PUNTA GORDA, Belize — This place is hard to leave. It’s unvarnished and unhurried, where residents sell handmade goods, local organic produce, and experiences for visitors that exhibit the trophy natural wonders of Central America’s smallest country. It’s a new country, gaining independence from Britain only in 1981. So when it could do as it wished, Belize made a very forward-thinking decision: Lock down most natural resources and use these protected reefs, jungles, and mountains for responsible, sustainable tourism.
My wife, Lori, and I visited Punta Gorda in February. Our odyssey started on a brilliant day. We spent the next few days fly-fishing for permit, arguably the most coveted gamefish. We were guided through Garbutt’s Fishing Lodge, a down-to-earth business run by four brothers and a sister.
In their youth, the Garbutts would harvest fish from the sea and take them to market. Dennis Garbutt quickly realized that their way of life was depleting resources. “We would find that there was no way to expect that every finfish we caught and took to the market would sell; this was wasteful. Extremely wasteful. Overfishing was obvious.” So he started a guided fly-fishing company.
Since 2005, Garbutt has worked with numerous conservation groups. He’s helped institute reef protection, catch-and-release-only practices, and has been a steward for ecotourism.
Leaving Garbutt’s lodge, we moved inland to explore southern Belize’s bounty of cultural and natural offerings. We started at Belcampo Belize, where an expansive agricultural project not only supplies the lion’s share of food for the on-site lodge and spa, but visitors can participate in the production of chocolate and coffee.
The entrance to Belcampo’s property is flanked by expansive fields of sugarcane, which will be used for rum and whiskey production starting next year. In the interim, guests comb cacao trees, helping harvest the sweet fruit’s seeds, which will later be dried, ground, and fermented to make some of the richest chocolate I’ve ever tasted. There is also a coffee roasting building, where guests make their own to brew.
There’s an entire grove of spice plants and an area dedicated to the ingredients in Belcampo’s signature cocktails — the aptly named Cocktail Garden. Employees serve up wonderful drinks made with these ingredients each evening on the open veranda.
The next day we took a 45-minute trip to Nim Li Punit, Mayan ruins discovered in 1976, when Esso was digging for oil in the region. Today, Nim Li Punit is a protected archeological cultural resource.
Many people would say it’s illogical to jump off a perfectly good waterfall, but here, the pursuit of fun takes over. We were standing 25 feet above a 90-foot-deep pool into which the Rio Blanco crashes, and we leaped. We did this many times, after which we clambered our way up a series of pour-overs and trickles, dodging small river fish and enjoying the cold rain forest water pounding our shoulders.
That evening we took Belcampo’s tram to the dock, where a river boat took us into the sunset in search of tropical birds, crocodile, and rolling fish. Kingfishers and heron, toucan, and slaty-tailed trogan swarmed cotton and giant palm trees. These same trees flank Belcampo’s open dining room, where on the porch, and over breakfast, a family of howler monkeys hung out. Just down the street, one week prior, our driver, Desmond, spotted a jaguar on the hunt.
The morning brought more jungle birds, their sounds and the distant shrieks of the monkeys filling the silence. Fresh farm eggs and cheese served atop adobo salsa and beans filled our tanks for a day spent at the remote Sapodilla Cayes, a group of tiny islands about 40 miles east of Punta Gorda. The allure is manyfold, including fine sandy beaches and abundant conch shells, and incredible snorkeling and fishing.
The Sapodillas exist because of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. To the west, shin-deep water is full of bonefish, a svelte, missile-shaped gamefish that is a true prize for anglers. As I cast for these “gray ghosts of the flats,” Lori combed the beach for conch shells, sea sponge, and polished sea glass.
I asked our guide, a native, what he thought about the tourism industry in Punta Gorda. “We’re 20 years behind the rest of Belize [in terms of development],” he said. “And the rest of Belize is 20 years behind Costa Rica.”
He smiled. “You guys came at the right time. Parts of Belize are changing,” including a new cruise ship port to the north in Placencia. “But not P.G. It’s still as real as when I was a little boy.”
Brian Irwin can be reached at irwin08