Jungle Paradise in Belize

Cotton Tree Lodge (CTL) in Belize while visiting Drake Dawson's Safari Unlimited booth.¬† For years, Cotton Tree and Dawson have been donating hunts and trips to SCI chapters. Jeff Pzena, co-owner, give us details on the package we booked–the Deluxe Cabana Fishing Package for two with accommodations, meals, tour, fishing trips and transfers included.

This was not to be a typical tropical resort with a swimming pool, several buffet lines, drinks and many tourists. Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge with loads of adventure. The eco-lodge is nestled on the bank of the gentle Moho River, great for a swim.  We asked our SCI friends, Stuart Doc White, his wife, Janet, and son, Austin, to join us. Doc and Austin, avid scuba divers, jumped on the offer because the second largest barrier reef in the world is off the coast of Belize.

We wanted a different kind of vacation. We got that and more. The staff was great and the tours were a learning experience.  Food was fresh and homemade.  Our comfy cabana had a cool rustic feel. Lodging in handcrafted rosewood thatched with jungle palms, the beautiful surroundings made you feel like you are in the jungle.

First day, Doc, Austin, and I fished with guide, Alex Leonardo, in the Gulf of Honduras for barracuda, snook, snapper and grouper. We cast for permit fish among the mangrove islands.  We caught tons of barracuda and snook, some snapper and a huge grouper that got away. All the fish were released except for what was brought back to CTL for dinners. The crystal clear waters boasted flying fish, sea turtles and dolphins. The Moho River provided some trolling for huge snook.  One day, Doc, Austin, and Alex snorkeled and captured enough conch for the CTL to serve everyone chowder one night. Doc and Austin did two day dives and a night dive. They stayed with Garbutt's Dive Service on Lime Caye, had a great time swimming with sharks, turtles and fish, and said Mrs. Garbutt is a fantastic cook.

Head tour guide, Hugo Panti, told us about a natural cave the Mayans had used. The cave, only recently found, required some rock climbing to access. It was not on the tour list, nor open to the general public, but we arranged a special guide to go with us. It was a daylong trip for the guys. Things like that element made the journey worth every penny.

While we fished, the ladies went to the market in Punta Gorda and visited a cocoa plantation.  With Hugo guiding, our entire group visited recently found Mayan ruins. Later, we went river rafting at Big Falls where we were invited to visit the home of Cotton Tree Lodge security guard, Jose, and his family.

My thoughts and recollections are: Having lived next to the gorgeous Moho River for a week, watching the azure water flow, the fish jump, and the herons rest in the shade–plus all the afternoon kayaking and swims, the perfect way to cool off and relax. Eating the locally grown, delicious gourmet food the kitchen prepared daily, the luscious, and hilariously named, tropical drinks. Cliff-diving, swimming through the cave in crystal waters, snorkeling, exploring ruins, touring the Moho by kayak. Exploring the jungle and learning about the wildlife, taking in the sounds and sights of howler monkeys–imagine waking up to sounds that equaled any made for Jurassic park movies. There were hummingbirds, honeycreepers, parrots, and innumerable others. Swinging in a hammock on the porch of our gorgeous thatched cabana, taking in the stunning view and the fresh, vivid scent of the greenest plants I've ever seen.¬† Last, but not least, meeting all the staff, including the independent contractors who lend their services as tour guides, the members of the community we met during outings to nearby sites and villages. As I try to recapture the experience, words fail me. I honestly cannot describe how truly valuable and amazing my time at Cotton Tree Lodge was.

We met so many brilliant people. I continue to be incredibly inspired by the collective drive, ambition and dedication to cradle-to-grave sustainability the Lodge and their partners have. I owe the Lodge a great debt of gratitude for the connection they forged when our group visited.

Many guests have asked how they can give something back to the communities near Cotton Tree Lodge. You might consider volunteering for a day with Sustainable Harvest's programs and working directly with local communities. You can donate school supplies to the local primary schools in the villages of Santa Anna and San Felipe. The most requested items include math workbooks, notebooks, pencils and any other general school supplies. Don't take anything requiring batteries or replacement parts. Please pack your donations in your luggage. Do not mail them because the recipients of international packages are often taxed on the contents. It is sometimes possible to arrange a brief visit for you to deliver your donations to the local schools. Please e-mail them at [email protected] for more information about appropriate contributions.

Our group took two SCI Badgerland Safari Blue Bags. We brought them as luggage, stuffed with school supplies, books, solar calculators, soccer balls, clothes, Legos, and toys. Since it was Easter, all the schools were closed. Hugo arranged for the San Felipe village leader to have all the youngsters meet us at the village center. Janet and Austin spent an hour distributing items to the young children while the leader kept order.  All the children were well mannered. We arranged with CTL Manager, Jay, to take all the other things to the Tumul K'in high school students after the Easter holiday.

I had a great time hanging out with and getting to know (as much as you can in a week) the staff at the Lodge. I miss the guys already. I had some awesome and really fun talks with Darren, Sandy, Ernesto, Pablo and Carlos. I was so happy to meet and talk with managers, Jay and Becca-Macy Moore, and Chris Crowell, co-owner of the Lodge. They have a large staff, both locals and foreigners, who do eco tourism project work.

Nestled between unspoiled rainforest and the banks of the Moho River, Cotton Tree Lodge is a tranquil retreat on 100 private acres in the undiscovered Toledo District. The owners, Chris and Jeff, opened the resort in early 2007, hoping to develop “a magical place – where visitors could get in touch with the land, the people, and themselves.” Cotton Tree Lodge is located between two Maya villages, San Felipe and Santa Ana. Many lodge employees live in these villages, and Cotton Tree Lodge strives to be a good neighbor. Most of their neighbors are Mayan subsistence farmers living in small villages. Garinagu, Mestizo, Creoles, East Indian, Chinese, and Mennonite people also live there, along with European and American expats, missionaries and non-profit workers. Toledo is a unique and diverse place celebrating the diverse cultures through community events like the Toledo Cacao Festival and Maya Day at Tumul K'in Center of Learning.

I can definitely recommend this trip for fishing and adventure. Hunts can be added with Drake Dawson's Safari Unlimited.– Alan Heth


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