Jungle Fever

Glimpses of jaguars, toucans, and black orchids reward the intrepid traveler in the unspoiled wilds of Belize.

Deep in the tropical rain forests of Belize, a large snake crossed the road ahead of us. “Fer-de lance,” said Barry Bowen, the owner of the land we were touring, as we pulled over for a closer look. Using a dead limb he’d cut with his machete, he dragged the reptile toward us. I marveled at the strange appearance of the snake, which looked to me almost like it had been crimped, and gazed into its deep-set-eyes. Then Bowen casually mentioned that the fer-de-lance is one of the deadliest snakes in the world.

I jumped back, alarmed, expecting him to kill it. Instead we took pictures and watched it slither off the road and disappear into the tall grass, an eye-opening welcome to the world of Belizean eco-tourism. Before concluding my visit, I would not only encounter more fer-de-lances but also see rare Morelet’s crocodiles at their nesting sites, identify well over a hundred bird species, and happily trudge countless miles in search of wild tapirs and jaguars that clearly did not wish to be seen.

Some of the most pristine lands and waters of this hemisphere lie in Belize, which was named British Honduras until it attained independence in 1981. Most tourists know the English-speaking Central American country for the quiet waters that lie behind its 180-mile barrier reef, filled with coral and tropical fish in all the colors of the rainbow and offering spectacular snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing.

In recent years, however, visitors have also begun to explore the natural wonders of Belize’s forests and mountains, where several new guest lodges play host to waves of tourists seeking a wilderness experience that is becoming increasingly rare. My particular favorite inland destination is Chan Chich Lodge, an outpost carefully crafted of local hardwoods and situated in the plaza of an ancient Mayan city amid hundreds of thousands of acres of magnificent unspoiled jungle.

The driving force behind Chan Chich is Barry Bowen, a seventh-generation Belizean who carved his mini-kingdom from 700,000 acres of land that he bought from a British company in 1983. He sold most of the land to private concerns, donated and sold a total of 110,000 acres to the Massachusetts Audubon Society for a nature preserve, and kept 130,000 for Chan Chich.

Walking down Chan Chich’s trails under the watchful and well-informed eye of Gilberto Vasquez, a farmer and hunter turned guide, I spotted huge flowering bromeliads and the long plumes of black orchids growing sixty feet above us in a hog plum tree, and I felt the soft cottonlike kapok of the giant ceiba, a sacred Mayan tree harvested in modern times for making flotation gear and pillows. We sampled the nuts of the cohune palm, which taste somewhat like dried coconut and can be chewed as a source of clean water; the Maya also press them for cooking oil.

Most impressive of all the trees we saw on Gilberto’s tour was the giant strangler fig, which starts life in the branches of another tree. The seeds, left by bats, sprout and send out long, tendrillike roots that can grow as high as fifty feet into the jungle’s canopy and also extend another fifty feet to the ground. Once they tap into groundwater, the airborne roots grow to surround the original tree and eventually choke off its light and life. By the time the host tree dies, the strangler is a self-supporting, free-standing giant of the jungle.

Dining above us in a single fig tree was the avian variety to make a dedicated birder swoon: a red-and-green slaty-tailed trogon, a black-faced grosbeak, a pair of little yellow-throated euphonias, several tiny red-capped manakins, and that breathtaking breakfast-cereal salesbird, the keel-billed toucan. Not only could Gilberto identify these birds in three languages (English, Spanish, and Mayan, all of which he speaks fluently), he could call many of them to us with sharp or subtle whistles that I often found indistinguishable from the actual call of the bird.

Named wilderness retreat of the year in 1992 by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, Chan Chich Lodge is operated by Tom and Josie Harding, an American couple with seemingly limitless energy and imagination. Tom supervised the environmentally conscious construction of the cabanas and the main building of the lodge, built with sixteen varieties of hardwood that had been cut and milled on the property. The soaring thatched roof of the main building alone contains more than 30,000 palm fronds, all cut from bay leaf palms during a full moon (rising sap makes the fronds last a long time). Archaeologists are divided about the wisdom of building in a Mayan plaza, but it takes only one look at the old looters’ trenches dug into some of the thousand-year-old pyramids to realize that the very presence of the lodge serves a purpose in preserving these antiquities.

Chan Chich” means “little bird” in Mayan, and indeed the place is a birder’s paradise, with three hundred known bird species in the area. Rarely seen ocellated turkeys wander among the cabanas, the males fanning their tails and announcing their presence with deep drumming calls. From the trees overhead hang the long, swaying nests of the Montezuma oropendolas, large birds with brilliant yellow-and-black tails and the peculiar habit of swinging forward over a branch like gymnasts and emitting their strange gurgling calls while hanging upside down. Flocks of white-crowned and red-lored parrots fly noisily from tree to tree, and, closer to the ground, hummingbirds zip around like mosquitoes.

Much of this spectacular natural bounty of flourishes simply because Belize has a wonderfully low population—about 200,000 inhabitants in a country slightly larger than Massachusetts—and extensive areas of mostly virgin forest. The land around Chan Chich was long selectively logged for prime-grade mahogany—much of it used to build the classic Chippendale furniture of the nineteenth century—but it had not been subjected to clear-cutting or slash-and-burn agriculture. Other than being overhunted for game, the ecosystem was virtually intact when Bowen bought his land.

Because of Bowen’s strict no-hunting policy, the diverse animal population at Chan Chich—from pacas (rabbit-size


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