April 15, 2007

Journeys | Ecolodges
Local Culture as Part of the Green Experience

OPENED on New Year's Day in Toledo, the southernmost region of Belize, the Cotton Tree Lodge has all the hallmarks of environmental sustainability: an off-the-grid existence, solar power, an organic garden and a reforestation program that plants teak and mahogany trees. The resort has also created a composting system with flush toilets and a self-contained reservoir that uses banana plants to return nutrients to the soil.

But the lodge's most unusual draw might be its traditional chocolate-making workshops. These offer guests hands-on experiences involving everything from picking fruit from cacao trees and drying the beans with local Maya farmers to cooking chocolate and discussing fair trade with members of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association.

Ecology-minded lodges have opened in rain forest settings everywhere from Cusco to Cairns. But like the Cotton Tree Lodge, the most "eco" of them go beyond construction materials and power sources to authentic, place-specific offerings that highlight - and benefit - the local environment.

Whether it's a Belizean getaway offering chocolate-making seminars grounded in Maya traditions or a remote Amazonian complex that began as a scientific research station and supports visiting scholars on wildlife surveys, a few jungle ecolodges are distinguishing themselves from the rest by inviting guests to get a taste of the local culture and environment in substantive ways.

"We have a few producing cacao trees and have recently planted about 500 new ones," said Jeff Pzena, who heads up the chocolate-making operation at Cotton Tree.

His interest was piqued three years ago at the Punta Gorda farmers' market, where he bought what he thought were almonds but turned out to be cacao beans. He began visiting local growers, learning traditional techniques and the significance of Belize's cacao economy (beans were a currency for the ancient Mayas). He says chocolate is still a medium for cultural exchange.

"What I really love is the personal interaction with these farmers, getting a sense of what their lives are like," Mr. Pzena said. "Our program is all about exposing guests to this and about the reverse - exposing the farmers to people from another culture."

A partner of the lodge's founder and manager, Chris Crowell, Mr. Pzena led the resort to add special chocolate week trips.

Cotton Tree is also working with Sustainable Harvest International to establish a demonstration farm to introduce the neighboring community to agricultural practices that have lower environmental impact, like organic pesticide-free growing and smokeless stoves for roasting cocoa beans.


Cotton Tree Lodge, (866) 480-4534; www.cottontreelodge.com; from $198 a person, double occupancy, including all meals, activities and transfers.