Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fifty shades of green

Belcampo Belize, Toledo's five-star agri-tourism eco-lodge, sits on 9,310 hectares of untrammelled, tangled jungle

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Oversized hummingbirds and a pair of toucans flit about a tangle of jungle that is 50 shades of moist green. A hefty iguana flicks his tongue at me as troops of treetop howler monkeys unleash a choir of otherworldly rasps and gasps that sound more like aggravated dinosaurs.

I feel like I'm on the set of Jurassic Park and I haven't even got out of the shower yet.

Belcampo Belize is an agri-tourism eco-lodge that is all about saturating its guests in locally farmed organic food, Mayan culture and tropical nature. There's a full-frontal picture window facing the jungle in every suite's spa-like bathroom.

An English-speaking country wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize's sparsely populated southernmost province of Toledo is a remote frontier lucky to have retained about 75 per cent of its rainforest.

I fly into Toledo's Caribbean-paced main town of Punta Gorda (pop: 6,000) with its funky mix of dreadlocks, expats and rickety seaside watering holes and am picked up for the 20-minute shuttle to the hilltop perch of Toledo's only luxury lodge overlooking 9,310 hectares of largely untrammelled jungle.

Relaxing on wicker sofas overlooking the jungle, I meet several couples who chose Belcampo for its varied activities -- one woman loved the unique tropical foodie/farm immersion in exotic edibles while her hubby went saltwater fly-fishing for the elusive trio of bonefish, tarpon and permit: a birdwatching aficionado had her binoculars aimed at toucanettes and motmots at 5 a.m. while her husband mountain biked, trekked to waterfalls and swam through huge limestone caves. Together they snorkelled, prowled Mayan ruins and savoured fresh organic salsa and sundowners with coconut, citrus and herbs from the property's Cocktail Garden.

While some resorts brand themselves "eco" by simply asking guests to hang up towels for a second use, Belcampo takes the designation to a higher level.

While offering five-star quality in their 16 suites, they nix wasteful amenity bottles in favour of in-room and spa products locally and organically produced. Laundry is line-dried. Furniture is crafted on-site from sustainably harvested wood.

Table waste is composted or fed to chickens and pigs residing on Belcampo's 405-hectare farm, 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 my waiter how far my first breakfast has travelled to reach my plate, he does a quick count -- "About 500 metres."

"Roughly 70 per cent of the food we put on the table is local," says Mara Jernigan, Belcampo's Canadian general manager. "What we don't produce ourselves we source from local farmers whose practices we know well, including dairy products and veal from a nearby Mennonite community."

Mara is a chef, cooking teacher, organic farmer and longtime food activist.

She grabbed the chance in 2011 to help convert a failed Belizean fly-fishing lodge into an eco-retreat on the cutting edge of agri-tourism. In a country with no McDonald's, Walmart or Costco, the feisty foodie started up a working farm, managing a staff of 70 locals representing Toledo's cultural kaleidoscope -- descendants of Confederates, Caribbean slaves, British buccaneers, East-Indian indentured labourers and indigenous Mesoamericans.

My first morning starts with a wander through the hawkers and colourful stalls of Punta Gorda's fish and farmer's market. Then it's off to Belcampo's Bean to Bar chocolate-making workshop. Elon Ranguy, director of farm operations, starts it off with the Farm Tour, showing off crops including purple star apples, turmeric, coffee and a nursery crammed with wild, high-quality criollo cacao plants.

We taste the sweet fresh fruit enveloping the almond-sized bean in the ripe pod Elon split with his machete. Then we move inside to one of three modern agri-tourism pavilions -- the other two will soon be busy with coffee and artisanal rum workshops -- tasting our way throughout the roasting, grinding and tempering processes until we finally pour satiny-brown liquid into forms for our own chocolate bars!

The next day, guide Vince Ical, takes us to the Mayan ruins of Lubaantun with its temple platforms and museum collection of clay figurines and whistles. Then we head to his own Mayan village of Blue River where his wife creates a delicious traditional Belizean meal including curried palm hearts, marinated grilled chicken from their free-range backyard critters and still-hot corn tortillas served in their home, overlooking a turquoise stream.

We hike up that river afterward, slipping on life-vests and swimming into a great yawning cave winding in the vast cool blackness toward a small waterfall, headlamps spotlighting crystal stalactites sparkling on the high ceiling.

Over the following days I kayak, hike and visit the commercial Spice Garden to see exotic flavours like cardamom, vanilla and nutmeg on the vine. I watch chocolate being made the Mayan way by Eladio Pop's family (he is featured in the NFB documentary The Chocolate Farmer), including grinding the beans on a stone metate and sipping hot cocoa out of a calabash shell.

Snorkelling With the Chef is on the menu for my final day when we cruise down the mangrove-lined Rio Grande into the Caribbean Ocean. We snorkel, helping chef Brandon Genus free-dive for conch. After he spears two snappers and heads off to slice and dice, we explore the warm waters off tiny Moho Cay, spotting barracuda and sergeant majors. On the way back, when Brandon delivers conch and snapper ceviche, we scoop it with homemade tortilla chips while swishing freshly picked allspice leaf around in our Mayan Sunset cocktail.

 

-- Postmedia News

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A1

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