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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Crouching Basilisk, Hidden Jaguar

BELIZE | Friday, 30 January 2009 | Views [1375]

Here be jaguars...

Here be jaguars...

Once back from MMRF, we spent a few days in Punta Gorda.  Its an unremarkable town, but we have to say that it had some of the friendliest people that we´ve found so far – lots of people just wanted to chat; to find out where we were from, to tell us their backgrounds, all sorts.  There was Mags, the guy who just turned up on his bike and told us where to get our bus, and then when we missed it, sorted out a lift for us.  Then there was Gomier, the owner of the vegetarian restaurant and soya centre on the outskirts of town.  We turned up looking for a meal – he wasn´t going to open that night, but seeing as we were there he laid on a lovely tofu curry for us – there wasn´t any menu, just what you fancied.  We arranged to come and get breakfast with him the next day.  He doesn´t usually do breakfasts, but hey, we were around, and it turned out very nice.  In the Reef bar we enjoyed listening to a fantastic Garifuna drum troupe.  The skill of the lead drummer was incredible – at some points you honestly couldn´t see his hands, he was drumming so fast.  I need to get me a CD.  It made a change, I´ll no doubt write about it at a later time, but so far, the music in Central America to my ears has been universally awful.

We saw an older guy enjoying the drumming and offered him a drink.  His name was Richard, a really gentle and warm guy in his mid-50´s, a grey beard and braids, although from his face you wouldn´t thought him as old.  Richard had fallen on hard times, and he seemed to be living rough.  However, he cleaned cars in town with his sponge and bucket, and was getting by.  He didn´t seem to want for much – he seemed content with just food for his belly and clean clothes.  We also met a artist squatting in a derelict building – turned out he´d spend five years in the UK travelling around and was keen to tell us his experiences. 

Our laundry in P.G had an interesting sideline...

Then there was Irene at the El Café – a graceful lady in her mid seventies.  She was interested to know what we´d been doing and it turned out that she grew up in San Pedro Columbia, where her father had been the school master for 70 years!  Getting from San Pedro to P.G had been much slower on a dodgy road in her day, and getting to Belize City involved a day-long boat trip!  She was very proud of the fact that two of her sons were doctors, another a dentist and one a lawyer, most now living in the States.  Her family story reminded me a bit of my forebears, a few of whom made a move from blue-collar backgrounds to teachers and so improved the lot of their descendants through a culture of education. 

After sorting ourselves out, we caught the chicken bus north up the southern highway, getting off at the small roadside village of Maya Center.  This area of Belize is populated by Mopan Mayans, who speak a different language and have a different culture from the Kek´chi.  The village was moved to its present location thirty years ago on the creation of the Cockscombe Jaguar Reserve – one of the first in Belize, that was designated after research work showed the area held the highest concentration of jaguars in the country.  We stayed at a guest house run by the ex-director of the reserve and his wife, who was the local Mayan healer-shaman.

Mopan Mayan house, Maya Center

The next day we got a lift up to the reserve, and decided to spend the morning walking around the trails that weaved through secondary forest.  We weren´t under any misapprehensions about seeing a jaguar.  There are around eighty in the reserve area, but the reserve is 155 square miles of continuous forest, and they´re really only nocturnal.  Saying that, it wasn´t long before we saw cat prints in the muddy parts of the trail, and in the soft sand near to the many stream beds that crossed it.  Some of them were as big as my palm – most likely a female jaguar – the males´ are even bigger….  Despite not seeing a cat, we did see a tawny coatimundi scamper hurredly across the path.  Maybe he knew something we didn´t (see coming Belize zoo story for pictures of these cuties – northern cousins of the coatis we saw down in Costa Rica).  We also saw a lot of new birds including two species of manakin – tiny round birds with brightly coloured heads.  In the afternoon we headed up into the hills to a fantastic viewpoint over the basin – forest as far as the eye could see, enclosed by hills, and in far distance, the jagged tooth of Victoria Peak – one of the tallest mountains in Belize, looming like mount Doom.

The lush forest of the Cockscombe basin, Mt.Victoria in the background

Click here for a youtube video of the view.

After getting all hot and sweaty, we descended to a set of small, enclosed waterfalls for a swim in the cool, refreshing water.  Back near the ranger station, an adult Jesus Christ lizard (the young ´walk´on water) eyed us warily from the shade.  We had arranged a lift back from the reserve, but our host never turned up, so we ended up thumbing a lift from the reserve staff in the back of their pick-up.  On the way a pair of wild scarlet macaws fly by, screeching noisily – the first wild ones we´d seen since Costa Rica, and apparently a rare sighting this far down the reserve.  Turned out our hosts van had broken down.

We told his wife about seeing the prints.  She told us that sometimes if you return down a path later, you´ll find tracks that weren´t there before – a jaguar watching and following a safe distance….  She told us stories of jaguars raiding the village at night and taking dogs.  One of their favourites had been killed one night.  The husband had tracked the jaguar and found the body of the dog – he´d been so mad that he set out to wait for it with a rifle to shoot it.  After several hours he returned home for something to eat.  When he returned to the spot where he´d found the corpse, it had gone – obviously the crafty jaguar had just been waiting for him to leave. 

The Maya still view jaguars with trepidation and a good deal of superstition.  The classic Maya viewed them as links with the spirit world (being night hunters), sometimes malignant – jaguar skins were highly prized and were worn by nobles into battle.  Our healer hostess told us that they believed that jaguars put a spell on their victims and put them to sleep before dragging them off and killing them – apparently dogs don´t bark or howl when one is close.  They also think that they make bizarre noises in the night (probably nightjars or owls I think).  Once, when attacks by jaguars on fowl and dogs was really bad, the villagers were scared because they thought the jaguars were angry because they were benefitting from them (through tourism associated with the reserve), without giving anything back.  The healer suggested they make an offering and do a placating ceremony to the jaguar spirits.  Apparently, the attacks subsided.

Damn!  Caught in the act of doing birder-type activity...

The next day we jumped on a bus up to Belmopan, Belize´s capital.  It’s a new town, that was created after the devastating Hurricane Hattie in 1961 by the then British administration (another hurricane…).  It’s the administrative centre of Belize and houses the government, but besides that, its not really anything – the centre is a market and few scattered banks, hotels and shops.  The government buildings are really nasty 1960´s concrete and breeze-block affairs.  Obviously the UK government didn´t feel the need to allocate much to the new city, and the Belizeans haven´t had the money to build something decent since.  The whole place felt like an experiment that hasn´t really worked; a back-water which reminded me a bit of some other new towns

from the same era that I´ve visited elsewhere.  The hotel we stayed in was over-priced and tatty.  The next day we got the hell out and headed west to San Ignacio in the hills.

Click here for more photos of Cockscombe Basin

Click here for a short video of the Cockscombe Basin

Tags: cockscombe basin reserve, maya center, punta gorda


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