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Bounty of Belize

NWS Tristan Heads to Central America for his Latest Adventure

Day 1: Orange Walk District

Sitting in my window seat on my American Airlines flight that was taking me back to Belize for the first time in eight years, I couldn’t help but feel the same buzz that ran through me during my first trip to Central America in 2008. There’s just something about this part of the world that makes me feel at home the minute I step off the plane. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m terribly excited to venture back into Belize. I’ve got a very soft spot for jungle...

Can we also take a second to appreciate the show that unfolds beneath us as we fly south from Miami? The Florida Keys, Cuba and this pristine sheet of blue paradise, sprinkled with a pinch of barely submerged islands. I sit back in my seat and smile: I’m almost there!

Greeted at Belize City Airport by Reuben (driver/speedboat daredevil/barman and true gentleman), I meet up with five other guests who are also heading to Lamanai Outpost Lodge in the Orange Walk District Ahead of us lies a 45-minute drive followed by another 90 minutes on a speedboat to reach the lodge which sits on the banks of New River (which owes its name to some creative Brits from the 1800s). I tend to agree with the saying that “it’s as much about the journey as the destination”. This boat journey didn’t disappoint and if the scorching sun hadn’t convinced us of where we were, the winding river certainly did. Bend after bend as Reuben goes full throttle, one gets the sense that civilisation is being left far, far behind. Well, that’s because it is.

Arriving into the lush grounds of Lamanai, we are served a glass of fresh hibiscus water (in this heat, I’m pretty sure I’m drinking heaven) before I am taken to my lagoon-facing bungalow. This’ll do. We have unfortunately missed this afternoon’s excursions so I take this time to wander around the property and meet the staff. Your neighbours here are howler monkeys, anteaters, coatis, crocodiles and hawks. Dinner is served before a group of us embark on a trip across the lagoon in search of lagoon crocodiles. The lodge partners with researchers from the University of Florida, which subsidises these excursions to assist with their efforts to document the croc population here. Our guides Arturo and Abdul wield their spotlight looking for the reflections which mark out the eyes of our prehistoric-looking reptiles. 10 minutes in and Abdul catches a 3 ft-long male specimen. We look on as the crocodile is measured, weighed, sexed and chipped. Our experts agree - this lad (is that a sincere grin on its face and why is it looking me like that?!) is given a clean bill of health. We release him back into the water and he promptly dives down to resume his hunt for snails that we had rudely interrupted.

As I prepare to hit the sack after this long day (who invented jet lag and can I have his email? Asking for a friend), I realise how little I actually know about caimans/crocodiles/gators. I think I was guilty of taking them for granted - “oh, here’s another one” - and always paid closer attention to the more elusive animals. They are however fascinating creatures and I was pleased to see an entire team of guides here - with the backing of a huge institution like U of F - devote so much time to them and ensure they get the spotlight they actually deserve as key cogs in the balance of their habitats. Tomorrow will be another great day as we’ll be visiting the nearby Mayan archaeological site, and there are few things I enjoy more than old stones! Probably only American Airlines for taking me back to Central America…


Day 2: Lamanai Archaeological Site & Night Safari

Yes, I like old things. Cheese, wine, jeans, t-shirts... think about it: they all get better with age. Which is why Mayan ruins are right up my alley. Tikal, Tulum, Copan... they are such incredible feats of engineering and the ever-present mystery around Mayan civilisations only adds to their mystique and my interest. This morning we head by speedboat to explore Lamanai, and its estimated 700 ruins. I can only give you an estimate as only 4% of these have been excavated (and only in part!), this despite archaeology teams of 100 men spending up to 12 years on the site, working around the clock. This says a lot about the density of the vegetation that has grown on top of these temples, ball courts, marketplaces, etc...

I won’t bore you with the details of complex Mayan history, but having visited similar sites around Central America, I found Lamanai of particular interest. It wasn’t the largest city, as specialists estimate that 40-60,000 people lived here - compared to 100,000 for Palenque or Chichen Itza, or 200,000 for Tikal - but it was by far the longest surviving one within all Mayan times. One of the big question marks surrounding the Mayans was how exactly they came to fall - and opinions diverge on that topic - but the main reason Lamanai thrived for so long was their immediate access to fresh water. Whoever first decided to set up camp here made a wise choice!

During our 4-hour walk, I came to the realisation that a lot of the beauty of the place actually lies in what the eye can’t see. A handful of majestic temples, but hundreds more hidden by dense jungle and stuck in time, likely forever as the scale of work necessary to excavate even 1% more seems way too big even for the most intrepid of Indiana Joneses.

After a delicious lunch back at the lodge, our guide Reuben pronounced the most melodic words one can here after a morning of unearthing ancient civilisations: "sunset cruise". Think more along the lines of a no-frills pontoon boat just gliding across the lagoon as the sky puts on a technicolour spectacle for the ages. This is probably the best sundowner I have ever had! (Did you know a Banana Colada was a thing?!)

Lamanai Outpost Lodge has treated me to a terrific time. I could go on and on about the service, the guides, Mark the owner (strongest handshake this side of The Hulk - always a good sign)... But tomorrow we are off to Chan Chich Lodge Rumour has it big cats enjoy the comfort here as well...

Day 3: Lamanai Outpost Lodge - Chan Chich Lodge

After a final breakfast overlooking the lagoon, I bid farewell to the crew at Lamanai. What I take with me from these couple of days is the kindness and sense of community that I felt here. The entire staff strive to make you feel like you belong, even in passing, as part of their tight-knit group. There are many beautiful, wildlife-rich locations across Belize and Central America, but not all will be as warm and welcoming as this one.

The 2-hour drive to Chan Chich is smooth and uneventful, ideal to admire the landscapes along the way. As we leave Lamanai I notice that a lot of jungle has been torn down to be turned into farmland. The Mennonite communities that settled in Belize in the 1950s are the main contributors to the nation's agriculture, as they brought their craft and engineering knowledge over from Europe and North America. Sugarcane, coffee, corn – to name but a few crops – are now key factors in Belize's economy, but this has come at a steep and very visible environmental cost.

Chan Chich Lodge is set on a vast expanse of private farmland, established in the 1980s by the late Sir Barry Bowen. As well as Chan Chich Lodge, the family company owns and operates a large logging company, a bottle manufacturing company, Belize's national beer brewery, and thousands of cattle.

The lodge is built on top of an old Mayan plaza – which keeps looters away from the archaeological site – while the surrounding wilderness has thrived since the Bowen family implemented their vision, with Gallon Jug Estate providing habitat for all five of Belize’s resident wildcat species (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay). While a high level of chance is required to spot one of these cats, their presence in the area is the sign of a healthy ecosystem, one in which food is abundant. While here you may also encounter crocodiles, peccaries, tapirs, kinkajous, agoutis and more. This area is also an obvious haven for birdwatchers, from turkeys, toucans and herons to kingfishers, eagles and flycatchers. Chan Chich was set up with the idea to protect both the cultural and natural heritage of the area.

After another stunning sunset - this time on the shores of Laguna Verde and, before you ask, yes, ice-cold beer was again involved - the highlight of the day was our night walk in the jungle. All Chan Chich guests are able to wander the network of trails at their own leisure. You can take to the 9km of trails on a self-guided walk, although going along with a guide is advisable in order to maximise sightings. It is important to approach outings at this time with moderate expectations when it comes to wildlife. While the jungle comes alive after the sun has set, and all of your senses are heightened, the essence of these jungle walks is in getting lost (figuratively speaking) in the dense vegetation. There is always something so thrilling and almost science fiction about venturing into a rainforest at night. Maybe it's the idea that all these creatures you are trying so hard to spot have no trouble seeing you, peering through the dark as you intrude on their realm. Lots of night critters were seen (scorpion, bats, tarantulas...) but the two highlights for me were the kinkajou and fer-de-lance, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. What were we saying about thrilling?

Day 4: Gallon Jug Estate

Today was another beautiful day in paradise, spent on the trails and in the jungle of Gallon Jug Estate. We set off at dawn with Luis, who has been guiding at the lodge for the past 20 years. Our hope is to spot one of the area's elusive wildcats, and Luis confirms that the recent puma sightings have taken place at this time of day. Any potential wildlife sightings aside, the temperature is ideal and the rolling hills of the estate make for an invigorating wake-up call. We are joined on our morning drive by wild deer, roadside hawks, coati, toucans and more wild turkey than you can imagine. But, alas, no wildcats. We'll try again this afternoon.

Once the sun has started to cool a little, around 4:30pm, two fellow guests and I head out onto one of the trails. Within a few minutes of walking under this dense canopy, there's no doubt possible: I am in an Indiana Jones movie, probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. The heat, humidity, sun rays trying to pierce through the foliage, and these majestic mounds, covered by jungle, hiding the secrets and treasures of Mayan dominance more than 1,500 years ago… We are here for the wildlife first and foremost, but when exploring Belize, one can't ignore this rich Mayan past. As a group of 12 spider monkeys play in the branches above, I have rarely felt so deep in the jungle, even though the lodge is only 400 yards behind me. At this point, I can't help but wonder what American archaeologist David Prendergast and his team felt when they started working on the excavation of the Lamanai site in 1974. These forests were completely uncharted territory, and while I am now holding a map of these trails, my excitement is piqued by this sense of diving back into history.

After this 2-hour hike, there are still no cats to be seen... but we know they are near. Enjoying an ice-cold beer upon our return (brewed right here on the estate), Pablo the barman shows us a picture on his phone. It's a male puma, on the path leading to the pool. Another picture shows two puma cubs playing by a stream by the suspended bridge seven miles away... we have crossed that bridge half a dozen times already and the very first time I thought to myself that this definitely looked like a place I would hang out if I were a big cat! I'm overjoyed to know the cat population here is healthy – and a lot of credit goes to the Bowen family for having built and developed their estate with wildlife conservation at the forefront of the project – but we are just out of luck.

Another day comes to an end and I need to pack, as tomorrow a 3-seater charter plane is taking us to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and Las Cuevas Research Station.

Day 5: Chan Chich Lodge - Las Cuevas Research Station

There are many things Chan Chich Lodge is good at, not the least of which is providing guests with the upmost comfort in a superb setting. After a final night of deep sleep in my garden cabana, and breakfast overlooking the Mayan plaza (you must try the pork belly burrito! You will have worked it off by 9am I promise), I am transferred to the Gallon Jug airstrip, a short 15-minute drive away and on time for my charter Tropic Air flight bound for San Ignacio. Flip-flops notwithstanding, I’m almost certain Dalbert is a real pilot. A short 16 minutes later, here we are in San Ignacio, the main town here in the Spanish-influenced Cayo District.

Here I meet Rene, a man of big smiles and even bigger barbecue chicken cravings. I’d be ill-advised to ignore my guide’s recommendation for the “best barbecue chicken in Central America”, so our first port of call is his regular grilled poultry supplier on the side of a busy street in San Ignacio. With our chicken wings tightly wrapped, we set off on the 3-hour drive that will take us deep into the jungle (are you seeing a pattern here?) at Las Cuevas Research Station. On the way, we stop to spend a few hours visiting another Mayan site, the ancient city of Caracol. As we approach the first temple and howler monkeys play overhead, I know I’m with the right man. You see Rene here is of Mayan descent, and his passion for the ancient history of his people is contagious. There are no secrets for Rene, and I feel like Indiana Jones again. Or his sidekick maybe. Incredibly well-preserved 2,000-year-old ruins, barbecue chicken (Rene did not oversell the goods) and enchanting jungle sounds: paradise.

On the road again, landscapes are changing before my eyes. From the rainforest that shelters Caracol, we’re now climbing into the hills of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and my senses are all confused. Am I in Belize or British Columbia?! Sure, the red clay roads seem authentic, but these thousands of pine trees, rivers and waterfalls... a grizzly could cross the dirt road right about now and not seem out of place. I’m intrigued, but I’ll have to wait before breathing in this cool(er) mountain air as Rene steers back down toward the lowlands and more jungle.

Las Cuevas Research Station was built by the British Royal Engineers in the 1990s to serve as a military base. It’s now run by the Belizean government and used as a base for all kinds of research: biology, natural history, archaeology, etc. I’ll be spending a night here in the rustic cabanas; I wanted authentic and adventurous - well, I ought to be careful what I wish for. A generator runs from 6pm to 9pm every day, helping provide relief from the heat... never mind, there are no fans. Rene explains that the Royal Navy still sends their special forces here for jungle survival training. They get dumped by helicopter nearby and are collected three weeks later with a whole new appreciation for Western comforts and understanding of their pain thresholds. My pain threshold goes from 0 to cold beer so I settle down on a deck chair and admire the rainforest coming to life as the steamy sun calls it a day. A puma was seen last week five miles down the main trail dragging a white-tailed deer back into the overgrowth... but, you guessed it, luck is still eluding us and we have to settle once more for the nocturnal splendour of the jungle, which does nothing to dampen the mood. Here’s the thing with the jungle: by building trails and lodges in these remote locations, we have given ourselves access to these stunning habitats, but we are only borrowing time as nature plays by its own rules and owes nothing. This is why there is no such thing as a bad day in the jungle (unless you’re British Special Forces) - only lifelong memories.