Fresh cocoa beans are ready to be roasted at Belcampo's farm in Toledo, Belize. Photos: Margo Pfeiff, Special To The Chronicle
Bolting upright with goose bumps and a racing heart is my least favorite way to wake up in the pitch black of a jungle night. Sweaty air and the otherworldly roar and rasp of what sounds like a T. rex syncs with my marauding-dinosaur nightmare. Then I remember last night's dinner talk about very big sounds made by very small critters. Oh, yeah. Howler monkeys.
It's a fittingly dramatic ending to my first full day in Belize, a cultural cacophony of chocolate-making with Maya chefs, banana-beaked toucans whizzing through 50 shades of jungle green, swimming in the dark through a giant cave, blond Mennonites trotting their watermelon-filled horse-drawn carts along potholed roads.
Then there was that caretaker at Lubaantun Maya ruins showing off yellowing newspaper clippings about a spooky crystal skull allegedly found amid the rubble by the daughter of an adventurous Brit named F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones character.
And this place has never been on my bucket list?
When my longtime friend Mara Jernigan, a chef and food activist, left Vancouver Island in 2011 to manage a jungle lodge in Belize, I had to ask Google where that was. Mara finally persuaded me to visit, but since she was ensconced in the remote, rural southernmost province of Toledo, I hedged my bets with a potential exit strategy of scuba diving the world's second-biggest barrier reef, off northern Belize.
I never left Toledo.
A member of a family in the Maya village of Blue Creek makes fresh tortillas for lunch.
Belize is a rare English-speaking country in these Spanish-speaking parts - in the 17th century it was the pirate-haunted Spanish Main, then the British Honduras until independence in 1981. About the size of Massachusetts, it's wedged between Mexico and Guatemala. My small plane hop-scotches south from Belize City to the province's Caribbean-flavored-and-paced main town of Punta Gorda or PG (population: 6,000), with its funky mix of dreadlocks, expats and rickety seaside watering holes.
It's market day, and fishermen and farmers display their goods in street-side stalls. There are many Maya, but also an ethnic kaleidoscope that includes descendants of American Confederates, Caribbean slaves, British buccaneers, Garifuna, East Indian indentured laborers and dairy-dealing Mennonites.
Toledo is off - way off - the usual tourist route. There are a few bed and breakfasts in Punta Gorda and its surrounds, as well as several farm inns at jungle locations. Come here to go exotic birdwatching, saltwater fly-fishing, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, caving and visiting Maya ruins and villages. I bump along a 20-minute shuttle from Punta Gorda to a hilltop perch where Mara is general manager of Toledo's only luxury lodge, Belcampo Belize, an agritourism eco-resort set amid 23,000 acres of rain forest.
I have a pet peeve about resorts branding themselves "eco" when they simply ask guests to hang up their towels for a second use. Here all laundry is line-dried and furniture is crafted on-site from sustainably harvested wood.
The Rio Grande River can be kayaked. Toledo has retained 75 percent of its rain forest, much of it protected in preserves.
Kitchen and table waste is composted or fed to chickens and pigs residing on the resort's 1,000-acre farm which Mara helped set up when she first arrived, the source of the organic dining room's free-range eggs nestled alongside cinnamon-bark-house-smoked bacon, freshly squeezed orange juice and papaya marmalade.
When I ask her how far my breakfast has traveled to reach my plate, she does a quick count - "about 500 yards."
Roughly 70 percent of the food they put on the table is local (imported wines and spirits make up much of the rest), she tells me, and what they don't produce themselves they source from local farmers whose practices they know well. The resort is the province's biggest private employer, and it's owned by Oakland's Belcampo Inc., whose mandate is to manage land and animals in an organic, sustainable and humane manner - and make a profit. And they're doing it on a bigger scale than has ever been attempted.
Belcampo Belize is part of a three-country project including olive oil growing in Uruguay and ranchlands near Mount Shasta, the source of grass-fed, free-range meats sold in the first Belcampo butcher shop-cafe in Larkspur, with five more scheduled to open statewide by year's end.
The eco-resort Belcampo Belize offers bedroom suites with mesh-enclosed decks at the lodge surrounded by rain forest.
Next on Belcampo's menu? Indigenous Belize products.
I sign up for the Bean-to-Bar chocolate-making workshop. It starts with plucking almond-size beans from freshly harvested cocoa pods. Then we head into one of three new pavilions to taste the beans throughout the entire roasting, grinding and tempering processes until we finally pour satiny liquid into our very own chocolate bar forms. Cocoa is "Mayan gold" and is still used as currency in Belize; by 2015, Belcampo will be the country's biggest producer.
The other two pavilions will soon be used for similar hands-on workshops with estate-grown coffee and sugarcane for artisanal rum - two stills are under construction - some flavored with homegrown spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
Working with San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee and Chicago's Vosges Chocolate, the plan is to take organic, ethically produced, high-grade rum, coffee and chocolate from the farm to the U.S. marketplace while supporting much-needed jobs in Toledo and building a global market for Maya products in a country with no McDonald's, Walmart or Costco.
75% of forest preserved
A forgotten corner of Central America, Toledo is lucky to have retained about 75 percent of its rain forest. Drenched with 12 feet of annual rain, it's home to iguanas, jaguars, ocelots and more than 500 species of birds. I join a small group of keen birders and trot out at first light along a network of jungle trails with guide Emmanuel Chan, binoculars combing the gumbo-limbos to put faces on the avian chatter that awakens me every dawn after the monkeys have settled down - toucans that croak like frogs, hummingbirds the size of chickadees and aptly named melodious blackbirds.
Every bit as obsessive are the early morning saltwater fly-fishermen we cross paths with, hell bent on pursuing the elusive saltwater threesome of tarpon, bonefish and permit.
Much of Toledo is protected as parks or reserves, including marine regions with lush offshore cays. Over the following days I kayak along the snaking Rio Grande River meandering past the base of the resort, hike along jungle trails, and lazily bird-watch from the hammock on my meshed-in deck with rain forest surrounding me like wallpaper.
When Maya guide Vince Ical takes us to the ancient Lubaantun ruins, we pass the welcoming Earthship Belize, a castle-like eco-house built of discarded bottles and trashed tires by a colorful expat British couple. Toledo's end-of-the-road jungle scene attracts plenty of quirky fringe-dwellers.
Morning coffee is served with chocolate freshly made on-site in a room at the lodge.
"There's Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and hippies looking for a place to live sustainably," Dr. Mandy Tsang had told me at dinner the previous night. Her partner is also a physician, and they live off the grid themselves, supplementing their income by hand-making organic soap from coconuts on their land as well as bush-distilling an innovative range of tropical alcoholic elixirs that put a kick into cocktails.
"There's a lot of crazies like us down here," she confessed.
After prowling Lubaantun's crumbling temples and ball courts and hearing horrid tales of human sacrifice, it's time for lunch in Ical's own Maya village of Blue Creek, one of 36 in the region. His wife lays out a delicious traditional Belizean feast at their home, including curried heart of palm that Ical harvested; marinated grilled chicken, thanks to the free-range backyard critters; corn from their field ground into fresh hot tortillas; and homemade habanero salsa.
We dine overlooking a bright turquoise stream that we then follow upstream to the gaping Hokeb Ha Cave. Slipping on life vests, we swim into the vast, cool blackness toward a small waterfall, our headlamps spotlighting sparkling stalactites dangling from the high ceiling.
On another day, in the Maya village of San Pedro Columbia, I meet cocoa farmer Eladio Pop, who sells much of his product to Britain's Green & Black for their premium Mayan Gold bars. His wife and several of their 15 kids take part in roasting beans over a fire, grinding them on a stone metate that's been handed down through generations, then passing out calabash shells filled with real-deal, genuine Maya hot chocolate sweetened with killer bee honey.
Their simple, foil-wrapped bars sprinkled with homegrown sesame seeds don't have the smooth mouth-melt of machine-processed chocolate, but the flavor gives the world's best a run for its money, especially tasted so close to its source.
On my last day, I go snorkeling with the chef, cruising down the mangrove-lined Rio Grande into the Caribbean Sea, where we snorkel and help Captain Jackie - whose Confederate grandmother emigrated to Belize after the Civil War to grow sugar cane - free-dive for conch. Chef Brandon Genus spears two snappers and heads aboard to slice and dice while we explore the warm waters off tiny Moho Cay in the company of barracuda and sergeant majors. On the sail back, Genus delivers conch and snapper ceviche. We scoop it up while swishing freshly picked allspice leaf around in our Mayan Sunset cocktail.
If You Go
From Belize City's Goldson International Airport (BZE), it is a 60-minute Tropic Air flight to Punta Gorda.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Belcampo Belize: Wilson Road, Punta Gorda, 1 (888) 299-9940, www.belcampobz.com. Luxury jungle agritourism eco-resort with birding, fishing, hands-on gastronomic and outdoor activities. From $288 double, includes airport shuttle, full breakfast, farm tour, mountain bikes, hiking and canoe/kayaks.
The Farm Inn: Santa Cruz Road, San Antonio, Toledo, 011 (501) 732-4781, www.thefarminnbelize.com. Casual farm eco-lodge, off the grid for electricity but has solar lights in all rooms. Serves local and African cuisine. From $70 double per night, including a full farm breakfast.
Hickatee Cottages: Ex-Servicemen Road, Punta Gorda, 011 (501) 662-4475, www.hickatee.com. A cozy, quiet jungle B&B with individual cottages near town. From $75 double, includes airport transfers, continental breakfast and use of bikes.
WHERE TO EAT
Asha's Kitchen: 80 Front Street, Punta Gorda, 011 (501) 632-8025, www.facebook.com/AshasCultureKitchen. Casual Belizean fare on a waterfront terrace. From $30 for two.
Coleman's: Big Falls, Toledo, 011 (501) 630-4069, www.facebook.com/colemanscafe. Popular local lunch spot for traditional Belizean cuisine and buffet in a casual setting. Lunch for two from $20.
WHAT TO DO
Cotton Tree Chocolate Factory: 2 Front St., Punta Gorda, 011 (501) 621-8776, www.cottontreechocolate.com. Watch chocolate being made by locals in a simple setting and purchase bars and cocoa.
Yellow Dog Fly-fishing Adventures: 213 S Willson Ave, Punta Gorda, (888) 777-5060, http://bit.ly/1on0aPB. The Garbutt brothers' fly-fish guiding operation is a well-known local outfitter.
Bruno Kuppinger: [email protected] or www.facebook.com/bruno.kuppinger. Specializes in outdoor activities from hiking, paddling and caving in Toledo province.
Vince Ical: Knowledgeable Maya guide can arrange ruin visits, cave swimming excursions, waterfalls, forest walks and a traditional lunch in his home in Blue Creek Village. 011 (501) 621-1063, [email protected].
The Chocolate Farmer is a National Film Board of Canada documentary about Eladio Pop's chocolate farm. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XT5etmp-fA.