As you crest the last hill of a long, rocky road, Jaguar Paw comes into view.
Do you remember the scene from Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's controversial 1979 remake of Heart of Darkness, where, deep in the Cambodian jungle, at last Martin Sheen comes upon the isolated camp of Marlon Brando?
The main building of Jaguar Paw resort, with its fantastic skin of masonry, faux Maya bas reliefs, and green marble, all framed by cohune palms and lush flora, may remind you of nothing less than Brando's fantastic, surreal home in the jungle. What, you say, is this doing out in the middle of nowhere?
Cy and Donna Young, ex-Floridians who created Jaguar Paw, may see it as their vision of the perfect resort and a permanent vacation from the U.S. rat race. For me, Jaguar Paw is more than that. It could be the icon for a new phase of Belize tourism.
In the first phase came the pioneers, of which the Fort George in Belize City, now the Radisson Fort George and newly redone, was the neo-Colonial standard. Small, gritty places like Mom's Triangle Inn, recently closed after almost three decades, were the watering holes for budget travelers, back in the days when almost nobody had heard of Belize. The second phase was laid-back surf and turf, casual spots by the Caribbean, like the original resort on Ambergris Caye, the Holiday Hotel, or Vega's Far Inn on Caye Caulker, and small ecolodges on the mainland, Chaa Creek and, later, Adventure Inn in Consejo (now closed), Lamanai Lodge, Chan Chich, and also other, lesser ecotels.
Now comes the third phase: air conditioned luxury in a setting of great natural beauty.
I have seen the future of ecotourism in Belize, and just maybe it is Jaguar Paw, or places like it. Adventure by day, comfort by night, as the brochure says.
It is swimming pools. Gourmet food. Well-stocked bars. Ice-cold A/C. Perhaps tennis. Golf, someday. And U.S. prices.
Or is it?
The answer may eventually come from large travel agents and from key wholesalers who play a role in selling Belize to North American and European travelers. Wholesalers such as Magnum Belize take a cut of at least 20% of the rate (more if charges for advertising and marketing are added). But wholesalers are especially vital to Belize tourism, because the type of small hotel common in the country can't afford international advertising or reservations offices in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, though for most the internet has made marketing a lot easier.
These travel agents and wholesalers say there's a growing market out there for luxury in the wild, not as a replacement for the established ecotraveler and dive segments, but as an adjunct to them. The Belize market is maturing, they say, and it needs a variety of accommodations, from low- to high-end. The quality places, such as Chaa Creek, Chan Chich and and Coppola's own refurbished lodge, Blancaneaux, stay busy, they note, despite being near the top of the Belize rate scale.
Working on commission,these agents naturally would rather sell a US$1,000, four-day package than a US$30-a-day budget deal.
Jaguar Paw's rates, like those of other top-end resorts in Belize, are not for the back-pack set. A couple eating all meals at Jaguar Paw and taking one tour per day likely will pay more than US$400 a day including taxes and service.
But don't blame the price of travel just on wholesalers and travel agents. These days, travel consumers themselves are expecting more luxury and more elegance. Aging baby boomers, used to having everything, expect the best when they're on the road. Beach houses with hot tubs rent before the ones without that Sybaritic touch. All-suites hotels have higher occupancies than budget motels. This upscaling of tourism is just another iteration in Belize of a trend that has swept across the Caribbean Basin and other parts of the region, especially Costa Rica and Mexico.
Let's admit it: When it's 90 degrees and 100% humidity, air conditioning feels good.
To be sure, in Belize, Chan Chich, Chaa Creek, Lamanai Lodge, Duplooy's, and others offer creature comforts for the weary birder or soft adventurer. But few lodges promise air conditioning in every room, filet mignon on the menu, a waterfall in the dining room, satellite TV at the bar, and most of the furnishings and fixtures imported from the U.S., as does Jaguar Paw.
None of this might be particularly remarkable, except for the setting. Jaguar Paw is in a remote area seven miles off the Western Highway, with the access road starting at Mile 37 east of Belmopan near the village of Frank's Eddy. The electrical grid is far away, and the only telephone is a fixed cellular system.
Just a few hundred feet from the hotel door is the Caves Branch River and a massive cave system, some of it unexplored in modern times. Guests can take guided river rafting tours on the river and through the caves. At seemingly every turn, pottery and other untouched Mayan artifacts are there for the viewing.
Jaguars roam the virgin jungle around Jaguar Paw (the resort was named for a Mayan ruler, not for the jaguar itself.) Since jaguars are nocturnal, guests would be lucky to see one, but they may spot footprints.
Only those who have spent some time in Belize, who have seen jury-rigged water heaters in the shower or second-hand furniture in a luxury hotel, can appreciate what an accomplishment it is in Belize for a resort to have plumbing fixtures that run like Swiss clocks, or perfectly color-coordinated bedspreads, throw pillows, and lamps.
The Youngs, with an investment concession from the Belize government, imported much of the furnishings, materials, and equipment needed to build the resort from scratch. They fought customs bureaucrats and lived with reported kidnapping threats from lawless Guatemalans who crossed into Belize.
Although the exact cost of establishing the resort, which sits on some 200 acres, isn't known, a report in International Living newsletter put it at US$2 million. Cy Young says it was much less than that. "It is nobody's business how much we spent," he says.
Jaguar Paw opened its doors in January 1996.
The lodge has 16 rooms in four one-story units located to the back of the main building. Rather than the thatch-roof cabaña that has become the de fact standard for ecolodges in Belize, the Youngs opted to go with standard North American-style construction. Each room was decorated by Donna Young in a different theme -- Wild West (complete with a John Wayne poster), Chinese, English Country Garden, and Africa are some of them.
The furnishings are of high quality, the beds firm, the accessories and nicknacks of the type seldom found in hotels, for fear of theft by a souvenir-hunting guest.
The centerpiece of the restaurant in the main building is a high rock wall designed to have water cascading down, although on my visit the waterfall wasn't yet working properly. As you dine on shrimp scampi or rib-eye steak, you enjoy a colorful Maya-inspired mural, painted by Pamela Braun, on the 40-foot high walls of the room.
Out back, next to a toucan cage, framed by luxuriant foliage, waits a beautiful swimming pool.
Twenty-four hour air conditioning at Jaguar Paw is provided by big, 100 kilowatt generators discreetly tucked away from the hotel.
A small price, some would say, after a hard day rafting a pristine jungle river and clambering through ancient caves, for a the pleasures of an icy martini, a hot shower, and cold, cold air conditioning.
Others, old Belize hands, pull on a rum, run their fingers through their hair, and mutter about the days back when.
Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST.
Jaguar Paw, Off Mile 37, Western Highway (P.O. Box Tel. 501-820-2023, fax 820-2024, or tel. in the U.S. 888-775-8645; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.jaguarpaw.com. Directions: Turn south at Mile 37 of the Western Highway and follow the dirt path about 7 miles to the lodge.
If your idea of roughing it at a jungle lodge includes air conditioning, ice-cold martinis and 24-hour electricity, Jaguar Paw may be your kind of place. A lot of lodges claim to offer adventure by day, luxury by night, but this is one that actually lives up to the luxury promise. Opened in 1996, the lodge has 16 rooms in four one-story units located to the back of the main building. Rather than the thatch-roof cabaña style that has become the de facto standard for lodges in Belize, the owners, ex-Floridians Cy and Donna Young, went with North American-style construction. Each room was decorated by Donna in a different theme: Wild West (complete with a John Wayne poster), Chinese, English Country Garden, and African are some of them. The furnishings are of high quality, the beds firm, the accessories and knickknacks of the type rarely found in hotels, for fear of theft by a souvenir-hunting guest. The centerpiece of the restaurant in the Maya temple-inspired main building is a high rock wall with water cascading down. There’s a colorful Maya-inspired mural, painted by Pamela Braun, on the 25-foot high walls of the room. Out back, next to an aviary, framed by luxuriant foliage, waits a beautiful swimming pool. The 24-hour air-conditioning at Jaguar Paw is provided by big generators discreetly tucked away from the hotel. For the adventure part, the lodge specializes in tube floats down the Caves Branch river, which is next door to the lodge. On the trip you float through subterranean caves still filled with Maya pottery and other artifacts. A half-day cave tubing trip is US$40 per person, and a full-day trip US$70. At times when cruise ships are in port in Belize City, sizeable tour groups come for the cave tubing here. The lodge offers other tours and adventures including fresh-water fishing and rock climbing. Birding and hiking are good, and there are some 9 miles of trails on the lodge’s 215 acres.
2003-2004 Rates: US$170 double, Dec. 15-May 15, US$140 rest of year, plus 7% tax and 10% service. Meals extra.
Natural Setting: A-
Belizean Atmosphere: C-
Recommended by BELIZE FIRST? Yes, for travelers seeking a combination of creature comforts and soft adventure in the jungle; also makes a nice last stop en route home, or a first night in country, as an alternative to an overnight in Belize City.
Jaguar Paw: A Second Opinion Another traveler reviews this resort.