… stalking the Tawdry Motmot and Malodorous Blackbird
We made our first trip to Belize recently, staying there 9 nights. For five nights, we were in a jungle eco-lodge near the Guatemalan border. Three nights were spent in a luxurious condo on the beach. We traveled with two friends from Merri’s college days (Susan and Paul).
The jungle was my favorite location. DuPlooy’s was established years ago by Ken and Judy duPlooy. In many respects, they turned savannah into a jungle. The lodge ranges along a boardwalk from a veranda overlooking the Macal River at one end to our Casita at the other end, a sizeable two-story house with a large bedroom and bath on each floor. We had the upstairs which also had a wide, deep balcony porch wrapping around two sides facing the jungle. It felt very much like a posh treehouse, especially from the hammocks.
We’re mediocre birders. We know a lot more than people who don’t care about birds, but among people who do, we’re rather ignorant. Even equipped with a book, binocs, camera, and Internet access, we struggled to identify most of the birds we saw and we know we missed countless others. I think of myself as a bird gawker, rather than a twitcher (Brit slang for birders). But, we enjoy ourselves immensely and this was a great location for birds, bugs, and plants.
It’s remarkable that I could go this long without mentioning the rain. It rained every day and at different times of day for different durations. The Belizeans frequently apologized for this but we always replied that for desert-dwellers rain makes a vacation more special. In fact, when the rain did pause, the humidity was overpowering. Let it rain and protect us from this cruel sun.
The jungle, the lodge, the rain, the birds were all fascinating but I also greatly enjoyed the Belizeans we met. When we travelled in Guatemala, my ignorance of Spanish was an embarrassing barrier that kept me from really connecting with people there. In Belize, English is the official language. Moreover, everyone we met speaks at least English, Spanish, and creole. Many also speak one of several Mayan dialects. Belizeans are a polyglot and gracious people. We were well taken care of.
Phillip of DuPlooy’s picked up Susan and Paul a few hours before we arrived and drove them an hour to the zoo. Some of the best photos any of us took were theirs at the zoo. Paul escaped a toucan with fingers intact. They saw a harpy eagle, one of the birds I wanted to see. (I hear Panama is the place to see harpies.) Then, they all drove back to the airport for our arrival. It was thrilling to wall down an old-fashioned rolling stairway to the tarmac (just as I did in Africa 40 years ago and in Albuquerque almost 30 years ago) to be greeted by friendly calls and hoots from the observation area.
Phillip drove us across country in two hours. Before night fell, he pointed out the Sleeping Giant, high ground in Belize that is actually a former reef pushed up. Driving through rain, we passed a few small towns which always had at least on open-aired room with a big screen TV and a crowd of people watching.
We left pavement and drove up a steep, narrow, winding dirt road arriving at the DuPlooy’s office. There Mason greeted us and checked us in. In a light rain, he led us along the boardwalk past half a dozen cottages with screened-in porches to our casita. Then we walked back past the other dwellings — all of which were unoccupied — to the dining room, beyond which were the open-aired bar, bird feeding station and a few tables under a roof. We spent time every day in each of these areas, watching birds, eating, drinking Belikin stout and talking to employees as well as just a few other guests. Most of that time, we were well-attended to by Albert. That first dinner was the best coconut shrimp we’ve ever eaten.
The first morning, I awoke to a strange, deep drumming. One end of our upstairs porch looked toward an large dead tree that served as a bird magnet. The drummer was a woodpecker, nearly as large as a pileated woodpecker. Over the next few days, we would see other woodpeckers there, as well as toucans and parrots. Up the hill on a tower, we frequently saw bat falcons.
DuPlooy’s includes half-day and full day activities in their package, but that first day we didn’t want to get in a car again, so we hiked the trail along the river. That afternoon, we tubed from Judy’s house back down to the beach, which was completely submerged by the rising Macal River. In fact, it kept rising all week, though the lodge is well uphill and unthreatened.
Adjacent to the lodge, the duPlooys also built a botanic garden full of domestic and exotic plants, which, in turn draw more birds and insects. We walked through the garden several times. My favorite hours may have been those I spent alone wandering the grounds while the others drove to butterfly farm and a cave tubing trip that had to be cancelled due to high water. During my hike, I climbed the tower built to honor Ken DuPlooy. From this high vantage I looked out over dense green canopy and observed three flocks of plain chachalacas (a drab pheasant-like bird I want to call Boom-chack-a-lakas — Wanna take you higher!). Each group crow at once, then each group in sequence, first one group, then another across the valley, then a third, and around again the same way, each cacophonous chorus in turn. I also repeated the river trail and stumbled over the rugged trail Phillip had cut by machete, making me appreciate just how dangerous the jungle could be.
Next morning, we rode horses with Eryn up to a great vista of the jungle and the Macal. After lunch, we left for an overnight trip to Tikal in Guatemala. I’d been there a few years ago, but Merri missed it because she was sick on that earlier trip. Tikal is stunning and spectacular. As with Chaco in New Mexico, what we see is nothing like what it appeared in its heyday but is no less grand. We made a brief excursion to the Gran Plaza where we saw a fox, the indigenous colorful ocellated turkeys and only a few people.
At the Tikal Jungle Lodge, we practiced restaurant Spanish under the tutelage of a delightful and delighted waitress. Next day at breakfast, we showed how little we’d learned — except for Merri, by far the most comfortable in her efforts. Then our guide Walter led us for hours through rain, mud, humidity and history. And howler monkeys. Walter does an amazing howler monkey call, as well as being an over-educated former lawyer. On our way out from Tikal, we were stunned to encounter our guide from 3 years ago, Miguel. After lunch, we left the Tikal Lodge and rewound our way back across the border to DuPlooy’s for a last night.
Next day, we left the jungle. Noel of DuPlooy’s drove us across country a couple of hours to Belize City and the port. En route, he stopped to point out iguanas (they mate for life, but the male has to keep up his good looks or the female may choose another), black thick-billed anis, lesser yellow-headed vultures, Mayan ruins, and so much more, all the while regaling us with great nuggets of info about what we were seeing. He was the only person I met there who address the women as ‘milady,’ but he made it seem a charming eccentricity.
It was quite a shock to leave the laid-back largely empty jungle lodge for the big city and all it entails. Stout eased my transition. We took a ferry to the tourist town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye (pronounced key), known to some as Little America. Though San Pedro has no high-rises, it feels like a resort town. We checked into our condo then walked a few short blocks to El Fagon. During a pounding rainstorm that caused us to move from one table to the next and back, we enjoyed our meal. Next we walked to a small market for groceries, including local coffee and cashew wine (awful). I also bought a pair of flip-flops to replace the sneakers I had to abandon because they smell so bad after tubing the Macal and never drying out.
Much of our time in San Pedro was spent strolling a few short blocks or the beach. We wandered between shops, visiting a frozen custard shop three times before we found it open. We bought chocolate several times. I bought a nice short-sleeved shirt. We ate at several nice restaurants. Susan and Paul borrowed bikes for a long ride north while Mer and I walked a long way south with minimal birding.
We also took a glassbottom boat out to the reef that is a national park. Our guide led us snorkeling in a few places. The fish, the grass, the coral of every type were all beautiful. It was the sea turtles that almost made Merri cry. One moment of excitement came when the guide pointed out a moray eel. As Paul swam toward it the eel swam even faster toward Paul and the guide swam faster still to pull Paul back and repel the eel with a flipper. Our was also able to dive down and through a short coral cave.
For all the fun we had outside in San Pedro, we also spent time recuperating from the heat in the AC. And, of course, it rained here, too, although never enough to spoil an hour.
Our condos were a walkable block from the airport where where took a small plane to the mainland airport. Mer got to ride in the co-pilot’s seat. From the air, the keys look less like islands than like lagoons with small areas above water. Global warming may finish submerging this area in our lifetimes.
It is fitting that after all this, we encountered the heaviest rain of entire trip as we made our way to the plane. Recall, there aren’t any enclosed gangways. We lined up for umbrellas and the moment I stepped out from under a roof, I was ankle deep in water, glad I had my flip-flops. I laughed out loud, it was such fun. Up the rolling stairway to hand over an umbrella and return to the 21st century. They had to stop boarding the plane to keep water more water from entering the front and to return the stack of umbrellas for the next group of passengers.
Now we are back a mile above sea level in a desert that once was underwater. Our miserly rain is bone-chillingly cold. Blue has replaced green and I can see a hundred miles again and, much closer, the mile-high Sandias that provide a backdrop for everything we do. It’s good to get out now and then. It’s good to come home.