Thursday, June 6, 2013

Beguiling Belize

A Trogon of some sort
I have to admit that I hadn’t done a lot of thinking about what lay beyond Mexico but an expiring visa suddenly made it necessary for me to plan my next steps. So, the night before I was due to cross the border I took advantage of a reasonable internet connection and did a quick search of places natural, cultural and historical in Belize and came to the conclusion that the forests were probably going to be my main focus, with a smattering of more Mayan ruins.

A morning boarder crossing was very straightforward and with my import permit and insurance for my car and a visa for myself, I motored forth into a new country. And it’s amazing how different the world can be when one crosses a line that is no more than an artifact of history. Suddenly the influence of the Caribbean and the legacy of African slavery strikes you. The language is officially english although, in addition, locals speak various combinations of creole, spanish or local dialects derived from indigenous Mayan ancestry. 

My first Belizean camp was by the waterfront at Corazol, a small town of largely weatherboard buildings - themselves a significant contrast to the housing of Mexico. Here I was befriended by Don, an American who had bought a house here with Australian wife Kate with their two kids and had the pleasure of a delightful evening at their waterfront house. 

From Carazol, I headed southwards into Belize. The day’s drive was short - Belize is a very small country.  Before long I had left the main road and was bouncing along backroads through mainly farming country until eventually I started to encounter denser trees and eventually forest. As is the case everywhere, the edges of the forests are being eaten away, as bit by bit, land is cleared for “agriculture” that will clearly generate only marginal income. A fascinating paradox was the sight of a group of Mennonites (who have traditionally shunned motorized or electric equipment) arriving by horse and buggy at their newly-cleared land, only to jump aboard a bulldozer and commence felling the forest! 

My host, Vidal, in Indian Church
Arrived at the little hamlet of Indian Church, located on the edge of a large lagoon. Asked around town if there was somewhere I could camp for the night and a young guy, a guatemalan who had married a Mayan Belizean girl, took me to his mother in law’s place and asked if I could camp in their garden. They were very happy with the idea so Vidal (the father in law) and I moved a pile of wood to make room for the van, and I set up camp for the night. It turns out that many of the communities here are made up of refugees from across the border who had fled horrific persecution back in the 70s and 80s, Vidal and his family amongst them. 

Mayan ruins at Lamanai
As the afternoon cleared, I cycled around town and its surrounds. Howler monkeys were roaring, a crocodile was basking in the pond by the “airstrip”, its open mouth gleaming golden in the afternoon light (guess who left the camera behind), birds were fluttering, and the locals gave friendly waves as I passed by - all very idyllic.

Indian Church adjoins the Mayan ruins of Lamanai so next morning I walked through beautiful forest / jungle to explore the ruins, with lots of new birds as a bonus. 

As the day came to a close I strolled through the forest yet again, this time to another set of ruins - the remnants of an 1870’s sugar mill, the British Honduras company’s attempt to generate an industry here. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming it. In its own way, they are as intrigueing as the Maya ruins, only because they show how many attempts at  building civilizations fail, although the latter attempts certainly did not have the longevity or the cultural wealth of the earlier ones.

An hour’s drive the next morning seemed to me to be enough for one day, so I set up camp by the shores of another lagoon, this time in a little village called Crooked Tree, apparently named by early British “explorers” after the cashew trees that grow here in a strange vegetation type that is a mixture of pines, cashews and palms.
Tree porcupine

Another short drive took me to the Baboon Sanctuary - actually a howler monkey reserve where I met my namesake, Robert, who would be my guide for the next couple of days firstly spotlighting that night in the forest adjoining the hamlet of Bermudian Landing, finding tree porcupines, opossums, a ??? and a four-eyed possum. An early morning walk revealed lots of birds and an Agouti or “bush rabit” which is actually a rodent rather than a rabit. A night time paddle on a nearby lagoon revealed lots of crocodiles and various eye-shines of owls and mammals along the shores but it was hard to get close enough for really good looks, although with fireflies and glowing bugs in the aquatic vegetation around the edge of the lagoon, it was a magical night. 

Belice City was my next destination. Driving in was not a drama as its relatively quiet, but as you get closer and closer to the port area, the streets get narrower and narrower. It all feels very impoverished and ramshackle - almost no new buildings anywhere, apart from the Casino and a few rapidly aging port facilities.  The shops are trying almost in vain, to be functional at best. So after a quick spin around I drove a few miles out to the marina where it was possible to camp, and there I spent the night with a cooling breeze coming off the nondescript coast.

I think its a Kinkajou??
Back into the forests again, this time to the beautiful Mayflower Bocawina national park, after yet another bumpy back-road detour that took me into the friendly little village of Gales Point, strung out along a peninsular that jutted out into a large coastal lagoon. It felt like a place that might have attracted over-landers in the past, but attempts at cafes and lodgings were now all bedraggled and little used. The increased paranoia and the financial downturn have combined to hit these little communities hard. 

Typical village housing - Gales Point
In Mayflower I shared the campsite with a couple from Guatemala City. Spotlighting that night revealed more possums and also failed to reveal something that rustled around in the thick scrub just off the trail but refused to show itself. Given its snuffling and shuffling I conjured images of armadillos. More real, however, was an early morning sighting of a black jaguarundi that strolled down the road near the camp. It cast a brief, disdainful look at me over its shoulder before evaporating into the forest. A hike into the forest with some sweaty climbing brought me to a delightful swimming hole at the top of a waterfall with views to the ocean and a cooling breeze. Spotted more birds, some wild pigs and a white-nosed coati on my return to camp.
Waterfall in Mayflower National Park

Another forest camp at Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve didn’t reveal a jaguar, but the forest trails here are beautiful and well set out, providing enticing encounters with streams and waterholes without threatening the habitat value of this critical stream-side vegetation with constant human traffic.

Another night walk revealled nothing other than an amazing pair of little eyes that glowed brightly at me from a distance. What could it be that is able to generate enough energy to produce two bright glowing lights that lasted for the 10 minutes that I stood watching? Needing an answer I plunged off the trail through the lianas and ferns to find that the source was a beetle hanging in a spiders web - the “eyes” being two patches on the shoulders of the carapace. I don’t know whether being eaten by a spider had anything to do with it, but this guy had an impressive generator somewhere in its physics or chemistry. It was still shining brightly when I left after 20 minutes, and who knows how long it had been going before I got there. I reckon investigators of alternative energy need to take a look at this critter!

Doesn't look like anything in my bird book - but impressive!

Temples at Caracol
More dirt roads - this time to the relatively remote ruins of Caracol, passing firstly through pine clad ridges (unfortunately decimated by pine beetles) before being engulfed by stunning jungle once again, from which archeologists had extracted the remains of yet another extraordinary ancient civilization. Anther cat, this time more robust and colored than the jaguarundi , but not big enough to be a jaguar (a margay perhaps?), crossed the road in front of me as I drove in. 

It would be easy to linger here longer, but the first rains have started and I have to keep moving, so after almost three weeks, its time to move on to Guatemala. 

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