The Beasts and Beats of Belize Source: The New York Times
A jaguar preserve loaded with natural wonders is driving an eco-tourism boom in the country’s Stann Creek District. But nature isn’t the area’s only draw…
August 17, 2012
The Beasts and Beats of Belize
By Claudia Dreifus
We were hiking through the woods of the Cockscomb Basin Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve in Belize, the more-than-150-square-mile verdant reserve that is a no-hunting haven for many species of this hemisphere’s wild cats — the puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, margay and jaguar. As we moved along well-tended trails, there were signs of activity — muddy paw prints by a riverbank, bits of jaguar scat — but we were unlikely to actually see any of these magnificent creatures.
“They don’t like to get too close to humans,” said our guide, Dr. Rebecca Foster, a staff scientist with the conservation group Panthera. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”
How could we be? Even without a jaguar sighting, the sanctuary was a gorgeous Eden, full of natural wonders. Giant ferns lined the trails. Above us, howler monkeys scampered through the trees, and parrots and toucans glided through the air. Moving quietly, one might catch a glimpse of a deer or pig-like peccary — the jaguar’s preferred prey. After a few hours at Cockscomb, it felt as if we had stepped, full body, into a Henri Rousseau painting.
Given this richness of nature and wildlife, it’s no surprise that the sanctuary is driving an eco-tourism boom in the Stann Creek District, the south-central coastal area of Belize that it abuts. And Stann Creek’s appeal extends beyond the sanctuary. For birders, there are some 300 species roosting in the district’s marshes and forests. At the shore, only a few minutes from Cockscomb, are miles of white sand beaches, facing out onto one of the largest coral reefs in the world. A marine reserve district at the reef ensures first-class skin diving. Stann Creek also has a good supply of lodging at all prices and opportunities to interact with the interesting local cultures.
Right outside the entrance to Cockscomb, for instance, in the village of Maya Center, visitors can stay with indigenous families and learn something of their way of life. The town’s former mayor, Ernesto Saqui, offers plain though spotless rooms with private bath for 60 Belizean dollars, plus tax (about $30; the Belizean dollar is approximately two-to-one to the American dollar) a night at his Nu’uk Che’il Cottages. Backpackers can bunk there for 20 Belizean dollars per night. His wife, Aurora Saqui, a traditional Mayan healer, sells homegrown botanicals and gives seminars in herbalism. (Reservations by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Maya Center is also a base for excursions into Cockscomb, though it’s possible to stay within the sanctuary itself at extremely basic accommodations that range from 40 to 300 Belizean dollars a night (belizeaudubon.org/parks/cbws.htm). (Admission to the preserve is 10 dollars, which supports the work of the Belize Audubon Society.)
Ten miles away, the seaside village of Hopkins is home to the Garifuna, descendants of indigenous Caribbean people and escaped African slaves who enjoy sharing their vibrant culture with visitors. At the Lebeha Drumming Center on the north side of town, one can hear or take lessons in traditional percussion. To try especially tasty Garifuna cooking, head to Innie’s, where a lunch of cassava, mashed fish and plantains comes to about 14 dollars.
Things get far more upscale at Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort (877-552-3483; hamanasi.com), not far from downtown Hopkins and possibly the greenest of eco-lodges in Belize. The resort has won certification from Green Globe, an international sustainability monitoring service.
How can a hotel provide hard-to-please tourists with the types of high-end amenities they demand and yet stay true to an environmental mission? The answer involves paring down on wasteful extras and emphasizing nature. Though the rooms and grounds have an informal beauty, it’s the Belizean countryside that is the resort’s true featured attraction. Instead of playing golf and tennis, guests head out and encounter the tropical wilderness. Hamanasi offers a summertime weeklong package that begins at $1,731 U.S. a person, including three daily meals, air and land transfers from Belize City and five guided tours into the woods or water. (The resort’s owners said that winter rates are likely to be about $2,300 U.S. per person.)
On the day my partner and I checked in, an exhausting list of possibilities was posted on the activities board: night walks through Cockscomb, waterfall climbing, rain-forest trekking, snorkeling, scuba, kayaking.
The next day we rose early to meet up with our guide, Hartsdale Drysden, who took us to a remote part of the rain forest near the Guatemalan border, where we hiked around a 3,000-year-old Mayan pyramid. As monkeys screeched in nearby fig trees, Mr. Drysden, a Garifuna raised in a Mayan village, offered rough translations of the hieroglyphics.
On another morning, we went snorkeling. The coral in the area often looked distressed and bleached out — “hurricane damage,” our guide, Eric Miranda, explained. Nonetheless, Mr. Miranda, a son of a Garifuna fishing family, led us to spots rich with parrotfish, grouper, barracuda and sea turtles.
Another day, the hotel’s ace birder, Pedro Ical, took us to a nearby marsh in search of toucans with multicolored beaks. He knew a place where they regularly roosted. Sadly, they were no-shows that morning, but our consolation prize included snowy egret, blue heron and woodpecker sightings.
Hamanasi finds ways, large and small, to conserve. The hotel’s cars and boats have fuel-sparing motors. Kitchen leftovers are composted for the garden. Staff members sort through and recycle garbage. Soaps, shampoo and mouthwash are offered from refillable bathroom dispensers rather than plastic bottles.
“We do have air-conditioning,” said Dana Krauskopf, a Virginian, who with her husband, David, owns and manages the hotel. “It’s not sustainable, though we’ve developed systems to minimize its use. And we try to incorporate sustainable practices in other ways. For instance, we built the hotel without clear-cutting trees, which keeps the property cooler and attracts wildlife.”
Hamanasi is committed to helping guests connect with its surrounding culture. Once a week, after the dinner dishes are cleared, teenagers from the Lebaha Drumming Center arrive to perform traditional Garifuna music — rhythms and chants that are spirited New World reflections of the Africa their ancestors were taken from.
“Come, join our dance,” one of the drummers beckoned during the performance we attended. Soon, a doctor from Montana, a banker from North Carolina and a journalist from New York City were all up and moving.
Hopkins has nearly two dozen other hotels with varying prices and sustainability practices. Up the beach from Hamanasi, Jungle Jeanie’s (501-533-7047; junglebythesea.com) offers very basic rooms for 50 to 110 Belizean dollars a night. More costly is the Belizean Dreams resort (800-456-7150; belizeandreams.com), where we stayed after our reserved time at Hamanasi ended. For 414 Belizean dollars, we were upgraded to a palace of a two-bedroom suite, with multiple bathrooms and many appliances, not all of which functioned. (The winter-season rate for the same-size suite starts at 1,150 dollars. Though the resort now offers packages similar in price to Hamanasi, drinks, food and tours were all extra.)
In many ways, Belizean Dreams was the anti-Hamanasi. Our suite was pretty, but smelled heavily of chemicals. The property had been clear-cut, paved over and replanted during development. Sprinklers irrigated manicured grounds, while loudspeakers in the public areas blasted Bob Marley, night and day — seemingly aimed at giving disoriented guests some (invented) geographic positioning.
The only respite from the noise was a series of suggested tours: a visitor might take a cruise up the nearby Monkey River, or could head to Cockscomb, where parrots provide the soundtrack and, somewhere in the bush, a jaguar might be lurking.
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10-Day Mediterranean Cruise with Stops at Venice, Athens, and Greek Islands
Key Tours International (Getaways with Expedia) ● Italy, Greece and Croatia (Link to Company Website)
What You Get
10-day cruise of Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean. Includes all onboard meals, one-night accommodations in Venice.
Travel with a Friend package (two Groupons required) or pay an additional $700 to travel solo. Read about different purchase options here.
- Option 1: $999 per person for a package without airfare, valid for travel 9/22, 10/13, 10/20, 10/27, 11/3, 11/10 (a $1,999 value)
- Option 2: $1,999 per person for a package with roundtrip international airfare from New York City (JFK), valid for travel 11/3 or 11/10 (a $3,199 value)
- Option 3: $2,099 per person for a package with roundtrip international airfare from New York City (JFK), valid for travel 9/22, 10/13, 10/20, or 10/27 (a $3,199 value)
- Book by: 8/31/12
- Five restaurants
- Two swimming pools, a kiddie pool, and seven whirlpools
- Casino and theater
- Tennis courts
- Internet café
- Ten indoor bars and two outdoor pool bars
- Kids game and activity rooms
Venice’s Piazza San Marco has been a gathering place for native Venetians since the ninth century, when it was the site of the first church of St. Mark. Today, tourists still gather in the square to marvel at its ancient palaces, marble salon, and ornate cathedrals. At such a busy city center, you’d expect to hear blaring horns and revving engines, but Piazza San Marco’s lamp-lit streets are filled with the sounds of cooing pigeons, live music, and laughter. This landmark is just one of the stops on Key Tours International’s 10-day Mediterranean cruise, which spotlights other timeless attractions such as the ancient city of Athens and the volcanic Santorini Island.
Some packages include roundtrip airfare from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York City to Venice Marco Polo Airport (VCE) in Venice. Click here to view the full itinerary.
Days 1–3: After arriving in Venice, you’ll board the elegant MSC Musica, where unlimited food and drinks will be available at the many bars and restaurants onboard. The decadent cruise ship also has two swimming pools, a casino, and large-screen outdoor cinemas, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied during the voyage along Italy’s coast in the Adriatic Sea. The first stop is Bari, a port city that mixes contemporary villas and restaurants with historical sights such as a medieval castle and The Church of St. Nicholas.
Days 4–5: The ship continues southward to Katakolon, Greece, a small town bordering the Ionian Sea and Olympia. Head to the seaside town’s artsy main drag to browse local crafts or sample fresh seafood.
The next stop is Santorini, an island some believe was once the lost city of Atlantis. Centuries ago, Santorini’s surface broke apart after a massive volcanic eruption. Now, sugar-cube houses sit on the rim of the ancient volcano, and visitors can scuba dive to see the caldera, which is now a giant, central lagoon that smolders underwater. Nearby, Mykonos contrasts Santorini’s natural wonders with manmade flashiness. Sure, the island has storybook windmills and hillsides, but most come for the beachside clubs and pulsing discotheques that are almost always hopping after dark.
Day 6: Spend a day exploring the historic Greek city of Athens, which is home to some of the world’s most iconic architecture. It’s easy to spot the Acropolis and its famous Parthenon, where Doric columns and a marble facade loom over the capital city. Other highlights here include the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which features coins from ancient kingdoms, sculptures of mythic figures, and the 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism which is thought to be an early computer.
Days 7–8: After Athens, you’ll dock at Corfu Island, which presents a much more verdant landscape than its rocky neighbors. The beaches here stretch up from the Ionian Sea to hilly groves studded with millions of olive trees. Inland, the village is vibrant with pastel buildings and corridors where merchants have hung colorful garments and handmade jewelry. At Dubrovnik, you’ll get a feel for Croatian culture. Dubbed “the Pearl of the Adriatic” by Lord Byron, Dubrovnik dazzles with red-roof buildings and ornate cathedrals that exemplify Baroque and Gothic architecture.
Days 9–10: The final leg of the voyage is spent in Venice with overnight accommodations at the opulent Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal. An included walking tour of the city showcases famous landmarks, such as the Piazza San Marco as well as Marco Polo’s house and walk-in humidor. The highlight of this stroll is Doge’s Palace, a breathtaking symbol of Gothic architecture. Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered with evocative frescoes by classical artists including Titian and Tintoretto. The next day, you’ll head back to the airport for your flight back to the States.
Read the Fine Print for important info on travel dates and other restrictions.
Travel Thought of the Day: Excitement, Exploration, Elephants! My Experience at Mole National Park in Ghana
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
The moment I overlooked the cliff of the animal reserve at Mole National Park, I knew I was in for an adventure. After the arduous 12 hour bus ride from Accra, the overnight stay in Tamale with its share of spontaneity, and the crazy morning at the local bus station, I was very happy to see Mole National Park and Mole Motel. Actually, let me clarify, I was OVERJOYED! It felt like it took an eternity to arrive there. When my friends and I indeed made it, I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was a mirage, but it was real.
The rooms at Mole Motel are very nice. The rooms are connected to each other by a big patio that is on the edge of the reserve. You can walk out of your patio door and you are standing in the reserve. The closeness to the animals and nature was very cool and I hope I would a friendly visitor one day. My wish did come true, but I will tell you about that later.
The next day, we took off on a walking safari. We were only a few feet away from elephants, warthogs, antelopes and more. I was walking amongst wildlife and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would do something like that. You see people do it in movies or someone on the Travel Channel do it without fear. You only hope you can do it amongst life’s demands, pulls and tugs. However, when you finally get the chance to be in true nature and one of the world’s greatest animals is only 10 feet away from you is an absolutely amazing moment. You go through various emotions like from being flabbergasted to shock to feeling surreal to in awe to absolute calm and peace.
Each step we would take, we would hear something move. Then 30 seconds later, we would see an animal like an antelope run from bush to bush. It glided so beautifully and I was in disbelief. I was on a walking safari watching animals I had only seen on television and I was in complete awe. Our safari guide helped us understand the animals’ natural habitats and habits. The coolest thing about our guide was that he carried a rifle filled with tranquilizers, just in case anything happened. I felt protected, but I knew if I attempted to climb on top of an elephant (I secretly wanted to do it badly), I would be the victim of a tranquilizer aimed at me. Trust me, the thought crossed my mind, but I decided it was in my best judgment to stay from the elephant and watch it from afar.
After the walking safari, we went on a boat ride in a river in a nearby village. It was so much fun because we were able to row the long boat ourselves and have another chance to interact with wildlife. After the boat ride, we rode on top of the safari Jeep and that was an absolute thrill! The Jeep was driving very fast and I thought we were going to fall off, but thank God, we did not! We were constantly screaming and the driver would drive even faster when he heard one (or all) of us screaming. It was exhilarating and I want to go back and do it again!
Here is one of the oddest times but funny times during our trip. After the safari and river ride, we went to the room to take a nap before dinner. Suddenly, I heard scratching on our window. I got out of bed and open the window curtains. I jumped back and tried not to scream. When I opened the window, I saw over a dozen of BABOONS are on our section of the patio. They were simply relaxing, swinging on the nearby tree and the railing in front of our window.
Immediately, I grabbed my camera and I started to take pictures. I nudged my friend LeeReyna awake to see the baboons and then we woke everyone else. We grabbed our cameras and took so many pictures. We decided to press our luck and go out to the patio and sit with the baboons. I know it sounds crazy, and trust me, I was scared. However, it sounded like fun and we did it. The baboons froze in fright, but when they realized we meant them no harm, they went back to swinging and they even approached us. They didn’t touch us. We just had a staring contest for about a minute. After 30 minutes, one member of the hotel staff came around and shooed them away. Baboons ran away quickly and we were upset that the baboons went away, but I got my wish to have a friendly visit from someone. I just didn’t know it would be from a baboon!
For the next couple of days, my friends and I hung out the pool, met the locals, did some shopping and relaxed. It was very nice spring break and if I had the chance, I would go back. I would probably eliminate the pesky locals who wouldn’t leave us alone at the local bus station, but that situation was a small iota of the time we spent at Mole National Park. The trip was one of the most amazing experiences during my stay in Ghana and in my life in general. I think when you can explore the world, get out of your comfort zone, and do things you only dreamed of you truly live your life to the fullest.
My experience at Mole National Park was worthwhile, exhilarating, awesome, pleasantly frightening, exciting and much more. Mole will always hold a place in my heart and I hope that one day you will be able to experience too.