Summer school: Belcampo’s artist-in-residence program turns a Belize resort trip educational

“We made history today,” says Antony John, bouncing back from the telescope. That double-crested cormorant is not supposed to be here,”

I home in on the yellow-faced bird with its great black wings outstretched. John — a gangly Welshman in safari garb, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and rockstar piercings — explains its natural habitat is coastal.

“If this is the first local sighting, who should we report it to?” I ask.

“Nobody. We’re going to shoot it,” says John.

As well as cracking jokes without mercy, John is at Belcampo jungle lodge, near the seaside town of Punta Gorda in Southern Belize, to share his expertise as a birder, painter and organic farmer. The former host of Food Network farming show Manic Organic, from Stratford, Ont., is the inaugural chef in Belcampo’s artist-in-residence programwhich allows visitors to learn skills from wrapping tamales to mixing mojitos alongside some of the world’s leading food experts.

It is part of a program launched by Californian CEO Anya Fernald and Canadian General Manager Mara Jernigan at the 16-suite, 1,000-acre eco-resort that has its own farm, education centre and 12,000-acre wildlife reserve.

Jernigan, former Slow Food Canada president, left her own farm, inn and cooking school on Vancouver Island four years ago to help transform this jungle lodge. A dynamo in Wellies and a shirt dress, she manages everything from agri-tourism activities for guests to the expansion of the farm — key to maximizing the resort’s self-sufficiency, already at 70 %.

Eager to experience the artist-in-residence program for myself, I get up with the howler monkeys at 5:30 a.m. for an outing with John and some hardcore birders. Our surprise sighting of the double-crested cormorant happens at a roadside lagoon, still hazy from the morning mist. We’d stopped the land cruiser there to drink bright Guatemalan coffee and eat breakfast burritos, loaded with orange-yolked scrambled eggs, tomato salsa and spinach-like callaloo — every ingredient farm fresh.

From there we drive on to Lubaantun, where pyramids and ball courts from the Maya Classic Age lie in ruins under fig trees, ferns and creepers. We’ll have checked off 70 species by noon, including the belted kingfisher, with its bad-boy blue Mohawk; the rare emerald toucan, which has the birders doing high fives; and the painted bunting, which looks like it was invented by a child with a wild imagination and a bumper box of crayons.

“I saw six lifers,” announces Madeleine, a retiree from Texas, triumphantly, as we debrief later in the lounge, referring to birds she has never spotted before. Local guide Emmanuel Chan is glowing too. John has been teaching him about the summer serenades sung in Canada by migratory thrushes, warblers and orioles, which are monosyllabic in Belize. In turn, Chan has been explaining the medicinal uses of jungle plants to the artist-in-residence. It’s a mutually enriching exchange.

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