The almost three-hour drive from Belize’s international airport, to Gaia Riverlodge, a chic property hidden in the lush nature of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, offers an impressive overview of the small Central American country – particularly its demographics.
Though its roots are Mayan, today’s Belize has been shaped by waves of migration. The guide who collected me from the airport, located not far from the Caribbean coast, walks me through this social history as we pass communities and landmarks. Roughly 20 per cent of the population is Creole, descendants of slaves brought to the country from west and central Africa. At one point, he points inland to where the Garinagu live, descendants of captives from Africa who, in the mid-17th century, survived shipwrecks or rebelled and took control of the ships – no one’s quite sure. Passing farmland, I learn about the German-speaking Mennonite community, who started arriving in numbers in the late 1950s. As we drive through the towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, we pass stores named Bismillah Textiles and Chen’s Supermarket, nods to the Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants who have settled here since the 1960s.
These days, the newcomers making a mark on Belize’s landscape tend to be American and Canadian resort developers, many of whom are investing in property and turning this country from a backpacker holiday spot into a luxury destination that rivals neighbouring Mexico and Central America’s highly popular Costa Rica.
Gaia Riverlodge, near the Guatemalan border, is one such property, owned by Montrealer Daniel Lighter. (It happens to neighbour Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by Francis Ford Coppola.) The boutique hotel, perched on a riverside hill overlooking a waterfall and surrounded by lush forest, beckons one to unplug (though, yes, there is WiFi in the main lodge and restaurant). Shortly after I arrive and settle in to my cozy villa it starts to rain – that mixed with the rush of the river below and birds chirping in the trees above had me feeling as if I was inside a white-noise machine. This is a place that begs for rest and relaxation.
The true luxury here is intimacy and inclusion – whether it be on property or on an excursion. The restaurant staff remember not only my name but the particularities of how I order. A fresh green juice with breakfast, dressing on the side for salads – both made with ingredients from the lodge’s comprehensive garden.
I spend the better part of a day at the ancient Mayan site of Caracol, an imposing feat of architecture dating back to the seventh century. My guide times the visit so that, for most of our stay, it is just us roaming the grounds and climbing the steps of the temple (so many steps; my quadriceps took two days to get over it). It’s here, in the middle of the Chiquibul rainforest, that a Mayan community thrived – until they didn’t. The prevailing thought is that their water sources dried up and the population scattered or died off. But plentiful markings of their existence remain in carvings, geographical indicators and structures, such as a ball court complete with small stadium seating.
On one morning, in the nearby town of San Antonio, I meet with a women’s co-operative which, among other things, is reviving the local Mayan style of ceramics based on pieces that have been found in the area and restored. They also demonstrate traditional food techniques; I got a lesson in corn tortillas. As I ground the corn with a large mortar and pestle, pushing and dragging back a large stone on top of the kernels, I comment on its meditative nature. “Not when you have five kids telling you they’re hungry!” the lovely woman teaching me responds. Fair point.
I then head to the coast – it’s what Belize is famous for, after all, being home to the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere. It’s here one can find the most pronounced development by North Americans. Hilton’s Mahogany Bay Resort and Beach Club opened recently on Ambergris Caye. Marriott’s due to open an Autograph Collection hotel in 2020. The Four Seasons has plans for a property with luxe overwater bungalows, set to open in 2021. Leonardo DiCaprio is behind Blackadore Caye, a wellness and sustainability-focused resort that’s in the works.
Matachica, Gaia’s sister property, is also on Ambergris Caye. Though not new, it underwent a design-focused makeover in 2018 led by Byron and Dexter Peart, the Montreal-based brothers behind the fashion brand Want Les Essentiels.
If Gaia exudes relaxation, Matachica pops with energy (though a hammock in front of each beach bungalow beckons when the need to recharge hits). Montreal artist Cécile Gariépy painted original murals in each bungalow, their bright, playful nature setting the tone for the resort. Snorkelling, sailing, cycling, cave tubing, fishing or swimming with stingrays and nurse sharks – it’s easy to have a packed schedule here, and so the real luxury is doing nothing, by the pool, at the bar, on the beach.
The resort is busy with Canadians and Americans, many of them couples celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries. I ask why they chose Belize. “A friend loved it here.” “The photos looked fantastic.” The word of mouth is only getting louder.
The writer’s travels were supported by Gaia Riverlodge and Matachica. They did not review or approve this article.
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