Jungle Adventures in Belize

12 Apr

This morning I was excited to see my travel story on Belcampo Lodge, Belize, in the National Post. It was an especially hard one to write: I met so many special people and experienced so many new things there, that it was difficult cutting words from an epic first draft.

The story is about an international Artist-in-Residency program just launched by former Slow Food Canada leader Mara Jernigan, now General Manager at Belcampo, an eco-resort on a jungle farm, in Southern Belize. I went there to learn about local food and birds with Belizean guides and chefs, and two Canadians: Chef Chris McDonald and organic farmer Antony John. Here’s a preview:

Belcampo National Post

Summer School: Belcampo’s artist-in-residence program turns a Belize resort trip educational

“We made history today,” says Antony John, bouncing back from the telescope. That double-crested cormorant is not supposed to be here,”

I home in on the yellow-faced bird with its great black wings outstretched. John – a gangly Welshman in safari garb, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and rockstar piercings – explains its natural habitat is coastal.

“If this is the first local sighting, who should we report it to?” I ask.

“Nobody. We’re going to shoot it,” says John.

As well as cracking jokes without mercy, John is at Belcampo jungle lodge, near the seaside town of Punta Gorda in Southern Belize, to share his expertise as a birder, painter and organic farmer. The former host of Food Network farming show Manic Organic, from Stratford, Ont., is the inaugural participant in Belcampo’s artist-in-residence program, which allows visitors to learn skills from wrapping tamales to mixing mojitos alongside some of the world’s leading food and drink experts. [Continue.]

(National Post, April 10, 2014)

*     *     *     *     *

And now to supplement the story, here’s my A-Z of Awesomeness at Belcampo, Belize:

When organic farmer Antony John was not out looking for birds, he was on the patio painting them. With around 600 species in this small Central American country, there was no shortage of inspiration.

Antony painting


Bat Poop
A.k.a. guano or gardener’s gold. This is a fantastic organic fertilizer.


bat poo
Chocolate Farmer
Eladio Pop, father of 15 and organic chocolate farmer showed us around his farm and let us chew on beans and suck the sweet pulp from around them. His kids were everywhere, just grinning and looking like they were loving life. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to grow up on a CHOCOLATE farm?
chocolate farmer

Adalie, Eladio’s firstborn, made us chocolate by hand, smoothing the paste with volcanic rock. I bought several bars for friends; none made it home.

chocolate farm

Farm Operation’s Manager Elon Ranguy  peeled an orange for us, and I told him that traditionally the letter the peel forms as it lands is the first initial of your true love. When it landed in a tangle, he called out “E!” with great conviction. Then he went on to tell me all about his wife, Estellita, and their children: Elton, Ealon, Elisha, Elmar and Eli.


Free-range chickens
These guys had a mobile coop, based on organic farmer Joel Salatin’s. This little guy will grow up to know the freedom of running around in the sunshine, pecking for grubs.



We went snorkeling with Belcampo’s chefs, and ate fish tacos on the boat, out on the Caribbean Ocean, freshly grilled on board. Heaven.

grouper grilling

How to Cook a Tapir
I picked this book up in the gift store and could not put it down. Author Joan Fry came to the region forty years ago, at the age of 20, and lived in a Maya village for a year with her anthropologist husband on their so-called honeymoon. She had no cooking skills on arrival and learned everything from her neighbours, with an open fire as a stove and a wild jungle pantry at her disposal.

How to Cook a Tapir

Moho Caye is this ridiculously pretty private island resort with beachfront suites, currently vacated and for sale. My boatmates and I discussed pooling our resources and snapping it up.


Jernigan (Mara)
The BC native left left her own farm, inn and cooking school on Vancouver Island four years ago to help Belcampo reach its full potential as an eco-resort. She never stops–except to play basketball once a day with staff.


Photo: terroirsymposium.com

Photo: terroirsymposium.com


At Lubaantun Mayan ruins, around 1,300 years ago, youths would compete in a ball game, dressed in protective gear that made them look a lot like Darth Vader. Some say the winners were sacrificed to the gods; others say the losers were. As someone deeply scarred by The Hunger Games, I got the shivers either way!


Darth Vader

Leafcutter Ants
These guys tear down leaves about four times the size of their own bodies (skinny legs not included), and carry them home through the jungle in single file. It’s the equivalent of walking around with a queen-size mattress on your back. They don’t even eat the leaves, they chew them up, mix them with ant poop and and spores and use them to grow their own fungi. These ants are not just weightlifting champs, they are mushroom farmers!


leafcutter ants

I went cave swimming with newlyweds, in Blue Creek village, which prompted Our guide, Vince, to tell us about how he got together with his wife. The marriage was arranged, as was the tradition in his community. His parents had their eye on a nice girl, but Vince liked another girl at school better. He only knew her to say “hi” to, but he says: “She was cool and she had a great smile.” So he asked his dad to modify the plan.

After his family approached hers and discussions were going well, a huge pot luck dinner was thrown. Her family and his family lined up their dishes opposite to each other, and dozens of guests were invited. There was a whole lot of ritualized critiquing of the food, before it was decided that each prospective marriage partner was good enough for the other, and Vince could go ahead and ask this girl one question. He was about 17 at the time and he had to stand up and pop the question in front of everyone.

“My legs were shaking like crazy,” he said.

And the girl? She said “yes!”



New Friends
I got to know Heidi and Michael Noble–and their gorgeous son Theo–in Belize. I was travelling alone, but the thing about Belcampo is that groups are small on activities, and everyone becomes tight fast. Heidi is a winemaker from the Okanagan. If you get the chance, try a bottle or two from her winery, Joie.




The majority of the ingredients in Belcampo’s restaurant come from the on-site organic farm. Chef Renee Everett butchers pigs and chickens that have lived good lives with space to roam and delicious food to eat. The bar staff make mixed drinks with sun-ripened fruits from the cocktail garden. The garden team saves seeds to plant from season to season. It’s inspiring.


organic board


Painted Bunting
I can’t believe a bird this multi-coloured even exists, AND I SAW ONE!

Painted bunting

Photo: Antony John


What’s that? What does it taste like? What do you make with it?

I could have beaten a two-year-old in an Incessant Questioning Contest, the day Renee took me to market in Punta Gorda. So many ingredients to discover!





Vince stopped our land cruiser en route to the swimming caves, so we could give this turtle the chance to experience life in the fast lane.

OK, seriously, we picked him up to return him safely to water. He’d wandered too far, and we were worried.



Sunset Cruise
Oh the birds we saw! We went out on the Rio Grande with binoculars, as the sun came down. Magical!


sunset cruise

Tourist Trees

These are named for the reckless visitors who skimp on sunblock and end up all pink and peely. Protect your skin, people!


tourist tree

Urchins (Sea)
We ate these invasive creatures, and they were delicious.


Chris and urchin

Vanilla flowers
We walked on a carpet of these at a local spice farm.


vanilla flowers

Wings (blurred)
The hummingbirds at the feeders by the restaurant were mesmerizing. One laid her eggs in a low branch by the path, and they were like little pastel-coloured jellybeans.


X-ceptionally delicious chocolate bars
We made these in a workshop using cacao grown at Belcampo. The chocolate was dark and rich and smooth as silk.

chocolate making

Yet another amazing sea creature
Chef Renee became pretty attached to this starfish. What a beauty!




This mojito, prepared on a boat, with limes and mint from Belcampo, picked that same day.



As you can maybe tell, I kinda liked it at Belcampo, Belize! You can find out more about the eco-lodge and Artist-in-Residency program here.

9 Responses to “Jungle Adventures in Belize”

  1. kendra April 12th, 2014 at 6:21 PM #

    What a great read! I want to go!

  2. Valerie Howes April 12th, 2014 at 11:21 PM #

    Go, Kendra, go!

  3. julie April 13th, 2014 at 4:28 AM #

    It looks fabulous!

    • Valerie Howes April 13th, 2014 at 12:16 PM #

      It really is, Julie! Very special place.

  4. Juliet April 14th, 2014 at 5:34 AM #

    It looks so beautiful Valerie. Maybe Neil could take me for a wedding anniversary!

    • Valerie Howes April 14th, 2014 at 10:13 AM #

      There were quite a few couples there for honeymoons or anniversary celebrations, Juliet. It’s pretty romantic!

  5. Myra everett frost April 18th, 2014 at 7:57 PM #

    That’s my girl . Looking forward to my visit to your beautiful paradise and seeing my beautiful daughter. I’m so proud of you.

  6. Myra everett frost April 18th, 2014 at 8:00 PM #

    Looking forward to my visit of your beautiful paradise and seeing daughter Renee

    • Valerie Howes April 28th, 2014 at 10:43 PM #

      How lovely! Your daughter is an incredible cook–and wildlife photographer!

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