5 Nights in the Jungle
To some, five nights in the jungle conjures visions of anacondas, tarantulas, stealthy jaguars ready to pounce, humid air heavy with the whine of mosquitos. For me, the most terrifying moment of my five nights in the jungle was the 2:00 am roar of a furious demon coming to drag me down to the underworld. But once I realized it was a harmless howler monkey, I rolled over on my comfortable mattress, tucked my floral-scented sheet up under my chin, readjusted my head on my nice soft pillow, and went back to sleep. Our five nights in the jungle were some of the most comfortable, relaxing nights I’ve ever spent.
That probably has something to do with our lodging. We stayed at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Lodge in the Cayo District of Belize.
Usually in the winter we hop in our RV and drive south or west or southwest. I guess we’re getting lazy—neither one of us could get excited about driving cross-country last year. And RVing in Florida has become such a frustration—the county and state park campgrounds are impossible to get into and the private campgrounds cost a small fortune even though you’re packed together so tightly you can hear your neighbor snore.
So we decided we’d suffer through a Delaware winter to spend one week somewhere exotic. Mitch had a milestone birthday to celebrate, so he got to choose the location. While I love trying to decipher foreign languages, signs, customs, and road maps, Mitch hates it. Since English is the main language of Belize, we thought it might be a good compromise.
The flight to Belize was easy—a little over two hours to Fort Lauderdale, switch planes, and then a little less than two hours to Belize City on Southwest. We left BWI at 7:30 am dressed in jeans and multiple layers of shirts, vests, and fleece, and by 1:30 pm we were in our rental car peeling layers faster than a sunburned nose.
Including a lunch stop at a restaurant recommended by our rental car guy, the trip to Caves Branch took about two hours. Except for the camouflaged “pedestrian platforms,” aka speed bumps, driving in Belize was a cinch. All the road signs are in English and the roads, compared to Baja Mexico’s and Costa Rica’s of twenty-five years ago, were in great shape—very few potholes and decent shoulders. Belizeans must have an infinite belief in good-luck because they pass uphill on blind curves and drive as fast as their cars allow. But we were used to that from Baja.
We pulled off the main highway at the Caves Branch sign and turned down a canopied gravel road. A thatched-roof building marked the reception area. Before we’d even shifted into “Park” the staff had unloaded our luggage. They pointed us towards the guest parking lot, and, when we returned to formally check-in, greeted us with two rum punches. Then we followed beautiful Rachelle as she led us down paths carved out of the jungle to our tropical cabana where our bags were waiting for us.
I think I could live the rest of my days in our little cabana at Caves Branch. It lacked a writing desk and, I suppose, a kitchen if it were to be my permanent home. But otherwise it was perfect. A high-thatched roof, a little porch with two chairs and a hammock, polished wood floors, a curtained, four-poster bed, a tiled bathroom with a shower minus the shower curtain (I don’t exactly know why it was so refreshing not to have a shower curtain but it was really cool!). Every day when we returned from our outings, our room welcomed us with clean glasses and a jug of filtered water, fresh towels folded and twisted to look like different creatures, and hibiscus flowers and flower petals arranged on top of the bed, by the bathroom sink, and even on top of the rolls of toilet paper.
And then there was the food. So much of it! Our lodging package included meals (it would have been a long drive to any restaurants). They served buffets for breakfast and dinner. The guides provided lunch on the tours—tortillas with veggies and cold cuts. Lunch on property was plated.
Oh the buffets… For breakfast—omelette station, fresh fruit, homemade yogurt with homemade granola, homemade cheeses and cookies (yes, cookies for breakfast. I decided I kind of liked that!), either pancakes, waffles, tortillas, or fry jacks, always scrambled eggs, a breakfast meat, refried beans, salsa, breakfast potatoes, muffins, cereal, and oranges next to a juicer to make your own fresh-squeezed orange juice. Dinner always started with chips and a dip. First course was soup, prepared salads along with a regular salad bar, homemade cheeses and rolls, and a fresh pasta station (yes, they served pasta as an appetizer). They prepared at least two types of meat for the main course along with different vegetables and rice. And finally, three different homemade options for dessert.
Also, with our package we had unlimited beer and rum drinks. Belikin is Belize’s national beer, so that is what we drank (think Miller Lite). The bottles held about 10 ounces with an alcohol content around 4 percent. Throw a few of those in with the amount of food we ate at the buffet and we had to roll ourselves back to our cabana every night.
The staff stressed cleanliness and reminded guests to use the hand sanitizer provided on each table in between courses. Mitch had never been so happy in his life!
The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was the forced seating arrangement. No matter how many guests were being served, they packed us 8 or 10 to a table. Each table had a list of rooms that were supposed to sit there. It was good and bad. On nights when there weren’t many people, it would have been nicer to have more elbow space around the table. Also, I’m an introvert and always having to talk and smile is exhausting. I have to do that for my job. On my vacation, sometimes I don’t want to have to make conversation. However, this requirement forced me to meet and chat with other people. Our table mates were from Oregon, DC, Idaho, Montana, Texas, and a couple cruising the coastline in their catamaran. We learned about anchoring issues, diagnosing leprosy, fun places on Ambergris Caye, mountain biking near Boise, settlements in Israel, and mean tricks parents can play on their kids around Christmas. If left to my own habits, these are experiences and stories I never would have heard.
For all meals we walked along the curving, criss-crossing, crushed-rock paths through thick vegetation to the main lodge. It, along with the guest cabanas, sits on the bank of the Caves Branch River wide open to the sights and sounds of the jungle. The dining patio also houses the bar, gift shop, and another reception desk. And the owner of Caves Branch Lodge, Ian Anderson, lives above it. He came down for dinner every night, sitting with a different table each time. Unrecognizable from his younger, slimmer, cave-adventurer photos on the wall, he told us funny stories about building the place from scratch and his life in Belize, punctuated with his jolly, Canadian laugh.
Although Mitch and I haven’t traveled much internationally, we have covered a lot of ground in the United States. And we’ve always lived in resort communities where the hospitality industry is the number one employer. We found the customer service at Caves Branch Lodge far superior to anything we’ve experienced before. Of course, usually if we’re staying at hotels it is only for a night or two and we’ve never stayed at an inclusive property. But everyone at Caves Branch, even the grounds keepers, smiled and said ‘hello’ when we walked by. When, on the paths, we passed a guide from a previous excursion, he would stop and chat with us. And many of the servers, bartenders, and front desk employees called us by our names even before we’d become regular customers. (Although they all called Mitch, Adam. I made the reservations and I guess Belizeans don’t recognize hyphenated last names (many Americans don’t either, unfortunately) so Jenifer Adams-Mitchell became Jenifer and Adam Mitchell. I loved it! Mitch got to experience a small taste of the identity frustration I get all the time.)
It wasn’t cheap—a little over $2000. It included five nights, all meals and drinks (didn’t include specialty drinks), and three tours led by extremely experienced guides (more on the tours in another post). And although it was more than we’ve spent on vacation ever before, I felt like they earned every penny.
Make sure you turn up the volume for the video so you can hear the 2:00 am demons!!