“We’re approaching the point where the river meets the ocean,” Agapito Pop, our guide tells us as the still river water starts to get choppy. I’m on a sunset boat ride along the Moho River in Belize with other travelers. Some of us are drinking fresh watermelon juice with white rum while others skip the alcohol. But we’re all enjoying the spellbinding atmosphere: the trees, some of which are growing horizontally over the river, the birds, some of which soar across the river above us, and the jungle noises, especially the troop of howler monkeys we hear shrieking as they’re known to do. I’ve come to Toledo, Belize’s southern district, to learn about the area from locals, and the jungle lodge where I’m staying, Cotton Tree, seems to be the perfect home base for such adventures.
On our first adventure, my daughter and I take a boat up river to a small village where Mrs. Bo teaches us how to make corn tortillas—from scratch. We, there are about six of us in our group, disembark the small boat and walk along a path to her house passing, much to the happiness of my daughter, chickens and pigs roaming around freely. Mrs. Bo’s house is a one-room thatched building. In the kitchen area, she already has stalks of corn sitting in a bowl, awaiting our group’s visit.
First we remove the corn from the husks, then Mrs. Bo shows us how to shuck the corn with our thumbs. It takes some getting used to but soon my daughter is getting good at it. Next we boil the corn with lime powder. Since this is a long process, Mrs. Bo already has a pot of corn on the flame. Once this is ready, we grind the corn, taking turns since it’s an arduous process, into a paste, which we then form into small balls that we flatten into circles.
Mrs. Bo places these circles onto her “stove” which is a flat circular piece of iron sitting on top of a fire. She flips the tortillas with her bare hands. Once they’re done, we eat them with tomatoes crushed in oil…a simple yet totally sublime treat.
The next day we visit Eladio’s Chocolate, a cacao farm. We needed to wear boots so as not to get bitten by bugs, especially the poisonous ants that can strike if you’re wearing say, flip flops. The owner’s son takes us through the undeveloped terrain and later his father joins us, much to our chagrin because the tour turns weirdly evangelical (I won’t go into details). I ignore the rhetoric and instead focus on the sites: We see a pile of cacao pods that have fallen from the cacao trees. They’re much more beautiful and colorful than I imagined. We also walk by coconut trees, lemon balm, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I grab some to keep in my bag to enjoy its pleasant scent. After touring the grounds, we go to the owner’s restaurant for a classic Belizean lunch of chicken, rice, beans and tortillas, after which we get a lesson on cacao from Elizabeth, the owner’s daughter in law. We learn to crush the cacao, then grind it into a paste that Elizabeth swirls with hot water. “This is a Mayan wedding drink,” she explains, passing around samples that she pours into bowls carved out of calabash, a type of gourd. My daughter is mesmerized at learning this process and she comes home armed with the knowledge of what constitutes quality chocolate and now eschews all things Hershey’s, thanks to a conversation with Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue Chocolates, who was also visiting Cotton Tree Lodge.
Wanting to see Mayan ruins, we decided on an excursion that also included a visit to Chaos Oasis, which is a must-see especially if you’re into sustainability. Chaos Oasis is the brainchild of Alisa Atkinson and her family, who moved to Belize from England, wanting a different way of life. It’s a special place. Chaos Oasis’s structure is something to behold (there’s a sign nearby calling this house an Earthship), but I will get to that soon. First we walked to the back of the property to spend time in a butterfly habitat, where the butterflies flitted around, some landing on us. Alisa Atkinson talks about the butterflies with admiration. She is at home here in Belize, tending to the butterflies, gardening, cooking, working on Chaos Oasis, and being a part of the community. Her dogs laze in the heat and follow us around. After visiting the butterflies we enter one of the most unique buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s made out of concrete, thousands of recycled bottles, and recycled tires. But, it’s not as hodgepodge as it sounds…everything is meticulously designed so that the glass bottles, when placed in a certain way, look like modern stained glass.
After nibbling on a gorgeous butter-fly shaped banana cake with cacao nibs (which are of course ubiquitous here because of all the cacao trees) we head over to the Lubaantun Mayan ruins, which are adjacent to Chaos Oasis. Our guide walks us through the grounds and speaks about his ancestors with reverence. This particular ruin is pre-Col0mbian, dating back to the 700-800s. It’s most famous for the crystal skull that was apparently discovered here in the early 1900s. When found by a young girl, the skull was perfectly intact, but being crystal, has remained a mystery. Was it the skull of someone from an ancient civilization? Or a hoax? No one knows for sure, but this mysterious skull, often referred to as the “skull of doom” isn’t the only riveting reason to visit Lubaantun. Though smaller in scale to more well-known ruins, Lubaantun is an intriguing place with altars, temples, and a field where Mesoamerican baseball was played. Our guide pointed out a few grim areas (think sacrifices), but overall this was a peaceful and mystical place, perfect for contemplation.
When we left Lubaantun, we stopped off at a magical watering hole, where local boys jumped from a large rock into the lake. While the kids swam, I spoke with Agapito and thought about how special this trip was, not just because of my serene cabana or the dinners every evening with friends and other travelers, and not just because of the incredible sunsets or the beauty and sounds of the lush jungle, but it was because of the people I met, all of whom shared a part of their lives with us, which in turn enriched mine.
Check out some of my past travel writing in The Boston Globe: