Author: Caren Osten Gerszberg
For just the right balance of adventure and relaxation, rainforest exploring and beach lounging, this Central America country is a find, and a great value.
When planning a recent winter holiday for our family, my husband and I were seeking just the right balance of adventure and relaxation, rainforest exploring and beach time lounging. After researching our options, Belize came up the winner, and lived up to every expectation we had of a fantastic family destination.
Belize, located in Central America, shares borders with Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west, stretching in length along the Caribbean Sea to its east. Composed of many cultures speaking a variety of languages, Belize, once under British rule, is oddly the only country in Central America where English is the official language. Although it’s a small country, roughly the size of Massachusetts, getting from place to place can take the better part of a day. So with an eight-day trip, we narrowed down our visits to two different regions, one in the western part of Belize and one in the southeast.
Chaa Creek, a Civilized Eco-Lodge
With our three kids, Nicole, 15, Emily, 13, and Simon, 8, in tow, we flew into Belize City. We were met by a staff member from the Lodge at Chaa Creek, who drove us two hours to the resort outside the town of San Ignacio, not far from the border with Guatemala. Despite the beauty of the rainforest suddenly surrounding us, our children’s eyes grew wide when they saw the lodge’s enticing new infinity-edge pool, which just opened this past December. It was the perfect respite after a long day of travel.
Spread out above the banks of the Macal River, each of Chaa Creek’s 23 timber-decked cottages has a thatched roof with large screened windows and doors. Designed to bring guests as close to nature as possible, our cottage allowed us to see and hear it from nearly every angle -- we searched for iguanas each morning after being woken up by the singing birds. The property also has a campsite, where guests stay in wooden structures with tented ceilings -- a great way for a family to experience Chaa Creek at a much lower price.
Chaa Creek is lovingly cared for by its owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, a charismatic couple who built the resort’s first cottage, with their own hands, 28 years ago. From its inception, the lodge has been dedicated to ecotourism and local culture, and is just the type of place, with no phones or televisions in sight, where we love to stay as a family. Upon checking in, a staff member brought us a little box house with a pupa, which would hopefully hatch into a butterfly during our stay, and which we were instructed to set free (while reading a Shakespeare poem).
Meals are eaten in the lodge’s centrally located, open-air restaurant, where we enjoyed delicious food. I can still taste the morning’s huevos rancheros, the evening’s fresh chimichurri-marinated chicken, and the best coffee, from neighboring Guatemala, I’ve had in a long while. All of the vegetables and fruit served are grown on the nearby Maya farm.
Busy Days in the San Ignacio Rainforest
During our stay at Chaa Creek, a two-hour canoe ride down the Macal River was one of our family’s highlights. The lodge staff explained where our stopping point would be in the town of San Ignacio, how they’d retrieve the canoes and then send a driver to bring us back to the lodge. A few small rapids gave us the occasional boost down the river, and once in town we made our way to the outdoor vegetable market to get a taste of local flavors, finishing up with lunch at a restaurant called Hannah’s.
One morning, our family divided and the boys joined a guided hike of Chaa Creek’s Medicinal Trail, while we girls headed to the stable for a three-hour horseback ride with a guide named Robert.
The son of Hondurans, Robert was very knowledgeable about the Belizian flora and fauna and as we rode through the low-level rainforest and open fields, he stopped often to point out a strangling fig tree, the chewing gum tree, the dirt covered Mayan ruins and finally, the fresh bounty growing on the Maya farm.
That afternoon, we regrouped and set out to visit the nearby Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. We toured the city, once home to more than 10,000 Mayans, and climbed to the top of El Castillo, the highest ruin which allows for sweeping views of the city and the surrounding mountains and valleys.
After the ruins, we headed to the Iguana Project, located on the grounds of the San Ignacio Hotel. Eddie, the project’s naturalist, led us to a screened-in area to get up close to some of the full grown iguanas. We held the largest one, about three-feet long, who cocked his head to let us know he is the boss. But the baby iguanas, ranging in size from 4- to 10-inches long, had our kids squealing in delight as Eddie placed them all over their heads, arms and bodies.
Back at Chaa Creek, we wrapped up our stay with a short hike up to the lodge’s Butterfly Farm and Nature Center, where a guided tour, offered hourly, taught us about each stage of the Blue Morpho butterfly.
Turtle Inn, Placencia: Water Explorations
While we were sad to leave the beauty of the rainforest and Chaa Creek, we were excited for our next destination and some beach time.
After a three-hour drive and a 10-minute boat ride, we arrived at our next Belizian destination -- the Turtle Inn, one of three Central American hotels owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Located on the southeastern coast in Placencia, the inn has 25 cottages scattered along the beachfront. Our cottage, just steps away from the ocean, had two bedrooms, and a lovely veranda with a large wooden dining table.
With three restaurants to choose from -- one Italian, one serving local Belizian food, and the third devoted to fish served beachfront -- good meals are easy to come by. To get our bearings, we chose bikes from the hotel’s fleet (offered gratis to guests) and rode 10 minutes down the road into Placencia. We ate delicious fresh shrimps at a local jaunt called Wendy’s (not the fast food chain) for lunch, and visited a few of the local shops.
The following morning, we woke early to have breakfast before heading out on a snorkel and scuba diving excursion organized by the hotel’s dive shop. We got into a boat with a few other guests and rode across the sea for 45 minutes to a small island called Laughingbird Caye. Emily, Simon and I swam in the crystal clear waters with our snorkel guide, while Rich and Nicole set out with a different guide and group for scuba diving. We all reconvened on the island for a delicious picnic lunch which we had preordered.
On our last full day at the Turtle Inn, we again woke bright and early and took a 10-minute boat ride to Mango Creek, where we were met by our guide Cerillo. After an hour-and-a-half drive, we arrived at the Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve where we hiked two miles in the rainforest to a waterfall. After another scrumptious picnic lunch, we picked out tubes at the visitor’s center and carried them down a trail to the river. We got in, and tubed down the river for about 30 minutes, catching some mild rapids that gently pulled us along. As we bumped into trees and rocks, we laughed and rolled along down the river.
It was tough to leave the pristine surroundings and laid back culture we’d enjoyed for eight days, but we knew we’d be back. Many of the people we’d met had been returning to Belize repeatedly, as there seems to be a plethora of opportunities to enjoy its nature and exploration possibilities.
So I added cave tubing and a visit to Ambergris Caye off the coast to my list, in the hopes that we’ll get back to Belize real soon.