17 JAN 2019: Belize’s popularity as a must-visit destination in Central America set unprecedented records in 2018. In the busiest month overnight visitors were up almost 25 percent over the year before. Cruise passenger arrivals to Belize has exceeded one million visitors annually in the past few years. What’s driving this Central American nation to trend so hot?

For one, there has been increased investment in tourism infrastructure projects by the Government of Belize and the private sector. Better airlift – for example the introduction of WestJet from Calgary and Air Canada from Toronto - has boosted overnight arrival numbers to Belize. That’s just a small part of the story however.

Belize has some unique and enticing attributes. This former British crown colony (British Honduras) is the only English language speaking country in Central America. It’s a peaceful place without the violence that plagues Guatemala on its south and west border or Mexico on its north. It has the lowest population density in Central America and while the average citizen is relatively poor by our standards, they are inevitably warm, friendly and most welcoming.

When Forbes named it as one of the top eight trending international destinations for fall winter travel 2017/18, the article noted among other things that Belize arguably offers the best diving in the world. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the second-largest barrier reef in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

Located in the Yucatán Peninsula, the first people to develop Belize were the Maya around 1500 B.C.E. who established many settlements here. There are about a dozen major Mayan archaeological sites to explore today and many more not yet excavated from the jungle. (Belize was once home to over two million Mayas.) The first European contact with Belize was when Christopher Columbus reached the area's coast in 1502. The first European settlement was established by England in 1638 and for 150 years many more English communities were set up.

The Mayan ruins that dot the country, the lush nature and subtropical climate, the vast coastline on the Caribbean Sea and my own curiosity about the cuisine was pull enough for me to fly down last December for a visit. Before I went I looked up Belize specialities and came up with a list. Game meat, more precisely gibnut, a nocturnal rodent also known locally as the Royal Rat, green iguana and armadillo are prized on the local diet.

However, upon arrival I couldn’t find a single restaurant serving these particular treats. Locals asked around for me praising the meats and telling me of their own hunting exploits. It was all to no avail. In the end rightly so. It turned out that these animals were becoming endangered from over hunting and the government enforces a licensing system and strict limited hunting seasons for them. According to some sources, restaurants were now forbidden to serve these game meats.

I moved onto plan B, which was to tour local food markets and check out specialty food and drink shops. The local market in San Ignacio close to my resort Ka’ana was exactly the colourful spot I had hoped. A tight rabbit warren of open-air stalls selling exotic fruits, vegetables, meats, cloths, knickknacks, local drinks and more, in the centre was a line-up of hot food stalls. I circled around looking at the ladies making empanadas, tamales (a meat filled cornmeal roll encased in corn husks), garnachas (small fried tortillas topped with beans, onion, cabbage and cheese), rice and beans, pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with savoury fillings) and tacos.

In the end I settled on a soup, stocked full of starchy root vegetables, corn on the cob and hunks of meat. A delicious and most filling meal. I topped this off with a cone of homemade raison rum ice cream. Then it was on to the chocolate work shop Ajaw Chocolate, “a bean throw away from downtown San Ignacio” to learn how to make traditional Mayan chocolate.

Owner Elida Choco, of Mayan descent, told our group of eager chocolate makers there were eight to ten million cacao trees in Belize and harvest is by hand. She had us taste a fresh cacao bean, and then one that had been fermented (beans are fermented 11 to 14 days). After fermentation the beans are sun dried turning them a dark brown and giving them a nutty but not sweet flavour.

Then she had us take turns grinding the beans into a paste using a roller against a heavy stone base. We got to taste the paste, deeply chocolate and somewhat bitter. Then we were served what Elida called the world’s oldest drink in Maya: crushed cacao beans mixed with honey, chili and hot water. It was remarkable as were the Maya style chocolate bars available for purchase.

After the chocolate fix, we moved onto a lesson in Belize rum at the Maya Juice Bar in the Rainforest Haven Inn. Manager Jorge Chi explained how in the 1950’s in Belize, sugar cane was king and everyone with a plantation was making rum so it seemed. Around that time in 1953 Jaime Omario Perdomo Sr. opened a bar in Belize City which he called Travellers. It was the practice at the time for bars to make and sell their own rums blends.

Don Omario created unique rums by blending in flavours and essences. As Travellers rum grew in popularity, Don Omario settled on a specific recipe for 1-Barrel rum to achieve a consistency. Eventually a distillery was built and as time went by, the product line considerably expanded.

At the tasting we sampled the spiced 1-Barrel rum, coconut rum, 3-Barrel which is aged three years, premium 5-Barrel rum aged five, Nanche which is a blend of rum and a rare grape called Craboo indigenous only to Central America, Gifiti a medicinal Mayan bitters, Cashew a sweet wine made from the cashew fruit and finally vintage and aged rums such as Tiburon and Don Omario Vintage Rum. It was quite the education.

To complete our schooling in things Belize, we toured Mayan archaeological reserves at Cahal Pech in San Ignacio and then just over the border at Tikal in Guatemala, the largest excavated site of Mayan ruins in the American continent.

Upon reflection back in Canada I feel that I have just scratched the surface of this still relatively unknown former crown jewel.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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