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December 08, 2010

Luxury Belizean Jungle Jaunts

By Guest Blogger

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Cayo—Belize's largest district—conceals a magnificent history of memorable lodging. The ancient Maya made their homes here inside epic citadels from Caracol to Xunantunich. Modern visitors not only come to admire these early civilizations, they seek out total relaxation among the foothills of the Maya mountains and along the jungle-fringed coast.

You don't have to rough it to convene with nature in Belize. Here are four jaw-droppingly elegant eco lodges from each of Belize's cardinal points to get you into its varied and verdant landscape.

West is Best: Hidden Valley InnHidden valley
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve; double rooms from $165.
Western Belize is bursting with exemplary jungle lodges but I believe Hidden Valley has the edge. This birders' haven hides out inside the Mountain Pine Ridge within a 7,200-acre private reserve. Its guides are among the best in Belize. Service is personal, attentive, and sincere, making it possible to learn the names of every member of staff after only a two-night stay. Even a cup of coffee, grown on the reserve, is roasted just for the guest. Ninety miles of creative trails, cut by landscaper Peter Durhager, enable guests to explore this hidden valley—on foot or by bike—without seeing another soul. Peter is no longer maintaining the trails (it's being handled internally by the hotel) and, while he lived in South Africa for many years, his nationality is Austrian. Sociable sorts chat by the fireplace (it can get surprisingly chilly at night), which forms the bar's focal point. Alternatively, cozy up by your private hearth in one of 12 cottages nestled in the grounds. For extra comfort, two deluxe suites include elegantly screened porches, slung with hammocks for hanging out with a good book. Outside showers mimic the reserve's natural cascades. Romantically minded guests reserve private waterfalls for the day ($120 including lunch and sparkling wine). Find your inner peace on one of their yoga pavilions, in handy hiking distance of the lodge.
(Photo Credit: Hidden Valley Inn)

East of Eden: Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort
Hopkins; double rooms from $195.
Hamanasi stands out among Belizes' upscale lodgings for superb service, nationwide excursions, safety-conscious scuba diving, and elegant decor. I admired its distinctly Central American design touches from fine art-by Nelson Young and other notable Belizean painters-to artisan textiles, exotic hardwoods, and ceramic tiles. It is an excellent base for jaunts in the jungle at Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve and Mayflower Bocawina National Park, both under a 30 minute drive from the resort. With just 21 accommodations, namely 12 beachfront rooms and nine fairytale tree houses, Hamanasi fits the boutique hotel bill. Aptly, its name derives from the Garifuna word for Belize's native almond nut, produced by the coastal hamans tree. Hamanasi sits at the south end of Hopkins Village—arguably Belize's most traditional Garifuna Settlement—bringing guests into close contact with local life and culture.

Chan chich 
(Chan Chich Lodge)

Northern delights: Chan Chich Lodge  
Double room from $205.
Late Belizean beer baron Barry Bowen built this chic jungle lodge around an archaeological site (770 BC-AD 900). The name Chan Chich or "little bird"—afforded to the lodge and ruins—stems from a nearby creek. Nine miles of trails—including original sacbeob or Mayan roads—weave around one-time temples and residences. Turf-topped Mayan mounds provide viewing posts for birders. Guests sleep in 12 fully screened, thatched-roof cabanas inside the ancient plaza. Upscale interiors feature hardwood furniture and crisp white bed linens; outside there's a wrap-around veranda with hammocks. Inside Chan Chich's elegant two-bedroom villas are opulent colonial-style furnishings, a private bar, fully screened terrace with hot-tub, and the most comfortable beds and sofas you've ever sunk into. More than 97 percent of the private 130,000-acre estate is protected. Explore it on horseback, on foot, and by canoe. You can spot some 350 species of avifauna, Central American spider monkeys, black howler monkeys, and, if you're lucky, jaguars and other wildcats. Biologists Bruce and Carolyn Miller, based on the estate since 1990, give talks to guests, sharing footage from their hidden "cat-cams."

Southern Belle: Machaca Hill Lodge
Punta Gorda; double room from $280.
Super-fly accommodations have yet to populate Toledo district on any scale. Machaca Hill is the great exception in southerly Belize. Perched upon a private 12,000-acre reserve—with views over the seven hills—the setting is dramatic. Formerly the fishing-obsessed El Pescador, the hotel's current incarnation is overtly luxurious. Enjoy the carefully composed denouement as you drive through orange groves, and ascend the arboreal mount where the lodge unfurls. Lavish textiles, in muted green, brown, and silver, drape the beds in its 12 hardwood, air-conditioned cabanas with private verandas and rainforest views. Palatial bathrooms include monsoon showers clad in polished river pebbles. Following the irresistible sounds of Garifuna drumming, I boarded the funicular leading down to the lodge's Rio Grande riverfront deck. It's the domain of cocktail evenings. Zimbabwean executive chef Ken Gundu has brought fine dining to Toledo, using organic produce from the Machaca Hill farm. Pray for his Maya-influenced signature dish of marinated lamb pibil slow-cooked under hot coals. The lodge collaborates with local farmers to produce its own chocolate, hill-grown coffee, and honey.

Kate Joynes-Burgess is the author of Belize: A Great Destination, part of the Explorer's Guide series published by the Countryman Press. Available for pre-order on Amazon, it is the ultimate guidebook for extraordinary adventure and discovery dedicated to this eclectic country. Kate is a travel writer, political analyst, and photographer with a predilection for Latin America and the Caribbean. Her work has featured in many international publications and guidebooks and appears regularly on the BBC News website and in Travel+Leisure.

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Related Topics: Central America Travel · Eco-Tourism


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Great post Kate! Definitely going to keep these in mind for next year -- usually we just stay on Ambergris and do day trips back to the mainland, but it would be nice to spend a couple days in the Cayo District! Private waterfalls?!?! How awesome!

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