Blancaneaux Lodge, Belize
In 1981, film director Francis Ford Coppola forged deep into the pine forests of Belize in search of a forgotten paradise that was rumoured to be nestled in the thick foliage in the mountains of Pine Ridge. But when he eventually stumbled upon it, he discovered that it had been abandoned. Overwhelmed by the sheer natural beauty that surrounded him, he leaped into the nearby waterfall, buoyed by the discovery of a place where he could spend his days writing, dreaming and imagining in such pristine surroundings. At first, the hidden paradise was kept purely as a holiday retreat for the large Coppola clan. But years later, Francis couldn’t resist sharing its charms with the world. And so Blancaneaux Lodge – a tranquil retreat of cabanas and villas nestled in the exotic heart of nature – was born.
As night falls, my first encounter with a Belize native occurs during the bumpy jeep drive to Mountain Forest, located near the Guatemalan border. This particular local is of the eight-legged variety – a large tarantula who ambles across the road in front of our vehicle, stopping briefly to survey the two giant circles of light streaming in its direction. As it continues on its way across the rocky dirt road, I wonder just what is awaiting me at the elusive Blancaneaux Lodge.
As we pull into the entrance of the Blancaneaux Lodge grounds, the landscape instantly transforms from thick pine forest to an Eden-like landscape of pristine gardens. Though we’ve arrived under the cloak of night, subtle hints of the exotic paradise that will be my residence for three days reveal themselves. The powerful rush of a waterfall feels so close by that I can sense the spray in the air. The gardens rustle with the movement of foreign creatures, as a litany of birds bid each other good evening.
I am guided down a manicured path, marked by the glow of small lanterns, towards my private cabana. The rush of the waterfall grows louder. As I nudge open the door, the gentle flicker of candlelight greets me. Savouring the intimate glow, I take in the intricate details of my domicile. Guatemalan ornaments adorn the walls and floors, from animal carvings and woven rugs, to tribal masks. Terracotta pots filled with plants and exotic floral bouquets add a certain vibrance to the room. At the front of the cabana, just behind the screen door that leads to the balcony, is a small sitting area with two wicker chairs and an antique wooden box that acts as a coffee table. On top sits a copy of Francis Ford Coppola’s literary quarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story, as if left there by the man himself after enjoying an evening’s reading.
The cabana sits on wooden stilts, with a thatched roof and rafters made from thin wooden logs. An old iron ceiling fan (inspired by those in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the originals of which are located in the lodge’s bar nearby) dutifully circulates the air. There’s not a pane of glass in sight, but rather the windows and entire front facade of the cabana are covered in fine wire screens. The ceiling doesn’t quite meet the wall, with the gap again sealed with wire screens to keep uninvited critters out. The result is a glorious feeling of really coexisting with nature. The breeze provides a gentle natural air-conditioning, while the fresh fragrances and vibrant sounds from nature create a space so relaxing, so welcoming, that all memories of urban civilisation dissolve.
The night chill begins to permeate the cabana and I can’t resist the all-encompassing bed that awaits me. I snuggle into the six layers of bedding, intended to ward off the cold fingers of the night air, and fall easily asleep to the soothing sound of water tumbling over the rocks of the waterfall.
When the earliest strands of sunlight nudge me awake, assisted by a contingent of the 500-plus species of local birds singing joyously, I sit up sleepily from my swathe of blankets. As I gaze out across the balcony, I am amazed that not only is the waterfall nearby, it’s right in front of my cabana, with only a few trees between me and its sparkling crystal waters. If it weren’t for the chill lingering in the air, and the fact that I had other plans awaiting me, I would have leapt straight into the bubbling pool beneath its cascade.
Instead, I have a rendezvous at the horse stables, where a spirited horse named Lightning awaits my arrival. Accompanied by an amiable young Belizean guide I set off, as the sunrise paints itself across the sky, on a morning horse ride through the rainforest. In addition to its wealth of peculiar birdlife, Belize is home to the densest population of the jaguar, as well as other rare creatures including the tapir, howler monkey and armadillo. And while they’re all known for their reclusive natures, I keep my eyes keenly peeled as we navigate our steeds through the foliage, buoyed by the occasional sighting of fresh paw and hoof prints. My search is not completely fruitless – I manage to spy a crimson woodpecker tapping its rhythm into a tall tree, while a croaking similar to a frog alerts me to the flight of one of nature’s more chromatically blessed creatures, the toucan.
Three hours into our trek, we dismount and tie our horses to a tree before heading down a steep path. Awaiting us at the bottom is another majestic waterfall. We unpack the picnic brunch the lodge staff has prepared us, which includes roasted vegetables and fresh salsa, all grown in Blancaneaux’s organic garden and orchard.
Sated and settled, this time I can’t resist the pull of the fresh water. I wade into the cooling pool and dive beneath the surface, the water so clear underneath that I can see every intricate detail of the riverbed. As I linger in the underwater silence, I ponder my activities for the next few days. I am tempted to fill my time with adventures visiting the local Mayan site Caracol (the largest in Belize), or canoeing through caves. But in truth, I would be just as happy here, with the birds and the waterfall as company.
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