By Denise Mattia
I sat in the cockpit of a Cessna Caravan transfixed by the landscape of green that was 800 feet below, wondering if I’d like the jungle experience. Marine environments are generally my choice of travel destinations, yet I was flying west from Belize City, the opposite direction of the famed Belize Barrier Reef, to a lodge named Chan Chich in a nature reserve called Gallon Jug.
The appellations alone had piqued my curiosity, and I reserved a stay here followed by two coastline resorts farther south.
Lumberjacks named the area 150 years ago when they found Spanish ceramic gallon jugs while logging mahogany and cedar trees for the Belize Estates, a company that owned one-fifth of the country (formerly British Honduras). In 1985, four years after Belize gained independence, Belikin beer brewer Barry Bowen purchased the company, divided the land into four parcels and retained 130,000 acres for himself. Today, about 3,000 acres are used for the lodge and a farm that produces cattle, coffee, and cacao.
The rest of the land gives protection to wildlife and the tropical forest.Within 15 minutes of landing on the farm’s airstrip, I was transported to the lodge, an intimate place consisting of 12 spacious cabanas, a villa, a dining room, a lounge, and reading rooms. Chan Chich (“little bird” in Mayan) is situated in the plaza of an ancient Mayan city, surrounded by Mayan burial mounds, and, although guests swear they feel the presence of those ancient people, I had to admit I felt an
extraordinary sense of tranquility.
Still, calm didn’t mean lazy. Joining a small group of fellow journalists, I followed our guide, Hilberto, a senior staff member since 1987, who told us that when archeologists unearthed the ruins they discovered that they’d been looted long ago and were weathered beyond conservation. The owner worked with the Belize Department of Archaeology to ensure that construction didn’t damage the site further. What remains of the burial chambers are gaping openings that can only be penetrated a few yards lest they collapse under the weight of the soil above.
Walking at an easy pace, we covered several miles of the nine-mile trail system, while Hilberto pointed out poisonous plants and medicinal flowers and herbal remedies made from leaves and tree bark. Wild turkeys searched the cool ground for food while high in the trees spider and howler monkeys rested in the afternoon heat. Signs mark the trails, and maps are available for guests who wish to wander into the jungle unaccompanied by a guide.If you go in search of the jaguar (Belize is the world’s only jaguar preserve), don’t be surprised if you don’t succeed in seeing one. The elusive creatures are generally nocturnal and stay well away from humans. There is a remote chance, however, that one could come to drink from the small natural spring-fed lake that’s four miles north of the farm. During daylight hours, guests use the canoes the resort provides to watch nature at close range.
I was told that turtles and crocodiles inhabit the lake and, rather than risk an encounter with a “croc” during a dip, I opted instead for the safety of an early evening swim in the resort’s screened-in pool and Jacuzzi. Looking skyward while floating in the cool water, I watched red-lorel parrots, hummingbirds, and Montezuma oropendula dart frantically through the air, seeking the safety of their nests in boughs that bent to their weight like supplicants. The reserve is a birdwatcher’s dream-come-true, with over 350 species of birds, many of which serenade guests directly outside their doors at daybreak.My last activity at Chan Chich was a trek of another sort — viewing the Gallon Jug Farm from atop a horse. The resort offers guided horseback rides along jungle trails or to remote Mayan sites. Sadly, I wasn’t able to take a day trip to the stunning pyramids at Lamanai, the second largest Mayan city in Belize. Translated as Submerged Crocodile, it was well named, since it’s almost completely surrounded by lagoons, although it can be reached by road and by a combination of road and boat. The view is reportedly spectacular when approached from the river. I’d have to save that expedition for a time when I allot more than a couple of days to this little-known paradise deep in the jungle of Belize.
For more information visit the Belize Tourism Board. Lodge rates and information can be found at ChanChich.com
Getting there: American Airlines flies directly to Belize City from most major cities. Tropic Air has regularly scheduled flights to most destinations throughout the country.
See also OffBeatTravel.com
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.