It's not every day that you enjoy experiences like lunching in a Mennonite community, making silky chocolate out of cacao beans, and drooling over the offerings in a jam-and-hot-sauce factory. But that's the kind of culinary day-to-day you get when you're in Belize. Top it all off with tasty fry jacks and bottles of Belikin beer.
Deep within this tropical, English-speaking country—an easy three-hour flight from Dallas-Ft. Worth International—with around 300,000 residents are adventures that will surprise even the most sophisticated foodie, from small towns in Northern Belize on down to Punta Gorda near the Guatemala border.
Marie Sharp's hot sauces
This celebrated hot-sauce producer—you can buy the sauces at some US grocers and they are on the table at most every Belize restaurants—boasts a gift shop like no other. During my visit Marie Sharp, wearing a bright smile, dropped by to check on the operation as I was sampling not only hot sauces but fruit-y products like green mango chutney, coconut jam, pineapple jam, and guava jam. Visitors are welcome to tour the adjacent farm where chile peppers are grown and, of course, dig into samples and buy products to take home (at deep discounts).
Making chocolate and chocolate wine
San Felipe and San Pedro Columbia
Through Cotton Tree Lodge, a luxury boutique hotel that is so into chocolate it owns a factory that makes Fair Trade, single-estate chocolate (look for Cotton Tree Chocolate bars while in Belize) from cacao beans sourced from a cooperative in nearby Punta Gorda, you can visit cacao farms. More than just a tour, you get to eat lunch with a Mayan family, meet the local growers' association, and make chocolate. During the two Chocolate Weeks each year (the next is March 16-23, 2013), the deal sweetens: you make chocolate bars to take home and hang with members of Maya Mountain Caco, a socially responsible cocoa-bean export business founded by the lodge's owner.
Try fry jacks
Corozal and Orange Walk
Fry jacks (pillow-y fried bread) are a breakfast staple in Belize. The best deals are at cafes in Northern Belize, such as at Jo-Mel-Inn. Served with sides of papaya jam, at this particular cafe, they are part of a traditional Mayan breakfast of tomatoes, eggs, tortillas, coffee, and orange juice that costs just $6BZ ($3). Other recommended places to try fry jacks on the cheap in this region is Zetina's Fast Food on the upstairs level of the market in Corozal (pay $6BZ for fry jacks, coffee, stew chicken, and beans (or eggs with tomatoes, onions, and sausage or ham) and Luigi's on Main Street in Orange Walk where you can also order omelets and fried beans.
Have lunch in a Mennonite community
Orange Walk District
Through Lamanai Outpost Lodge, one of Belize's most posh jungle eco-lodges and on the grounds of Lamanai's ancient Mayan ruins, an afternoon visit can be arranged to one of the country's Mennonite communities. (Belize is home to around 10,000 Mennonites.) After a buggy ride through the community, where you're shown the school, church, store, and doctor's office, as well as farming equipment, you are invited into a family's home and served a serious farm-fresh spread of light foods and sweets as well as beverages—all of it based on traditional Mennonite recipes.
Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee where she reports on food, wine, and travel topics around the globe for Fodors.com, along with new-hotel openings. She also writes for Wine Enthusiast, TIME, Whole Living and American Way. In 2006 she co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee and Tea (Alpha Books/Penguin). You can follow her on Twitter @kristineahansen or through her web site.
Photo credits: Chocolate making class photos courtesy of Cotton Tree Lodge; all other photos courtesy of Kristine Hansen