"Strip! Strip," my guide encourages me. "Faster! Slower!" It sounds like pole-dancing camp, but I'm actually learning how to fly-fish. We're standing knee-deep in azure water about nine metres off Nicolas Caye, a private island on the southern tip of Belize's barrier reef. I'm rapidly "stripping" the line to lure the bonefish I can see in the distance. What's most surprising is that I'm catching them.
Call it beginner's luck, but more likely it's owing to my exceptional guide, Sully. As one of the best in the business, he's more used to handling the fly-fishing experts who pilgrimage here in private jets looking for "the Grand Slam" – tarpon, permit and bonefish.
With Sully's help I manage a respectable six bonefish, which I release from barbless hooks before retiring to the shade of a palm tree and the salty sweet reward of a machete-chopped coconut.
Nicolas Caye, part of the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve, is owned by Belcampo, the luxurious jungle resort where I'm staying. Belcampo's general manager is Mara Jernigan, a Canadian who previously operated Fairburn Farm, the renowned culinary retreat/working water buffalo dairy farm on Vancouver Island. She has helped transform this former fishing lodge, with its 12 cottages scattered across the peak of a tall, jungle-clad hill beside the Rio Grande, into a massive eco-retreat encompassing a 1,200-hectare farm within a 4,800-hectare rain-forest preserve.
Belcampo is at the cutting edge of agritourism. More than just a place to lounge around by the pool or indulge in a massage – assuredly, both options are available and encouraged – it aims to help conserve the surrounding marine environment through sustainable agriculture management and rain-forest conservation. The resort is already largely self-sufficient. All of the chickens and pigs are raised on the property, the one-hectare kitchen garden provides nearly all of the vegetables and herbs, and much of the in-room furniture is produced on-site from timber sustainably harvested on the property.
When I get back to the resort – after a two-hour boat ride followed by a short drive in a open-air Jeep – Emmanuel Chan, one of Belcampo's guides, hands me a pair of binoculars and points toward a toucan he's spotted. It's a bird I never expected to see outside of a cereal box, and I can hardly believe my eyes.
Such sightings are commonplace here, however. Even from my shower, a pebble-lined space the size of my first apartment with a window overlooking the jungle, I can see hummingbirds, parrots and butterflies flitting among the oversized plants. Each morning a troop of coati – like a smaller, more streamlined raccoon – marches past my cottage. A family of howler monkeys patrols the canopy around the resort and even when they aren't visible, their haunting, powerful cries echo through the forest. Even jaguar inhabit the area, although spotting one of the shy, nocturnal creatures is extremely rare.
I'd happily lie in my hammock scoping out wildlife all afternoon, but I'm meeting Jernigan, who is going to show me the Agritourism Centre that Belcampo has just completed.
At the bottom of the hill, three elegant, tiered buildings flank a central courtyard. The team has big plans for these structures, which were still a couple of weeks from opening when I visited, but are now almost fully operational.
One is exclusively for processing chocolate, and guests have the chance to participate in intensive week-long "bean to bar" courses.
"We found some wild cacao trees growing in the jungle," Jernigan tells me, "so we're grafting them onto hearty rootstock to create a kind of super chocolate. It will take five years for the trees to mature, but when they do we'll be the largest grower of cacao in the country." Until then, the beans come from a mix of area growers and trees already on the property.
The other two buildings are dedicated to coffee and rum. The resort is partnering with James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland, who offers in-depth classes about the process of making coffee. Master classes in rum tasting are led by Martin Cate from Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco and go way beyond swirling and sipping. Participants visit sugar-cane fields and then produce their own micro-distillations.
All of the rum talk has me ready for a cocktail, but before we head back to the resort, Jernigan invites me into the organic garden where she's got to get some fresh mint for the bar. Behind a tall fence, dozens of raised beds are filled with almost all of the vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. In addition to familiar ingredients such as tomatoes, spinach and eggplant, the tropical climate enables the resort to grow papaya, bananas and avocados, among dozens of other luxuries. Wild vanilla grows in the jungle and is cultivated on the farm along with coffee, cacao and sugar cane. Pigs and chickens are housed in tidy pens. My favourite contraption is the "egg mobile," a little hen house on wheels that moves around from field to field for fresh pecking and helps provides the lodge with its eggs.
Guests are encouraged to spend time in the garden and are welcome to join the workers for lunch – usually a hearty chicken stew and delicious tortillas fresh off the comal (griddle). One afternoon I join an expedition to harvest a heart of palm deep in the jungle. It's hot, muddy work on a slippery hillside, but the creamy, fresh perfection makes it worthwhile.
All of that bounty is put to good use by the kitchen, led by chef Brandon Genus, who has the good sense to let the quality ingredients speak for themselves. He juliennes semi-ripe papaya, mixes it with spicy greens and tosses it all with a bright lime and mint dressing. He slow roasts suckling pig "pibil style" in an underground "pib" until it's nearly falling apart, and tops it with crispy, salty chicharron (fried pork rinds). His version of salbutes, a kind of Mayan tostada, is topped with lion fish, pickled red onions and an irresistible, but wickedly dangerous habanero salsa. It just might be my favourite food in all of Belize.
Getting in touch with food sources is a large part of the Belcampo experience, and that is most beautifully illustrated on my last day. I'm up early with the howler monkeys and excited to get started. My party includes Jernigan, Genus and Jackie Young (a.k.a. Capt. Jackie), who are all busy loading provisions into the steep funicular that runs from the resort through the jungle down to the river. Once there we pile onto a pontoon boat equipped with a barbecue and head downstream. Dense jungle surrounds us. Huge iguanas relax on high branches, kingfishers race along the water and herons slowly float from treetop to treetop. Fresh mud paths from the water suggest where crocodiles live.
We head further into the Caribbean, toward the coral formations in the Snake Cayes. This is a mixed-use region, so we're allowed to eat what we catch. Outfitted in snorkelling gear and armed with a long, hooked pole, I follow Capt. Jackie into the water. A stingray glides beneath us, while in the distance a small school of barracuda hover in the current. Capt. Jackie dives forward and with a quick jab hooks a spiny lobster. My attempts are futile, but I do manage a few conch.
Back on the boat we snack on tortilla chips and fresh salsa while Genus cleans the fish, whips up some lobster tacos and turns the conch into a refreshing ceviche with lime and chilies. Chad Berscheid, a resort manager who's our bartender for the day, mixes up caipirinhas and the day goes from great to sublime. This is agritourism at its wildest and most delicious.
IF YOU GO
Belcampo is located in southern Belize. The resort features 12 private suites (with more planned for September). Each one features screened verandas, spa-style baths with jungle views and free WiFi and laundry service.
Other amenities include a spa (offering massage, facials, manicures and pedicures), pool, sundeck, communal fire pit and waterfront dining.
Activities include birding, snorkelling, wildlife watching and fishing.
Rooms start at $250. The price includes round-trip transfers between the lodge and the Punta Gorda airstrip, full breakfast (with regular coffee, tea and juices), snacks, turndown service, gym access and complimentary activities.
For more details, visit belcampoinc.com/bz.
Chris Johns is a food and travel writer. He flew courtesy of the Belize Tourism Board and stayed as a guest of Belcampo. The airline and the resort did not review or approve this article.