(This article was originally published on 7/30/08)
We cruise along the highway toward Belmopan, the Belizian capital. Roadside stands along the highway offer drinks and snacks. We encounter horses pulling long sticks of bamboo; we see a small boy waving an iguana for sale. It is intended as someone's dinner, despite the illegality of such offerings. Orange groves, lemon orchards, lush and wild flowering plants dot the landscape.
We pass smiling people, casually waving at our passing jeep. We are not, like most of the 500,000 tourists who come to this small, Central American country each year, going to the ocean to snorkel, sail, fish and observe sea life. We are going to the rain forest.
Nearly two hours after landing at Philip Goldson International Airport, we arrive at Ka'ana Boutique Resort and Spa. It is carved into a niche in the Cayo district's jungle. A right turn from the two-lane highway, up a small driveway and we are here.
Nick Davies, the congenial manager of the hotel, and Eva Garfield, the manager of public relations, greet us. We step into the open air lobby that is gracefully decorated with art. Glasses of a cool, fruity liquid are pressed into our hands. We sink into the sofas where smiling, dark haired women greet us by name. Soon, we have our key, which reads “8,” a piece of wood the size of an index card tied to a leather string. To our left is a winding path leading through lush vegetation. Upstairs is the air conditioned bar. Everywhere a gentle breeze blows the slight humidity away.
The Ka'ana is owned by the Lizarragas, young Belizian brothers who are part of the new entrepreneurial attitude punctuating the country. They own this hotel, and have recently purchased significant acreage on the ocean near Placencia, where they will start building a new hotel this fall. The Belize brothers are determined to find a balance between preserving their country's delicate ecology with the tourists who come to admire the Mayan ruins, to take in the sights of the second longest coral reef in the world, to stare at the birds and animals found roaming in the wild and the economy-fueling money they generate.
Our bungalow is at the far end of the path. We walk along, admiring the hibiscus, orchids and the bougainvillea. A small swimming pool with a flowing waterfall beckons and we see the spa from the walkway. The resort is cozy with elegant touches tucked in everywhere.
“Eco tourism is our future,” says Nick over drinks in the wine room later that evening. “The wine selection is extensive but still under construction,” he says. There is a large map of Belize on the wall which I peruse. I notice that at Ka'ana, we are less than 15 miles from the Guatemalan border.
Later, over a candlelit dinner in the main dining room, Ian Lizarraga explains his perspective.
“We are very lucky here. There are many who say they wish they could go to Costa Rico 40 years ago. Belize today is like 40 years ago in many countries.
“There are two types of people who come here. The people who are disappointed Belize doesn't have malls, McDonald's and high-¯end stores, and the person who is thrilled Belize doesn't have all that. San Ignacio hadn't changed much since my mother grew up there 80 years ago,” he adds.
We enjoy Nance, a local Belize liquor made from the native Craboo berry. Our dinner – U.S. beef tenderloin, small red potatoes and steamed vegetables from the hotel's garden – is delightful. Coconut flan ends the perfect meal.
Our casita has both a porch and a back deck.
We are surrounded by red hibiscus, oleandar and dracena. Inside our room is lovely – large, cool, with all the amenities you expect in the U.S. The 36-acre resort that comprises Ka’ana has only 14 rooms - the beds are plump and cushioned with down pillows - complete with plasma screen TVs, iPod docking stations, WiFi and all-natural soaps in the bathrooms.
The next morning, we rise early to watch the start of La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge canoe race in San Ignacio. There are hundreds of people thronged along the river bank. In the water are at least 100 small, three-man canoes. Up and down they dart, practicing for the race. Music plays on loud speakers set up near the downriver bridge. A loud signal and they're off. Before the canoes have traveled 500 feet, at least two are tipped over. Their crewmen stand up in the shallow river and scoop water frantically from the boats' bottoms. Quickly they leap into the canoes, and they're off again. The three-day race offers cash prizes along the way and at the end of each day, the entire group stops to rest, eat and sleep. It is hectic and noisy and festive.
We return to Ka'ana for fried eggs and tortillas. Refried beans and fried jacks – deep fried pieces of dough – grace the plate. Sliced fruits, oatmeal and pancakes are offered along with delicious fresh orange juice. Belize grows a large share of the world's orange crop.
Over the next several days, we dine several times at the hotel. There are familiar dishes on the menu, such as fettuccine, fresh fish, hamburgers and salmon, and each comes with a Belizian twist. The staff could not be more gracious and will prepare anything guests desire. Manolo Castillo, a young chef said to be among the best in Belize, makes good use of the resort's organic garden. We walked over to admire the squash, peppers, basil, cilantro, dill and parsley growing there.
Tourism is quickly becoming a major force in this Caribbean country. Belize is home to a world-renowned barrier reef, three of the four atolls in the Caribbean, a large network of caves on land and in the sea, a wide variety of animals including the endangered jaguar, more than 500 species of birds, an impressive 4,000 species of native flowering plants, approximately 700 species of trees and several hundred species of other plants. All this and more than 600 Maya ruins, many rivers and a friendly, easy-going population draws more than a half million tourists each year to this sparsely-populated country in Central America.
Two ruins close to Ka'ana are Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. After breakfast, we make our way to Xunantunich, stop near the river and get out of the van. A small area for vendors is set up but as we are early, only a few have set out their wares. The van moves onto a large, flat, wooden barge and we walk on behind it. The ferry captain grabs thick ropes running alongside the barge and slowly, manually, pulls us across the water. A four-foot iguana languishes on a branch above, eying our progress. On the other side, we load back into the van for the short drive uphill. A guide meets us and explains the area history as we continue walking up. Xunantunich means “Stone Woman” and refers to a ghost often seen at the ruins by residents. The structures dates from 200-900 B.C., he says, adding that it was a complete village. A climb to the top of El Castille, and be warned, it is steep, provides a lovely view of Belize, and beyond, Guatemala.
An hour later, our group arrives at Jaguar Paw Resort to enjoy a zip line canopy tour of the jungle 80 feet above the ground. Lush, green vegetation is as far as you can see. The Caves Branch River tubing adventure completes the afternoon. A series of five caves makes up the excursion and many ancient Mayan drawings can be seen along the way.
That evening at the resort, we enjoy another lovely dinner. Everywhere there are white, twinkling lights making a brave attempt to pierce the thick, dark night. It is quiet and still here on the edge of the jungle.
The next morning, we venture to San Lorenzo to enjoy a horseback ride along the Mopan River. Although the sun is high overhead by the time we return to the stable, the temperatures stay mild.
We end the day with a visit to the resort's pool and then to the resort spa. Gretel Burns, our bubbly, vivacious therapist, gives us a Swedish massage ($105). Incredible! This is the most relaxed I've been in months. We drift blissfully to sleep that night as warm breezes ripple through the trees.
The next morning, we say goodbye to Nick and Eva. It has ended too soon. I wish for time to explore Cahal Pech, to make the trip into Guatamala, to shop in San Lorenzo and spend a few days at the ocean, but our time has vanished. A soft rain falls during our drive to the airport. We leave wanting more.
Complete information is available at www.Kaanabelize.com. Casitas are $350-$450 per night depending on season. Meal plans, airport transfers and activities are additional. Ka'ana is happy to make reservations for all area activities, plan your wedding or just put the hammock out for you.
Photos of Ka’ana Resort and the canoe race by Larry Shiflet. Others courtesy of BelizeTourism.