There are basically two types of tropical travelers — those who spot a gecko on their hotel room wall and give it a cute name, and those who holler less salubrious names while hunting for suitable footwear to hurl.
For those in the former category, Gaïa Riverlodge, deep in the Belizean rainforest, with its rushing river waterfalls and jungle hiking trails, caves, bird watching and airy cabins cooled by the wind (and visited by the occasional gecko), is the place to be.
Those in the latter category would prefer Matachica Resort and Spa on the eastern coast facing the Caribbean Sea, and offering snazzy, air-conditioned, gecko-less accommodations perched on a pristine white sandy beach and clustered around a superb infinity pool.
Both are owned by Canadian lawyer and unabashed Belize fan and investor Daniel Lighter, and both boast amenities, cuisine and service designed to assuage travelers in either category. Yet each resort has its own distinct personality due to the location as well as Lighter’s insistence that all staff be Belizeans. In fact, many have been with each resort for years. The resort’s amiable general manager, Nigel Richards, recalls wielding machetes as a teenager to clear space for what would become Gaïa.
Seeking to discover which type or tropical traveler I am, I set out to visit both of Lighter’s establishments in the former British Honduras, where tourism has now supplanted agriculture as the nation’s largest industry. What will I find?
Gaïa Riverlodge: Rustic, Jungle Adventure
Located in western Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Gaïa’s got everything the hardy eco-tourist wants, along with luxury, comfort and delightful tour guides who can convey you to any number of nearby cultural destinations.
Getting to Gaïa from Belize City’s airport is an adventure in itself. A three-hour drive in one of the resort’s new Toyota Land Cruisers starts on two-lane blacktops studded with speed bumps — Belizeans call them “sleeping police.” Quaint villages and agricultural farms abound, and primary schools are painted the same brilliant colors as the students’ uniforms. Too cute.
By the second hour, the roads turn into little more than rocky trails and put the vehicle’s all-wheel drive to good use.
Then you arrive at the meticulously groomed grounds and towering mango trees of Gaïa, originally known as the Five Sisters Lodge overlooking, appropriately enough, the Five Sisters waterfalls.
Named 2015’s “Hotel of the Year” by the Belize Tourism Board, Gaïa offers 16 private screened cabanas, nicely appointed with varnished Belizean hardwoods, bay leaf thatched roofs, panoramic windows and ceiling fans. Some have verandas with hammocks. It’s also one of only a few properties in Belize to be Green Globe Certified, thanks to off-grid, hydroelectric power from the river and other eco-measures.
All rooms feature pillow-top beds with ultra-luxe Matouk or Frette linens, cocoons of chic comfort in which to wake up and listen to the morning symphonic trills and buzzes and shrieks of exotic jungle birds.
The first thing you’ll want to do — after knocking back the icy-cold Mayan Punch concoction of papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and rum offered at the front desk — is check out the waterfall area. There’s a meandering stairway down to the valley, but a wiser choice, especially after the fruity cocktail, might be the funky funicular. You’ll be greeted by an amazing vista of lagoon pools, thatch-roofed shelters, chairs and more hammocks. Perfect place for a quick snooze before dinner.
Gaïa offers exquisite cuisine using locally sourced ingredients for mouth-watering specialties like Kriol shrimp, blackened snapper and chicken with coconut, all served with the ever-present plantain. International fare is also available and it’s all great, as are the hearty breakfasts and lunches. Served in the lamp-lit dining room and on the veranda overlooking the river, meals are a celebration and the perfect spot to contemplate the next day’s agenda.
There’s no shortage of activities. Day trippers can check out the fascinating Caracol Maya, the country’s largest Mayan architectural site deep in the Chiquibul Forest, and wonder for the millionth time how they built all this stuff. Make sure to schedule a stop at Rio Frio Cave and the Rio On Pools for a refreshing dip in the crystal-clear waters.
Ancient Mayans believed that caves were the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, and several are fairly close by. From Gaïa, guests can hike through Elijio Panti National Park to Blancaneaux Cave and revel in the pine forest savannah and tropical broad leaf forest.
A brief ride in the Land Cruiser brings you to a spooky yet fascinating canoe trip through Barton Creek Cave. Gaïa’s endlessly entertaining tour guide Calbert Mai has navigated these tricky eddies hundreds of times, yet never tires of aiming his flashlight at half-buried human skulls, eerie evidence of ancient Mayan blood rituals. Turn off your light and you’re instantly in absolute darkness — it’s unsettling to imagine Mayan priests performing their rites by torchlight.
It’s also unsettling — at least, to me — to contemplate the nearby zip-lining adventure, which some people find exhilarating. I think they’re nuts and found the Green Hill Butterfly Farm much more enchanting.
On your travels through the endless countryside you’ll also see quaint farming settlements of Taiwanese, Amish and Mennonite immigrants who came to the area generations ago and still practice their traditional ways.
A don’t-miss Gaïa treat — the tidy 1.5-acre organic garden. Calbert’s brother Sam oversees the operation, which provides produce for both Gaïa and Matachica.
All too suddenly, it’s time to go. Calbert drives me to tiny San Ignacio airport for a tiny, single-engine Tropic Air flight to tiny San Pedro and then a quick (and of course, tiny) boat ride to nearby Ambergris Caye. My job is to safeguard the mint shipment from Gaïa’s garden to our next stop.
Matachica Resort & Spa: Sophisticated Beachside Seclusion
Goodbye jungle, hello sparkling beaches, 31 air-conditioned (and gecko-less) thatched-roof villas with marble floors and bright artwork, an inviting infinity pool and full-service spa. Both the beckoning seaside Mango Bar and Mambo Restaurant offer delights every bit as delicious as Gaïa’s, especially when lobster is in season.
I deliver Sam’s mint shipment, toss back a mojito as a quality-control check (several more such checks will be performed during the next two days), and head to the private beach, where the sand is pearly white and the water cobalt blue.
Matachica is built on Ambergris Caye — a caye, pronounced “key” as in the Florida Keys, is a sandy, low-elevation island that forms on top of a coral reef — and offers access to the world’s second-largest coral reef (190 miles long) for sea kayaking, sailing, fishing excursions, snorkeling and scuba enthusiasts. All these activities can be scheduled at the front desk.
Not to be missed — snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley to get up close and personal with nurse sharks and stingrays. Prefer smaller ocean denizens? Mexico Rocks is for you. Wherever you go, the coral is remarkable.
Take a water-taxi to the village of San Pedro, which offers worthwhile shopping distractions. You can get around by renting one of the ubiquitous gas or electric golf carts serving as the town’s main transportation. Pick up a six-pack of Belikin beer, browse the amazing selection of native, fiery hot sauces or grab a few Cuban cigars as souvenirs.
Feel a bit less energetic? Hit the Jade Spa for aromatherapy sessions, massages, Mayan coffee scrubs and chocolate wraps, papaya facials and a host of other pamperings. Or just hang out at the infinity pool and watch the soaring pterodactyl-like frigate birds, or look for geckos while performing mojito quality checks on the latest shipment of mint.
Which leads me back to my question — what kind of tropical traveler am I? I’m actually a bit of both. While I settled into an abiding appreciation for Gaïa’s remoteness and rustic attractions — and BTW, mister gecko didn’t bother me one bit — Matachica’s comforts fully spoke to me in my language of slothful indolence.
But that’s just me. Head down thataway and be your own judge.
PO Box 173
San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize
Rates: $295 to $395 per night for two people per room (average rates; please contact Gaïa for specifics)
Matachica Resort & Spa
5 miles north of San Pedro
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Tel: 011.501.226.5010 or 011.501.226.5011
Rates: $300 to 385 per night for two people per room (average rates; please contact Matachita for specifics).
Visit either property’s website for information on the Reef and Rainforest package that lets you experience both places and a host of amenities in seven nights. Prices range from $5,135-$5,730 for two persons, one room, depending on the season.