Glimpses of jaguars, toucans, and black orchids reward the intrepid traveler in the unspoiled wilds of Belize.
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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 spotted rodents) to howler and spider monkeys—has grown rapidly in the past ten years. Five types of jungle cats inhabit the area, including low-slung jaguarundi and the graceful puma or mountain lion, which is capable of making twenty-foot leaps. The three others, all spotted, are the bantam-weight margay, the ocelot, and the largest cat of this hemisphere, the magnificent jaguar.
For the tourist, Chan Chich offers numerous activities, ranging from canoeing on a splendid deep blue lake (but not too near the nesting crocodiles) to horseback riding. The main activity is taking long, slow walks on the eight miles of carefully maintained trails and letting the natural beauty leisurely unfold right in front of your eyes.
Norman’s Temple Trail is named for the lodge’s bartender, Norman Evanko, who will happily tell you about his discovery of the extensive ruins that bear his name (and who can sometimes be persuaded to keep the bar open late). After a long day of hiking, there is nothing so grand as a fine dinner of coconut soup, cucumber salad, roast leg of lamb, fried polenta, and the only lima beans I have ever truly enjoyed (because, I was informed, I’d never eaten them freshly picked).
One evening, after consuming that feast, I set out again with Gilberto and four other guests for night walk in the jungle. Armed with flashlights, we had rather up-close encounters with tarantulas, bats, spider monkeys, and a playful little ferretlike animal called a kinkajou, which delighted in scratching every inch of its flexible body on the limbs at the top of the trees. Once again, Gilberto’s extensive knowledge was indispensable. He pointed out the red eyes of a wolf spider from one hundred yards away—I stepped the distance off as we walked to within inches of the diminutive arachnid. He showed us an amazing click beetle that glows in the dark like a firefly (except that the click beetle’s greenish-yellow light never turns off and was bright enough for me to read my trail guide). The larva of a distant North American relative of the click beetle is that childhood delight, the glowworm, which looks a little like an illuminated toy train.
In addition to his lifelong accumulation of local jungle lore, Gilberto has augmented his knowledge with the careful reading of field guides sent to him by satisfied patrons of the lodge. He is also a skillful herbalist who practices bush medicine, dispensing traditional plant remedies to the sick and injured.
One occasional surprise of the night walks is the automated camera system. To study the impact of tourists on animal movement, resident biologists Bruce and Carolyn Miller have set up a series of flash cameras that go off when an animal breaks an infrared beam. Judging by the photos on display in the lodge, there is a healthy jaguar population in the area, but getting close enough to see one before it sees you is another story. The Millers’ camera did, by the way, record one shot of me, startled and wide-eyed, as I innocently tripped the camera flash in the darkness.
Just as the mountain lions of North America get blamed for killing livestock, jaguars are often accused by Belizean ranchers of feeding on domestic animals. Barry Bowen has a different view: The jaguars hunt domestic animals only when their natural food sources are depleted by hunters or when the jungle is cleared. Bowen takes particular pride in pointing out a spot where he once saw a full-grown jaguar lying peacefully in a field among his cows and calves. Because he believes strongly in conservation, Bowen has taken it as a personal mission to find ways to use the land productively but with as little disruption as possible to the natural ecosystem. To this end he is experimenting with special varieties of citrus, bananas, and an excellent coffee grown under the jungle canopy. He is also practicing no-till corn planting, which keeps the subsurface soil from drying out as much, and is developing a new crossbreed between English Herefords and the local criollo cattle that needs half as much pasture space. Finding ways to reduce cultivated acreage will result in more habitat being saved for the native species.
When you’ve lost count of the birds and animals at Chan Chich, you can always hop a plane on Tropic Air or Javier’s Flying Service to other beautiful destinations. Belizeans, it seems, fly around the country the way we drive to the store for a loaf of bread.
Near the Mountain Pine Ride National Reserve are the classy back-to-nature Chaa Creek Cottages, lighted by candles and kerosene lamps. Resident chef Bill Altman runs a Belizean and Mexican food cooking school, and there’s a great five-mile canoe trip from the cottages down the Macal River to the town of San Ignacio. The country’s hippest (and perhaps priciest) destinations, complete with a pizza oven in the kitchen a fine view of the Privassion River, a lodge named Blancaneaux, which is owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Blancaneaux, by the way, was a legendary nineteenth-century naturalist who conducted extensive biological surveys of the area while searching for a reputed cave-dwelling yeti.
At Lighthouse Reef Resort, on Northern Two Caye (pronounced “key”), hardcore scuba divers can indulge in Belize’s abundant water sports: fly-casting from shore for bonefish, swimming with bottlenose dolphins, or diving the Great Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
Aside from lodges and resorts, the country’s most popular destination is the town of San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye. It has a long string of sleepy hotels overlooking clear blue water teeming with tropical fish, which are easily viewed while snorkeling or diving. Just stay clear of the coral, because wherever you touch it, it dies. The fishing, not surprisingly, is also spectacular.
The weekly amusement highlight in San Pedro is Wednesday night’s Chicken-drop Bingo at the Pier Lounge in the Spindrift Hotel. The back courtyard is marked off in a large numbered grid and much of the town turns out to drink, laugh, and wager on which squares the chickens will decide to leave a little gift. Now that’s entertainment!
Top-of-the-line accommodations in San Pedro are found at Victoria House, with thatched-roof cabanas and a deep-shaded bar hidden behind a colonial colonnade. In the bar, rows of thick pillows cushion the bottoms of a thirsty crowd swigging the fine Belizean brew—Belikin Beer—on tap or in bottles. The regular Belikin packs a 7 percent punch, but my favorite is the thick, dark Belikin Stout (which may soon be available in Texas). The Coca-Cola in Belize is also premium, still made the old-fashioned way: with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The owner of both the Coca-Cola franchise and Belikin Beer, by the way, is Chan Chich’s Barry Bowen, more proof that Belize is a very small world. As Bowen himself told me: “The Miami airport uses more electricity than the entire country of Belize.”
Indeed, a secret to Belize’s abundant natural beauty is its small population, but will this heavenly backwater survive the pressures of the modern world? Belize shares a long border with heavily overpopulated Guatemala, which has never officially recognized Belize and always needs more raw jungle to cut. The last of the resident British troops, holdovers from colonial days, are now pulling out, and because of its rather freewheeling banking laws, Belize is not on the best of terms with the United States.
In the meantime, heroic conservation efforts continue throughout the country. The 260,000-acre Chiquibul National Park, surrounding the Mayan ruins of Caracol in the rain-soaked southern part of the country, has been created recently, although it is accessible only with a government permit. Bruce and Carolyn Miller are working on this area and also trying to establish a greenbelt called Paseo Pantera, Path of the Panther, that would provide habitat for mountain lions and other wild cats all the way from Panama to the U.S.
On my last morning at Chan Chich, equipped with A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico by Ernest P. Edwards, I set out on a final solo walk of the forest trails. I watched a Central American river otter play in Chan Chich Creek and identified a green kingfisher, a creamy white laughing falcon, and a rarely sighted slaty-breasted tinamou.
Near the graceful suspension bridge that spans the creek, I spotted an ornate hawk-eagle sitting on its nest. Having watched warily for snakes every day, I was more than happy to see the eagle eating what appeared to be a large fer-de-lance. Mother Nature seemed to be looking out for me. It was, I realized immediately, the perfect end to a perfect vacation.