April 3, 2005
Eco-Tourism: The Director's Cut
By MICHELLE GREEN
HIS scene is good enough to fulfill almost any woman's chuck-it-all fantasies: Riding a handsome mahogany mare, I'm following my machete-packing guide, Jason Smith, through a rain forest in Belize. Absurdly oversized ferns gently swipe my sandy boots as we negotiate the green-canopied trail; to our right is an anthill the size of a child's igloo; rising from our left are trumpet trees, great oaks and vertical palms splayed out like a giantess's fan. Here are puckery crimson blossoms called hot lips; here, too, black orchids, clay-colored robins and madre de cacao flowers that cure pink eye. Mr. Smith, who works for Francis Ford Coppola at Blancaneaux Lodge, the most spectacular of Mr. Coppola's Central American properties, crushes a small green leaf and reaches back over his horse's rump to hand it to me. It's rich and complex: allspice.
As my horse picks her way down a stream bank and scrabbles back up again, her hooves making scraping sounds on the stones, I'm doing a little dance inside: Tomorrow, I can hop a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopán River to Xunantunich, a Mayan site known for its commanding view of the jungle. Or I can take a private canoe trip into a remote cave where the Maya buried their dead. All this, and I can still have room service. And a massage from a Thai genius named Prasert. And a loll in the hot pool near the Privassion River, at the foot of the hill upon which my personal cabana is perched.
Because this moment was created by Mr. Coppola - director, producer, writer, winemaker and hotelier - it feels slightly unreal, but in the nicest possible way. In my experience, this sort of outing has been synonymous with slogging, sleeping on the ground and feeling like a contestant in a reality show. In order to see the Himalayas, for example, I once trekked for eight days in August with two guides and four ponies - chugging water that reeked of iodine and breakfasting on raw apples. And when I went to Camiguin, a volcanic island in the Philippines, the only time I wasn't slicked in grease and sweat was when I was paddling in a reef with sea snakes.
But here at Blancaneaux and at Mr. Coppola's other Central American properties - Turtle Inn, in the village of Placencia on the coast of Belize, and La Lancha, on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala - travelers who might have been backpackers in another era can enter an authentic but sensually gratifying version of the third world stage-managed by a master. The feeling at Blancaneaux Lodge and at La Lancha, which I also visited, is that of being at a private club for experienced travelers hip to the notion of exploring, preserving and celebrating the indigenous culture without sacrificing laundry service and a wine list.
With handmade textiles, furniture and folk art collected by Mr. Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, across Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, guest quarters are free of telephones and, of course, TV's or DVD players (though Internet access is available at the front desks). International cellphones don't work, and you'll have to stand in line to use the house telephone - not that anyone seems to mind. You're free to tune in to the scratching sounds of thatch-colored lizards or the ticking of woodpeckers or to the screams of howler monkeys staking out their territory in the dead of night.
But it's the charm factor that puts Mr. Coppola's resorts over the top. When I wake at sunrise, craving sustenance, I press the switch on an intercom by my bed; it's concealed by a conch shell that promptly lights up. Room service arrives 10 minutes later. (Later, Mr. Coppola tells me via e-mail that the device, which he calls the shellphone, "was an idea I had for years. I love its eccentricity.")
Adding to the general sense of well-being at Mr. Coppola's resorts is the fact that they are designed not to leave a huge footprint on the environment. Ninety percent of the power for Blancaneaux comes from a hydroelectric plant built by Mr. Coppola to harness the water of the Privassion - a river "so pure you can drink while you swim," he tells me. In place of air-conditioning, there are wooden ceiling fans and louvered windows; on cool evenings (at 1,500 feet, nighttime temperatures drop into the 60's) you can snuggle under hand-woven bedspreads.
Like Mr. Coppola's Napa Valley vineyards, the garden and citrus orchards at Blancaneaux are organic - no small feat in these buggy parts. They produce enough fruit and vegetables for Blancaneaux's kitchen (which turns scraps into compost), with the overflow going to La Lancha.
Of the two properties I visited, Blancaneaux Lodge, opened as a hotel in 1993, is the more luxurious. Deep in the 300-square-mile Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve in the Cayo District, it began with a few cabanas and a stone lodge that were deserted when Mr. Coppola bought them and the 10 surrounding acres as a hideaway just after this sliver of a country (formerly British Honduras) claimed its independence in 1981. As Mr. Coppola described it in an e-mail message, "the site itself is the star ... it was like discovering a hidden valley, an isolated place where one could hide, write, think or get to know your wife even better."
Now, there are 10 cabanas and 7 rustic villas on artfully landscaped grounds that include a croquet lawn (soon to be a swimming pool). The palmetto and adobe hideaways are built on stilts and have ceilings that soar as high as 40 feet; inside the villas are kitchenettes, open-air living rooms and Japanese-style soaking tubs.
Built in 1950, the lodge that charmed Mr. Coppola has been converted into a reception area, dining room and bar. Deep sofas and chairs are arranged around a stone fireplace in the lounge; oversized volumes on Mayan architecture and tropical birds (there are more than 500 species in Belize) are close at hand.
The restaurant has the air of a cheerful colonial outpost: the food is inspired by Italy and by Belize's multicult-cuisine. Impeccable ceviche and fish chowder, fresh French bread - everything is healthy and hearty without being dull. (Breakfast, however, is decadent: johnnycakes, fry jacks, cinnamon rolls and freshly baked bread, along with pineapple, watermelon, papaya, bananas and lime, plus steamed milk and exemplary coffee.) Offerings from the Coppola vineyards top the wine list, but the house drink is Jaguar Juice, a blend of local rums and a liqueur made from the craboo berry, which is said to be an aphrodisiac.
For aperitifs, there's the deck or the Jaguar Bar; with its polished mahogany and slate bar inscribed with Maya symbols, it looks like a place where Indiana Jones might spar with Lara Croft over a Belikin (the local brew). As it happens, the ceiling fan in the bar was salvaged from the set of "Apocalypse Now"; on the wall are glamorous-looking black-and-whites of the excavation of Carocol, a Mayan ruin nearby. So is this where Hollywood comes for offscreen adventure? Reported sightings include Robert DeNiro, Claudia Schiffer, Keanu Reeves and Brooke Shields - but the visitors I spy include only a group of Germans, a pair of aristos-with-child straight out of Tatler, and three Americans chattering about an excursion to Morocco.
Even so, one of the brilliant aspects of Mr. Coppola's resorts is that, for a time, anyone can be in the land of the all-access pass. Want to stay in the director's own villa at Blancaneaux? It's yours for $500 a night (for two) in peak season. Want to slip into the place incognito? A private landing strip is on the property, and the Sophia, Mr. Coppola's own eight-seater, can fly you in from Belize City. At Blancaneaux, you're behind the velvet rope. And nowhere are there signs forbidding anything at all.
On my second day at the lodge, I make a point of poking about. Late in the afternoon, I explore the cove in front of Mr. Coppola's villa; it's at a slight bend in the river, so it feels as though no one can see me. Eventually, I walk up the road and slip into the garden, which appears to be deserted. Rows of voluptuous eggplant are ripening near cherry tomatoes and saffron-colored mangoes. I am ravenous. Though I devoured breakfast, I hiked for hours at midday on a trail leading to a 100-foot waterfall called Big Rock and, somehow, I forgot to have lunch.
I survey a grapefruit tree with cream-colored flowers whose sticky scent reminds me of gift shops in Florida. When I step closer, the tree rustles and, one by one, citrus-colored birds flap away. A tree bearing several enormous ripe oranges seems to be unguarded. Jumping as high as I can and then some, I snatch a pretty specimen. A man's voice, speaking in startled (but not angry) Spanish, emerges from the ether; I have no idea what he is saying, but there is no sign of him - no sign at all.
After dinner, I waft down the hill to the Thai-style hut where Prasert administers something called a papaya body polish. The warm, fruity mixture is slathered quickly into every cranny, and then I'm wrapped in heated towels while he massages my face. By the time he's done, I can't feel my body at all. I shower and loll in the crescent-shaped hot pool, watching steam rise toward the stars and pretending to be a jungle animal.
My mood plunges the next day when I head toward La Lancha on dramatically rutted roads. The stifling trip takes more than three hours, and my driver crosses himself before we begin. Dramamine would be nice, but I have none, and it took forever for the kitchen to produce my boxed lunch, though I ordered it the previous night and again with breakfast via shellphone. ("Watch?" croaked the conch. "You want watch tomorrow?")
But a Xanax takes the edge off the irritation and the potholes so I can focus on the scenes passing by: ancient VW microbuses bursting with passengers; entire families bathing in emerald creeks; a boy on a bicycle herding Brahmin cattle; rifle-toting guards searching trucks coming from Guatemala into Belize ("Looking for drugs," says my driver). The road here is a hangout; horses and pigs the size of puppies stand as if posing for photographs; kids pile on bikes and careen straight down hills and around blind curves. Every so often I catch sight of festive-looking village burial grounds done up in candy colors; they look like fairy homes.
Near La Lancha, where the foliage is powdered khaki with limestone dust, it's clear that eco-tourism is catching on. By the roadways are hand-lettered signs touting horseback tours of the rain forest, along with a billboard portraying a blond hiker in skimpy shorts navigating a suspension bridge slung across the treetops for what's described as a "Skyway total adventure enjoy more canopy tour." (Eco-tourism seems to be defined broadly, however; one news release touts "tractor rides" and A.T.V. rentals along with bird-watching and mountain-biking.)
La Lancha itself looks like a place where you might be greeted by a Zen monk. Simpler and smaller than Blancaneaux, it's all about the transporting view. The open-sided dining room, the two-tiered pool that looks like a pond, the 10 casitas with their clay wind chimes - all overlook glorious, glassy Lake Petén Itzá. In the daytime, nothing seems to move on the lake, which perfectly reflects the endless sky. At night, when the darkness is absolute, I watch the opposite shore, where a smudgy fire signals that cropland is being cleared for the next planting.
Owned by a French couple before the Coppolas bought it in 2003, La Lancha was renovated before being reopened that December. This resort, Mr. Coppola said, "may be my favorite, but it is very rustic." With their white-tiled floors, charming folk art and roughly carved furniture, the casitas are anything but austere; lolling on my porch, soaking in a stillness broken only by fantastic birds levitating from the underbrush, I am insanely content.
The high continues through dinner, which is guacamole and blackened fish caught in the lake. Making the rounds, La Lancha's concierge is chatting with guests, scheduling tomorrow's outings. Along with guided hikes through the nearby Cerro Cahui National Reserve, La Lancha's activity pamphlet lists private Skyway tours, fishing expeditions and trips to small Mayan ruins including Uaxactún, along with Spanish lessons taught in the village of San Andrés.
The major attractions here, however, are the wildlife and the ruins at Tikal, a legendary Mayan city that, by A.D. 500, had a population of about 100,000. As many as 3,000 stunning limestone palaces, temples and other structures have been excavated there since archaeologists ventured to the site in the 19th century.
Painted in garish colors when King Great Jaguar Paw and his ilk held sway, the great temples are inside the pristine Tikal National Park, where 22 types of snakes (including the lethal fer de lance), 5 kinds of cats and exotica including tapirs, silver fox and spider monkeys can be found.
My own expedition begins at 8 a.m. Luis Oliveros, a guide who works with La Lancha, grew up here and takes care to point out every little wondrous thing. At the clear lake that was a Mayan quarry, there are walking catfish; we see alligators lurking under the lily pads and parrots and toucans screeching in the trees. Beneath the shelf of a vast, flat rock, there is a tarantula that extends a hairy leg when Mr. Olivera slides a stalk into the crevice. And far above us are long-limbed spider monkeys feeding lazily, looking in no way like the tortured creatures I've seen in zoos.
Under the leaves of one tree are minute snail eggs; nestled under the leaves of another are tiny honeycombs. And wafting from everywhere are scents that I cannot identify. "They change every hour, every minute," Mr. Oliveros says. "The smell of the night - it's a smell like a liana, like a perfume."
When we reach the Great Plaza, we climb to the top of Temple II, known as the Temple of the Masks. There, you can sit as if on a monumental throne and imagine staring into the eyes of rival royals seated in Temple I, directly opposite. There's a sense of holiness here; though Tikal was abandoned around A.D. 900, exploring it feels like trespassing, in some ways. I want to tread lightly, because who knows how King Great Jaguar Paw would be with all of this?
And treading lightly has its rewards, as I discover that night. Still damp from a shower, I fall asleep at about 9 p.m. in my hammock, because this time around, I'd rather sleep under the stars than on a mattress. Hours later, I am startled awake by a wall of sound. I heard it at Tikal in the afternoon. Rushing, hooting, frenzied screaming - all at the decibel level of a 747, revving up all around me. I'm all alone, and I laugh out loud: It's the howler monkeys, and they sound exactly like creatures from a movie.
If You Go
Travelers to Francis Ford Coppola's three Central American resorts must fly to Guatemala City or Belize City first in order to go through customs. Taca International offers frequent nonstop flights from New York to Guatemala City, starting at $400; Continental Airlines offers them from $1,020. Continental also offers some nonstop Saturday departures to Belize City from $665; American Airlines, Continental, Taca and US Airways all offer single-stop flights, the lowest of which was $626. (All fares are for weekend departures and were quoted in late March.)
From those places, travel options vary. All three lodges are in relatively remote areas and require arrangements beyond standard air travel - all of which include ground transport, and possibly privately chartered flights. To get to or between the resorts it is easiest to make arrangements through the resorts themselves by calling their general information and reservations number at (800) 746-3743. On the Web: www.blancaneauxlodge.com.
Adventurous spirits can drive from the airport, but should be warned that trips can be long, roads can be in poor condition and signs can be spotty.
Telephone numbers below are for calling the resorts directly (though not for reservations) and must be dialed internationally. Room rates include a breakfast buffet and use of the resorts' mountain bikes.
Blancaneaux Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, Belize, (501) 824-3878, has double rooms starting at $180 a night during low season (summer) and $240 in high season. Because of the remote location, meal options are essentially restricted to the lodge restaurant. Entrees range in price from pizza marinara ($13 at, 2.01 Belize dollars to the U.S. dollar) to grilled lobster tail ($31).
La Lancha, Lake Petén, Itzá, Tikal, Guatemala, (502) 7928-8331, the newest of the three properties, offers a 35 percent discount on rates until Dec. 15, when finishing touches are expected to be completed. Discounted double rooms start at $95 in low season, $150 in high season. As at Blancaneaux, dining is limited to the restaurant, with entrees ranging from chicken enchiladas ($7.40, at 7.77 quetzals to the dollar) to grilled fresh-water whole fish ($15).
Turtle Inn, near Placencia, Belize, (501) 523-3244, has doubles from $240 in low season, $340 in high season. The resort has its own restaurant, but is within walking distance (or a $5 taxi ride) from Placencia, where other dining options are available.
-- AUSTIN CONSIDINE
MICHELLE GREEN is a senior writer for People magazine. http://travel2.nytimes.com/2005/04/03/travel/03coppola.html?8td&emc=td