My first night at Belcampo Lodge is punctuated by what sounds like Ozzy Osbourne being strangled in the pitch dark. The cottage is suspended in a dense canopy of hanging vines and gumbo-limbo trees, providing natural privacy, so I’ve traded my bed for a hammock on the screened porch to feel closer to this forest primeval. A breeze rattles palm fronds as a rain shower sweeps through, carrying the scent of jasmine. Nuts hit the corrugated zinc roof and roll to the ground far below. Suddenly, just before dawn, the Ozzy-like roar of a troop of howler monkeys bolts me upright—and it’s resoundingly clear that I’m bivouacking beyond my comfort zone.
By first light, their screeching has faded, giving way to the soft clicks of keel-billed toucans. Soon I’m seated on the lodge’s veranda with a pair of binoculars, keeping an eye on the cotton tree where these colorful birds hop from branch to branch, until breakfast arrives: a plate of “fry jacks” (puffy tortillas), sour-orange marmalade, nutty granola sweetened with coconut, and cinnamon-bark-smoked bacon. I could linger long into the morning, watching the toucans play, but I want to see where baby chocolate bars are born.
At the end of a steep driveway lined with torch ginger and flowering trumpet vine, the landscape opens up to a broad valley that the Belcampo farm team has planted with cassava and banana cover crops. Inside the nursery I meet head forager Kenny Ramos, a tall, shy man with a passion for vanilla orchids and rare varieties of cacao. In his spare time he hunts for wild plants in untrammeled corners of Belize and tracks their genetic profiles.
Surrounding us are hundreds of cacao saplings. Ramos picks one up and points to a pale green bud grafted onto its woody stem.
“Criollo,” he says quietly.
“That’s what you hiked three days into the jungle to find?”
Ramos simply shrugs, implying it was a walk in the park, albeit a park populated with deadly fer-de-lance and coral snakes. I touch the tender criollo shoot carefully. Might this be a direct descendant of the mysterious “white cacao” that the Maya first domesticated 2,500 years ago? The fabled lost bean that Columbus tasted on his fourth voyage to the New World? The holy flavor grail among artisanal confectioners? It is enough to make a chocoholic go weak in the knees.
Belcampo belongs in the vanguard of the next culinary travel trend: more field expedition than farm stay, a full-immersion Belize travel experience for intrepid foragers who want to walk on the wilder side, discovering and tasting exotic edibles on a 1,000-acre plantation and adjacent 12,000-acre wilderness reserve complete with jaguars and boa constrictors. Originally built as a fishing camp, the property has recently been reimagined and rebranded to take better advantage of the extraordinary natural resources in the remote Toledo district of southern Belize. Its 12 guest cottages are scattered along a hill that drops abruptly to the banks of the slow-moving Rio Grande, which flows from the Maya Mountains on the Belize-Guatemala border to a mangrove-lined outlet on the Caribbean Sea, just eight miles away as the crocodile swims. From the lodge’s hilltop perch, the rain forest unfolds in every direction: a vast green mansion that shelters more than 80 percent of this Central American country.
Guiding Belcampo’s ongoing transformation are new owner Todd Robinson, a conservation-minded investor from California, and CEO Anya Fernald, a former Slow Food director. They have embarked on an ambitious “farm of origin” project, proving that the concept of terroir doesn’t apply just to wine. Fernald has forged relationships with discerning cacao and coffee buyers, including Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat and James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee. They come to Belcampo to source rarefied ingredients as well as to share their expertise during culinary excursions and master classes: Markoff has tailored a weeklong “bean to bar” chocolate course, and Freeman is planning to do the same for coffee aficionados. (Coffee and cacao are still emerging crops for Belize, compared with Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Venezuela. When Belcampo’s criollo trees mature—they’re still five years from first harvest—the estate will be the single-largest grower of cacao in the country.) Belcampo also plans to produce its own rum, from cane raised on the property. Meanwhile, the estate is swiftly becoming self-sufficient: raising chickens and pigs; growing herbs and produce in a three-acre kitchen garden; even harvesting rosewood from its own jungle grove to craft service pieces for the dining room. Belcampo’s farm is the source for nearly everything on the menu, from the poached eggs served on boiled chaya leaves at breakfast to the mint in the mojito muddled during cocktail hour.
“Agritourism is such a sticky word,” says Fernald, who has flown in from California to check on construction of a new education center where the culinary courses will be held. “Our guests learn about an ancient, integrated way of growing food in an isolated country off the global trade routes.” Under a palapa in the kitchen garden, we discuss the appeal of distinct cacao varieties as Ramos cracks open several mature pods to expose raw beans encased in creamy white pulp. One has an astringent citrus note, another is more floral.
Fernald has serious foodie chops, having worked on culinary and agricultural initiatives in more than 30 countries, from cheese making in Sicily to cattle ranching in Uruguay. (She is also a regular judge on Iron Chef America.) There’s already an impressive cookbook collection in the lobby and a shiny new La Marzocco coffeemaker in the dining room. To round out the experience, Belcampo’s staff will escort guests to nearby cacao farms, botanical gardens, and a weekly market in the regional capital.
Market days start early in Punta Gorda. Fortunately, the howler monkeys are a fail-safe alarm clock. I ride into town just after sunrise on Saturday, in the company of one of the guides. On Front Street, I join other customers pinching the produce. All around me, vendors are selling provisions unavailable in the outlying villages: fresh seafood, Tupperware, yards of lace, secondhand jeans. Children weave through the crowd hawking frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and toasted coconut. Under the shade of makeshift stalls, Mayan women, wearing gold hoop earrings and ruched blouses, sit next to piles of cassava, turmeric, dried beans, and bottles of homemade habanero sauce, while on the opposite sidewalk, bearded Mennonite farmers, in their straw hats and suspenders, unload juicy watermelons and broccoli. It is the weirdest juxtaposition of agriculture. And of cultures. Belize isn’t so much a melting pot as a hotbed of runaways and renegades, where descendants of Confederates, Caribbean slaves, indentured East Indians, British buccaneers, and indigenous Mesoamericans all cling to their own culinary traditions under one shared jungle canopy. I buy a sack of roasted pumpkin seeds from a lady wearing a purple gingham apron, then watch another make hand-kneaded tortillas on a heated metal disk called a comal.
Along Punta Gorda’s waterfront, I’m lured by the sweet aroma issuing from Cotton Tree Chocolate. I push open the shop’s screen door and get a quick tour of the premises. They do it all here, from roasting beans to molding candies. In traditional Mayan households they use a ca’aj, a curved rock mortar, to temper cacao beans, rolling them swiftly back and forth until they’re ground to a coarse paste. This pure form of chocolate is diluted with hot water for a strong-flavored beverage that provides a bigger jolt than coffee. The shopkeeper gives me a sample chunk of intensely dark chocolate that melts on my tongue. It’s as good as any from Paris or New York confectioners—better, maybe, for being tasted so close to the source.
Back at the lodge, my next horticulture lesson involves a 27-inch machete. Bumping through a cleared field at the base of Machaca Hill, Kenny Ramos steers a Polaris four-wheeler onto a rutted mud track. We enter a twilight zone of tangled vegetation. Francisco Ack, another of the farmhands, climbs off and sizes up several cohune palms. This is a mother plant: the fronds are used by the Maya for thatch; the nuts produce cooking oil; the inner bark provides food for pigs and chickens. Nothing goes to waste. After a few rasps of the blade on a whetstone, Ack hacks away at the cohune until the core is exposed. Then he hands over the machete. Ramos instructs me to hold it with two hands, like a baseball bat.
Thunk, thunk. Wielding a knife more than two feet long takes more precision than I’d expected, especially when slicing a wedge into what resembles an oversize artichoke. The men whacking at unruly grass in the fields had made it look effortless. I pass the blade back to Ack to finish the job. He chops the palm down and sections out its heart in a matter of minutes. The creamy-looking center, when cooked, can easily feed two dozen people.
At a family-style dinner at the lodge that evening, the palm heart is prepared two ways: slivered over salad greens and boiled to a pulp with fresh turmeric root until it resembles an East Indian palak paneer. Kimchi made from cabbage raised in the garden is served alongside johnnycakes and black-bean dip. Next, fried cassava sticks, which we dunk in salsa spiked with leafy culantro, a tropical cousin of coriander. Barbecued chicken glazed with rum and brown sugar and a pork loin simmered in coconut cream are luscious and homey. (While most of Belcampo’s staff are Maya, the kitchen crew is primarily Garifuna, an ethnic minority from St. Vincent, who are masters of Caribbean-style slow braising.) There’s even a ceviche of lionfish, a spiny little invasive that has been rapidly overwhelming local reef species; the flesh is surprisingly delicate and flavorful when filleted and cured with lime.
On my final afternoon I go out on the river with Emmanuel Chan, one of Belcampo’s resident bird experts. He meets me in the lobby, dressed in khaki from head to toe; from here a tram drops us down through the rain forest to a dock on the Rio Grande. Chan launches two kayaks, and we paddle against the lazy current. The banks are thick with blooming swamp iris and jipijapa palms. A heron startles and flies off around the bend.
Chan points to a dark, furry silhouette high in a mahogany tree. “You don’t see lone howlers often,” he says. “That’s probably a juvenile male who’s been pushed out of the troop.” Chan tries to get the monkey’s attention, but it ignores us, asleep in the heat of the day. No doubt the onset of dusk will change that. I’m just glad to finally spot one of these raucous jungle creatures, whose night music has colored my dreams.
Shane Mitchell is T+L’s special correspondent.
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