pine Beetle has literally devastated the landscape, virtually wiping out much of the vast forests of Mountain Pines. Nature will find a way to recover, but in the short term it’s a mess. The four lodges in the region clearly will be hurt by the beetle, which is the same little bugger that hit pines in the Southern United States. The formerly lovely trees around the Pine Ridge Lodge (* *) now are just stumps, and even Blancaneaux Lodge (* * * * *) with its stunningly landscaped grounds, has not escaped. The entrance road to the lodge is now lined with dead and dying pines. Hidden Valley Inn (* * *) and Five Sisters Lodge (* * *) also are victims of the beetle.
We know it’s not in Cayo, but over the hills in Gallon Jug, we understand Tom and Josie Harding are leaving Chan Chich (* * * * *). We’re told they’re moving to San Pedro. The Hardings planned and built Chan Chich and have run it for more than decade. The Geggs of Discovery Expeditions reportedly will be taking over at Chan Chich.
(Update) * * * *+ Ek’Tun Lodge (12 miles upriver from San Ignacio on the Macal River, e-mail email@example.com, www.ektunbelize.com).
Pool, glorious pool. The pool’s the thing. My kingdom for a pool like this. Even the Bard would run shy of words to paint the swimming pool at Ek ‘Tun. Imagine water as blue as a sapphire, like the waters of the Blue Hole on the Hummingbird Highway. Imagine the water coming clean and pure and cool from a natural spring. Imagine a pool constructed not of concrete but of limestone and other natural materials of Belize. Then imagine the pool set in a profusion of tropical flowers and palms. And imagine that most of the time you can enjoy the pool alone, with only the sound of howler monkeys for company. That just begins to describe the glory of the pool Ken and Phyllis Dart have built at Ek’Tun. My daughter, Rose, proclaims this the best pool in Belize, and she has swum in many of them. This pool is in many ways a symbol of what’s best about Ek’Tun. Not to put to much of a New Age edge on it, but Ek ‘Tun is a private, quiet oasis of peace in a setting of wild beauty. There are only two cabanas, set well apart, each of good size, and each with a loft. One has cohune thatch, and the other bay palm. Maya mounds are all around the grounds, which the Darts (Phyllis was formerly in landscaping) have planted with a remarkable array of trees and flowers. The cabanas have hot and cold water, perfectly drinkable from the tap, delivered by a ecologically friendly system involving a “ram” pump that runs, in virtually perpetual motion, without any source of power other than that of the water itself. By choice, Phyllis and Ken light the candles by kerosene lanterns, though other parts of the lodge have electricity supplied mostly through a solar system. Meals are wholesome and delicious, usually prepared by Phyllis herself, and served family style. Unlike many lodges, Ek ‘Tun does not have a large staff. Ken and Phyllis, who have been in Belize since 1988 and are now Belize citizens, do most everything themselves, like the owners of a small, albeit remote, bed and breakfast. The lodge sits on 200 acres on the “far side” of the Macal River (the Darts are buying another 800 acres or so on the road side of the Macal, to protect against encroachment.) Ken meets guests in a small skiff, putt-putting them upriver a few hundred yards to the lodge landing. A variety of activities are available (many for an extra fee), including horseback riding, canoeing and trips to various Cayo sites and also to Tikal. As wonderful as it is, Ek ‘Tun is not for everyone. The B&B atmosphere wouldn’t suit those who yearn for privacy or a convivial crowd, and the grounds, while beautiful, have steep climbs and sometimes muddy walks, not suitable for those who like to stroll on flat sidewalks. Rates are a reasonable value, at US$217 double including breakfast and dinner, but extras for lunch, activities, trips and drinks can quickly add up.
(Update) * * * * * The Lodge at Chaa Creek (tel. 501-9-22037, fax 9-22501, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, www.chaacreek.com).
The “Queen of Jungle Lodges” -- in Martha Gellhorn’s phrase -- is still as royal as ever. Mick Fleming, who just returned from Cambodia, Singapore and Sarawak, and Lucy Fleming, and their staff of more than 70, keep Chaa Creek purring like a finely tuned classic Jaguar motorcar. Everything works smoothly, and the grounds and facilities, including the new Conference Centre, look great. Chaa Creek’s Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm (admission US$5, free to Chaa Creek guests) continues to improve. Hundreds of Blue Morphos were flying in the butterfly cage, and the country’s “first natural history museum” has added several new exhibits. Mick’s new thing is a Maya farm and village which he is creating, with help from Maya families from Toledo, on about 30 acres near the main lodge property. This is still a work in progress, but the idea is to showcase traditional Maya cultures in an accessible location. Already, a Maya family from San José in Toledo has started a milpa, and a small cacao plantation has been established on the site where wild cacao trees grow. Not surprisingly, there has been some local criticism of this new project. Some say it amounts to creating a “Maya zoo” for tourists, and others wonder why Maya from Toledo have been brought in, when there are large populations of Maya already in Cayo. My own opinion is that I’m glad to see a new effort to expose the wonders of Maya culture to a wider audience. Since the early 1980s, Mick and Lucy Fleming have done perhaps more than anyone else to bring a variety of high-quality tourist attractions and facilities to western Belize, creating millions of dollars in annual economic benefit to the region, and I see this as another example of innovative development. I doubt if even one in 50 visitors to Belize now gets a chance to see contemporary Maya life up close. If Chaa Creek’s efforts educates more visitors about Maya life, I think it will be a positive thing. This visit, my family and I were lucky enough to have the honeymoon luxury jacuzzi suite, actually a double suite with the garden suite (US$295 now, US$365 in the coming high season, plus 7% tax and 10% service.) We’re not used to this level of accommodation, and our mouths dropped open at the acres of space and beautiful furnishings in the suite. It rivals Blancaneaux’s villas for luxury in the bush. We’re pleased to note, by the way, that Chaa Creek has abandoned its swishy nom de plume,“Chaa Creek Resort and Spa,” and is now calling itself The Lodge at Chaa Creek. If the Lodge at Chaa Creek targets baby boomers looking for a little creature comforts with their jungle adventure, Chaa Creek’s Macal River Jungle Camp attracts a fitter, hipper , more budget minded crowd. The Spa at Chaa Creek is still alive and well, easily the most professional and comprehensive spa in Belize.