Hiking the mountainous landscape of Belize, in the heart of Central America, where the mysterious ancient Mayan people thrived in this deep jungle over two millennium ago.
Deep in a tropical rainforest the foliage is lavish and diverse, with seemingly continuous leafy growth. Due to so much moisture, the green flora propagates at a healthy rate, thriving in every size and shape imaginable; large or small, shiny, smooth, ribbed, pointed, torn, tattered, elongated or stubby, and all designed with specific purpose. I’m curious to see how species and organisms in this environment succeed through their circumstances with endless natural rejuvenation and renewal.
As I follow an irregular pathway, along a rough trail, metres below the jungle’s canopy, the bright sun is almost obliterated, creating a dusk like atmosphere in the middle of the day. Visually, the jungle environment appears tranquil and peaceful, yet the combined symphonic sounds of avian, animal, and insect species, generates a distinct harmony which only ‘being there’ allows one to fully appreciate it all.
Driving along the Hummingbird Highway south from Belize City we pass lowland homes on stilts, a large swollen river (from last week’s hurricane) and scattered villages with roadside stalls selling local bananas, coconuts, and pineapples. Once we reach our turnoff, one simple sign directs us onto a dirt road, heading straight towards impenetrable mountainous greenery.
A half an hour drive at 15 km., on an uneven road, brings us to the off-the-grid eco retreat adjacent to the Mayflower Bocawina National Park. Bocawina, meaning ‘mouth of the river’ is the retreat we have come to explore as it promises to marvel us with the adventurous experiences of a rainforest. It’s a collection of thatched buildings, on an extensive acreage of open grasslands, interspersed with magnificent old trees, like the massive Wild Fig with its dozens of hanging leafy vines, and tended pathways of sumptuous tropical flowers, surrounded by thick forest vegetation. Birds are everywhere, from courting Trogon in the trees, to Tropical Kingbirds at the feeders, and lively Guinea Foul scurrying around the grasslands.
Inside our comfortable cabana are elegant furnishings and cultural artifacts, a high cathedral ceiling and four walls of sizeable windows. The screened-in porch at the front faces a hedgerow of Red Ginger flowers and it’s all topped off with an alluring palm frond thatching. At daybreak, I’m awakened by a 20-centimeter lizard creeping up the outside of my bedside window screen. I’m grateful it’s on the other side, then intrigued how quickly it eats up bugs lurking there. Gazing out through the thatching, I see wild red deer grazing near the edge of the tangled forest. The day’s serenade consists of a multitude of bird chatter, chirps, tweets, plus squeals, squawks, and shrieks. Night noises include croaking frogs, plus the unmistakable roars of black Howler Monkeys somewhere out in the rainforest. Their territorial calls, a signature sound of wild jungle, are loud and hollow, like hostile breathing made by something much larger than their 10-kilogram size would suggest.
Hiking in the humid jungle I dress lightly, wear serious bug repellant, and carry an umbrella for the sudden downpours. The jungle has dangers, beyond the usual wariness for spiders and snakes, which thrive in this habitat. I forget my fears for a new priority, 15-centimeter-wide laneways on the ground of Leaf Cutter ants. Every few metres, are shifting lines, bustling with thousands of ants carrying pieces of leaves, larger than themselves. They are determined in their purpose and unstoppable in their journey, heading to and from their multi-metre sized ant hills, so if you step in their way ants will travel up your legs and sting you. I watch my footing over high buttress roots that offer dry passage after a rainfall, fallen branches that obscure sight, prickly branches that scratch or dark tree notches where creatures linger. Sharing his wisdom, the gardener says; “don’t go looking for something you don’t want to see” like slim camouflaged snakes in the shiny green leaves.
Water pools at the base of remote falls, like Bocawina, are a refreshing oasis in the humidity of the rainforest, especially after climbing knotted ropes in steep sections or crossing slippery rocks, like those near the top of Antelope Falls. Most mystifying are the unexcavated ancient Mayan temple mounds secretly hidden in the middle of the rainforest. My fascination with the jungle endures as the more I learn about its intricate enigmas, the more I become inquisitive about its mysteries.
Even below the rainforest’s canopy growth is thriving; hanging vines dangle from trees or droop across pathways, and entwined small climbers, with spiky airborne creepers display tiny clumps of roots, each awaiting to touch something else so they can latch on and sprout again. Plants, like bromeliads live on host perches, while others like ferns extend from the ground and nudge up against one another with leafy shoots flexibly twisting or crossing over at all angles and directions. The throng of green flourishes and exists harmoniously, permeating every available space in pursuit of light to photosynthesize into energy. Infrequent sightings of colourful Heliconia specialize in their design with irregularly pointed waxy bracts that protect and can funnel away excess water during torrential downpours.
The predominant palm trees here are the 25-metre high Cohune, which are stunningly enormous and extravagantly impressive. Each one displays dozens of broad, lengthy, self-supporting branches, known as palm fronds. Each frond gently bends out from a main trunk, extends 15-metres, then graciously curves downward, like plumage feathers, dipping towards its tip. These abundant giant fronds are dried and woven together for roofing like the top of our cabana. Frond thatching is a practical and dramatic solution to silently direct tropical rainfall down through hundreds of tiny fingering points away from inside homes.
The giant Ceiba, masters of the forest canopy, are sacred symbols to the Maya. They grow straight and smooth, with grey branchless trunks that have wide spreading buttress roots. The young Ceiba have smooth jade green trunks with protective thorny spines that fade away after a few decades. Another rainforest titan, the Guanacaste, has unique ear-shaped seed pods and small delicate leaves, which disperse a soft gentle sunlight below. Adding to the diversity of foliage are the enormous multi-lobed leaves of Trumpet and Breadfruit trees, both of which are popular lairs for Howler Monkeys when their sweet juicy fruits are in season.
Our final day at Bocawina we hike up the mountainside nearby to partake in a nine step Ziplining adventure travelling down through the high rainforest canopy. This activity provides a supreme adrenaline rush, as the Zips are long enough to look around and enjoy, although I do admit to significantly contributing to the jungle’s squealing sounds.
Written by: WILDERNESS ADVENTURIST CYNTHIA PERCIVAL AS SHE EXPLORES THE REMOTE JUNGLE OF BELIZE. NEXT TIME, COASTAL BEACHES AND ISLANDS.