Where to stay
A Belizean Nirvana An all-suite boutique hotel on the beach in the
heart of Placencia, moments from bars and restaurants. Doubles from
£74. Beachfront, Westby Way, 00 501 523 3331, belizeanirvana.com
BlueBelize Coastal Welcoming, all-suite guesthouse in Punta Gorda whose breezy veranda offers excellent views of the sparkling Caribbean and nearby Guatemala. Doubles from £30. 139 Front Street, Punta Gorda, 00 501 722 2678, bluebelize.com/guesthouse
Copal Tree Lodge A luxury eco lodge in the heart of the rainforest with beautifully furnished cottages – bathrooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the jungle. Doubles from £150. Wilson Road, Punta Gorda, 00 1 877 417 9478, copaltreelodge.com
Cotton Tree Lodge Rustic-luxury eco hotel located between the Moho
River and the rainforest in San Felipe, 20km from Punta Gorda airport.
Activities on offer include yoga and kayaking. Doubles from £157.
Moho River, San Felipe, 00 501 670 0557, cottontreelodge.com
Hickatee Cottages Award-winning, off-grid bed and breakfast in
the rainforest. Rooms are rather basic, but comfortable, and you will
wake to the sound of resident howler monkeys. Doubles from £73.
Mile 1.5, Ex-Servicemen Road, 00 501 662 4475, hickatee.com
Sun Creek Lodge Budget-friendly jungle lodge with five traditionally thatched cabanas set amid a tropical garden, 20km from Punta Gorda. Private bathrooms feature open-sky showers. Doubles from £24. Southern Highway, 00 501 607 6363, suncreeklodge.de
Situated on Central America’s east coast, Belize is flanked by the Caribbean Sea to the east and dense jungle to the west. Toledo District is the country’s southernmost. Currency is the Belize dollar (BZD) and time is six hours behind GMT. The average temperature in November is 25C. Flights from the UK to Belize City take around 22 hours, from where there are regular flights to Placencia and Punta Gorda, the regional capital. tropicair.com mayaislandair.com
Virgin Atlantic offers a service from London Heathrow to Belize City with one stop. virginatlantic.com
Taxis are a popular way of getting around Belize. They range from modern SUVs to rough-looking old cars, but before you hail one, check that they display green plates – a sign that they’re licensed.
Travel Belize is the official tourist board and its website is packed with useful information to help you plan your trip. travelbelize.org
How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize by Joan Fry (University of Nebraska Press, £13.50) tells the story of how an American expat who’d never made more than instant coffee learnt to cook like a local, guided by the village women and their children.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Belize, visit
climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London
produce 2.34 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £17.58.
Where to eat
Camille’s Cake Stand Run by Camille and her mother, this cake stand
sells feather-light powder buns, meat pies and coconut tarts, all freshly
baked. From 70p. Placencia Road, opposite Belizean Flavour
Cobo’s Kitchen Small takeaway selling curried chicken with coconut rice
and coleslaw. Great for chatting with locals. From £8. Placencia Road
Driftwood Café Homely Belizean classics, including stew beef, fried fish,
conch soup and barbecued meat. From £9. Front Street, Punta Gorda
Eladio’s Chocolate Adventure Bean-to-bar chocolate experience and
Mayan cooking demonstration with an excellent lunch of caldo and fresh
tortillas. From £25pp. San Pedro Columbia, agouticacaofarm.wordpress.com
Fat’s Pratt Eat chicken with rice and beans at this barbecue stand while dipping your toes in the sparkling sea. From £5. San Antonio Road
Garden Table at Copal Tree Lodge. More than 70 per cent of the food
served at this eco-hotel restaurant is produced on the lodge’s own farm,
while seafood is sourced locally from a team of fishermen who supply
sustainable fish, conch, lobster and wild prawns. Lunch from £50pp. Wilson Road, Punta Gorda, 00 501 722 0051, copaltreelodge.com
John the Bakerman Bakery Locally famous, must-try cinnamon rolls. Do
bear in mind that opening times vary randomly. From £2. Westby Street
Rumfish y Vino Buzzy Placencia restaurant with great cocktails and spirited
dishes such as Mayan spiced fish with yampi, a root vegetable. From
£30pp. Placencia Village Square, 00 501 523 3293, rumfishyvino.com
Tutti Frutti Very popular gelato shop run by expats who make fresh batches each day from seasonal ingredients. From £3. Placencia Village
- A red colouring agent made from the seed of the annatto tree. Used in soups, stews and pibil – a slow-roasted pork dish
- A traditional dish of the Mayan people, consisting of stewed chicken with cassava, pumpkin, yam and achiote, eaten with fresh tortillas
- A starchy root which provides a bulky addition to soups and stews. It has a pleasant, waxy texture once cooked
- Sea snail, which is typically chopped up and fried in fritters or sometimes slow-cooked in soup
- A traditional dish of the Garifuna people consisting of mashed ripe and green plantain, served with a broth of coconut milk and fish
- A deep-fried pastry filled with fish or meat, similar to empanadas
- Fruit similar to a banana, used in ripe and unripe forms to make various dishes including hudut
- Rice and beans
- A staple and inexpensive food for Belizean people, consisting of rice cooked with red kidney beans. Other flavours are often added, such as chilli and coconut milk
- Deep-fried, puffed tortillas with varying toppings, including meat, seafood and fresh salsa
- Stew beef
- Slow-cooked traditional beef dish with garlic, pepper and chilli. Chicken is often cooked in the same way
- Deep-fried tortillas, similar to salbutes but not puffed
- Powder bun
- A biscuit made with coconut milk and cinnamon. It’s often eaten as a snack or dipped into tea at breakfast
Food and Travel Review
Everyone is very relaxed here,’ laughs our pilot Nicholas, as he navigates a tiny propeller plane over the turquoise waters of Belize’s Barrier Reef. It’s easy to see why. We’re headed for Punta Gorda, cruising above a patchwork of bristling banana plantations, dense jungle and sugar cane. Housing is sparse. As tyres screech onto the runway’s hot tarmac, Punta Gorda airport reveals itself, a single white hut shimmering behind a wall of heat, air singing with tropical birdsong, palm trees rustling. On disembarking we’re told that our fellow passengers included not only a famous Caribbean musician (Pen Cayetano), but Dean Barrow, the prime minister of Belize. Like Nicholas said, people are very relaxed here.
Punta Gorda – PG to the locals – is a fishing town on the Caribbean coast of South Belize’s Toledo District. A collection of ramshackle buildings painted in bright pastels, its centre is a town square – actually triangular – which plays host to a market selling locally grown foods. This part of Belize is home to people of widely varying heritage, including the Garifuna, Kekchi and Mopan Mayans, East Indian Kriols, Mennonites and Mestizos. ‘If you’re in Toledo, you have all of Belize,’ as the local saying goes. This mixture of indigenous and immigrant cultures results in a rich and varied cuisine, combining Caribbean fishing traditions with Mayan and Garifuna farming and Mennonite dairy production.
Driving along PG’s coastal road to Copal Tree Lodge – a luxurious rainforest eco hotel bordering the Rio Grande – tantalising clues to the flavours of Belize reveal themselves. Fishermen haul nets into tiny boats bouncing wildly on glittering waves, the scent of spicy meat carries from distant barbecues, and tropical fruits hang heavy with ripeness. As we drive into the jungle, barely 15 minutes from the coast, drooping palms loom against vines the height of skyscrapers and incongruous patches of pine savannah, where skinny firs stick up from red soil like bottle brushes. This is a place which feels so alive it’s hard to comprehend. A place where every square inch is teeming with activity. The Belizean people have learnt to work harmoniously with this land, producing key crops including coconuts, cassava, fruits, plantain, corn, sugar cane, chocolate and spices, farmed using traditional methods and cooked in time-preserved ways.
Yvette Ramirez has been working as a chef at Copal Tree Lodge for 11 years, where more than 70 per cent of the food is produced at an organic on-site farm, including vegetables, lamb, chicken and even chocolate. As one of 10 siblings she learnt to cook at home to help her mother – a retired nurse. The menu she devised for the Garden Table restaurant is produce-led, with vegetables such as callaloo – a spinach-like leaf with an iron-rich sweetness – travelling a very short distance from farm to plate. ‘We also have chaya, a leaf which we use to make a dip with the milk and cream we get from the Mennonites,’ she explains. The natural bitterness of the chaya offsets the richness of the local cream. Yvette also uses the dairy in the production of her queso fresco, a fresh cheese that tops tacos and tostadas, and ice creams with interesting flavours, such as turmeric. ‘We use a lot of our spices to make dishes influenced by the East Indian culture,’ she explains. The ice cream is astonishingly good, the root’s fragrant earthiness enhanced by sugar cane.
Professional chef training has made Yvette a very different cook from her mother Hazel, who still uses the traditional methods to run a catering service from home. She invites us over to make hudut, an important dish for the Garifuna people, who were indigenous to The Americas but originally from the Caribbean island of St Vincent. ‘Everybody knows I’m a good cook!’ Hazel laughs as we gather around her small stove. ‘This is our food from way back.’ She learnt to cook this dish of green and ripe plantain served with an aromatic fish stew from her own mother. A large, spiked wooden board leans against the kitchen wall, still wet from freshly grated coconut. ‘It’s all about the coconut, the cilantro [coriander] and culantro [a broad-leafed aromatic herb] and the fish,’ she explains, lapping broth over the fish to cook it. ‘In the days gone by we’d make this a lot – it was our daily food.’
She cooks to the beat of Garifuna drumming, an important tradition maintained by many in the area and performed here by family members Kendrick and Everald, who are lingering, awaiting their lunch. As beats grow ever more complex, the tiny feet of younger children tap against blue linoleum, their mouths wrapped around orange lollipops. ‘We learnt the drumming from our parents,’ Kendrick explains. ‘It’s part of our belief, to worship our ancestors.’
When the broth is ready, we soak it up with balls of the plantain, rendered bouncy from its pounding in a 1.2m-tall pestle and mortar. The fresh coconut milk has made it sweet and rich, ready for a squeeze of lime and as much hot sauce as we dare – made fresh that morning from fruity habanero chillies.
‘The Mayans grind the beans using a stone mortar, then process it into bars. The flavour is very different to what we’re used to in the West, with
a ‘raw’ taste that’s so intense, it’s almost alcoholic'
Preserving age-old methods of cooking and sharing food is just as important to the Mayan people, who are thought to have inhabited Toledo District since at least 10,000BC. In San Isidro village, sisters Rosa Bulum and Ana Salam are cooking caldo, a traditional chicken soup served with fresh corn tortillas. They shape the tortillas rapidly, hands a blur as they pat and turn masa dough into small circles, slapping them onto a comal – a flat-iron hot plate set over fire – in their small, outside kitchen. This skill is clearly the result of years’ practice. ‘When I made my first tortilla it looked like the map of Belize!’ Salam laughs.
‘Caldo is a very traditional dish,’ explains Rosa. ‘We put the chicken in the pot, then add pumpkin, yam and cassava. We add achiote [a seed from the annatto tree], which gives it the red colour, and culantro, which grows around the house.’ The soup has taken on earthy tones from the achiote and smoke from the fire. It feels nourishing and sustaining, thanks to waxy nubs of cassava. ‘The Mayan people have realised that mechanisation is not necessarily a good thing,’ says Rosa. ‘Machines cannot nurture the vegetables like a human can, and this is reflected in the flavour. This kind of food is in us – it’s not really written down.’
A food commonly associated with the Mayan people is chocolate, and at Eladio’s Chocolate Adventure in San Pedro Columbia village, bars are produced using ancient methods. Eladio Pop is an eccentric man who runs around his 12ha farm with boyish enthusiasm. ‘Look! Here is a path made by leafcutter ants during the night!’ he grins, hacking open fresh coconuts and cacao pods with his machete, a leaf tied around his head like a bandana. Over many years he has built a successful business growing three varieties of cacao, forastero, criollo and trinitario, and now runs tours educating visitors about the bean-to-bar process. ‘The cacao trees start bearing fruit when they’re four years old,’ he explains, ‘so you must maintain them until then, pruning and caring for them.’ The young pods are a deep-red colour turning to yellow once ripe. They can then be cracked open to reveal beans inside a white pulpy coating which tastes like a cross between mango, pineapple and passion fruit. The Mayans grind the beans using a traditional stone mortar called a metate, then process it into bars or a hot drink spiced with chilli or cinnamon. The flavour is very different to the mechanically processed chocolate we’re used to in the West, with a pleasantly ‘raw’ taste that’s so intense, it tastes almost alcoholic.
Travelling north to the beach resort of Placencia reveals a different side to Belize. Once a fishing village, it was destroyed by Hurricane Iris in 2001 and rebuilt by American expats to cater to tourists in search of white beaches, plentiful seafood and tropical fruit cocktails. Rumfish y Vino, a wooden-decked restaurant overlooking Placencia’s main drag, makes the best local ingredients sing in punchy rum cocktails spiked with mango, pineapple and habanero, long watermelon coolers, and classics like the Old Fashioned reimagined with tangerine spice. Fresh seafood dominates the menu: plates of bouncy conch fritters, salbutes (deep-fried tortillas) topped with octopus, lionfish panadas (similar to empanadas), and snapper spiced with smoky guajillo chillies all fly out of the kitchen. Those in the know take a trip downstairs for dessert at Tutti Frutti, a gelateria run by Italian expats Laurent and Titziana Tasta, who churn seasonal flavours, including coconut, papaya and chocolate.
At the Driftwood Café, which serves Kriol classics, you’re more likely to find a local clientele. Owner Carol Cabral turned the plot into a restaurant when she realised it was too close to the road to rent as a holiday home, swiftly employing her best friend of 40 years, Desiree Wade, to cook. Customers include Carol’s granddaughter, who comes here every lunchtime for a plate of tender stew beef, black beans cooked with coconut milk (‘from this tree right here,’ Carol points out of the window), creamy fresh coleslaw and rice and beans – a staple food for Belizean people. ‘I come here every single day,’ one customer enthuses, ‘for fried fish with plenty of hot pepper sauce!’
Among the most familiar faces of this gentle Placencia rhythm is ‘John the Bakerman’. His turquoise bakery opens on ‘Caribbean time’, but when the wheels of the creaky, hand-operated mill start turning, customers aren’t far behind. John bakes to original recipes he learnt ‘at Sonny and Tan, the oldest bakery in Belize’, before he opened his own bakery in Placencia, in 1989. He’s most famous for cinnamon buns, which he makes by coating a long stretch of dough in a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and raisins, before shaping, baking and glazing with vanilla and condensed milk. ‘By 3.30 I have a line all around the block,’ he says, pushing huge trays into cast-iron ovens. ‘We can never make enough.’
The buns emerge an hour later burnished brown, the scent of cinnamon curling stealthily through the streets. John smiles knowingly as he kneads dough in gentle rhythm to the reggae on the radio. He nods, gesturing out of the window: ‘All the flavour in that bun you find right here on the doorstep; no need to go anywhere else.’ Which just about sums up the approach to food and farming in this intoxicating, sun-soaked Caribbean paradise. The Belizean people know how lucky they are, and that by employing respectful methods which work in harmony with the land, they will see the best produce on their plate, a meeting of age-old traditions and stunning natural resources.
Helen Graves and Uta Gleiser travelled to Belize courtesy of Travel Belize. For more information visit, travelbelize.org
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