Last week our friend and neighbour very kindly lent us her car, so we took the opportunity to visit the Belize Spice Farm and Botanical Gardens, an enclave of over 500 acres where you can explore an amazing array of orchards, spice gardens, and flower gardens.
Founded by Tom and Tessy Mathew of Bluefield, WV who vacationed in Belize in 1989, they found it to be remarkably similar to their childhood home of Kerala in India.
Starting a Spice farm in Belize seemed so enticing, Mathews decided to jump in and give it a try. Many years ago, Nutmeg was introduced to Grenada and Cardamom to Guatemala with great success. So, the idea to do something similar was very tempting. With the help from the Government of Belize, Mathews imported Black pepper, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Clove and vanilla to Belize. Most of these plants adopted their new home and thrived. Over the years the Spice farm expanded to become a Botanical Gardens by adding a fruit Orchard with exotic fruit trees, an aquatic garden with Lotuses, water lilies from Thailand and Gigantic Victoria Amazonica native to Brazil.
Where It Is
The Spice Farm and Botanical Gardens is located in the largely rural Toledo District in Southern Belize, approximately an hour and forty minutes drive from our village in Placencia, or 70 miles (114 km) on the Southern Highway. If you’re travelling from Belize City, it’s just over three hours.
The scenery on the way there was lush and beautiful.
Entrance and Dining Area
Upon arrival, we immediately noticed how tranquil and beautiful the entrance was,
and even more breathtaking inside. These photos definitely don’t do it justice. The building is made of beautiful Teak. It’s an open plan dining room/bar that manages to create an intimate feel for dining for two while being large enough to cater for various functions, including weddings.
Lots of beautiful, large windows that circulate cool air throughout the room,
and an outdoor area too.
We were greeted by our tour guide, Cornelio, who was both friendly and knowledgeable with a sense of humour. Since there were only two of us, this was our chariot for the duration.
For larger groups, they use this buggy
We were taken through this beautiful bougainvillea arbour
Along a strip road that had leaves imprinted into it
Looking around, I mentioned that this would be a wonderful place to spend a few days. With that, Cornelio informed us that they were, in fact, building a few cabanas as we speak! I’ll definitely be back for those. It’d be the perfect place to spend a tranquil weekend.
Just past the bougainvillea arbour, these beautiful lotus flowers on our right
I’ve never seen lotus flowers before and I had no idea that they were so tall.
On our left, these Gigantic Victoria Amazonica. They reminded me of one of my favourite books growing up called The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter.
Teak, Rosewood & Mahogany
First stop – Teak trees. Teak is one of the faster growing hardwoods (half an inch per day). Still, it takes 20 – 25 years to grow into ONE mature tropical tree to final harvest. Cornelio informed us that The Spice Farm & Botanical Garden has their own sawmill for cutting trees and making furniture and they chop the trees every 20 years or so.
They also grow mahogany and rosewood, which are endangered in many countries. Cornelio estimated this mahongany tree (the very tall one at the back) to be about 63 years old.
Next up, the orchard. There is a huge variety of tropical, exotic and Indian fruits grown in the orchard. Experience the aromas and flavors of Surinam cherry, lychee, star apple, avocado, tropical blackberry, and tamarind.
Cornelio picked a Rambutan Lychee for us to taste. The Rambutan Lychee is funny to look at, but very tasty.
We continued down the country road to the spices,
passing beautiful Heliconia varieties along the way
and the national flower of Belize, the beautiful and delicate Black Orchid. Stunning.
The smell of spices fills the air. About 50 to 60 acres are used to grow peppercorns, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, curry, tropical oregano, turmeric and more. Native spices, like cow foot, also grow here. Cow foot smells like licorice and is used to flavour meats. Cornelio stops every few metres to pick leaves and get us to smell and taste them, all the while explaining how to cook with them as well as their medicinal uses.
I had to write a separate paragraph about the Vanilla as I had no idea how difficult it was to produce. I learned that it’s the second most expensive spice in the world – the first being Saffron. Bean to bakery, it’s about an 18 month process.
When vanilla begins to bloom in the summer months, farm workers at the Belize Spice Farm have only a six-hour window to pollinate the crop. They have six acres to cover and they do it all by hand, using toothpicks. If they’re too late, they’ll have to wait until the next flowering season because it blooms only once every year. Harvest would be in November or December, and it takes about a whole year before they market them.
The farm pollinates by hand because the female part of the flower is covered, which makes it difficult for bees or hummingbirds to do the job. To get around that, farmers use toothpicks to manually move pollen from the male part of the flower into the female part. Once pollinated, the flowers produce green beans.
The labor requirements of vanilla don’t stop at hand-pollination. You can read more about this process in this article.
The farm workers attach the vines to a tree called madre de cacao. The trees deter many bugs from getting at the crop and provide necessary shade.
Leaving the spice area, were the pepper vines – 10 acres – sold widely across Beize and also exported to other countries. As you can see, the vines are growing up other trees.
Cacao and Coffee
On the way to the Cacao and Coffee trees, we passed a field of palm trees – dwarf palm, cat palm, pindo palm, fan palm, Christmas palm, foxtail palm, Bismarck Palm, to name to a few.
and a Banyan Tree. These trees are often used to meditate under. The story of the Banyan is the story of one’s life – continually growing stronger roots and reaching new heights, expanding wide into the world and taking up all the space it was meant to.
I was surprised to see coffee growing there and it reminded me of another coffee farm (and a winery and orchard), Bodega Las Berrazales, that we’d visited in Gran Canaria earlier this year.
Cornelio opened a cacao pod and asked us to try the jelly-like substance surrounding the seed. It was very slimy which put us off a bit. But, I like to try different foods, so I popped one in my mouth. Sweet and delicious! “This is the “candy” of my childhood,” he said.
On the way back to the main building, we drove down a road lined with beautiful flowers
and then we came to a bridge where they hold the wedding ceremonies. The idea is for the bride to walk across the bridge over a sea of lotus flowers and then say “I do” with the flowers and bridge as a backdrop
Back at the dining room, we were served a delicious lunch – I had curry chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables, and Michael had teriyaki pork chops.
Afterwards, we spend a little time shopping.
All in all, it was an incredible and pleasant experience. I had no idea about some of the processes the spices go through before they get to our table. Definitely worth going and I can’t wait for the cabanas to open so we can spend a weekend there.
For information about all their tours, visit their website.