Why would anyone want to stay anywhere else? Set in a lush garden, with the gently tripping Mopan River at its doorstep, and acres of wilderness on the remaining sides, the ten-acre manicured sanctuary that is Mopan River Resort, has become one of the finest resorts in the country. Amidst this setting you will find a series of thatched-roof buildings: Nine cabanas, three suites, and a spacious central pavilion (housing the reception, lounge and dining room); and a uniquely designed, sparkling-blue swimming pool, complete with cascading waterfall.
To all this, add the (new to Belize) all-inclusive concept and you have a recipe for one incredible experience. Everything is paid for in the package price: Lodging, meals, drinks, guided expeditions, transfers, taxes & service. There are literally NO BILLS, and no tipping required, either. Even the drinks in your cabana’s mini-bar are free.
The moment we saw Mario, the driver for Mopan River Resort, waiting for us outside the airport, we had a good feeling about our trip. He was holding a sign with our names printed on it, and his smiling face and friendly demeanor immediately put us at ease. Our luggage was quickly loaded and we headed west for the two hour journey to the village of Benque Viejo del Carmen.
The van pulled up to a concrete boat ramp, and we were greeted by yet another friendly face as Jay Picon opened the door and said, “Welcome, I’m your host!” There are no roads into the resort, so we and our luggage were quickly loaded onto the little red boat that ferries everyone back and forth across the river. We motored upriver, soon catching the first glimpse of our home for the next seven days, and we were awe-struck. Tucked beneath majestic coconut palms that swayed in the fresh river breeze, was splendid greenery, and bright tropical plants and fruit trees. Jay’s face beamed with pride while he told us the story of how it all came about.
Jay’s wife, “Ms. Pam,” met us at the dock, her hand extended in greeting as we climbed ashore. Our luggage was whisked off to our cabanas by the staff; and we learned more about the resort as Pam led us up the path to the lounge and reception. Everything gleamed– from the varnished hardwood floors, to the mahogany bar and the comfortable rattan furniture; all locally produced. Here, a frosty “Banana Velvet” awaited us. This is the house drink, full of fresh tropical juices, a banana (of course), and rum. We soon learned that this delicious libation would be on our minds every day, as we climbed a pyramid, or paddled a kayak down river!
It just keeps getting better
Following orientation, we were escorted to our cabanas, and again we were impressed with how much thought has gone into the comfort and elegance of this resort. More sparkling hardwoods, an amazing thatched roof (accented with amber “mood lights”), mahogany furniture, a thoroughly modern bathroom, and our private shady veranda with soft, comfortable chairs. The rooms are all fully-screened and have 24 hour electricity, cable TV, coffee & tea provisions, and a mini-bar. After a refreshing dip in the swimming pool, we prepared for dinner, and could hear strains of marimba music as we walked up the path to the lounge for “6 o’clock cocktails.” Pam introduced us to the dozen or so others present–amazingly remembering the first name of every single guest. Everyone was very friendly, and obviously happy to be here. Extra chairs were pulled in to expand the circle of conversation, and we joined in, clutching our proverbial Banana Velvets. A delicious appetizer of Onion Bread was passed around (featured cuisine for the evening was Szechwan Chinese). We learned about the daily routine, and heard excited comments from the others about the sites and activities they had already visited.
At 7 p.m., we were called to the bright and colorful tables in the dining room. Everyone sat together at two or three large tables, and the exuberance that began in the lounge continued through dinner. Pam held court at the buffet table each night, explaining the evening’s menu. Tonight we were treated to Dan-Dan Noodles, Stir-fried Sesame Vegetables, Cashew Chicken, and Pepper Beef. The dinners feature some of Pam’s own recipes (often photocopied for grateful guests), and every meal is prepared to perfection by a talented team of ladies from Benque Viejo.
Before leaving Mopan River, we were treated to feast after feast from Italy, Mexico, Belize, the Mediterranean, and Thailand; and even a southern barbecue. Each guest has their own favorite, but I savor the memories of Linguine Carbonara and Greek Moussaka, which come back to me as I write!
Following dinner each night, Jay stood up and announced the next day’s activities, with a brief explanation. Guests are advised that breakfast starts at 7 a.m.; departure for tours is at 8:25 a.m. (precisely) from the canoe dock; everyone will be back at the resort in time for a delicious Belizean lunch; and the afternoon will entail kayaking down the Mopan, or visiting a nearby site of interest. Basically, a schedule is set for each day, and those wishing to participate in a particular trip or activity, simply have to show up. Of course, lounging around the pool seems like an attractive idea to us, especially on afternoons when the mercury nears 90 degrees!
A day’s adventure…
The next morning, at the first hint of daylight, we were serenaded by the resident flocks of grackles, blackbirds, warblers and robins; and soon the church bells from the town chimed in. Not willing to spend our holiday in bed, we grabbed our binocs for a bit of bird-watching. Pam met us by the pool to point out the best places to spot them. During the 45 minutes before breakfast, we spotted at least 15 different birds. Pam tells us that the record is 40 species, identified in a single day on the resort grounds. Her casual count, thus far, is over 120 species, seen on, or from within the boundary of, the property. She added, “We are anxious to start attracting serious birders to help us expand our list! Hopefully, our new 20 foot high bird-watching tower will encourage them.” The Vermiculated Screech Owl at right, is an annual visitor to Mopan River Resort during nesting season.
The perennially cheerful Mr. Jay presides over breakfast, giving a good sell to the incredible omelettes and baked goods produced by “Miss Lili,” and her able staff. With freshly-squeezed orange juice every day, accompanied by a platter of tropical fruits, cereals, homemade bread, and eggs-to-order, we were well fueled for our daily expeditions.
Our first day, we made the trip to Chechem Hah pottery cave. The red boat took us all across the river, and the Mopan guides, Alexie and Magdaleno (“Junior”) were there smiling broadly; and standing at attention next to their sparkling clean vans, ready to lead us on the day’s adventure. Chechem Hah is a mere eight mile drive from Benque Viejo. The tour began with a nice nature walk, but soon became a steep climb up to a small opening in the hillside. William, the owner of the land (who actually discovered the cave) was our knowledgeable guide through the long, narrow cave filled with ancient Mayan pottery–some more than 1500 years old. All Mopan expeditions are a story in themselves…Suffice it to say, this was a great experience. We all came back muddy, hot and exhausted, and very appreciative of the air conditioned van!
Back at the resort for lunch, we enjoyed locally inspired dishes such as burritos, taco salad, and “Salbutes”: Hand made corn tortillas, soft-fried and topped with spicy shredded chicken, a tangy chopped cabbage mixture, tomatoes, pickled onions and jalapenos. We were even treated to freshly-baked cookies for dessert. We knew some serious activity would be necessary to make room for another fantastic dinner.
It was announced that all who wished to go kayaking should report to the dock at 3:00 p.m. Unable to resist the promise of yet another adventure, we obliged. Our kayaks, paddles and life vests were waiting for us at the dock, along with Alexie, who was to give us instructions and pointers on how to navigate the river, as well as where to find him down river, for our pickup and return.
The inflatable “AIRE” brand kayaks are very forgiving and easy to control–even those who’d never been in one before, soon mastered the technique as we practiced a bit by the dock. Once everyone was on the water, we paddled off with enthusiasm. After conquering the first few sets of small rapids, we were masters of the river; and then concentrated on looking for birds and wildlife along the banks. We saw numerous cormorants, herons and kingfishers. What we hadn’t expected to see, were so many huge iguana, sunning or running along the banks. We even saw a river otter for a brief moment before he dove into the water. The biggest rapids were at Clarissa Falls; about a three foot drop. Everyone shrieked and laughed in excitement, as one by one we went over, each trying to improve on the previous attempt. Some were tossed around, some were tossed out! We stayed in, but got doused by the splash. A short distance later, we found Alexie with the van, towels and cold drinks for us, and a trailer for the kayaks. This was fantastic! Some of us made the journey again, before leaving the resort. It goes without saying that the majority of the evening’s conversation centered around the kayaking skills of the various participants.
Of all our fantastic adventures, the trip to Tikal (pictured right) was probably the highlight. It was a full day: Climbing pyramids and trekking along jungle trails in search of toucans and howler monkeys; eating our lunch high atop Temple Four, while gazing out over the rainforest canopy. This was one incredible journey!
All good things come to an end
Our week at Mopan River Resort was one great day after another, of excellent expeditions, marvelous meals, and the gracious hospitality of our hosts, Jay and Pam. Every member of the staff was friendly and accommodating–we wanted for nothing! While the success of a project such as this is dependent upon so many different aspects, I don’t think anyone else could have put it all together the way the Picons have. Reluctantly, we made our final stroll down the path to the little red boat, for our last trip across the river.
We will always remember our evenings in the lounge; the marimba music, Banana Velvets, savory appetizers, yet another delicious dinner (which cuisine tonight?)–and delightful conversation with the other guests (many of them now friends) about the day’s adventures. This has to be, without a doubt, the finest resort in Belize!
Author’s notes: Although the location of Mopan River Resort may not be considered remote, it is very much at the jungle’s doorstep. It is just as, if not more, beautiful than any “jungle lodge” in Belize, and you will soon appreciate the accessibility of being close to the village. The famous Maya ruins of Xunantunich are just one mile from the resort, and most expeditions are less than an hour’s drive away, with Tikal being only a 1-1/2 hour journey.
Expeditions featured during a week’s stay: Tikal, Xunantunich, El Pilar, Cahal Pech; Chechem Hah pottery cave, Barton Creek Cave; Aguacate Nature Reserve, Mountain Pine Ridge, Green Hills Butterfly farm, San Ignacio market, and the Belize Zoo (en route to Belize City on departure day); river kayaking trips are available any day. Some trips are only scheduled once a week, so might not be available if you stay less than a week. Caracol is also included for guests staying 7 nights or longer. Weather conditions may cause need for substitutions, however trips are offered every day. Tikal excursion is run on Tuesdays and Fridays. Your only extra costs are site entrance fees which average US$5.00pp each; and border fees if taking the trip to Tikal, Guatemala–about US$20pp. If you wish to hire a guide at Tikal, they charge US$40 for 1-4 persons.
This resort is recommended for age 16 yrs. and up.
Visit the resort’s website for full details: www.mopanriverresort.com