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EAT & PLAY IN BELIZE
 
(2023 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: MARY LUZ MEJIA



Belize is the new cultural dine-out nature spot.

I was no-breakfast hungry landing in Dangriga, a big town in southern Belize with a small-town laid-back vibe.

Dangriga, which has gained a reputation as the “Culture Capital of Belize” for its lively punta rock and spiritual ties to a unique Garifuna culture, was my first stop to a country that has been on my radar. As a recently certified level 3 graduate of the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting, sampling the cacao grown in Belize was high up on my trip hit list as were the natural surroundings and timeless traditions.

Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean bordering Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west in Central America, this small country where English is the official lingua franca is a cornucopia of multicultural culinary traditions. In Belize, there are three groups of Maya: the Mopan, Kekchi and Yucatec, as well as the proud Garifuna peoples, descended from free African and indigenous Caribbean ancestry, Mennonites, Mestizos, Creoles and more.

COOKING WITH THE GARIFUNA

Deep in the gardens of tropical Kalipuna Island, hudut, a dish usually reserved for ceremonial occasions, was front and centre at the Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute where I participated in an Afro-Indigenous Garifuna cooking class with other food lovers. Garifuna cultural visionary Uwahnie Martinez and her dad Eugene dove into this ancient food scene as we husked and cracked coconuts while Uwahnie expertly filleted local brackish water snook. We pounded boiled plantain (this later became a component of the meal called fufu) and I helped fry the fish over a wood-fired stove.

The result was a symbolic stew of garden-picked vegetables, a fried fish fillet and fufu, nestled in an aromatic coconut broth. We were all quietly contemplative as we ate this hyperlocal meal dating back to the 1600s when a Spanish shipwreck off Saint Vincent led to an exchange of foods and traditions between the on-board Nigerians and a Carib tribe. The layered cultural dish speaks of Africa, the Caribbean, resilience and survival. 

MAYA-FARMED BELIZEAN CACAO

In Stann Creek, I met Julio Saqui, the community-minded Maya co-owner of Che’il Mayan Chocolate Factory, where he lives and works. Che’il, a Mopan Mayan word for “wild Mayan,” uses organic Belizean cacao Saqui farms with eight other local Maya at this artisanal direct-trade cacao factory. He proudly demonstrated conching machines, which were busy refining vats of velvety chocolate. I travel the globe looking for at-the-source cacao like this and was ready to savour what many consider premium goods. I sampled the honeyed, slightly fruity cacao used in the refrigerator-only chocolate confections. I’m a newly minted fan!

ROAD TRIP SNACKS

A drive along the picturesque Hummingbird Highway is a route of culinary surprises. You’ll pass jungles, villages, orchards and the northern edges of Maya Mountain enroute to San Ignacio, a popular town revered as an adventurer’s playground. Be sure to stop at the aptly named Miss Bertha’s Best Belizean Tamales. Her chicken and corn tamales are famous nationwide, and I, a Latin American devotee of the banana-leaf-wrapped, corn masa parcels, agree. For dessert, stop at the Mennonite-owned The Country Barn Ice Cream Shop, where soursop, coconut, craboo (a sweet-tart tropical fruit) and passionfruit ice cream vie for your attention.

If you imagine Belize is all beans and rice, it’s time to reconsider.

AT ONE WITH THE SEA

Snorkelling in the blue waters of Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a bucket list experience. I swim with nurse sharks, something my companions are scared to try, but we’re told there’s no harm. There’s a common misconception they’re blind (they’re not) and vacuum up their food. I jump in to observe the dance of marine wildlife of majestic manta rays, Technicolor fish, and nurse sharks with smaller remora sharks suctioned onto them as their personal cleaners. But it’s the sea turtle munching on sea grasses that has me wide-eyed as it surfaces. Gentle and methodical, it’s as important as the corals below to this ecosystem and a good reminder that treading lightly is crucial to us all.

RIVER CRUISE — BELIZE STYLE

“Look there!” exclaims Robert Melendez, owner of Jungle Splash Eco Tours in San Ignacio on board a roofed pontoon in the upper Macal River. Surrounded by shades of green, he points out a mature river croc and explains his childhood playground is best explored the old-fashioned way.

“Let’s go to the waterfalls!”  Up a nearly dry riverbed, I hike through a slippery jungle path to a remote waterfall and pool for a much-needed refreshing dip. Later on, in a post-jungle drizzle, the sun peaks out and exotic tropical birdsongs are the only disruptor where clean mountain air meets river air. I feel lucky to disconnect from our busy lives, even if just for a few special hours.

TRIP PLANNER

For travel information about Belize visit BelizeTourismBoard.org

 
 
 
 
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