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 750-square-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 longer resist the clarion call of the shallow 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 his 23-foot panga for the vast series of flats 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 that we might be able to ambush some fish 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.
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A number of carriers provide service to Belize City, including United, American and Delta. Tropic Air (800-422-3435; www.tropicair.com) provides service from Belize City to Punta Gorda.
Belcampo Belize Lodge
Wilson Rd., Punta Gorda, Toledo
A three-night, two-day fly-fishing package — which includes round trip airfare from Belize City to Punta Gorda, nightly accommodation, all meals and use of facilities — begins at $1,721 a person, based on double occupancy.
Ten-weight fly rods with floating saltwater line are best. Belcampo has a selection of flies for purchase, and some equipment guests can borrow.