In 2020, everyone adopted different strategies to weather the pandemic. Some people hunkered down at home. Others took to the outdoors. Still others retreated to the coast or the mountains. John and Amy Malik chose a road not taken: they moved temporarily to Belize.
“We like to do crazy things,” says John, a chef who was looking for a way to wait out the pandemic, “and we wanted an adventure.” The Maliks have a long culinary history in Greenville, including owning 33 Liberty, where he was chef and Amy was pastry chef.
They became interested in Belize through a friend who works in international real estate and was collaborating on a hotel project there. The more they researched the Central American country, the more intrigued they became. Having been to Mexico and the Bahamas in the past, they were attracted to the “Caribbean ideal of beautiful saltwater, fun-loving people, and the simplicity of life.”
John and Amy discussed the idea of an extended stay in Belize for six weeks before they called their financial advisor in August 2020 and asked him if he thought it was feasible to rent their house and move to Belize for a year. His response? “Wow! What a great idea!” And with that, their journey began.
After renting their farmhouse, finding guardians for their cats and flock of chickens, storing their possessions in a 40-foot insulated container in their backyard, and obtaining the necessary paperwork for their two rescue dogs, Otis and Pumpkin, who accompanied them on the trip, the couple left Greenville on November 1, 2020.
The first stop was San Pedro, the popular, sun-washed capital of Belize’s largest island, Ambergris Caye, where the Maliks rented an Airbnb. “It had a little community kitchen that looked like a café,” John shares. “It was perfect for us. We ended up staying there for three months.”
They also loved San Ignacio, where they lingered inland for a couple of weeks; and Placencia, where they lived 100 yards from the beach. Surprises waited around every turn. “If you . . . turn your head, look over the cliff, look up in the air . . . look under a rock, you will experience some amazing things,” declares Amy.
That proved especially true in the jungle, where they stayed in the rainforest of San Felipe, in the Mayan Toledo District near the Guatemalan border. There, they booked a cabana at Cotton Tree, a rustic lodge on the banks of the Moho River, so John could spend five weeks unraveling the secrets of making bean-to-bar chocolate under the tutelage of Juan Cho, owner of Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate Company, who grows his own organic cacao beans right in the rainforest. “We’d never been to a real jungle before,” John says. “There were tarantulas, snakes, huge iguanas, howler monkeys, and all these beautiful birds. Just walking to the dining room [from our cabana] could be an adventure.”
Beyond chocolate, they sampled fry jacks (similar to New Orleans-style beignets)—served plain with honey and butter or filled with meat—and enjoyed tortillas made fresh each morning from ground Belizean corn. They ate plantains, papayas, and citrusy-sweet pitaya (aka dragonfruit), with its beet-red pulp, and savored their first delicious bite of football-shaped mamey fruit, which John says tastes like a roasted sweet potato.
After seeing 80 percent of Belize, the couple headed home at the end of the summer 2021, exhilarated by their experience of another culture (the trip was cut short by a change in CDC rules regarding how long dogs could be abroad before re-entering the U.S.). “The Belizeans were the sweetest, kindest, smiling-est people we’ve ever met,” John reveals. “My biggest takeaway is gratitude and a sense of humility and wonder.” “Everyone was like our new family,” adds Amy. “We can’t wait to go back and share it with friends.”
John Malik is currently writing a book about the couple’s time in Belize, tentatively titled Under the Chocolate Tree. Find out more at chefjohnmalik.com.
The Maliks’ Must-See List
Belize Barrier Reef and Caye Caulker
Discover an underwater world of colorful corals and exotic marine life—queen angelfish, redband parrotfish, sea turtles—while snorkeling the longest barrier reef in the Western or Northern hemispheres; then visit the little fishing community of Caye Caulker, all via a day trip with Tammy Lemus’s XSite Belize.
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. xsitebelizesailing.com
San Ignacio Market
Although the San Ignacio market is open every day, the best time to go is on a Saturday morning, when you’ll find an outrageous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from area farms. While you’re there, stop to eat at one of many food stalls, get a haircut, buy handmade clothes, or treat yourself to a cocktail.
Savannah St, San Ignacio Cayo. belizehub.com/the-san-ignacio-market
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
The historical significance and the spectacular setting overlooking the Mopan River valley are reasons enough to visit the ruins of this 7th-century AD Mayan settlement. Dominating the site is the 130-foot-tall pyramid called El Castillo. Don’t miss the fabulous stucco frieze on its eastern wall, decorated with jaguar heads, human faces, and abstract geometric patterns.
Cayo District of western Belize, 6.5 miles west of San Ignacio on the Western Hwy. belizehub.com/xunantunich-mayan-ruins
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
Take a morning tour of Belize’s famous jaguar sanctuary with Doyle Gardiner’s D’Tourz and keep an eye out for some of the preserve’s 290 species of birds, including toucans, chachalacas, and Montezuma oropendolas—known for their melodic warble.
Main St, Placencia. placenciadtourz.com
Black Rock Lodge
Perched above the Macal River adjacent to the Don Elijo Panti National Park, this lodge outside San Ignacio makes an idyllic lunch stop. Dine on fresh fish and organic fruits and vegetables from the lodge’s farm while you watch red-legged honey creepers, hooded orioles, orange-breasted falcons, and other denizens of the surrounding rainforest.
Off Western Hwy. blackrocklodge.com