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Jungle Surprises – Northern Belize

We were in a hurry. The border crossing from Chetumal, Mexico to Corozal, Belize was painless, however, it still took longer than we anticipated  to get to the border and then get across it. With dusk approaching we drove through Orange Walk Town, made our turn toward a village called Yo Creek then high-tailed it north toward Chan Chich Lodge in northern Belize, jouncing over increasingly pot-holed dirt roads interspersed with even more brutal sections of eroded-pavement (there’s a reason most lodge guests fly in).

About an hour later we miraculously hit smooth pavement: we’d reached the Blue Creek area which was settled by members of a  Mennonite community who live and farm in this part of Belize. The Mennonites, apparently, hate pot holes as much as we do.

Too soon, we left the Mennonites and their lovely smooth road and continued on through larger and larger stretches of thick jungle and deeper and deeper pot holes.

Chan Chich Lodge in northern Belize delivers luxury bungalows and gourmet food set amongst the unexcavated mounds of ancient Mayan ruins. This shot was taken from the top of one such mound looking down on our bungalow.

Reaching Chan Chich Lodge as dusk fell was, however, worth every bump. Chan Chich opened in 1988 at the pointy end of the nature resort trend and continues to get rave reviews more than 20 years later.

The thing at Chan Chich isn’t the luxury, though there’s plenty of that. The lodge’s 12 bungalows (plus one full house) are atmospheric and absolutely comfortably appointed with ample porches and yummy beds.  The service is great. The pool is inviting. The food is superb. For more, read our full profile of Chan Chich Lodge for iTraveliShop.

The real clincher at Chan Chich is the setting. Not just deep in the jungle (it is), Chan Chich was literally built amongst unexcavated Mayan ruins. Believed to have been inhabited as far back as 770 BC, the complex includes two large plazas, numerous courtyards and other structures including a ballcourt.

Chan Chich Lodge occupies what was one of the plazas and the mounds of the other structures and sites dot the surrounding acres–many linked via well-maintained jungle trails so you can explore them whenever you feel like unleashing your inner Indy.

Morning light. Time for the night creatures to give way to the day creatures, a jungle shift change that is usually accompanied by the unearthly screaming of howler monkeys.

The lodge provides plenty of other reasons to hit the trails too and we took advantage of morning and evening walks during which we spotted (with a lot of help from the experienced lodge guides) more than 20 species of birds that we’d never seen before including a stately white hawk and the impossible-looking keel-billed toucan. While the big prize, the jaguar, eluded us other guests did see a puma the night before we arrived.

Your most common companions at Chan Chich will also be your wake up calls.  As the sun rises, howler monkey family groups begin to stir in the canopy surrounding the lodge and as they do they begin to howl. True to their name, these small black monkeys really let loose with a roar that sounds like pure evil, even thought the monkeys themselves are harmless their brief, daily racket sounds like a bunch of crazed serial killers with heat stroke. You’ll get used to it.

Sleep through the howlers and you’ll be roused by the ocellated turkeys. Once common throughout the region but now considered threatened, these delicious birds (that’s the problem) are more peacock than turkey with iridescent feathers, glow-in-the-dark head warts and a distinctive call that includes a bit of gobbling plus a series of thumps that builds into a noise that sounds like someone trying to start a stubborn motorcycle  or an uncooperative lawn mower. Really, you won’t think it’s a bird at all (get the full effect in our video a bit later in this post).

Karen following a guide during a morning bird watching walk along jungle trails on the Chan Chich Lodge property.

Chan Chich is owned by the Bowen family which also owns Belikin Beer, the only beer made in Belize. The family also owns nearby Gallon Jug which  is part working cattle ranch, part coffee plantation, part self-contained town and part privately owned conservation area. They’re doing a good job at all four endeavors–their beef and their coffee are both excellent and the thousands of acres the Bowen family currently owns and protects (things are that big out here) form part of a vital wildlife habitat and migration corridor.

This is the post office at Gallon Jug homestead. The “mail boxes” inside are actually old wooden Coca Cola crates nailed to the wall–fitting since the Bowen family, which owns this working cattle ranch and coffee plantation as well as Chan Chich Lodge, made their considerable fortune as Coke distributors.

This magnificent creature is an ocellated turkey–part peacock, part butterball.

Check out our video, below, to see and hear ocellated turkeys in all their unique glory.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=380p6Qix7LM[/youtube]

We were encouraged by the fact that there’s a jaguar right on the sign for La Milpa Field Station in the massive Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in northern Belize.

In the 1980s the Bowen family sold off more than 100,000 acres of their land to help create the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. At 260,000 acres, the RBCMA is the second largest single protected area in Belize encompassing 4% of the country’s land mass. The RBCMA is home to 200 species of trees, 390 species of birds, 70 species of mammals and—most importantly—all of the big cats that are native to Central America, including what some consider to be the healthiest population of jaguars in the region.

Programme for Belize runs the RBCMA including its two field stations (La Milpa and Hill Bank) which each offer dorms, bungalows and a restaurant for visiting researchers and travelers.

In early 2010 the La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area unveiled eight new cabins, making it even more pleasant to spend a night or two here in the jungle.

In January of 2010 the La Milpa Field Station unveiled eight new bungalows and a refurbished dorm building and all of the accommodations are sparkling clean and more than comfortable with plenty of space and private bathrooms (in the bungalows) or giant inviting shared bathrooms in the dorm (which is usually booked by visiting research and university groups).

There’s even a kitchen which turns out simple but tasty meals all day. Even better, every single tourism dollar gathered at La Milpa Field Station and Hill Bank Field Station (which offers similar accommodations) goes to support the non-profit Programme For Belize.

Karen scanning the skies at La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area where nearly 400 species of birds live or migrate through.

Another great reason to visit the La Milpa field station is manager Vladimir Rodriguez, aka The Bird Ninja. With more than 10 years of experience in and around La Milpa, Vladimir literally knows this jungle like the back of his had. More importantly, he knows the hundreds of species of birds that live in or migrate through this area. He knows them by sight. He knows them by habit. He knows them by call.

He knows them so well that one minute he can be pointing out an unsettlingly tiny green-breasted mango hummingbird in its delicate nest, then hear a call behind him and whip around to precisely point to a red-throated ant tanager on a branch behind us. That’s why we call him The Bird Ninja. His skills helped us spot more than 50 species of birds in just two days at La Milpa Field Station.

Yeah, we sound like a couple of nutty birders now but that’s what a few days in the jungle with Vladimir will do to you. You have been warned.

A keel-billed toucan.

This tiny black orchid is the national flower of Belize.

Darkness doesn’t bring an end to the wildlife spotting in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, it just means there are different creatures to look for. Armed with a range of high-powered flashlights (including our beloved SureFire flashlights), we hopped into the bed of a truck and headed out on a night safari along a dirt road.

New and different birds presented themselves, including an owl-like thing called a northern potoo. We also got the chance to see a gray-tailed fox which, we were told, can climb trees, and the Ninja spotted a tiny Yucatan banded gecko. Don’s ask us how.

La Milpa Field Station manager Vladimir Rodriquez spotted this tiny Yucatan striped gecko in the dark during a night safari. True story.

Many of the massive trees in the jungles of Belize are kept upright by equally impressive buttress roots.

As if all that wildlife wasn’t enough, La Milpa Filed Station also has its own ancient Mayan ruins. The La Milpa site, about three miles from the Field Station, is largely unexcavated but has been researched and explored for years–currently by profs, students and researchers from the University of  Texas.

Incredibly, this stele, at the largely unexcavated La Milpa ruins, is actually in its original position.

The La Milpa site hasn’t been all dug up and reconstructed like other Mayan archaeological sites in the region (Lamanai, Altun Ha). This means a lot is left to your imagination and that makes it really engaging and fun to wander around the mounds and just picture what the city might have been like.

La Milpa is also very lightly visited so you and Vladimir (as a guide) are likely to have the place to yourself except for the resident spider monkeys and other creatures. Not far from the La Milpa site we actually saw claw marks and a scent patch in the ground from a cat who’d passed through earlier in the day.

A curious spider monkey.

The hatchet marks on the trunk of this chicle tree were made by chicleros who tramped the jungles of Belize tapping these trees for their sap which was turned into chewing gum until synthetic ingredients took over and killed the natural chicle industry in the 1950s. The scars remain on trunks throughout the jungle.

Glad We Had:

Bilstein monotube gas-pressure shock absorbers which evened out the miles and miles of pot holes we faced between Orange Walk Town and the remote Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.

Our BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires which never sucummed to the jagged rocks along the way.

SureFire M6 Guardian flashlights which kicked out more than enough light to illuminate large sections of canopy and jungle floor, helping us spot wildlife (including a gray-tailed fox) during night safaris.

Point6 wool socks, which kept our feet dry and cool no matter how much jungle tramping we did.

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Oui Oui? Si Si! – Jicaltepec, Veracuz State, Mexico

In Veracruz State, just inland from the Costa Esmeralda, lies a big surprise. Delicate terracotta roof tiles, muted colors, planned gardens, real bread. Why? Because the town of Jicaltepec has a uniquely French history.

A new boutique hotel brings the area’s French flavor to life, but we’ll get into that a little later in this post.

The main way to reach the French Mex town of Jicaltepec is to take a small ferry across the Rio Bobos.

Mexico’s French Connection started in the early 1800s when French men and women began fleeing the Dijon and Champlitte areas in search of work when the wine making industry there started to fail.  After a countryman arrived in Jicaltepec and told everyone back home how wonderful the area was hundreds of Frenchmen flocked to what was then remote Mexico.

The problem was, that first guy was lying. The truth was that work was scarce but mosquitoes were plentiful. Unfortunately, once the Frenchmen arrived they didn’t have the money to return to France. The ones that didn’t die of disease or homesickness stuck it out and slowly created lives for themselves, melding French traditions with Mexican culture.

The French brought these elegant tiled roofs (and real bread!) to Jicaltepec when they began settling here in Veracruz State in the early 1800s.

Lourdes Capitaine Drouaillet is descended from French immigrants who settled in Jicoltepec in Veracruz State. She now runs a museum full of pieces of the area's French past.

 

There are two museums in the area and they both commemorate the French heritage of the place. By far, the best one is run by Lourdes Capitaine Drouaillet out in Jicaltepec.

Lourdes is descended from French immigrants and she has a passion for preserving and telling the story of the French in this part of Mexico. Over the years she has amassed a lovely collection that runs the gamut from personal junk to true French finds and even some impressive pieces of indigenous pottery that pre-date the arrival of the French.

But it’s really Lourdes herself who brings the French legacy to life, coming perilously close to tears as she explains who her ancestors were, why they came here, how they lived and how French culture has impacted this spot in Mexico. And she does it in a mix of Spanish and  French (what do you call that? Frenish? Spench?).

We told you this place as a big surprise.

A plaque in a museum dedicated to preserving artifacts which document Jicaltepec's unusual French heritage.

Adding to the happy brew of French and Mexican culture in the area is Maison Couturier, a new boutique hotel that opened in neighboring San Rafael. Run by a Frenchwoman but owned by Grupo Habita, one of the most progressive Mexican hotel groups, the place is a French country farmhouse, only it’s in Mexico. Check out our complete profile of Maison Couturier for iTraveliShop here.

The hotel can arrange a trip out to spend some time with Lourdes, but we promise you’ll find it very hard to leave the hotel. It’s addictive. The style, the pace, the dogs. And we’ve got the photos to prove it….

Arriving at Maison Couturier is like arriving at a French farmhouse, not a boutique hotel in Mexico.

One of a pair of resident Jack Russells at Maison Couturier greets guests (aka, new playmates).

Sure they serve tequilla at the hotel bar, but in every other way it's chicly French.

Here's the thing about French style: it's so easy and natural that even an unmade (antique) bed (with exquisite linen sheets) looks elegant.

The antiqued phone is fully functional and the classic lamp shade was made by Mexican craftsmen copying French designs.

A wonderfully European bathroom. And how refreshing to see icy blue towels instead of plain old white ones.

The polished concrete pool at Maison Coutrurier was inspired by watering troughs. The chairs were imported from France.

Pierre and Pillipe, Maison Couturier's resident Jack Russell Terriers, keep the hotel's guests smiling.

General manager Marie Ann Zaluda runs Maison Couturier with plenty of French flair.

We love these Mexican limes in such an otherwise French-looking setting on the grounds of Maison Couturier boutique hotel.

A perfect example of how Mexican and French styles mix at Maison Couturier.

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Our Latest Work: Resort-O-Rama in Belize and Cancun

Our most recently published pieces take you to two very different resorts on two very different beaches.

Get the latest about the brand new casitas and huge infinity edge pool at Matachica on Ambergris Caye in Belize here.

And go inside the thoroughly grown up world of the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa in Cancun, Mexico for a top to bottom property profile here.

The sparkling white sands and aqua waters of the Cancun beach from our room at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa.

Visit the Published Work page of our website any time to see all of our freelance work in one place.

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The Other Coast – Costa Esmeralda, Veracruz State, Mexico

The Pacific Coast of Mexico is well-known for its beaches and tourist destinations like Acapulco (currently in the midst of a re-birth) and the emerging Costalegre. The Gulf Coast of Mexico, however, remains a mystery to most except for the Mexican tourists who flock there.

A brief but stunning section of the Gulf coast has been dubbed the Costa Esmeralda (Emerald Coast). Unlike the Pacific Coast, the Gulf side is punctuated by mid-size farms (vanilla is a major crop) and cattle ranches, the country’s only nuclear power plant and even some wind-whipped forests and sand dunes which make parts of the Costa Esmeralda drive feel a little like  Highway 1 in northern California. It has a much more lived-in feel than the Pacific side.

We were headed for Hotel Azucar, a  sweet (get it?) little beachfront boutique hotel that’s part of Grupo Habita which operates about a dozen of the chicest hotels in Mexico (and more coming soon to New York City and Austin, Texas).

Even the paths are charming and intimate at Hotel Azucar on the Costa Esmeralda in Veracruz State.

At Hotel Azucar we found less than 25 rooms in a sprinkling of thatch-roofed stand-alone bungalows dotted throughout a green swath of land that culminates at the Gulf of Mexico. All rooms have a welcoming patio with a hammock and an outdoor rinse shower….and a whole lot of white.

Our room was, by far, the whitest room we’ve ever stayed in. Clever DIY design touches like an elegant lump of driftwood mounted to the wall as a headboard and rebar (painted white, of course) twisted into towel hooks and light switch covers keep the feeling homey, not antiseptic.

The pool at Hotel Azucar on the Costa Esmeralda in Veracruz State is just steps from the beach and cleverly employs an actual black inner tube as a life ring.

Hotel Azucar is also a bargain with $145 weekday rates, a very well-priced spa (60 minute massages start at around US$40) and a delicious restaurant with good-value dishes that let you choose your meat (beef, fish, calamari, chicken, pork, etc) and your preparation style for around $10 a plate. Sadly, their wines are incredibly marked up.

Our room at Hotel Azucar on the Costa Esmeralda in Veracruz State was almost entirely white except for...

...this bathroom sink stand which was made from bright green molded fiberglass and lit from inside.

Turns out people have been enjoying the charms of the Costa Esmeralda for quite some time. One day we turned off the coast road and toured the resting place of some of them at Quiahuiztlan Toltec Archaeological Ruins (admission 31 pesos).

The Toltec people lived (and died) here for hundreds of years and archaeologists have unearthed more than 70 mini-temple-shaped tombs here, all located high enough up the flanks of the towering Cerro de los Metates to get cooling breezes and enjoy million dollar water views. If a cemetery can be bucolic then this is it.

Quiahuiztlan Toltec Archaeological Ruins with Cerro de los Metates towering behind.

Pyramid 2 with the sea in the background at Quiahuiztlan Toltec Archaeological Ruins.

 
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Our Latest Work: Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado

Ever since we first learned about Dunton Hot Springs resort we’ve dreamed of going to check out their decadently resurrected mining ghost town in the Rocky Mountains. We finally got the chance to stay at Dunton Hot Springs (we’ve included a few photos, below) and it more than lived up to our dreams.

Read our review here

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Filosofy in the Flats – Turneffe Atoll, Belize

We were eating breakfast at Turneffe Flats Lodge with other guests fueling up for a day filled with adventures like fly fishing for bonefish, permit and tarpon or SCUBA diving some of the most colorful and life-filled sites in the world. Here on one of the largest and most diverse collections of islands (cayes), atolls and mangroves in the world, the day is never dull. A fisherman at our table was wearing a perfectly worn in, perfectly comfortable, perfectly cool Turneffe Flats baseball cap. We coveted his cap, which was obviously made of memories, not mere cotton at this point, and the fisherman confessed that he feared it was on its last legs just as it had reached perfection.

Belize - Turneffe Flats Lodge - fishing & Belkin Beer

It got us thinking about what we could learn about life from looking at his sun-bleached, frayed across the brim, sweat-stained cap:

1. Style matters but not as much as shading your eyes so you can keep them on the prize.

2. Your favorite things will last longer if you’re gentle (hand wash whenever possible).

3. When something (or someone) goes from simply being worn to being worn in things start to fall apart so be sure to appreciate the events and adventures and lessons and moments that get you to your perfect point.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled posts about travel in Mexico and travel in Belize.

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