Though more established destinations like Tulum and Costa Rica have long been the top players for luxury travel in Central America, there are two under-the-radar getaways that are on the brink of becoming the region’s next big thing. Like Panama, which is set to debut a handful of ultra-luxe new resorts by 2020, Belize is quickly becoming a hotspot for jet-setters looking for something slightly off the beaten path. A crop of buzzy new resorts are also set to debut over the next couple of years, ranging from the top-of-the-line Four Seasons Resort and Residences Caye Chapel, set to open in 2021, to the still-under-wraps boutique resort from Autograph Collection slated for 2020.
At the forefront of the soon-to-be-booming destination’s development is Fernando Paiz, the Guatemalan hotelier behind Ka’ana, one of the country’s first luxury resorts (and one of the best places to call homebase if you’re looking to explore the region’s newly discovered Maya Megalopolis). Robb Report sat down with the developer and philanthropist—he also serves as the head of La Ruta Maya foundation, which works to return illegally-traded Maya artifacts to Guatemala and Belize—as he gets ready to open the much-anticipated Itz’ana Resort and Residences to discuss why Belize needs to make its way to the top of your itinerary.
What drew you to Belize initially?
I became acquainted with Belize at a very young age. I started coming in the 1960s with my parents, and I was fascinated with the crystal-clear waters of the cays and the richness of the fauna and all of that. My passion is the ocean and the water, and that’s what brought me to the country in the first place. It was a big catch for me.
How do you balance preserving the pristine environment of Belize that captured your imagination as a child with drawing in the luxury traveler?
I think we have to be wise in giving that luxury traveler something different. We shouldn’t necessarily spend [all of our money] on fancy rooms or restaurants, but we should be investing in the experience that the guest can have when they visit the Maya sites, the reefs, or the caves.
For example, Belize has wonderful rivers and going down them in a boat is very exciting. But what makes the experience different is having a guide that really knows the nature. Or, if you are going to a Maya site, having a guide who is an archeologist. Your visit is hugely impacted by that kind of knowledge, and you never then lose the sense of belonging in the country, on the map, and so forth—even if you do have a really nice room to return to back at the hotel.
How do you keep this sense of place so alive when developing your hotels?
In Ka’ana, we have this mix of two extreme worlds. We have a wonderful wine cellar that our guests appreciate, but at the same time, you and your family can also learn how to make your own tortillas and tamales with a local cook on a traditional open-fire comal. So if we can put these two experiences together—where you can eat at a wonderful restaurant after you’ve had appetizers of tortillas that you’ve cooked yourself—I think we can really touch your heart more easily than with just the wine cellar alone.
What sites should be at the top of every visitor’s itinerary?
If you like archeology, there are so many great places to explore in Belize. There is a wonderful Maya site right on a gorgeous river called Lamanai, which means submerged crocodile. It is a couple of hours boat ride from Belize City, but when you glimpse the largest Maya ceremonial center in the region, you’ll be glad you made the effort.
Going to Belize is also about going to the reefs. It’s going out into the ocean, and it has to include the amazing barrier reef that goes around the Yucatan Peninsula to the East end and all the way down into Aruba.
Do you have any favorite snorkel or dive spots?
Glover’s Reef is very special. It is an atoll that is six miles long and about three or so wide. In the middle, it is only about 30 feet deep, but on the outside, you have water some 2,700 feet deep. It is one of the most unique diving places I have ever been to.
What excites you most about this new wave of luxury development?
Belize has really unique places like the famous Blue Hole, that are very rare and amazing. If you dive there, it is an experience that is world-class, there’s nothing much better that you can do. Belize has so many as-good-as-it-gets things to do that I think will be discovered in time—that is what is really exciting for me.