June, 2012 – Belize…Adventures in Culture, Caves and Chocolate
Travel with Terri
Belize: Adventures in culture, caves and chocolate
Article and Photos By Terri Marshall
Belize brings to mind images of beach resorts and scuba diving, but travel further south to the “forgotten district” of Toledo and you will find a Belize full of cultural diversity, Indiana Jones worthy caves, waterfalls, remote parks, Mayan villages and acres of untouched jungle begging to be explored. Here you will find adventure and also the source of something really wonderful…chocolate.
For my adventure I boarded a wee little plane in Belize City and flew about as far south as you can go to the town of Punta Gorda where I was met by a driver waiting to whisk our group further into the jungle. After dodging dogs, pigs and the occasional Brahman bull in the road, our bumpy ride concluded literally at the end of the road at the Cotton Tree Lodge.
Nestled between the banks of the Moho River and a rainforest, Cotton Tree Lodge is an enchanting all-inclusive eco-lodge comprised of 11 fully-screened private cabanas with thatched roofs and balconies with welcoming hammocks! Residents include horses, goats, chickens, roosters, sheep, incredibly large iguanas and unbelievably noisy howler monkeys! Welcome.
Southern Belize has the perfect climate for cacao trees and cacao is the beginning of a beautiful thing – chocolate. Cotton Tree Lodge’s chocolate week was the reason for our visit and after settling into our cabanas, attending a welcome dinner and adjusting to the growling monkeys in the distance, we received our itinerary for chocolate week.
Day One: How it all begins
We started the day with a walk through the jungle farm to harvest cacao pods from the trees. Our guide, Sam, taught us how to break open the pods and inside was something that closely resembled the creature from Alien – a bit of a surprise. We sampled the sweet fruit surrounding the cacao seeds then took our harvest to the Moho River Cacao company to begin the fermenting and drying processes that ultimately provide cocoa beans for chocolate making.
Day Two: The happiest man alive
Our agenda brought the farm to chocolate experience to a new level with a visit to Eladio Pop’s jungle farm. A Mayan who has lived in this jungle his entire life, Eladio never wears a shirt, always carries a machete, has one wife, 15 children and enough happiness to share with all the world. We walked with Eladio through his jungle farm learning about the crops, tasting coconut straight from the trees, eating apple bananas, sampling the tart Jamaican limes and chewing leaves used to alleviate toothaches!
At the conclusion of our tour, Eladio invited us to his home to meet his family where his wife, Virginia, served a traditional Mayan meal of chicken, tortillas, pepper slaw, rice with vegetables and plantains. After lunch Eladio’s oldest daughter gave us a demonstration of the traditional chocolate making techniques used for centuries in the Mayan culture.
Day Three: Caves, rocks and altars…oh my
Our destination for the day was Blue Creek Cave known as Hokeb Ha in Mayan for an Indiana Jones style adventure. Located in the tiny Mayan village of Blue Creek, this 200 million year old cave is one of the largest underground cave systems in the world. Silly tourists that we are, we followed our guide deep into this massive cave to the place “where the water enters the earth”!
The adventure started out deceptively easy with a 20 minute jungle hike upstream along the banks of the river. Then the rocks appeared which required a bit of navigating and the scaling of a rock wall! At the mouth of the cave, our guide, Agapito, gave us life jackets, head lamps and warnings of possible sacrifices. After the first turn inside the cave all natural light disappeared and the lights from our headlamps reflected on gorgeous stalactites, stalagmites and unique rock formations including an altar which was in fact used for sacrifices in ancient times!
The upstream swimming included climbing up three waterfalls and navigating major Mount Rushmore sized boulders – but with the help of a very strong guide, we all managed to reach the end with relatively minor injuries…except for one broken toe and bruises worthy of a photo gallery!
Day Four: A Mayan chocolate maker with a vision and a sunset sail
Our fourth day of chocolate week confirmed what I suspected all along – the Mayans do not believe the world will end in 2012. Juan Cho is the only authentic Mayan chocolate maker in the world and this enterprising young man has a 25 year business plan that is only in year six! He welcomed us to his jungle farm where he actually let me use the machete – to the horror of my group who by this point were well aware of my lack of coordination!
Still recovering from the cave swimming adventure, we spent the afternoon aboard a sailboat captained by lodge owner, Chris Crowell. Our sunset sail took us down the Moho River into the Bay of Honduras where we could see the mountains of Guatemala in the distance. Along the way we passed the home of a man who has fathered 75 children. I am not kidding.
Day Five: More chocolate, a visit to town and cliff jumping
After a few days in the jungle, venturing into the town of Punta Gorda with its coral, turquoise and yellow buildings felt like a visit to the city. Here we toured the Cotton Tree Chocolate Factory and witnessed chocolate making tools used in a small factory which included drills, blow dryers and toaster ovens.
After making our own chocolate bars, we wandered the streets of Punta Gorda shopping for crafts made in the local Mayan villages and popping into the Up Stairs Lounge for a Belikin – the official beer of Belize complete with a Mayan Temple logo!
Our afternoon destination was the Rio Blanco National Park – a park so remote it sees less than 100 visitors each year. Along the way we passed through villages without electricity and traveled along roads literally being built as we passed. From our windows we saw Mayan children in traditional clothing playing among pigs and chickens and truly felt we had experienced time travel.
Rio Blanco National Park encompasses 105 acres of jungle, a river and the Rio Blanco waterfall. Leaping from the limestone cliffs above the waterfall into the clear bottomless pool below was the plan, but after standing 20 feet atop the cliff looking down into the water, I decided I actually did have an adventure limit. Others apparently do not and lived to tell the tale. Good for them.
Day Six: Goats, horses and a night in the jungle
The day started with the milking of the goats – a venture successful enough to provide us with fresh goat cheese for lunch! The day also included the planting of cacao seedlings which will become cacao trees and ultimately the source for future chocolate.
A dip in the Moho River provided relief from the jungle heat and swinging under the trees in the hammocks helped a bit too. After an afternoon horseback ride in wooden saddles through the heart of the jungle, it was time for a drink – so we indulged in the national drink of Belize, the “Panty Ripper”!
Since it was to be our final night, my roommates and I felt we should immerse ourselves in all things jungle by spending a night in the Jungle Cabana. Located ¼ mile down a footpath away from well…everything…this small cabana with a balcony looking straight into the jungle gave us a night to remember. A scorpion, a mega-moth and a spider the size of a saucer took up residence with us and our wake up call was personally delivered by the howler monkeys!
Southern Belize is a place for those with an adventurous spirit. There is something magical about this place – something that will draw you in and make you long to return for more adventure. www.cottontreelodge.com
Terri is a freelance writer with regular columns on travel, chocolate and bar reviews. She is busy each month visiting new places to bring unique travel destinations and events to you. Yes, it is a sacrifice – but she is willing to do that for her readers! You can see more of Terri’s writing at www.examiner.com where she is the National Chocolate Examiner and at www.barzz.net. You can contact Terri at firstname.lastname@example.org.