Coppola's playground: Belize and Guatemala

by eagletonjm

Not content with making the ultimate jungle movie, director Francis Ford Coppola has created three jungle paradises – in Belize and Guatemala – where guests can stay. Here, he explains their charm

"Apocalypse Now was filmed in the jungle. For all the problems we had with production, I found the jungle very peaceful and safe and I found I could acclimatise easily. I wanted to buy a small island retreat there, but as my wife rightly pointed out, it was pretty far to travel. So I went to look for a jungle paradise closer to home.

I read in the paper that British Honduras was about to become Belize, so I took my eight-year-old son and said "Let’s go and find Belize!" I first went there right after it gained independence. I wanted to talk to the government about establishing a satellite address that would be a link between North, Central and South America. It was too much too soon for the new government, but while I was there, someone told me about this lodge for sale in western Belize.

We found what is now Blancaneaux Lodge and it was beautiful and very remote and I peeked through the windows of the lodge and thought "I could write here." It looked bad, but I used it as a family summer retreat. It soon became apparent that trekking everything in every time the family wanted to visit was a huge undertaking, like going on location for a movie.

The kids liked it and, in order to keep it, we needed someone to take care of it. So eventually, we added lots of improvements and invited about 50 family and friends to celebrate my birthday – and that tricked it open. It became so successful, we referred a lot of our upscale patrons. Blancaneaux has a tranquillity that envelops you as soon as you shed your city clothes and worries. The spa, the hot pool and the sound of the river lull you into a peaceful state that lets you reconnect with yourself and your companion. Through relaxation, you find your own creativity – and so I find it easy to write there.

Belize offers so much to do, it’s difficult to choose. Diving or snorkelling is a magical experience. There are so many beautiful, uncrowded places where you can explore the undersea world and the trained guides know exactly where the best spots are to see a kaleidoscope of sea life.

The ancient Mayan city of Caracol is not to be missed. I remember the first time we visited many years ago. The site was hardly excavated at all, but the Sky Palace – the main temple – soared out of the jungle and just took your breath away. It is still the tallest building in Belize. Caracol is still being discovered and you feel like you walk back through time when you enter.

Belize also has a wonderful beachfront and lots of small cays off the coast, but it also has a vast network of rivers and waterfalls (such as the Thousand Foot Falls). As you lightly glide down the river in a canoe captained by a guide, you will see lots of bird life, large iguanas and monkeys. During iguana mating season you might have the chance to see two male iguana males fighting for the favour of a female. Who knows, one may actually land in your boat as it did on one of my trips downriver (neither the iguana nor the passengers suffered any damage.)

After Blancaneaux's success, I realised that a lot of guests also wanted to visit the beach. I started looking for beach property and found Turtle Inn in southern Belize; we opened it in late 2000. I had intended to totally renovate the property, which was pretty basic, but the year after I bought it, Mother Nature moved the timeline up when Hurricane Iris swept the resort into the lagoon.

When I asked if it was severely damaged, they told me it wasn’t there anymore! I created a completely new Turtle Inn in a year, and I'm delighted by how much our guests enjoy it and how much critical acclaim it has received. Turtle Inn fulfils my vision of a beachfront paradise and provides the ideal balance between luxury and nature. For me, it’s all about the beach - swimming, snorkelling, boating and letting the waves become the soundtrack of your stay. There are things to do, or just do nothing. There are many details that I delighted in adding, but my favourite is the Shellphone – a giant conch shell on a wooden base that acts as an intercom. Just call on the Shellphone and your heart's desire will appear. I joke that we are the leader in shellular technology...

Our third resort, La Lancha in Guatemala, was a natural. I’ve always liked Central America and I was looking for something a little more rustic. It is near the ancient Mayan city of Tikal and many of our guests at Blancaneux wanted to visit it. I looked around at the various hotels and stumbled on La Lancha, a very rustic one run by a French couple who were ready to get out of the hotel business – and the jungle. We spent the last two years upgrading it, adding more casitas and purchasing local hand-woven textiles, wood carvings and furniture. La Lancha is a step back to an earlier, mystical time: visiting Tikal or sitting on your deck and hearing the primeval call of the howler monkeys and other wildlife. There is wildlife all around you and a huge lake below you.

Visit Tikal in Guatemala and you will remember it for the rest of your life. This Mayan site has been more extensively excavated than Caracol and, if you fly over it, you can see how massive it is from the air. Lake Peten Itza is vast. Swim or take a boat, and maybe you'll be lucky enough to see one of the troop of howler monkeys that call the lakeshore their home. Guatemala is heaven for bird watchers: early morning or dusk are the best times to spot dozens of species. You can join them in the trees by taking a canopy walk. You hike up on paths, then cross through the treetops on bridges, which is both exhilarating and a little scary.

Guatemalan women produce the most beautiful hand-woven textiles in intricate patterns and jewel-like colors. Bring an empty suitcase and take home a patchwork quilt; it will become a family heirloom. The town of Flores in Lake Peten Itza has many shops that specialise in these hand-woven treasures.

When I visit the resorts, part of what I do is look with a critical eye. What needs to be added? How is the food? After I get done playing hotel inspector, I enjoy swimming and watching nature and, of course, eating. At the resorts, all our fruits and vegetables come from our own organic garden. We want to offer our guests the best there is – and by growing it ourselves, we can guarantee the quality.

We raise our own chickens and local fisherman bring their catch of the day right to the chef. I have a great deal of input with the menus. For La Lancha, we wanted authentic Guatemalan fare, while at Turtle Inn, the menu is based on the sea. At Blancaneaux and Turtle Inn, we have a wood-burning pizza oven and offer some of my Italian favourites. What’s a good brick oven without fresh basil? Some of the cooks we’ve had over the years have come up to the Napa Valley and spent part of the summer cooking with me. 

For me, unlike our guests, it's not all about relaxing. Once I've been to any of these places for a couple of days, the laptop comes out and I write – which is why I bought the first resort in the first place."

Interview by Julie Eagleton