The Guatemalan jungle plays host to a handful of treetop cabins and eco hotels, and Cassa Zenda is the hot new thing. The most recent addition to the Coppola family group, this private villa is settled on the banks of the Rio Dulce, accessible by boat through subtropical rainforest.
The property comprises four individual villas accessed by a wooden path which winds underneath a dense canopy of palms, neatly lined with orchids and bromeliads. The rooms are spacious and airy, as if to swallow as much of the fresh jungle air and green infused light as possible. Handwoven bedspreads add colour to teak floors and high beam ceilings, and each room has an indoor and outdoor shower, a necessary part of any jungle escape.
Every corner of Cassa Zenda beats to the rhythm of its jungle surroundings. A large thatched roof shelters a collection of large benches and chairs made bed-like with chunky cushions, and neatly strewn hammocks are perfectly positioned for stargazing. A kitchen-hut and outdoor dining room are the epicentre for the chef, Debora Fadul’s, culinary creations. Fadul champions farm-to-table dining and frequently travels the country to source from Guatemala’s vast array of exotic ingredients and native delicacies.
The local naturalist guides dressed in full camo will lead you into the jungle in search of exotic birds and howler monkeys. An ancient Spanish fortress, Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, remains intact at the narrowest point of Rio Dulce, built in 1595 to fend off pirates and protect the treasures hidden below Lago de Izabal. A speedboat is at your disposal for journeys up the river, meandering past small dwellings and lush farmland. Out on the open lake you can swim or kayak to a secluded beach inside a nature reserve where the waters are blissfully calm and shallow. For those in need of a rejuvenation the natural hot springs of Izabal are a short boat ride away and, among the waterfalls interspersed in the surrounding jungle lies a bubbling sulphuric stream from which natural healing mud oozes.
Part of the beauty of Cassa Zenda is its isolation. Days start and end with a serenade by native birds, chirping frogs and the guttural roar of a howler monkey. The Guatemalan spirit and culture is visceral, thanks to the food, the guides and the pottery, tortillas, jewellery and weaving workshops which bring guests closer to the local community. Social impact lies at the chore, with property-wide water recycling, locally produced amenities and cleaning products and the eradication of plastic.
Part of the property’s mission is to create a bridge from indigenous artisan communities who have few opportunities to access new markets to the rest of the world. They recognise the need for expanding and preserving indigenous culturally rooted skills and traditions by empowering indigenous women and teaching traditional regional hand craftsmanship. Their creations are used in the decorations of Casa Zenda and guests are welcome to purchase the handmade products, therefore funding the materials and resources the artisans need. By using the house as a vehicle for marketing and selling the community’s wares, they are able to authentically showcase the country’s culture and transform cycles of poverty into cycles of prosperity.
We recommend a minimum of three nights at this jungle retreat, followed by some beach time at our favourite spot on the Caribbean coast. Turtle Inn is a beachfront boutique made up of individual balinese-style casitas near the colourful fishing town of Providencia. Fortunately for us, Belize is the first country in Latin America that has reopened to tourists, and Guatemala won’t be far behind.