By LAN SLUDER
At the best of Belize's jungle lodges, you can spend the day with the ancient Mayans, share the night with jaguars, then awake to a full breakfast of tropical fruits and fresh-made breads before a bracing swim in a tropical river or lake.
You're in the real bush, far from the echoes of civilization, not in a manufactured Disneyjungle. Yet the beds are thick and comfortable, and the beer is cold. The showers roar with plenty of hot water, and you can drink from the tap, or enjoy a rum-and-tonic with ice without fearing for your tummy.
Belize has many excellent lodges, among them duPlooy's, Hidden Valley Inn, Ek' Tun, Banana Bank, Mountain Equestrian Trails, Five Sisters, Black Rock, Pook's Hill and Crystal Paradise in Cayo, Lamanai Outpost in Orange Walk, Mama Noots in Stann Creek, and Lodge at Big Falls in Toledo.
But few would disagree with rating Chan Chich Lodge, the Lodge at Chaa Creek and Blancaneaux Lodge at or near the very top among lodges in Belize, and for that matter in all of Central America.
Each of the three offers a unique experience, but they are all different, with different appeals. Here's a look at these three special places, with comparisons to help you decide which is right for you.
Chan Chich has been featured so many times in so many publications around the world that management is almost blasé about press relations. If it's a travel magazine or travel section of a major newspaper, it's probably featured Chan Chich at one time or another.
It seems almost unnecessary to describe this famous lodge: That's it's owned by Belikin beer magnate and Belize Coca-Cola distributor Barry Bowen, a seventh-generation Belizean; that it was designed and built by Tom Harding (who with his wife Josie managed it for many years until moving to San Pedro) on a Mayan ruin, a controversial siting that most in Belize now dismiss as uncontroversial; that it is in a magnificent setting on the 125,000-acre Bowen Gallon Jug farm, surrounded by lush jungle accessible through well-maintained cut trails.
From the moment you arrive at Chan Chich, you realize this is a first-class operation, with considerable money and energy lavished on it, but all in good taste. The entrance road is paved to international standards. The grounds are beautiful, with lush tropical plants and trees, helped along with plenty of irrigation water when needed. The 12 thatched-roof cabañas are strikingly situated literally in the middle of a Mayan plaza. These ruins are unrestored and, to the casual eye, resemble large mounds of earth. The cottages are tasteful, with local woods, 19-foot high thatched roofs, wrap-around decks with hammocks, two queen beds, 24-hour AC-current electricity from a generator, plenty of cold and hot water, potable water from the tap, and cold water from a Bowen & Bowen water cooler in each room. The area is so free of security worries that the cabañas do not have locks or keys. Chan Chich cottages have ceiling fans but not air conditioning. Try to get one away from the busier kitchen and dining areas.
Nearby is a lovely outdoor pool, screened to keep out the bugs.
Just outside your door you'll find a bird-watcher's paradise. Some 300 species of birds are said to be in the jungle which surrounds the lodge. Birders, either in groups or independently, make up 30 to 40% of the guests. A flock of ocellated turkeys haunts the grounds. Howler monkeys and all kinds of other loud-mouthed wildlife hang out in your back yard. (A few people have a hard time sleeping due to nocturnal creatures jabbering their heads off.) Ocelots, Belize's two species of deer, peccaries, howler and spider monkeys, many snakes including the fer-de-lance, crocodiles, and to a lesser degree jaguar and puma are routinely seen here. You can walk the miles of jungle paths with a guide (recommended at least on your initial walk), or use a booklet published by the hotel (US$10) for self-guided trails.
The restaurant is an attractive wood-paneled room,with gift shop upstairs and the hotel office to one side, and a small library to the other . The bar is in a new thatched building next to the restaurant. Meals at Chan Chich are filling and well-prepared, if not of gourmet standard.
Chan Chich is, very simply, for most visitors, the most memorable lodge destination in mainland Belize.
Contact: Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug (Mail: P.O. Box 37, Belize City); tel./fax 501-223-4419; or P.O. Box 1088, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, tel. 800-343-8009, fax 508-693-6311; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.chanchich.com.
Rates: Doubles, room only, are US$175 to $205 Nov. 1-Apr. 30, US$130 to $160 the rest of the year. Meal packages, which are necessary since there are no other dining choices nearby, are about US$43 adults, US$32 for children under 12. The lodge offers an all-inclusive package (room, meals, taxes, most tours and activities, Belikin beer and soft drinks) for US$385 to $420 double in-season and US$335 to $368 off-season. Rates are plus the usual 7% hotel tax but do not include a service charge. Chan Chich’s approach, which we like, is to tip what you feel is fair (tips are divided among all staff) and only once, at the end of your stay. If staying for more than a couple of days, you may want to go on the all-inclusive plan for the first few days, then switch to the room and meals only after that.
Location: In an isolated area of Orange Walk District, near a former logging settlement called Gallon Jug, south of the Rio Bravo conservation area and only a few miles from the Guatemala border.
How to get there: Getting here by road takes a bit of doing. It's almost four hours from Belize City. After Orange Walk, the road is mostly unpaved, in good condition overall but with some rough spots, which get rougher after a rain. The sections in the Programme for Belize lands and Gallon Jug lands are in good to superb condition, by Belize standards. (Going the shorter route via back roads from Cayo is precluded by the fact that part of it is through private lands, not open to the public.) The roads are a moot point for most - 90% of visitors here come by air. There's a landing strip about 3 miles away on the Gallon Jug farm. Javier Flying Service offers round-trips from Belize City's Municipal Airport..
Francis Ford Coppola ought to win a sixth Oscar for his incredible lodge, to add to the collection he won for the Godfather movies and other parts of his oeuvre. Coppola has said Belize reminds him of the verdant jungles of the Philippines, where he filmed Apocalypse Now, the movie that best caught the crazed atmosphere of the Vietnam war.
In 1981, he bought an abandoned lodge, spent a fortune on fixing it up and reopened it in 1993. Mexican architect Manolo Mestre created the jungle chic look, and Francis and Eleanor Coppola themselves chose the Mexican and Guatemalan furnishings for the villas and cabañas. The result is simply one of the most extraordinary lodges in the world.
It seems impossible, but Blancaneaux looks better and better each time we visit, even considering the loss of a number of pine trees due to Southern Pine Beetle blight. The grounds are beautifully maintained, with native flowers accenting pathways, grass areas are manicured to the point you could play croquet on them (and indeed there is a croquet lawn.)
On our last two stopovers, we stayed in the villas, where we dreamed about selling that screenplay to Hollywood. The villas have two huge bedrooms. They look even larger than they are, because the thatch roofs soar more than two stories high. Each has a screen deck area with views of the Privassion River. The tiled Japanese-style baths are large and special soaps and lotions are complimentary. Between the two bedrooms is a great room with kitchen and an unscreened deck (mosquitoes are only rarely a problem in the Pine Ridge.)
Note that getting about Blancaneaux’s hilly grounds requires climbing many steps up and down. The regular cabañas, though far less spacious and luxurious than the villas, are pleasant for a couple, especially with their new decks and recently remodeled bathrooms.
A new swimming pool was added in 2004.
The lodge has 24-hour electricity provided by a hydro-electric plant. Staffers can enjoy satellite TV in their rooms, but nothing so pedestrian is available in the guest lodging. The dining room in the main lodge building is comfortably upscale.
The Italian dishes in the restaurant are excellent, if a little pricey, and gradually a wider variety of choices has been added, a boon to those staying for more than a few days. You can even get real espresso and pizza from a wood-burning pizza oven. Most of the fruits and vegetables served are grown in the lodge’s organic gardens. Wines from the Niebaum Coppola Estate Winery in Napa Valley are available.
When you’re in the bar, just
off the lobby, note the slate bar top carved by the Garcia sisters. In the winter,
the fireplace in the bar adds a cozy touch when nights drop into the low 50s.
The hotel and restaurant service, under Anne Wood’s calm Scot’s
hand, is excellent. Many tours are available. Coppola also operates the Turtle
Inn in Placencia and a small hotel near Tikal in Guatemala.
Service is more-than-competent and very friendly, from a multilingual staff.
Contact: Blancaneaux Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge (Mail: P.O. Box B, Central Farm, Cayo); tel. 501- 824-3878, fax 824-3919, or in the U.S., tel. 800-746-3743; e-mail email@example.com; www.blancaneauxlodge.com.
Rates: Cabanas are US$155 to $210 in-season ($120 to $185 May 1-Nov. 1) as opposed to US$355, double occupancy, or US$415 for four people, for the villas in-season (US$305 off-season double and $360 quad). Mr. Coppola’s personal villa is US$380 double (US$330 off-season). All rates are plus 7% hotel tax (9% starting in mid-2005) and 10% service. Included is a continental breakfast.
Location: In the Mountain Pine Ridge of western Belize, just off the road to Caracol, within the Pine Ridge Reserve.
How to get there: It takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive from Belize City. You pass a check point as you enter the Reserve. A private airstrip is near the resort. Blancaneaux has purchased a 9-passenger aircraft and will have a private pilot in residence to bring in guests on group packages. Charter service is also available from Belize City.
What to do nearby: By all means, see Caracol. Visit the Rio Frio Caves. Discover a waterfall or two. Drive back to San Ignacio to visit Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, or for nightlife and a change of dining pace.
Despite worthy and growing competition, Chaa Creek, which first opened its doors
in 1981, remains the premier cottage colony around San Ignacio.
Mick and Lucy Fleming started Chaa Creek when tourists were almost unknown in Cayo. (In 2004, Lucy was elected president of the Belize Tourism Industry Association.) Over the years, they’ve expanded, improved and fine-tuned their operation until it has become one of the best-run, most-professional operations in all of Central America.
Everything works here: The grounds, comprising a total of 330 acres on the Macal River, are beautifully planted and maintained. The 19 large rooms in whitewash-and-thatch duplex cottages, plus two upmarket suites, have high-quality furnishings set off with Guatemalan wall hangings and bedspreads, the perfect marriage of comfort and exoticism. New honeymoon “treetop suites” appear to defy gravity as they stand eye level among the upper most branches of hardwoods on banks of the Macal River. These one-bedroom suites have jacuzzis and decks. There's also a new Orchid cottage for families larger groups.
The food and drink, if not of true gourmet standard, are well-prepared and plentiful. Staffers are friendly, not fawning, and move quickly to solve any problem. There’s electricity, plenty of hot water and cold beer, and, if you like, Chaa Creek will sell you a Cuban cigar to enjoy after dinner with your cognac.
The latest additions are a fully equipped, modern spa, by far the best in Belize, offering everything from aromatherapy to seaweed wraps, and a new conference and meeting center. The spa and other changes mark a repositioning toward a more-upscale property.
You won’t run out of things to do here, either. You can visit the Chaa Creek Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Centre, tour the Rainforest Medicine Trail (formerly Panti Trail) next door, now operated by duPlooy’s Lodge, visit a Maya-style cacao plantation and other farming projects, go horseback riding or canoeing, or take one of the many top-notch tours offered by Chaa Creek Expeditions. Chaa Creek helped reintroduce howler monkeys to the Macal River Valley. Birding is excellent, with 247 species spotted on the grounds by Birds without Borders, which has an operation based at Chaa Creek. Chaa Creek has won a number of environmental and other awards.
For those who want the Chaa Creek experience at a Filene’s Basement price (US$110 double including breakfast and dinner), the Macal River Safari Camp has 10 small “cabinettes” on platforms, and Belizean-style meals that some say are better than meals at the main lodge.
There is a small gift shop on site with a decent selection of Guatemalan goods.
Chaa Creek's bar is first rate, a fine place to gather after a day of touring or river rafting. (Keep a flashlight handy, though, for the after-dark stumble back to your casita.) The restaurant serves more-or-less typical lodge fare, plentiful and tasty but in most cases not memorable. Breakfast, with fresh Guatemalan coffee, freshly baked breads and fresh fruits and jam, is always excellent.
Contact: The Lodge at Chaa Creek, Chial Rd., (P.O Box 53, San Ignacio, Cayo); tel. 501-824-2037, fax 824-2501; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.chaacreek.com.
Rates: Cottage rooms,
US$165 double in-season, US$150 off; suites US$190 to $365 in-season, US$175-$330
off. New treetop suites are US$275 in-season, US$250 off. The top-dollar rates
get you some of the most luxurious digs in Belize. Rates are plus tax and 10%
service. Meals are extra: US$10 per person for breakfast, US$8 packed lunch,
US$26 dinner year-round, plus 9% tax and service. Packages and summer specials
Location: West of San Ignacio, a little over 3 miles off the Western Highway.
How to get there: It's less than 2 hours via the Western Highway to San Ignacio. From San Ignacio, go 4 3/4 miles west on Benque Rd. (Western Hwy.) and turn left on Chial Rd. (look for signs to Chaa Creek, duPlooy’s and Black Rock lodges). Follow signs on this unpaved road 3 1/2 miles to Chaa Creek.
What to do nearby: Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, and a couple of newly discovered Maya sites, are nearby. Caracol is about 3 1/2 hours away. Visit the Rio Frio Caves. Go canoeing or waterfalling. Don't miss Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. San Ignacio and Santa Elena are pleasant towns, quiet except when the beer flows.