Someone always has to be first and in the world of luxury nature retreats Chan Chich Lodge was way out in front. Opened in 1988, this cluster of 12 bungalows and one villa deep in an enormous swath of privately owned jungle continues to get rave reviews more than 20 years later. Chan Chich was named Andrew Harper’s Lodge of the Year in 2007 and in 2010 the lodge earned a Condé Nast Johansens Award as the Most Excellent Lodge in Mexico and Central America.
The big draw at Chan Chich isn’t the luxury, though there’s plenty of that. The thatch-roof mahogany accommodations were largely hand-made using a combination of Maya and modern techniques and tools. Each accommodation is simply (no A/C and no TV) but comfortably appointed with ample porches furnished with tables, chairs, a hammock and a lounge, yummy beds, ceiling fans, refrigerators and water coolers and modern bathrooms (mine had a double shower and a bidet). Bungalow numbers employ the same combinations of bars and dots that the Mayans used to count.
The service at Chan Chich is friendly and pre-emptive. The screened-in pool is so lushly landscaped it feels like you’re taking a dip at the Royal Botanical Garden (a small waterfall and a Jacuzzi don’t hurt either). And the food, considered some of the best in Belize, is superb.
The real clincher at Chan Chich, however, is the setting. The lodge 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 ball court.
The lodge buildings occupy one of the plazas and the mounds of the other structures and sites dot the surrounding acres—many linked via nine miles of well-maintained jungle trails that let unleash your inner Indy.
The lodge provides plenty of ways to explore (that’s why you sign a waiver at check in). During guided morning and evening walks I spotted more than 20 species of birds that I’d never seen before (including my first keel-billed toucan). Canoe trips depart along with picnic lunches. Night walks increase your chances of seeing the area’s big cats—guests saw a puma the night before I arrived.
Horseback riding may be the best way to explore the jungle because you’re not doing the walking and because jungle wildlife doesn’t perceive the horse as a threat. This enables you to get closer to the critters than you could on foot. During an afternoon jungle ride I was able to get right up under two trees inhabited by both spider monkeys and howler monkeys. I sat there on horseback and enjoyed the show until the territorial spider monkeys started throwing bits of tree down at me with uncanny accuracy (damn those opposable thumbs).
Chan Chich is owned by the Bowen family, which also owns Belikin Beer, the only beer made in Belize, and nearby Gallon Jug which is part working cattle ranch, part coffee plantation, part self-contained town and part privately owned conservation area.
If you’re lucky, a Bowen family member may join you for pre-dinner drinks served in the cozy bar at Chan Chich Lodge. The happy hour horsd’oeuvres were disappointing, however, given the caliber of each and every other morsel you’ll eat at Chan Chich including scrumptious coffee grown and roasted at Gallon Jug, grass-fed beef from Gallon Jug, sophisticated salads, fish and pasta dishes and homemade ice cream.
Silence is golden at Chan Chich where even the screen doors have been rigged to ensure that they close swiftly, but never slam. That silence is broken every morning, however, when howler monkey family groups begin to stir in the canopy surrounding the lodge. True to their name, these small and harmless monkeys let loose with a howl that sounds like pure evil. On the other hand, you can leave your alarm clock at home.
Opt for the 30 minute chartered flight into and out of the landing strip at Chan Chich Lodge. It’s incredibly scenic and far less bumpy than the three to four hour drive in.
Ask for a hummingbird feeder to hang on your porch. One afternoon I watched an impossibly diminutive hummingbird land on its belly on a nearby banana leaf where it bathed awkwardly in rain water that had pooled on the broad leaf before swooping back up into the air and repeating the process.
Pack your favorite insulated coffee mug so you can take some freshly brewed Gallon Jug heaven with you during dawn wildlife walks.
Chan Chich Lodge
Gallon Jug, Belize
Phone: (800) 343-8009
Rates: from $175 (single occupancy) or $205 (double occupancy). Adult meal packages are $70 per person per day not including alcohol.
Our review of this hotel was originally published by iTraveliShop
Here’s more about travel in Belize