Our 4WD grinds to a halt and Roni jumps out, excitedly beckoning me to follow him. The mangled remains of a grey fox lie on the dirt road in front of us — a dark streak in the sand, a couple of chunks of fur and some picked-clean bones. Not the road kill it appears to be at first glance, not out on these little-travelled logging tracks. No, we’re staring at the leftovers of a jaguar’s dinner. “From last night,” Roni confirms, pointing to clearly defined paw prints, not yet washed away by the rain.
We jump back in our Land Cruiser and continue along the heavily rutted trail. As we jar from side to side, a gently undulating savannah passes by, sparsely decorated with low scrub and half-charred pine trees, their tall and spindly forms devastated by forest fires and pine beetle infestations. Raptors watch from their perches atop the trees and a series of sandy streams are crossed on rickety looking wooden bridges.
Yet despite the apparent devastation wreaked by the pine beetle, it quickly becomes clear the area is still teeming with wildlife. All along the road, the eagle-eyed Roni picks out evidence of the life around us. Paw prints betray a jaguar stalking a tapir, a pig-like beast with an anteater snout; two more of Belize’s big cats, an ocelot and a margay are identified by their droppings; and by the side of the road, an armadillo does its best to escape through the scrub. There’s plenty of birdlife to spot as well, even in the afternoon heat. In the hills above the Rio On river we spot two white hawks soaring in search of prey, and at the Thousand Foot Falls, an orange-breasted falcon swoops majestically from mist-covered cliffs.
It’s the jaguar I want to spot though, and up here in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve we’re in prime jaguar territory, in a country with one of the largest wild populations in the world. Protected areas cover 45% of the country’s territory, and a green corridor of national parks and reserves is being created by conservation charity Panthera to allow safe migration of jaguar populations across Central America. But the creatures are notoriously shy, and our footsteps, talking and even smell would have scared off any nearby. It looks like that collection of mutilated animal parts and some paw prints are as close as we’re likely to come to spotting one in the wild.
Mountain Pine Ridge is a bit of an oddity in Belize, a granite plateau in a sea of limestone. The geology results in drastically different vegetation to the rest of the country, with the slender trunks and long needles of Caribbean and Nicaraguan Pine replacing the broad-leaf rainforest found elsewhere. The reserve was first designated a protected area by the British in 1944, and although some logging is allowed, the area has remained off-the-beaten-track ever since.
That remains the case today, and while many visitors, and increasing number of cruise ships, stop to take advantage of the powder white beaches and pristine coral reefs of Belize’s coastline, far fewer venture off the asphalt-paved George Price Highway into the system of forest reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries covering the Cayo District and the middle of the country. For those that do, a handful of eco-resorts, atmospheric Mayan ruins, abundant wildlife and hundreds of miles of wilderness await.
It was this remoteness that first attracted director Francis Ford Coppola to purchase an old hunting lodge here in the 1980s. Inspired by the wilderness he’d experienced while shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, he turned the place into a writing retreat and family holiday spot. It’s since become Blancaneaux Lodge, a luxury eco-resort and part of the director’s expanding collection of resorts around the world.
Visitors spend their time bird watching, horse riding, cycling old logging trails and swimming in streams and waterfalls. They take their environmental responsibility seriously as well, and the operations have been certified by the conservation body Rainforest Alliance.
Today I’m accompanying Roni Martinez, the lodge’s conservation officer. His work includes recruiting local volunteers to protect the endangered scarlet macaw from poachers, sitting on the boards of some of the non-profit organisations that co-manage protected areas in this part of Belize, and running local education programmes to raise awareness of the fragility of the local environment. On this particular trip we’re checking motion-sensor camera traps set by the Jaguar IX Project, which monitors the jaguars in the reserve. I might not see one in the wild, but maybe the cameras will offer up some visual evidence they’re out there.
Our Land Cruiser swings onto a side road and the trees begin to thicken and grow taller. The area we’re about to visit was saved from the worst of the pine beetle by the containment policies of the logging company operating here, Roni explains. The trail hairpins sharply back and forth as we descend into a steep valley. Mist rolls over the green canopy clinging to the slopes, and dew drops from the long pine needles streak the dusty windscreen. We bog down in mud briefly before diving into a sea of six-foot-high grassy thicket, stems parting like a wave against the bonnet. The only clue to the logging trail below is the uniform width of the gap between the trees above.
Roni clears the final few metres to the trap with a machete, and loads the memory card into his laptop. A puma pops up on screen, followed by a close up of a tapir’s bum. A couple of ocelots, which look like house cats with leopard-print coats, come next, and finally a close up of our legs as we arrive. No jaguars today.
Later that evening I join a Moonlight Jaguar Quest walk in an area on the edge of the reserve, where the flora switches from pine to rainforest. The creatures are largely nocturnal, hunting and travelling at night to avoid the energy-sapping heat. Overhead, rain patters on the lush green canopy and a floor of dead leaves rustles underfoot. The pools of light from our head torches reveal giant fishtail palms, fan-leaved cecropias and tall sapodillas, which can be used for producing chewing gum. On the forest floor a stream of woodcutter ants flows along a gulley they’ve carved in the mulch. My guide warns against touching the skin-irritating poison wood tree, or brushing against the bullhorn acacia, which spews forth an army of angry ants upon contact. Of course we’re no more likely to spot a jaguar now than we were earlier, but it’s a good excuse to escape into the wilderness.
The wildlife might not be willing to play game, but mercifully the Cayo District’s other big attraction hasn’t moved for over 1,000 years. Along with its Mesoamerican neighbours, Guatemala and Mexico, Belize is home to rich Mayan ruins, and fortunately for the intrepid they’re generally much less visited, often lying beyond the reach of the country’s four paved trunk roads. So while coachloads of tourists take a trip to Tikal in Guatemala every day, far fewer make an excursion to today’s destination, the ruins of the city of Caracol.
Of course this requires a journey over the difficult dirt roads I’d experienced while checking camera traps with Roni. At the halfway point we take a break from our journey for a quick history lesson at the Rio Frio caves. A path takes us to a gaping and craggy entrance, while to our left a stream flows from the darkness into the forest and an armed soldier stands guard, watching for pillagers. Once we’re inside, it becomes clear the cave is open at both sides. Metres below, the stream has eaten its way through the limestone and reached the granite beneath, creating a sandy beach as it curves its way through the chamber. The noise of the flowing water echoes around the cavernous expanse above us.
Caves like this one dot the porous limestone landscape of Belize and were held as sacred entrances to the underworld by the Mayans. Some, like the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal caves further north, were the scene of human sacrifices, while others contain evidence of altars and man-made walls. The openings at both sides made Rio Frio less important spiritually however, and pottery found during archaeological exploration has shown the cave we’re standing in would have seen more sedate offerings of agricultural produce. So that chill down my spine must be a result of the cooler underground air rather than any supernatural goings on, I tell myself.
Another hour of driving takes us out of the Mountain Pine Ridge into the broadleaf forests of the vast and little explored Chiquibul Forest. When we arrive at Caracol the handful of other vehicles in the car park reveals we have the place pretty much to ourselves.
The tour begins with a quick rundown of the numbers, and they turn out to be pretty staggering. From the wall of trees and plant life surrounding us, it’s hard to believe we’re about to walk around the ruins of a city that once supported around 150,000 people, more than twice the population of modern-day Belize City and not far off the number living in Oxford today. Some 36,000 stone structures spread across 68sq miles once stood under that expanse of green, and somewhere in there is Caana, the city’s palace and still Belize’s tallest building. Following the paths through the trees, our guide weaves a picture of the city, a sea of pyramidal stone structures, arranged hierarchically, and arrow-straight causeways radiating out from the centre.
Every clearing reveals a different facet of life here. Four modestly-sized stone plinths turn out to be the remains of a middle-class dwelling. The skeletons excavated here had jade-tooth inlays and flattened foreheads — elaborate embellishments that were the preserve of the ruling classes in other cities, pointing to Caracol’s wealth.
In another clearing we pass a grimy looking pool, a thick layer of green algae covering murky water that turns out to be an ancient reservoir. The city had no easily accessible sources of freshwater so rainwater had to be collected, with all surfaces kept meticulously clean and the runoff from buildings and roads channelled into a central reservoir. When human sacrifices did happen at Caracol, they weren’t the blood baths depicted in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. The rolling heads, blood streaks and festering open graves of his fictional city would have led to disease and pestilence here.
Our path leads us through higher and more elaborate structures, the remains of altars and stone carvings depicting war victories; observatories where the advanced Mayan calendar was determined; ball courts where teams played games to honour the gods; and eventually Caana, the palace at the centre of the city.
Sweating our way up the towering pyramid, our guide points out the symbolism all around, such as the 13 doors of the first tier representing the route the Mayans believed took you to heaven, and the fact we’re ascending the tallest building in the city. All of this was meant to signify to everyone down below that the city’s dynastic rulers were demi-gods, closer to heaven than their subjects. Whatever they were they must have been fit, I think, as I try to catch my breath.
From the top, a vast and hilly forest of green stretches as far as the eye can see, jutting proudly into the bright blue sky, and the guttural roars of a troop of howler monkeys echo through the site. The tree- and vine-covered mounds dotted around betray the existence of other unexplored structures.
Standing here 1,200 years ago, a vast city would have stretched for miles around, but in the end it was the impressive scale of the settlement that led to its demise. Ever-greater numbers of buildings required land, limestone and agriculture, leading to deforestation. Localised climate change and drought followed, and not even a flurry of sacrificial bloodletting could appease the gods. The ruling dynasty abandoned the city sometime around 900AD, leading to a slow 150-year decline, while the rest of the population gradually migrated away from the area in search of fertile land. Eventually the great edifices of this advanced civilisation were left to dissolve back into the landscape.
Back down on the ground, more earthy pleasures await. We break our journey back to the lodge with a swim at the Rio On pools, a natural miniature water park of slippery water chutes, pools and cascading waterfalls worn into the granite rocks of the Rio On river. The initial shock of the cold water against slightly sunburnt skin gives way to a giddy pleasure as I float in languorous pools and launch myself down the rapids, the paths smoothed by centuries of flowing water. Standing on a rock under a waterfall, the falling water pummels my shoulders, beating out months of knots.
Most people pack their bags and head for the coast at this point. The resorts of Placencia and Ambergris Caye are the most popular destinations, with their pristine beaches, Caribbean vibe and share of the world’s second longest coral reef, where diving with sea turtles and nurse sharks awaits. Me though? I think I’ve caught the bug that got Coppola in the 1980s. I could hang around here a lot longer.
There are no direct flights to Belize from the UK. The main airport is Philip S.W. Goldson International, located in Belize City. Fly via the US, but factor in lengthy queues at US immigration. American Airlines flies from Heathrow via Miami. Delta flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Atlanta. aa.com delta.com
Average flight time: 11h.
All of the main car rental companies have offices at the international airport. Renters need to be over 25 with a full driver’s licence and a 4WD vehicle is recommended for journeys to the Mountain Pine Ridge and Caracol. Most of Belize’s resorts offer transfers to and from the main international airport, while guided tours represent the most convenient way of seeing the country. Tropic Air and Maya Island Air operate scheduled domestic services in 6-12 seater planes, with private charters to Blancaneaux Lodge available. tropicair.com mayaislandair.com
When to go
Belize has two distinct seasons, the dry season from mid-November to April and the wet season from May to November, with June and early July seeing the most rain. It’s best to visit during the dry season, as the rain can sometimes make dirt roads difficult to navigate. Temperatures average about 29C year-round, with slightly cooler temperatures inland around the Cayo District.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens can visit Belize for up to 30 days without a visa. Travellers transiting in the United States must apply for an Authorization to Travel using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) scheme at $14 (£9.02).
Health: Consult your GP at least six weeks prior to departure for immunisations.
Currency: Belize Dollar ($BZ). £1 = BZ$3.10. US Dollar also widely accepted at a rate of
US$1 = $BZ2.
International Dial Code: 00 501.
Time Difference: GMT-6.
Where to stay
Blancaneaux Lodge. coppolaresorts.com/blancaneaux
The Rough Guide to Belize. RRP: £12.99 (ebook)
How to do it
Journey Latin America offer a 12-day Luxury Tikal and Belize package visiting Mountain Pine Ridge, Caracol and Placencia. The package costs from £2,900 per person, including international flights, domestic flights, accommodation at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn, transfers between resorts, excursions and breakfast. journeylatinamerica.co.uk
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)