Adventures in Belize: Road-tripping, crocodile tagging and more
By Terri Marshall
About once a year I embark on a life-threatening adventure. It almost always involves girlfriends and very often involves jungles. Last year it was Peru where I fished for piranha in the Amazon and swam in the water just yards away from the hungry little devils. This year it was Belize.
I’m not talking about the typical Caribbean beach vacation that most experience in Belize or the cruise ship agenda. I’m talking about an epic adventure that included crocodile handling, road-tripping in a car with all the warning lights ablaze, Garifuna drumming lessons, canoeing through caves formerly used for human sacrifice ceremonies, climbing to the top of an ancient Maya ruin for a look into Guatemala and hand-feeding a howler monkey. My co-adventurer was Vanessa, a fellow travel writer friend who is always game for adventure. Here are a few highlights.
Our journey began in Ladyville just outside Belize City where we stayed at the adorable Gecko Bungalow. Idaho expats, Scott and Michelle Lyons, have decorated this two bedroom bungalow with the Gecko theme because – well, Geckos live in Belize and you might as well embrace them. The fun colorful décor was delightful as were our hosts. Michelle greeted us at the airport in Belize City with frozen drinks in hand – a most welcome sight! www.geckobungalow.com
We spent the afternoon sunning at Bacab eco-Park. This lush jungle playground just 20 minutes from Belize City offers a myriad of activities including horseback riding and kayaking. Our choice was to lounge by the free form pool to rest up for our evening adventure – feeding chicken to crocodiles at ACES – American Crocodile Education Sanctuary – a refuge for sick and problematic reptiles.
ACES founders Vince and Cherie Rose have chosen an unlikely career path in Belize as crocodile rescuers. Cherie is a research biologist with over 20 years’ experience handling reptiles including venomous snakes, various lizards, exotic turtles, alligators and crocodiles. Vince is a self-taught Wildlife Behaviorist and expert crocodile wrangler. After settling in Belize, they reached out to the scientific community for assistance in establishing ACES.
We headed out to ACES crocodile refuge on a shrimp farm in Ladyville – chicken in hand – to feed the crocodiles. Vanessa was concerned we would be leading live chickens to their death and was most relieved to see the chicken were pre-packaged from the local grocery. Watching the hungry reptiles snap their powerful jaws to devour dinner we grew slightly apprehensive about the next scheduled adventure – tagging crocodiles in the wild on Ambergris Caye.
Taking the ferry from Belize City to San Pedro, we marveled at the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea and for a few moments forgot we were about to handle people eating reptiles. We met Vince and Cherie at a bar called “The Office” and set out on a night tour to hunt for crocodiles. Vince and Cherie were excited to inform us we already had a crocodile on the boat. Yes, indeed there was an eight foot live crocodile in a large white cylinder on board and he was one angry guy. As we departed he hissed continuously not realizing we were trying to save him by relocating him to a better environment – communicating with a crocodile isn’t all that easy.
We boated out several miles to an island where Miriam and Chris who work for ACES explained we would be examining the crocodile, tagging him with a chip and subsequently releasing him back into the waters where he would hopefully find a home away from islanders. We assisted with the exam, took turns sitting on the crocodile then climbed back into the boat to watch the release. Since this crocodile had never been tagged, we had the privilege of naming him. “Pissed Off Christoph” was the group consensus. Watching Christoph swim away to freedom and a new life is a sight I will never forget. www.americancrocodilesanctuary.org
Driving in Belize
Having made friends with the wildlife, we returned to the mainland to begin our road trip. We chose a Belizean owned car rental company in an effort to support the local economy. The owner was most gracious when he provided us with a high mileage SUV and assured us the warning lights (all on) were nothing to worry about. He also provided a hand-drawn map of the country. Pleased with the cooler that came with the car and oblivious to the dashboard ablaze with warning lights, we headed off to explore.
There are only four main highways in Belize which are somewhat maintained. All the side roads built from sand and gravel and marked with unfamiliar road signs would just enhance the adventure. The roads were certainly challenging but the views of the diverse landscapes of this tiny country were incredible.
We drove into a dense jungle through what I’m certain was Jurassic Park in search of the elusive jaguar. We maneuvered the twisting roads and one lane bridges of the Hummingbird Highway toward mountains rising from the mist. There were coastal roads at the edge of the sea and then there were the sheep. A herd meandered into the road on the way to Punta Gorda just as the brakes collapsed in our quality SUV. Fortunately crisis was averted, the sheep survived and we were given a replacement vehicle with a barely working transmission. Apparently warning lights are important but transmissions are not.
Not wanting to miss anything, we took occasional detours down questionable roads where comments were uttered like “Do you suppose the GT Bar we just passed is code for gutted tourists?”
The Garifuna Culture of Hopkins
Despite potential hazards, we arrived safely in Hopkins. This coastal village on the Caribbean Sea is considered the cultural center of the Garifuna population in Belize. With a population of 1500 friendly locals, stunning beaches, the sounds of nightly Garifuna drumming and plenty of chickens and dogs roaming the tiny little streets, Hopkins is delightful. We arrived at the Lebeha Drumming Center where our host, Dorothy, directed us to an adorable little beach cabana with sweeping views of the sparkling sea, sand and swaying palms. Heaven.
Beach time was a priority but not before we experienced the Garifuna culture with a drumming lesson. We were greeted at the drumming center by Jabal, an accomplished Garifuna drummer who had no idea of the challenge that lay ahead – teaching drumming to white girls with little to no rhythm. Jabal was a patient instructor and after an hour or so of starts, stops, interrupted rhythms and plenty of laughs, we started to get the hang of it and even had one of the local young men singing along. www.lebeha.com
At the western edge of Belize bordering Guatemala, the Cayo district spans more than 2000 miles across diverse terrain from rolling hills and sweeping farmland devoted to citrus orchards and cattle farming, to lush river valleys and rugged mountain ridges covered in sub-tropical jungle. It is also home to the country’s most extensive number of archaeological sites. Cayo is the Belizean frontier – and there’s no better place for adventure than a frontier.
Pook’s Hill Jungle Lodge provided the perfect home base for our time in Cayo. Built in commune with its natural surroundings, this beautiful eco-lodge has comfortable, air-conditioned adobe cabanas. Sumptuous meals prepared by talented local chefs are served family style in the main lodge. The Bar at Pook’s Hill offers Belikin Beer (brewed in Belize), Stout, an assortment of wines and local and imported spirits. You can even help yourself and keep track of your drinks on the honor system for bar tabs…a clipboard. After almost two weeks of road-tripping that included a myriad of insect bites, near misses with sheep and assorted other mishaps, this place was a very welcome sight.
After a delicious dinner, chilled wine and a good night’s sleep, we were once again ready for adventure. Pook’s Hill offers numerous excursions and activities. We set out with our guide to explore the spectacular Barton Creek Cave by canoe. I have yet to enter an ancient cave known for its history of human sacrifices without a bit of apprehension – but still I enter hoping for the best.
As we glided through the dark waters into regions where the only light was from the tiny streams from our headlamps, we focused on the stunning stalagmites rising from the depths of the water and the stalactites hanging from the massive ceiling above. The beauty before us gave us a temporary respite from thoughts of human sacrificing – until we saw the skulls.
We returned to the light of day and set out for a visit to Xunantunich, Belize’s most accessible Maya site of significance. At one point, we crossed the Mopan River via a hand-winched ferry! Xunantunich’s dominant structure is El Castillo which rises 130 feet above the jungle floor. It was a precarious climb, but we were rewarded with breathtaking views of western Belize and the edge of Guatemala. www.pookshilllodge.com
It is impossible to spend any amount of time in the Belizean jungles without hearing the roar of the black howler monkeys. This endangered species exists only in Belize, northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. Belizeans have nicknamed the black howlers “Baboons” and the Community Baboon Sanctuary just outside of Belize City provides an opportunity for interaction with these surprising small monkeys with a lot to say…loudly.
The Community Baboon Sanctuary is an amazing community-run grassroots conservation operation. Local landowners spread over several Creole villages in the BelizeRiver valley have pledged to protect the forested areas allowing the monkeys to roam freely in their natural habitat.
On our final day in Belize, Vanessa and I set out to meet the monkeys. Arriving at The Baboon Sanctuary, we were greeted by Shaun – a Belize native with a New YorkUniversity education and a passion for nature, preservation and the black howler monkeys.
Shaun has developed a trust with these fascinating monkeys and he led us on a hike to introduce us to his furry friends. At the edge of the river we spotted them, a family of black howlers. Dad stayed high above in the tree keeping an eye on his lady and their two babies. Mama came down to check out the ladies accompanying her friend, Shaun.
Reminding me these were wild animals, Shaun gave me a piece of mango to offer her. To my surprise and absolute delight, she came to me, took the mango and even stayed close by for photos. Meanwhile the little ones continued swinging from tree to tree in a game of chase during which one of them reached down and tagged me in the head. I admit it was tempting to climb up in the trees and play tag with them, but I haven’t managed that whole swinging by the tail thing…maybe that will be next year’s adventure. (Look for Community Baboon Sanctuary on Facebook).
Terri is a freelance writer with regular columns on travel, chocolate and bar reviews. She is busy each month visiting new places to bring unique travel destinations and events to you. Yes, it is a sacrifice – but she is willing to do that for her readers! You can see more of Terri’s writing at www.examiner.com where she is the National Chocolate Examiner and at www.barzz.net. Also, check out her blog at www.trippingwithterri.com. You can contact Terri at email@example.com.