Banana-beaked toucans soar through a tangle of jungle that is 50 shades of moist green and reverberating with the otherworldly rasps and gasps of howler monkeys: smack in the middle of this Jurassic Park-ish rainforest is Belcampo Belize, a unique agri-tourism eco-lodge. Belize is an English speaking country in Central America wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, and its sparsely populated southernmost province of Toledo is a remote frontier lucky to have retained about 75 per cent of its rainforest.
After flying into Toledo’s Caribbean-paced main town of Punta Gorda (population: 6,000) with its funky mix of dreadlocks, expats and rickety seaside watering holes, it’s a 20-minute shuttle to the hilltop perch of Toledo’s only luxury lodge set amid 23,000 acres of tropical forest. It’s a playground for exotic bird watching, saltwater fly-fishing, hiking, kayaking, snorkelling, caving, jungle river cruising, and visiting Mayan ruins and villages for cross-cultural experiences.
While some resorts brand themselves “eco” by simply asking guests to hang up towels for a second use, Belcampo takes the designation to a seriously higher level. While offering fivestar quality in its 16 suites, they mixed waste-intensive amenity bottles in favour of in-room and spa products locally and organically produced. Laundry is linedried. Furniture is crafted on-site from sustainably harvested wood.
Table waste is composted or fed to chickens and pigs residing on Belcampo’s 1,000-acre farm, the source of the organic dining room’s free-range eggs nestled alongside cinnamon bark housesmoked 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, a chef, cooking teacher, organic farmer and long-time food activist.
What they don’t produce themselves they source from local farmers whose practices they know well, including dairy products, veal and watermelons from a nearby Mennonite community. The feisty foodie started up the working farm when she arrived in 2011 and also manages a staff of 100 including 70 locals representing Toledo’s cultural kaleidoscope – descendants of American Confederates, Caribbean slaves, British buccaneers, East Indian indentured labourers and indigenous Mesoamericans. Guests can take part in several food-related adventures like spending the day snorkelling with the chef for conch and lobster, and eating fresh spear-fished snapper ceviche onboard.
The Bean-to-Bar chocolate-making workshop starts with plucking almond-sized cacao beans from pods and tasting them throughout the roasting, grinding and tempering processes until the satiny liquid is poured into chocolate bar moulds. Similar rum and coffee experiences are soon to come.
Belcampo is the province’s biggest private employer and training staff is a challenge since Belize retains legacies of its colonial past as British Honduras (independence came only in 1981). “We work hard to train the “Yes ma’am/no sir/ staff-are-not-meant-to-be-seen-orheard/ be-ashamed-of-your-localculture” attitudes out of them,” says Jernigan. “We want them to speak up and be creative. We’re always looking for young leaders so they can learn to manage.” Belcampo feeds all its staff on shift. “Often it’s the best meal they’ll eat all day”, she says. Payment is according to the country’s fair pay act and all staff receive a percentage of their salary when the lodge is shut down for five weeks of maintenance during the hurricane season.
The resort is owned by the California-based Belcampo company, which has a mandate to manage land and animals in a sustainable, humane and organic manner typical of small farms, then take that concept to market on a scale larger than anyone has to date – and to make a profit. It is well on its way at the California meat farm whose product is being sold in organic Belcampo-branded butcher shop/eateries that are spreading like wildfire.
Next on the menu are Belize’s indigenous offerings. One of the goals has been to preserve the country’s indigenous cuisine and heirloom crops, many lost during colonisation. They have cultivated wild vanilla the staff foraged from the jungle along with rare, high quality criollo cacao for chocolate making. Cacao is called the “Mayan’s gold” and is still used as currency, and by 2015 Belcampo will be the country’s biggest producer. The lodge has also planted sugar cane to rekindle the local rum industry with two stills currently under construction to produce artisanal brews, some flavoured with home-grown spices. To make this happen Belcampo is working with San Francisco–based Blue Bottle Coffee and Chicago’s Vosges Chocolate to take organic, ethically-produced high grade rum, coffee and chocolate from the farm all the way to the US and international marketplaces, building a long-term global market for Mayan products.