On a farm, sur­rounded by jun­gle, but not ex­actly rough­ing it

The hill­top re­sort Bel­campo of­fers ad­ven­ture for food­ies, an­glers and the eco-con­scious alike

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS SAN­TELLA Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

With no nearby rel­a­tives, my wife, Dei­dre, and I don’t get many op­por­tu­ni­ties for ro­man­tic get­aways sans daugh­ters. So when my mother-in-law vol­un­teered to babysit for a long week­end in May so we could cel­e­brate our an­niver­sary, we jumped at the chance. Dei­dre wanted some­place warm. I wanted to do a lit­tle fly-fish­ing. She didn’t want to be stuck sit­ting on the beach all day while I fished.

Af­ter a con­sul­ta­tion with Jim Klug at Yel­low Dog Fly­fish­ing Ad­ven­tures (a travel agency that books many an­glers into Belize), we ar­rived at what seemed like a per­fect com­pro­mise — Bel­campo Belize Lodge. It turns out it was no com­pro­mise at all. Bel­campo sits on a hill­top five miles in­land from the fish­ing vil­lage of Punta Gorda in south­ern Belize, not far from the Gu­atemalan bor­der. The re­sort — which in­cludes a main lodge and 16 suites set along the hill­side — is in the midst of a vast rain­for­est, home to a host of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing howler mon­keys, tapirs, jaguars and more than 250 bird species, such as the keel-billed tou­can, slaty-tailed tro­gon and

brown-hooded par­rot. (Some 12,000 acres of in­tact jun­gle sur­round the re­sort, put in pro­tec­tion by Bel­campo’s own­ers as a na­ture re­serve.) Sev­eral hun­dred acres of jun­gle be­low the lodge have been cleared to make way for Bel­campo’s or­ganic farm, where 50 va­ri­eties of fruit and veg­eta­bles are grown, and pigs, chick­ens and lambs are raised. More than 80 per­cent of the food that’s served at Bel­campo is har­vested from the farm, and it’s served fresh; as Chef Re­nee Everett put it, “99.9 per­cent of the veg­gies we serve were in the ground this morn­ing.” Bel­campo is also plant­ing over 7,000 ca­cao plants on the hill­sides sur­round­ing the farm, and it will soon be har­vest­ing sugar cane, which will soon pro­vide raw ma­te­rial for a rum dis­tillery that’s be­ing built on the prop­erty.

“Agri­tourism” — vis­it­ing a work­ing farm or other agribusi­ness to learn about or par­take in day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties — is one of the fastest-grow­ing mar­kets in the travel industry. Wine tast­ing or vis­it­ing a pick-your-own berry farm are es­tab­lished forms of agri­tourism. But Bel­campo takes the no­tion a step fur­ther, pro­vid­ing a lux­u­ri­ous place to stay in the mid­dle of the farm.

Af­ter a short flight from Belize City to Punta Gorda, we were spir­ited to the lodge in one of Bel­campo’s Land Cruis­ers. A few work­ers were cut­ting back the sugar cane along the road as we neared the lodge; the cut plants would serve to fer­til­ize the next crop. (Cut­ting sugar cane is stren­u­ous and dan­ger­ous work; fer-de-lance vipers fre­quent the fields, and their venom can be deadly.) Af­ter a wel­com­ing cock­tail in the main lodge, we rode the lift up to the Ridge Suites, near the top of the prop­erty. Each of the four suites boast two decks out­fit­ted with ham­mocks, of­fer­ing views of the Maya Moun­tains to the west and the Caribbean to the east. Be­fore en­ter­ing our 750square-foot suite (nearly the foot­print of my Crafts­man home and re­plete with a shower with floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows look­ing out over the jun­gle), we were greeted by the ca­cophonous calls of a group of howler mon­keys. The an­i­mal’s “howls” — more a gut­tural growl — can be heard three miles away. It took a few min­utes to spot the mon­keys cling­ing to branches high above us. Their pat­ter, com­bined with the thick trop­i­cal fo­liage of trum­pet trees, wild fig, co­hune palm and tourist trees (so named be­cause they peel) lent the set­ting a “Juras­sic Park” vibe.

The farm and its boun­ties are cen­tral to the Bel­campo ex­pe­ri­ence. Guests can par­take in a num­ber of tours of the prop­erty’s var­i­ous gar­dens, go for­ag­ing in the for­est with a lo­cal guide and par­tic­i­pate in cook­ing demon­stra­tions. Dei­dre had hoped to “Snorkel With the Chef,” an ad­ven­ture that takes guests to the Gulf of Hon­duras, where Chef Re­nee and her crew dive for conch, lob­sters and li­on­fish. (Your catch is grilled up on the boat.) Windy weather had ren­dered the sea too murky for good snor­kel­ing, so we opted for Bel­campo’s bean-to-bar choco­late class. Head gar­dener Elon Ran­guy led us on a tour of the veg­etable and herb plots (in­clud­ing the “chicken ma­nure tea” sta­tion — pun­gent but much beloved by veg­eta­bles) be­fore reach­ing the ca­cao nurs­ery. The ca­cao bean (which you might know as the co­coa bean) is, of course, the source of choco­late. While ex­plain­ing the ge­n­e­sis of choco­late, he demon­strated how plants are grafted, and then how ca­cao pods — which re­sem­ble a large squash — are cut to re­lease the seeds. The seeds are

fer­mented and dried on a screen for roughly two weeks (while the ca­cao but­ter is drained off and saved) be­fore they are roasted, ground into paste and blended with ca­cao but­ter and sugar. Maynard Ja­cobs, one of Bel­campo’s choco­late ex­perts, led us through the blend­ing process. Af­ter a few steps of heat­ing, cool­ing and mix­ing, a thick, brown­ielike bat­ter — the choco­late — was poured into molds for bars and re­frig­er­ated. In half an hour, it would be ready.

It would have been nice to wait, but lunch was be­ing served back at the lodge.

Though I would hardly char­ac­ter­ize my­self as a “foodie,” I found my­self an­tic­i­pat­ing the next meal on the deck at Bel­campo be­fore the dishes for my cur­rent dish had been cleared away by the ex­tremely gra­cious staff. “It’s hard to de­fine Belizean cui­sine, as it’s in­flu­enced by so many dif­fer­ent cul­tures — Gar­i­funa, East In­dian, Mayan,” Chef Everett ex­plained. “One idea of Belizean food comes back to rice, beans and stewed meats. I try to take this in­ter­pre­ta­tion — plus our ac­cess to so many fresh in­gre­di­ents — and ap­ply it on a big­ger scale.” Un­der Everett’s guid­ance, seem­ingly sim­ple dishes like chicken tacos or a black-bean burger ap­proached the sub­lime, thanks in part to the ju­di­cious use of herbs and spices from the gar­dens.

The gar­den’s bounty also bol­sters the ef­forts of Tim Cal, keeper of the Rum Bar. Cal in­fuses Belizean rums with a host of lo­cal herbs and fruits (in­clud­ing gin­ger, sage, all­spice, and co­conut) to cre­ate a host of novel cock­tails. One, the BCPG, fea­tures cof­fee and ca­cao beans (both roasted on premises) with dark rum. An­other, the Gin­ger Buck, was fea­tured on the Travel Chan­nel.

There are a host of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties one can pur­sue at and around Bel­campo. Kayaks are avail­able to ex­plore the Rio Grande, which bi­sects the na­ture re­serve and flows to the Caribbean. Trails cut through the prop­erty al­low­ing self-guided hikes, or you can choose to be ac­com­pa­nied by a nat­u­ral­ist for a morn­ing of bird­ing. (You may not spot the larger mam­mals that call the rain­for­est home dur­ing day­light hours, though you may see their signs; two jaguars were spot­ted at twi­light dur­ing our visit, a hun­dred yards be­low the main lodge!) Guided trips to the Mayan ru­ins at Lubaan­tun are also avail­able, topped off with lunch pre­pared by a lo­cal Mayan fam­ily and a swim in the cave be­hind the Rio Blanco Wa­ter­falls, which may be the coolest spot in gen­er­ally sul­try south­ern Belize.

Should you de­sire a lit­tle less ac­tiv­ity, the Jun­gle Spa, which over­looks the canopy, of­fers a host of mas­sages and treat­ments, in­clud­ing one that in­cludes a ca­cao-and-brown-sugar scrub. (It’s con­sid­ered bad form to sam­ple the scrub from your skin, no mat­ter how tempt­ing that might be.)

Af­ter a few days of glimps­ing the Caribbean from the deck of our suite, I could no longer­re­sist­theclar­i­on­callofthe­shal­low wa­ter flats and their denizen — the per­mit. For fly an­glers, per­mit are the holy grail of the light tackle sport fish of the Caribbean. Their broad body, large round eyes and blunt face make them un­mis­tak­able. Per­mits’ aero­dy­nam­ics give them tremen­dous strength; spec­i­mens, which can run from five to 40 pounds and heav­ier, have been known to rip 150 yards of line out in their first run. Per­mit are renowned as the spook­i­est crea­tures of the flats; to catch one on a fly, you have to do many things right: cast a heavy fly 40 or 50 feet, of­ten into whip­ping winds; mimic the halt­ing gait of a crab with your re­trieve; and play a very strong fish on light line around co­ral heads that wait to part you from your prize.

Leav­ing Dei­dre in the ca­pa­ble hands of Des­mond Ramirez (who has been rec­og­nized as a top tour guide in the na­tion) for a morn­ing of bird­ing, I jumped into the Land Cruiser for a quick drive to the Gar­butt Broth­ers Lodge on the shores of the Gulf of Hon­duras. The Gar­butts — Scully, Oliver and Eworth — and their team of sea­soned guides have gained a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion for lead­ing an­glers to per­mit. Af­ter meet­ing my guide for the day, Li­onel “Yogi” Martin, we sped off in his23-foot­pan­gaforthev­ast­seriesof­flats rest­ing 20 min­utes north of the lodge. Upon reach­ing the first flat, Yogi climbed to the plat­form mounted over the out­board mo­tor and took up his pole. From his perch, he could bet­ter see be­low the sur­face and could qui­etly ad­vance the boat by push­ing with the pole. I moved to the bow, stripped 60 feet of fly line off my reel, and as­sumed a ready po­si­tion, with a fly im­i­tat­ing a small crab be­tween the thumb and fore­fin­ger of my left hand. It was dif­fi­cult to see far ahead of the boat given the glare, but Yogi’s ea­gle eyes spot­ted sev­eral schools of per­mit ahead. To my eyes they ap­peared sud­denly, as if a cur­tain has been pulled away — how could I not have seen them be­fore? On one oc­ca­sion, the fish spot­ted the boat and moved away be­fore I could cast. On an­other, sev­eral fish stopped to in­spect my crab pat­tern be­fore in­dif­fer­ently turn­ing away. An­other cast went a bit too far and landed in the midst of a large school, send­ing the fish scat­ter­ing for deeper wa­ter — a ma­jor case of user er­ror.

At this point, I as­sumed I’d ex­hausted my op­por­tu­ni­ties; an­glers can gen­er­ally only ex­pect a few good casts at fish a day due to the per­mit’s in­scrutable ways. But Yogi had other ideas. He steered the boat to­ward some in­te­rior la­goons, rea­son­ing thatwemight­be­able­toam­bush­some­fish mov­ing back to deeper wa­ter on the ebbing tide. We an­chored near a small stand of man­groves and waited. Sure enough, a dis­tinc­tive forked tail popped above the wa­ter by the man­groves 50 feet away — a feed­ing per­mit! “Drop it to the side of him,” Yogi ad­vised. Shak­ing with an­tic­i­pa­tion, I cast my Taran­tula crab to the left of the fish, pray­ing the fly wouldn’t float off tar­get and land on the fish or in the man­groves. It landed true. A puff of sand sug­gested that the fish was tak­ing the fly, and a sec­ond later my fly line was rip­ping through the wa­ter — fish on! The per­mit towed the panga away from the man­groves as Yogi ad­vised pa­tience. Fif­teen min­utes later, I was hold­ing the fish for a photo be­fore re­turn­ing it to the wa­ter

My ad­ven­ture to Bel­campo was com­plete.

BROWN CAN­NON III

A pool at Bel­campo Belize Lodge. A farm at its base fur­nishes the lodge’s meals (as the chef put it, “99.9 per­cent of the veg­gies we serve were in the ground this morn­ing”); the prop­erty also of­fers a bean-to-bar choco­late-mak­ing class at a ca­cao nurs­ery. Fly-fish­ers can pur­sue the per­mit fish in the Gulf of Hon­duras.

BROWN CAN­NON III

Ca­cao pods, whose bean­like seeds are used to make choco­late, at the re­sort Bel­campo in Belize.

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