Belize has built a great reputation for itself as an affordable and easily accessed eco-paradise for divers and backpackers. Belize’s tourism players, one in particular, are intent on kicking it up a notch and broadening the country's appeal for luxury travelers seeking diverse experiences. I sat down with Ian Lizarraga, director of resorts for the 15-villa Ka'ana Boutique Resort, to learn about this fairly new five-star property in the jungle, and Belize's intriguing western region.
About a year ago, two young brothers from Ireland, Colin and Ronan Hannan, bought a run down and abandoned resort in the interior of Belize on the lowlands of the Mayan ruins called Xunatunich. They completely renovated what was standing of the property and created Ka'ana Boutique Resort, adding a wine cellar, small spa, pool, organic garden and restaurant. They hired Ian, who formerly worked with Coppola's Resorts in Belize, to run the operation.
“You don’t go high-end unless you know what you’re doing,” says Ian. “You can fake it on the low-end, but when you go five-star you have to know what you’re doing.”
When asked why Belize wasn’t perceived as a luxury market, Ian admitted that, “We’ve done a poor job marketing ourselves.” He explained that, in the past, there was opposition to tourism as being a path to creating a nation of servants. There’s been a complete 180 on this point-of-view and the new prime minister is quoted as saying, “Tourism is the star to which we’ll hang our wagons.”
“We’re the only five-star resort in western Belize,” says Ian. “We currently have 15 villas, but we are working to expand to 30 villas by July. The new accommodations will include our first two-bedroom villa as well as the potentiality for a three-bedroom villa.”
The resort’s King Villas feature butler service, and the Queen Villas overlook the pool— making them a good choice for families. The views from the villas are of the property’s lush landscaping. The front porches of Villas 7 and 8 look out upon the cascade of the Infinity pool, while the back porches have views of the resort’s fruit trees. Posted rates range from $250 to $450 a night depending on the season. Lucrecia "Luky" Bol is the reservations manager and travel agent liaison at Ka'ana. She can be reached at [email protected], 501-824-0430. The resort also has a toll-free number: 877-522-6221.
Dining is taken seriously at the resort and is an important part of the philosophy of exploring the natural attractions of the region by day and coming home to an excellent meal and luxury accommodations and service. “We’re introducing new concepts to Belize, such as an executive chef,” says Ian. “Traditionally, this is not where Belize resorts spent their money. Keeping 3,000 bottles of wine in your wine cellar is unheard of. Our restaurant La Ceiba is actively defining Belize cuisine and we use the freshest ingredients that grow around us. If other Belizea hoteliers knew what I paid on my organic farm they wouldn’t believe it.”
The resort will also soon see the introduction of a star-gazing patio with telescope.
“We’re working on branding the Ka’ana Resort name in Belize,” says Ian. “We’re currently making plans for a 120-room resort in Placencia. We are also looking beyond Belize, to such countries as Nicaragua. We think we’ll be the premier resort company in the region.”
Ian notes that in Placencia the company had to go through an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment. “Protection of the environment is taken very seriously,” he says. “If you intend to do anything that impacts the environment negatively, you’ll be blown out of the water.”
Exploring the Region
Ian notes that Ka'ana Boutique Resort shouldn’t be considered a destination— instead it should be thought of as home base to explore Western Belize. The town of San Ignacio is a seven-minute drive by complimentary van from the resort. Adventure seekers will be enticed by nearby options, which include Mayan ruins, the Belize Zoo, cave exploration, nature trails, jungle tours, canoeing, tubing, zip-lining and horseback riding.
The Belize Zoo is about an hour from Ka’ana. It is set around 29 acres of tropical savanna and provides a natural setting for the wildlife. At no extra charge, the resort offers guests the chance to don khakis and play zookeeper for a day and interact with the animals. “We donate the proceeds of a guest’s last day of their stay to the zoo,” says Ian. “We also invite guests to plant a tree to reduce their carbon footprint.”
During the lunch with Ian, I learned a surprising fact about Belize. For instance, it has second-largest Mennonite community in the world. Chances are that visitors will have a chance to see Mennonites going about their daily life, utilizing horse-drawn wagons and embracing a simpler life.
Ian suggests visitors spend eight days in Belize, which he calls a "user-friendly destination" because its residents speak English. He recommends they divide their time equally between four days at the coast and four days on the mainland. Ka’ana Boutique Resort is about a 90-minute ride from Belize’s international airport.