By Emily M. Grey
A Morelet’s Crocodile swam straight for me. I was too deep in mire to retreat to the safety of the airboat.
“Ah, it won’t hurt you,” said Mark Howells, my daredevil companion. “Crocs get a bad rap.” Despite these comforting words, I froze in the water as the elongated reptile brushed my leg with its snout. Lickety-split, my Aussie host reached out his hands and nimbly caught the endangered creature. Gingerly, I held the innocuous two-foot-long beast with an enormous bite pressure. It felt ridged, smooth and soft over its eyes.
“Don’t worry. This little beastie is so low on the evolutionary scale that it won’t remember this experience,” Mark said mischievously. “Humans, on the other hand, require therapy for life.” The Morelet kept still as we admired its form and learned about its ecology. Minutes later, we released the young captive in the shallows.
As we scanned the waters with our headlamps on this exceptionally dark April night, other crocodile eyes glistened on the surface. Nestled in a shoreline shrub was an Amazon Kingfisher. We also spotted the eerie eyes of a Northern Potoo, a nocturnal bird.
Along the New River Lagoon in northern Belize’s Orange Walk District is the award-winning Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Mark’s late father established this environmentally conscious haven in 1992. Second-best establishment in the Caribbean are amongst its many awards. The most hospitable staff I ever met remembers everything a guest likes.
Elegant cabanas offer 24-hour electricity, thatched roofs, private baths, cozy beds, warm showers, and ceiling fans. Bushy’s Place, the open-air restaurant, Internet café, and watering hole, serves delectable gourmet cuisine and affords stunning panoramic views of the river. Bathed in lush tropical flowers, this Shangri-la cryptically blends with the surrounding jungle.
Getting there was an adventure. From Belize City, I rode for an hour to a little dock. There my guide, Jose, transported us for two hours in a platoon-like craft. An Agami Heron, Royal Flycatcher, and Violaceous Trogons flaunted their colors. In a savannah, we spotted a pair of rare Yellow-headed Parrots.
Every morning I awoke to the guttural sound of endangered Black Howler Monkeys. These primates, Morelet’s crocodiles, and other unique wildlife are studied at the on-site Lamanai Research Center. Guests are welcome to browse the library, lab, and lecture hall and question world renown archaeologists, ornithologists, and bat scientists. Lamanai is a Mayan word, which means “Land of the Submerged Crocodile.” A five-minute boat ride away is the Lamanai Ruins and Jaguar Temple. Mayans thrived in this region as early as 1500 B.C. Ancient stelars (stone-carved pillars with hieroglyphs) indicate that these people revered the crocodile.
Birding at predawn, canoeing pristine Irish Creek, and fishing from a dugout were other diverse activities I enjoyed in this subtropical paradise. A brief stroll led to the primitive Mayan village of Indian Creek.
One morning I helped a Milpa farmer plant corn and beans by pole. Because, in part, these descendants of the ancient Mayans cannot afford machinery, they slash and burn an area to create arable land. For lunch, I learned how to shape and cook tortillas made from corn like I helped plant.
One afternoon my guide Jose and I visited a Mennonite farm. These self-sustaining residents grow, save, and make practically everything they need.
I watched as our host, Abraham, ground sugar cane into cattle fodder.
Another family showed us a jaguar kitten they had found in an abandoned den. It purred and nestled into my shoulder like its domestic cousin.
Nearly the size of Massachusetts, Belize has around 250,000 humans. Formerly British Honduras until 1981, this English-speaking nation is bordered on the north by Mexico, west and south by Guatemala, and east by the Caribbean Sea. Approximately 90 percent of this country is protected in parks and reserves.
Before leaving Central America, I flew to Flores, Guatemala. After a leisurely boat tour and zoo excursion, new guide Noel and I rode for an hour to another jungle. At Tikal, towering pyramids rise above the treetops. As at Lamanai, archaeologists try to understand the haunting Mayan civilization.
Tikal Inn, one of several hotels grandfathered into the UNESCO reserve, was my home base. My clean, snug room overlooked a pool and flower garden. To conserve energy, electricity is turned off at designated times. A ten-minute walk led to the jungle and the entrance to Tikal National Park. Noel and I climbed over 150 steep steps of Temple IV to watch the sunset. Bat falcons encircled the air while Mantled Howler Monkeys belted vocalizations and crashed through branches.
After Ole Sol’s farewell, with flashlights in hand we followed the trail out of the jungle. Then another delectable meal to the tune of marimba players, we retired with visions of solace.