Belize The New Foodies Paradise? You Bet!
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This traveller and food lover was happily surprised to see the rise of a new food culture in Belize.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been to Belize, even though I had promised myself I’d return sooner.
I fell in love with the place years ago and had been making annual pilgrimages since the first visit, but haven’t been able to make the trip in recent years. This year was going to be different, I told myself, and off I went.
The good news is that all the things that first attracted me to Belize are still there, especially in my favourite part of the country – the inland Cayo District. For someone like me, who loves jungles, hiking and canoeing, it’s pure paradise, and the many ancient Maya sites are icing on the cake.
I’m happy to report that Mother Nature is alive, well and pretty much unmolested in Cayo, and what changes that have occurred since my absence are all positive.
The Maya sites, especially Cahal Pech near downtown San Ignacio, and Xunantunich, which is near Chaa Creek, where I usually stay, have been nicely upgraded, with the informative visitors’ centres and amenities expanded. But thankfully, you still get to Xunantunich by way of a charming hand cranked ferry across the Mopan River, and the pace remains very relaxed.
I did notice one big change in Belize, however, and it was very welcome.
Dining has become a lot more interesting!
Now, I’ve always been a fan of Belizean cooking. Ever since my first plate of rice and beans with stew chicken I was hooked, and the hook was set deeper still with the other traditional stews, beef and pork, along with tamales, the exquisite Maya pork Pibil, lobster in its many incarnations, garnaches, salbutes and that most majestic meat, Gibnut – aka the “Royal Rodent”, as well as the various barbeques and excellent street food.
It was always simple, filling food that went perfectly with a cold Belikin beer.
These days, however, a growing, more sophisticated food culture is on the rise, and it’s ratcheted up my enjoyment of Belize by a few notches.
I first noticed it when I arrived in San Ignacio, where I was happy to see some of my old standbys, like Mom’s on Burns Avenue, still in business as well as some newcomers that really raise the bar.
Take the Guava Limb Café, also on Burns Avenue – which, by the way, has been upgraded to a lovely clean, well lit walking street. I’d been told about it before leaving home, but still wasn’t prepared for the range and quality of the meals on offer. With everything from pastas, paninis, salads, sandwiches, Mid Eastern, Mediterranean and Asian dishes and delicious mains featuring fresh ingredients creatively prepared and served, I was one happy customer. Again and again.
And while the Mariposa restaurant at The Lodge at Chaa Creek was always good, it’s also climbed up in creativity. I was able to meet the head chef, Mario Alejandro Mendez Rivera, to thank him in person for an excellent dinner, and was impressed by the spotless professional kitchen he commands – something that wouldn’t be out of place in a big city, but was a pleasant surprise to find in the middle of a 365-acre jungle reserve.
Turns out that Chef Mario began his career in his Maya grandmother’s kitchen in the highlands of Guatemala before embarking on rigorous training and going on to work in some of that country’s best restaurants. Proficient in Italian, French and other cuisines Mario, like all great chefs, has developed his own style. Maybe you’d call it nouvelle Maya-fusion or something fancy, but whatever it is, it works, and works very well.
Chaa Creek’s food and Beverage manager, Bryony, said that as part of Chaa Creek’s Green operations, they’re concerned about food miles, the distance and environmental footprint between source and plate, so the menu features lots of fresh local Caribbean seafood and meats, as well as produce from Chaa Creek’s traditional Maya organic garden, which is definitely worth visiting.
These fresh ingredients, combined with Chef Mario’s creative flair, the airy thatched roof ambience of the Mariposa Restaurant, and the always warm and friendly Chaa Creek vibe, makes for one of the best dining experiences I’ve had anywhere.
I don’t know if Chaa Creek raised the bar nationwide, or if it’s just indicative of the growing sophistication of Belizean food, but I did notice a marked improvement and expanded menus wherever I went on this most recent trip.
So now, in addition to all the other Belizean attractions; the unspoiled forests, rivers and beaches, the Maya culture, the incredibly friendly people and all the other things that make staying in Belize such a joy, there’s now dining that’s on par with anything else in the world.
A pretty killer combination, I’d say, and something that makes Belize stand out even more as one of the world’s best, most satisfying travel destinations.