Get Cultured: A Local Guide to the Hidden Treasures of Belize

We caught up with Colin Hannan, owner of Ka’ana Belize to learn more about this fascinating country and its many hidden treasures.

On your first day here, seeing this is a must:

Ancient Mayan Cities. Seriously, you cannot come to Belize without exploring at least one, so get straight into it. In the days of the Maya, Belize used to have over 1 million inhabitants, it now has about 300,000, so the country is covered with ruins and remains, most of which are yet to be excavated. The tallest temple in the country is at Xunantanich, and it’s a great tour to hop on. Stop off on the banks of the Mopan River, and take the hand-cranked ferry across to enter the national park. A short stroll onwards and you’ll find yourself engulfed in one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed.

Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local Belizean culture”…

Walk through the local towns and villages. Whether it’s strolling around San Ignacio, where you’ll see kids swimming alongside their moms who are washing clothes right there in the local river just as they have done for generations; trying some local escabeche, tamales or roadside BBQ (a very local and tasty meal); or strolling through beach towns such as Placencia where you might see the locals fishing off the ends of the piers or enjoying a few Belikin beers on the beach.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:

Hiking. Over 40 percent of Belize is national park, and Belizeans are brought up with a respect for the outdoors, so many of the hidden natural gems have been preserved and are located just on the far end of a short (or long) hike. Whether you’re heading to a hidden waterfall, an inland cenote, a partially excavated ruin site, one of the many caves, or just enjoying nature, it’s a great outdoor pursuit that will give you a taste of the true Belize.

I had my best night’s sleep at:

Ka’ana Resort of course!  Working with three carpentry workshops situated close to the resort, we built all of our furniture from locally sourced hardwoods. The beds were a real focal point — we created very large, sturdy mahogany frames to give you a feeling of security and comfort in the jungle. This is accentuated with our pillow-top mattresses, 500 thread count sheets and a turn-down service that includes candles and a different nighttime surprise treat each night.  Who wouldn’t enjoy that sleep! We have just 17 private accommodations, each tucked away in its own space amidst lush gardens, outdoor showers and even private pools (in some), so it feels very serene, personal and romantic all at once.

The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:

Rojo Lounge in Ambergris Caye. The chef, Jeff, consistently blows us away with his constantly evolving menu focused on the freshest local ingredients he can get his hands on. The restaurant is casually situated within touching distance of the shore, and a short swim from the reef, so you’ll find a lot of the menu stemming from the water, but delivered in a really amazing way. For instance, he uses freshly caught conch to create a spicy conch sausage pizza that’s totally unique and incredibly tasty. Or try the locally sourced pork belly that’s braised in Belikin stout (Belize’s go-to) that is infused with allspice and chili grown right there on site.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts:

Orange. Located between the capital city of Belmopan and San Ignacio, this beautiful shop showcases the owner’s best work as well as a great selection of everything you can find in the area. From small hand carved trinkets to very large one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture crafted from whole tree-trunks, there’s always something you’ll want to buy. For small gifts, the selection of all the different locally made hot sauces, or the local organic soaps, are great, and if you have a bit more space in your luggage, look into the ceramic and wooden bowls.

Local celebration not to be missed:

The end of the world: it’s only gonna happen once so it really shouldn’t be missed. December 21, 2012 will see celebrations of epic proportions, the highlight being the overnight celebration in the massive ancient city of Caracol. Here Shaman from around the region, archaeologists and party-goers will converge over traditional food and drinks to participate in age-old celebrations and hope they get to see the sunrise for a new cycle from a historically significant spot. At Ka’ana, we’re taking this overnight experience to a whole different level with luxury tent accommodations, private chef and houseman, our signature pillow top mattresses and a sundown and sunrise tour led by one of the country’s leading archaeologists. And while it’s got limited availability, we are taking bookings into 2013 (subject to the world not ending, that is!)

Favorite pastimes:

Spelunking: everyone should try it. I used to think ill of caves, but Belize has the largest and most spectacular underground cave system in the Americas. So transcendental are these networks that the Maya priests believed that the gods of the underworld lived there. So whenever times got tough, the priests would climb into the caves by firelight, and make sacrificial offerings to appease the gods. Follow in their footsteps in any of the innumerable caves, and climb and swim through to different cathedrals where you can witness the ceramic and even skeletal remains that have been crystalized over a period of 1,200-1,900 years.

The art/music scene is alive and well here:

Whenever there’s a holiday or special festival, the street art festivals in Belize City and Placencia involve huge displays of local artistry (literally drawn and painted on the streets!), a variety of food and art stalls, and live music throughout the day. September is Independence month, so during this time traditional band competitions, carnival, pageants, and pretty much a countrywide, month-long party goes on.

cave in belizeWhere the locals get tipsy:

Maya Beach Bistro. It’s a real gem on the Placencia peninsula, situated right on the beach. The owners have great taste, and put a lot of work into both the food and the drinks, infusing great local flavors into each dish and incorporating an extensive and reasonably priced wine list, backed with great cocktails (the Bloody Mary is a must-try). To get such high-quality food and drinks in such a casual atmosphere keeps the place busy and buzzing whenever it’s open, and it’s not in the prime village area so it’s a true local gem.

If I had only 24 hours to explore Belize I would:

Start with yoga at sunrise on Maya ruin. Ka’ana can arrange private sessions, which have been a highlight for so many guests. After yoga, stop by the roadside and watch the local women make flour and corn tortillas by hand over an open fire hearth or fugong before enjoying a few with some scrambled eggs, chaya and hot sauce. Drive to the Blue Hole National Park, and hike to the inland Blue Hole, a perfectly formed cenote in the middle of pristine jungle, where you can take a dip before enjoying your locally-grown coffee on the waters edge. Continue inland to the Crystal Caves and rappel into them with your guide who will show you formations created over millions of years. From here, drive to Belmopan, stopping by for some roadside tamales, then take the charter to the island of Ambergris (known locally as San Pedro) for a sunset sail out to the reef (the world’s healthiest and second largest) where you can enjoy sundowners after a quick snorkel with manta ray and nurse sharks. You’ll sleep well, and with a smile on your face! That’s Belize!

local guide belizeAbout Colin Hannan and Ronan Hannan:

Born and raised in the scenic countryside of Ireland, the Hannan brothers, Ronan and Colin, are the owners of Ka’ana Belize, a boutique, eco-luxury property in the Maya Mountains of the country’s Cayo district. After a stint in the corporate world, Colin and Ronan made the exciting transition from residential to hospitality real estate, sparked by a year-long adventure, from Asia to Africa, in search of their dream destination. Eventually, the brothers landed in Belize and one week later, they bought what would soon become Ka’ana.

The 15-room, two-villa resort is the first property of its kind on the country’s western border. Guided by the tagline “Adventure by Day, Luxury by Night,” Ka’ana gives guests the opportunity to explore and experience the history and traditions of Belize by day, and return each night to a stylish retreat.

*Check out last week’s Get Cultured: Chiang Mai and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.

All photos are property of Ka’ana Belize

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The Culture-ist