I recently had the opportunity to visit Cotton Tree Lodge in the Toledo District of southern Belize and y’all, if Belize wasn’t on your list before, add it there, pronto.
It’s true I’ve never met a developing country I didn’t like, but Belize seemed to have a lovely charm about it. The people seemed genuinely happy that we were there and I encountered smiles wherever we went. The Toledo District of Belize is in the south bordering Guatemala. It was a 4 1/2 hour drive to the lodge through beautiful tropical countryside and mountains, but there are puddle jumper planes that will get you down there near the lodge also to a town called Punta Gorda (those little planes scare meeee). Our driver told us there was only one paved road through the whole country, and we were on it. Once we got off it, it was six miles of bumpy dirt road to the lodge.
As we pulled in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Something a little more reminiscent of the rough road and bamboo and thatched roof homes on the way in, perhaps? What I didn’t expect was the lux feeling of the grounds. You walk into Cotton Tree Lodge, and everywhere you go you are on wood walkways that twist and turn throughout the property. They are all lined with lighting, and those little lamps coupled with the surrounding lush jungle and the dusky sky made for a great first impression.
The main area of the lodge is one large main structure where you’ll find reception, a small store, the kitchen and where the farm-to-table meals are served. Then there are several cabanas spread across the grounds, some along the river, some not.
We had cabana #6 along the river. It actually had two beds in it and two hammocks on the deck. Each cabana has a private bathroom, hot and cold shower, and it includes a compost eco toilet that you can’t flush toilet paper down…yep even the poop ones. Everything goes in the garbage. This was our first time staying in an eco lodge, but I really enjoyed knowing the small footprint it was leaving without hardly feeling inconvenienced, if at all. The walls are made of screens only, leaving everything open to the breeze and sounds of the jungle and river. There is a ceiling fan, plus another full force regular fan for the rooms to keep you cool at night. The cabanas are spotlessly clean and they have a huge jug of fresh water they replenish for you each day. The tap water isn’t potable, but harmless enough to brush your teeth with.
With so few people staying at the lodge at any given time, meals are served communal style with everyone seated together. It may not be like that if the lodge is booked solid, but that was our experience. Now, typically, we despise this type of dining. We go out of our way to avoid any restaurant that has this style…but I was pleasantly surprised at ourselves. We truly enjoyed it! We got to know everyone staying at the lodge and we became this cute little vacation family. during our first meal there, dinner, the people who had been staying a few nights started telling stories. The first thing one of the girls said to me was, “I don’t want to alarm you, but there are tarantulas in the cabanas”. You don’t mean to alarm me!?!?! Tarantulas!?!?!?
It turns out there are, in fact, tarantulas around, and they had a massive one inside their cabana. Another couple told us they had a pretty big harmless water spider in theirs, and then a few nights later the poor girl who had the tarantula in her cabana saw ANOTHER one, albeit a smaller one. Another night, the person she was with saw another big one on the walkway at night. Their cabana was right next to ours and since they are open air with screens only for walls, we heard her shrieks of terror. We luckily escaped any critters save but a few good sized weird cricket-beetle things (inside my makeup bag! *shiver*), but that’s what you need to expect staying, literally, in the middle of the jungle. (Note: their cabana was right next to the actual jungle line clearing, so maybe that had something to do with it?)
Cotton Tree Lodge is off the grid…and I mean OFF THE GRID. So much so, that unless you rent a car (at least a 4×4 of some kind) you are at the mercy of the lodge to take you anywhere. Getting out mostly revolves around the tours that they offer and there plenty to choose from…however, and this is where the lodge lost me a little…not every tour is offered any day. You kind of have to buddy up with people staying there and agree on one, because most of them require a minimum number of people. I understand the logistics of it, I suppose, because they have a laundry list of tours and things to do, and only so many people to execute them each day. I just had my heart set on snorkeling in Belize in that beautiful water I hear so much about, but because no one else was snorkeling that day, we had to choose one that was going somewhere else instead. So although they have soooo much to choose from, don’t have your heart set on doing any particular thing unless you’re willing to pay double for it (to make up for the minimum people). It’s not a huge con, but an unexpected, unfortunate one. But like I said, I understand the logistics.
We ended up doing the Lubaantun Mayan ruins and waterfall on the first day. I guess this one didn’t need a minimum, because it was just Al and I. If I have anything to say about the tours, is that one of the tour guides, Pop, is beyond excellent. He’s so knowledgeable about this area he grew up in and is so passionate about Belize tourism. On that tour day, on one of the many times we did that bumpy AF 6 miles out, he told us all about a restaurant and bar he just opened with his wife and we asked him if we could stop by and get a drink. He was so excited we asked and to take us! Like a lot of things in this part of the world, it was a small, wooden, open air structure on the side of the road. Not to mention it was painted bright turquoise (why is it socially unacceptable to have colorful buildings in the US? We are so boring). Everything is really rural down there, I swear there’s at least a mile between every house and the villages aren’t very numerous either, but he said they were so busy and the night before, it was packed with people dancing all night! I have no idea where they all came from, but I’m so happy his business is successful! The little bar was right on the property of his house, complete with chickens running amok, and he showed us how he was digging his own sewer system. Talk about impressive.
This tour lasted most of the day, with the first stop at the Lubaantun ruins, of which Pop knew pretty much everything since he is of Mayan descent. We then had lunch the lodge packed for us, which was a sort of raw tortilla filled with a spicy heart of palm mixture wrapped in banana leaves and fresh pineapple juice. Pop then took us to a rope bridge and to the waterfall for a swim. Al and Pop jumped off the high rocks, but I was too much of a wimpy baby to jump. So I just enjoyed my swim.
The second tour we took was the afternoon trip into the nearest town, Punta Gorda, to visit the markets. This was the day I was dying to go snorkeling, but that day they were only doing the market and a cave tour (swimming through caves is a Texas-sized no for me, thanks) so without much choice, we went to town. I did want to visit the town, and we had a lovely day visiting a tiny chocolate factory, where we saw the making of chocolate from the tree out back to the finished products in the store. We also the markets, a small art gallery where the owner told us stories of his people’s history and a great restaurant overlooking the Caribbean, however this tour in particular isn’t necessarily worth the $99 per person. The deep sea fishing, snorkeling, caving, waterfalls, Mayan ruins, chocolate farms, etc, I feel would be worth their cost, just not this one in particular because of the small scale of it.
The last day there, I scheduled a massage with Blanca, and girl knows her way around a massage table. The spa is a tasteful one room space with a attached bathroom to change and the massage table in the middle of the room. I was afraid I was going to sweat to death and gross her out, but it was blissfully cool in there and the abundance of pan flute playing on the speaker relaxed me into another realm.
We also spent time swimming in the river. Al liked the rope swing but I only did it once for the ‘gram. It flows towards the sea, but not very quickly. It’s also pretty clear and yes I checked, no piranhas or gators. The whole thing had a summer camp vibe and it was truly enjoyable to take my coconut rum concoctions down to the dock and let the hot sun bake down on me.
The food here is totally farm to table. They have their own garden that you can peruse and see all the things that they grow. The meal system is simple, with buffet for breakfast with some kind of variety of eggs, bread, meat and fruit. We only ate one lunch there, but that day there wasn’t a choice, they just brought us out a salad and a delicious chicken wrap. Dinner is a choice of two. They will find you at breakfast or throughout the day to ask you which of the two menu items you prefer. It’s always four course with a soup, salad, main dish and desert. All that being said, as soon as you check in they ask about your diet, restrictions or things you don’t like. Al saw a board in the kitchen with all the guests names and the notes about their diet, which I thought was very interesting.
The jungle surrounding the grounds are filled to the brim with howler monkeys. These monkeys don’t sound like what you think they will sound like. Imagine dinosaurs. Yeah, dinosaurs. So if you wake up in the middle of the night and think there’s a T-rex outside your cabana, no worries, you’ll survive the night. Our last evening there, one of the night security (I’m not even sure why they need night security? There’s literally no one around. But sure! Thankful for it anyway!) asked if we wanted to go into the jungle to find the monkeys. I don’t think these were the howler ones you can hear, but maybe they were, I’m no monkey expert. We didn’t get but 30 feet into the trees and there were dozens of them! Even babies! They were so so cute.
Overall, the experience at Cotton Tree Lodge was superb. If you like, or are wanting to try, a remote eco lodge, it’s the perfect choice. It feels very one with nature and at some points you feel so relaxed knowing how far away you are from the busy life from which you probably came. I wouldn’t think twice about returning in the future.