Poor Punta Gorda. Down at the southernmost tip of Belize, practically in Guatemala, it’s well past the destinations most travelers visit. But we’re not most visitors and Punta Gorda, the capital of the Toledo District, was definitely on our radar. Okay, mainly because we had to extend our visas and we were told that we could do that easily in Punta Gorda.
Happily, that turned out to be true. The immigration office is located basically at the end of the road right at the small port. After a short wait our visas were extended for another 30 days for a fee of 50BZ (US$25) per person. Down the hall a very accommodating gentleman extended our truck permit for the same amount of time (no fee). For your information, you can also extend your Belize visa at immigration offices in the capital, Belmopan, Belize City and in Dangriga.
Mission accomplished, we explored Punta Gorda a bit. Turns out PG (as literally everyone in Belize calls it) is a really charming town. It was founded by Garufinas (escaped slaves) who still make up about half the population. Until 1992 PG was an R&R center for the British Army. Picture that, if you can.
Today, PG mostly serves as the end of the road and a transit point for anyone arriving in Belize by boat from Guatemala and Honduras (or vice versa). The pace is slow and the facilities are quirky (including the theme rooms and wacky architecture of the Sea Front Inn).
Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge
Just outside of Punta Gorda is one of the Belize’s very best boutique hotels, and that’s saying something in a country that boasts two of Francis Ford Coppola hotels–(Blancaneaux in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Turtle Inn in Placencia) as well as Ka’Ana Boutique Resort in San Ignacio and a few solid options on Ambergris Caye.
The location on a hillside below the meandering Rio Grande, the awesome tricked out Land Cruiser parked out front, the lodge-like main building and the sounds of monkeys and birds in the surrounding jungle combine to give Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge the look and feel of an African lodge.
The place used to be a mid-range fisherman’s mecca called El Pescador before being sold and completely reinvented as Machaca Hill in 2009. The owners and management fess up to the fact that they’re going for the level of service normally delivered on high end safaris and Machaca Hill does deliver the best food and the best service of any of the many great hotels and resorts we’ve stayed at in Belize plus the chic surroundings you’d expect.
The 12 enormous bungalows at Machaca Hill all have super-private screened in porches, tons of gorgeous hardwood and views into the jungle that get you VERY close to nature.
There seemed to be one guide on staff for every bungalow–which is a good thing since the list of outdoor activities offered at Machaca Hill is long and enticing–from hikes through the lodge’s 13,000 acres to river kayaking to guided fishing. We went kayaking on the Rio Grande every morning (after French press coffee and homemade biscuits in our room, but before a scrumptious breakfast) and we were rewarded with toucan and howler monkey sightings galore.
Active days were capped off by a nightly cocktail hour as a warm up to amazing meals, often using ingredients grown in the lodge’s unique organic garden.
Check out our video, below, to see and hear Garufina drumming–including their version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire…
Blue Creek Cave
While at Machaca Hill we signed up for their trip out to Blue Creek Cave which meant we finally got to get into that Land Cruiser for the drive from the lodge to the Kekchi Mayan village of Blue Creek where our Mayan guide Vincente was born and still lives with his wife and children.
We’ve been in a lot of caves in Belize including Waterfall Cave, River Cave and Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. Blue Creek Cave is a different, more mellow experience. After a 15 minute walk along a lovely trail and past a small collection of basic bungalows that are sometimes for rent (ask in the village), we reached the mouth of the cave which really does have an incredibly blue creek rushing through it.
The river is deep too so be prepared for some real swimming to access the interior of the Blue Creek Cave. Called Hokeb Ha in the Kekchi Mayan language, the cave is believed to extend five miles into the earth and includes interior waterfalls.
If you want to enjoy the river but not go inside the cave (where guides are required), ask in the village about inner tube and life vest rental.
We emerged from Blue Creek Cave to the real highlight of this trip–a beautiful table set up in the living room of Vincente’s home complete with utensils and chairs and linens brought from the lodge. This created an appropriately special setting for the food, which included traditional dishes prepared by Vincent’s wife. Our favorite example of traditional Mayan food was a dish made from hearts of palm (collected from the jungle) which were stewed then mashed with onions and peppers and chicken stock. Delicious! It was an amazing meal and a wonderful brush with living Mayan culture.
We’re already making room for Machaca Hill on our annual “Best of Hotels” list for 2011.
Cotton Tree Lodge
Slightly north of Punta Gorda and down a remarkably rough dirt road you’ll find Cotton Tree Lodge, a kind of outdoorsy sleep away camp for grown ups with a sweet tooth.
Thatch roof bungalows fan out along a raised boardwalk on the banks of the Mopan River where a rope swing beckons. Rates are all-inclusive and set menu meals are served family style (though the food, some grown on site, is quite a few steps up from camp cafeteria fare).
The really remarkable thing going on at Cotton Tree Lodge has to do with chocolate. Now we have your attention!
Cacao has been grown (both wild and cultivated) in the area for years but the growers have never really been organized and the system for harvesting and processing the cacao seeds from inside the torpedo-like pods was never uniform.
As cacao farmers struggle to make ends meet, Cotton Tree Lodge has stepped in and set up a co-operative that helps them maximize profits and ensure that quality remains high and Belizean cacao remains available to select artisanal chocolate makers.
The lodge is also brainstorming ways to process and market things that have traditionally been considered a by-product of cacao production–like cacao juice. Turns out this slightly cloudy liquid which drains off fresh cacao seeds when they’re harvested, is delicious (like apple juice and grapefruit juice combined). It’s even better with a splash of vodka.
Two great couples from Alaska were also staying at Cotton Tree Lodge when we were there and as we talked to them one of the guys started looking really familiar to us. A moderate amount of cross examining revealed that he had helped us change a flat tire on a remote road in Alaska back in 2006 when our Journey was exploring that beloved state. It’s an amazing but true story.
Rio Blanco Falls National Park
One morning we all piled into a van for a day trip from Cotton Tree Lodge to Rio Blanco Falls National Park, lead by our guide Marcos. Once there, we were eager to get into the cool water for a swim and most of us jumped off rocky ledges into the deep pools below. The Alaskans, of course, lead the way.
Check out our video, below, to see more people taking the plunge at Rio Blanco Falls National Park. Karen almost convinced herself to jump…
Read more about travel in Belize