Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Belize Part III: Luxe Lodge, Hidden Bargain

Last post left you at Lamanai Outpost, a jungly river retreat adjacent to the ancient Lamanai ruins in Belize. Up Next: Three nights at Chaa Creek, a "wildly civilized" nature lodge located in the cooler, mountainous Cayo District further to the south. Here's the scoop:

Getting There: You can shell out big bucks (and pop a few sedatives) if you want to puddle jump it to the tiny airport near Chaa Creek. We played it safe and cheap with a return boat trip down river and a van back to Belize International, where we were easily handed off to our Chaa Creek driver. From there, it was a two-hour drive to the mountainous south, a clearly more prosperous region, replete with horse and cattle ranches. The last couple of miles along a jangly dirt road led us finally to the lodge.

The Spot: Chaa Creek's got that whole "cushy wilderness resort thang" down: Neatly pressed staff trade cool drinks for dust-covered luggage when guests arrive. Artful thatch-roofed cottages nestle among riotous blooms. Stone, iguana-dotted paths lead to civilized perks like a freestanding spa, butterfly garden, and a breezy white tablecloth restaurant. And yep, there's a drop-dead gorgeous infinity pool, flanked by canopied massage tables and crisply clad chaise lounges.

Before you go rolling your eyes, let me tell you what makes this place truly likeable--and downright doable--even for us non-investment bankers: First, as gorgeous and extravagant as it is, Chaa Creek happens to also be a pioneer in sustainable eco-tourism. The owners--an American and a Brit--are long-time champions of the cause and stick by their commitment, creatively recycling waste on property and milling much of their own furniture with the help of local labor. So if you choose to indulge, you can actually feel good about being there.

Second...and this is my favorite part: While staying at the main resort is a kick-ass awesome experience for sure, there's a far-less-publicized, and more affordable alternative just a 10-minute walk down/up river along a well-groomed trail. Called Macal River Camp, it's basically 10 treehouse-like casitas clustered around an immaculate central bathhouse, convivial bonfire pit, and a rustic Belizean dining room. Since Macal River Camp is owned by the Chaa Creek folks, guests who stay there get to take take advantage of the resort's amazing amenities...for a fraction of what the fancy folks are paying. Granted, this option ain't for everyone. We didn't stay there because my workaholic husband puts up with my crazy camping stuff all year long and I knew he craved some comfort (and just a bit of privacy) on this go round. But if you're open to a more communal, close-to-nature experience--and want a lovely home-base in the Cayo region--Macal might be a fantastic option for you. I personally would have preferred staying at Macal because the vibe was so much hipper and friendlier than at the main resort. And, as you know, I'm just soooo hip and friendly.

The Digs: Rooms at the main resort are ripped straight from Conde Nast Traveler. Cool stucco walls, clay tile floors, double-sheeted queen and king beds, handwoven textiles, and a huge bathroom with an array of eco-friendly unguents are standard. Our digs even had a separate, landscaped outdoor shower. (Great for late-night hi-jinx when you're sharing digs with kids). Flower petals sprinkled around the bathroom and towels twisted into swan shapes on the bed had me looking around for errant honeymooners. Not that I'm complaining but it did feel a little bizarre sharing our tropical sin bin with two adolescent boys.

As for Macal--don't imagine muddy pup tents at some skeevy KOA campground. These are permanent structures, simply but prettily appointed with colorfully covered single beds (some casitas accommodate 4), private hammocked porches, and screened windows. What they don't have is plumbing, electricity (guests use kerosene lamps), Four-Seasons-caliber mattresses, or glass on the windows (any romance has to be low key here). If I had a "camp" like this in Lake George, I'd stay there year round.

Action Plan: Chaa Creek's 365-acre private nature preserve is there for you to explore and enjoy in numerous ways, mostly for no additional charge. There are guided hikes, medicine walks, canoes to paddle down the river, bird watching tours, horses to ride, mountain bikes to borrow (good luck...the trails are so vicous I ended up walking mine the entire way), and a butterfly garden and natural history center worth checking out. The really serious planning takes place each night, when guests take turns sitting down with the very official white-garbed concierge to sign up for the off-site excursions. This is where you spend real money (some trips cost as much as $100 or more per person), but this is also where it's truly worth it. We opted for a half day at the nearby ruins of Xunantunich, a half-day canoe paddle into stalactite/stalagmite riddled Barton Creek Cave, and the full-day Actun Tunichil Muknal adventure, which took us on an hours-long cave hike through waist-high water to ancient Maya sacrifice grounds. Truly, one of the all-time nutsiest adventures we've had as a family. There's also ziplining at a nearby resort (which seemed like a touristy knock off of Costa Rica); cave tubing; an excursion to Tikal in Guatemala, and more. Truly, if I could only call one place in Belize home base, Chaa Creek would be it. There really is THAT much to do.

Grub: Chaa Creek, like many upscale properties in Belize, did a diligent job of serving up the kind of fare that high-ticket travelers might want. There's just something about eating braised lamb shanks and creamy fettucini when I'm in the middle of a wilderness lodge...that doesn't work for me. I crave local food. And therein, I'm guessing, lies the rub. Belizean food, while tasty, is pretty simple and can get monotonous. It always seems to be some type of stewed meat or poultry and rice and beans. And I guess high-end hotels don't think their guests want that. We, however, preferred simple and local and thus took most of our meals at Macal River Camp, where traditional food and local beer are served up as a matter of course and guests are happy to devour it.

The 411: Three nights at Chaa Creek was about all we could afford, time-wise and money-wise. But given our druthers, we might have stayed a little longer. The semi-all-inclusive high season package rate for our cottage, which had two double beds and a day bed, ran about $ 215 per adult per night; $55 for each child. Another option is to pay a flat nightly room rate of $300 (which includes breakfast); order box lunches from Chaa Creek ($12/pp) or pick up lunch in town en route to your excursion; and eat dinner ($12/pp) at Macal River Camp. Rates at the main resort decline considerably after May 1 and Chaa Creek also offers affordable packages. Transfers from Belize International to the resort are $ 150 for 1-4 people. At Macal River Camp, the charge is $55 per adult, including breakfast and dinner. Kids under 6 no charge; 6-11, $ 12.41; and 12-18, $ 24.63. That's right. What a deal. Could make a camper out of the best of us, huh? For info and rezzies go to


  1. Excellent story, and nuggets like info about separate beds for the kids could only come from someone who has been there...

  2. Hey Peg, We are cousins-by-marriage! I've enjoyed reading your blog and am always surprised and delighted to find your name in a magazine. There must be an adventurous travel gene, along with the doctor one, in the Rosen clan!