Mara Jernigan is currently the head chef and general manager of Belcampo Belize, a gorgeous property in the rainforests of Toledo and somewhere I visited years ago when it was initially Machaca Hill Lodge. I sought out to interview Mara because good news travels fast and word is that she is bringing a lot of exposure to Agritourism in Belize. Honestly, this news doesn’t surprise me because ever since I met her, it was obvious that she is innovative, has a passion for what she does, and wants to bring positive change for tourism in Belize. I encourage Mara to keep taking risks and I’m quite thankful that coming from such a developed country as Canada, she doesn’t mind being stuck “bakabush” as she helps to put Belize on the map.
Tell me a little about yourself and Belcampo Belize?
I am a chef, cooking teacher and farmer; I had a small inn and cooking school on a farm on Vancouver Island. I arrived at Belcampo because of my connection to the International Slow Food organization. I met our CEO Anya Fernald 10 years ago when she was working for the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Italy. She was working on amazing good food and agriculture projects all around the world from hand harvested vanilla in Madagascar to dried wild Reindeer meat in the north of Sweden. We worked on a heritage Canadian wheat project together, Red Fife, helping to re-commercialize it and connecting Canadian organic farmers and artisan bakers.
On a daily basis, what is it that you do exactly?
My days at Belcampo are incredibly varied, which I love. I have a certain amount of administration work to do but I am by nature a hands on manager. I prefer to live down on the farm and close to our wood working and maintenance shop so I can stay in touch with all our projects. I really try to get around the whole property as much as possible, checking in daily with the garden staff, cacao nursery, checking on farm animals but still trying to spend about 70% of my time at the lodge working with the staff and looking after guests. I still stay extremely involved in the kitchen and dining room as food and service play such a huge roll in customer satisfaction. I share an office with my assistant manager Shirleymae but I gave her the big desk, I like to have the little one close to the door!
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I love the jungle setting, the wild life, being on a farm and I really enjoy working on projects. Our maintenance staff are so talented and resourceful, they can make anything.
What are your favorite Belizean foods?
The tropical fruits are fantastic. The watermelons that the Mennonites of Pine Hill Farms grow are the best, we don’t even try to grow them, besides we have too many Coatis that would eat them! To be able to eat fresh coconut and drink the water from the green ones is an exotic treat I never tire of. Our garden is producing a wide array of vegetables now and I can basically live on fish and vegetables. That and farm fresh eggs with handmade tortillas for breakfast. It’s easy to come to Belcampo and eat a gluten or lactose free, or even vegan diet and still eat well.
I’ve noticed you guys are trying new things regarding culinary tourism at Belcampo, tell me a little about those initiatives. Why should people be interested?
If we get it right, the agritourism and culinary tourism could have a profound economic effect on the Toledo district while protecting the environment. Our goals are big, well thought out and long term. It’s a very exciting project to cultivate indigenous crops such as cacao and vanilla and to produce rum and grow coffee but instead of just exporting everything, to allow guests to participate in the processing. There is a flow of knowledge and sharing of culture between our visitors and local staff. This exchange can have a real benefit because guests are learning about the products they have consumed all their life, why it is important to source them responsibly and how delicious they can be. Our staff are learning about flavor nuances, organic agriculture and that people will pay a premium for quality. We are the largest private employer in the Toledo district and we are very proud of that.
What do you like the most about Belize?
I absolutely love working with Belizeans. The staff we have are very special, we hear it all the time. They are happy, fun loving, gracious and polite and genuinely happy to please.
Where would you say are the three best destinations in Belize?
I don’t know if it is fair for me to say because I have not seen as much of the country as I would like. Every region seems to have its own special charm and flavor. San Pedro is a bustling little place, lots of fun, Placencia is an easy getaway for me with lots of good food options and I love the rural feel of Cayo. I think the Belize Zoo is a must for visitors. But I have a huge bias towards Toledo, I love it here.
In general, why would you recommend anyone to travel to Belize?
It’s an anomaly. It’s an English speaking country in the middle of Latin America. It’s a mix of so many cultures and they all get along. It’s not hard to get to and yet it feels so exotic and is reliably warm for sun seekers. It’s relatively safe and the people are friendly. But most of all it’s just so naturally beautiful and unspoiled. There is so much protected land, I think it is the Green Heart of Central America.