Just after Christmas in 1995 we were off to Belize with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) to stay at the Chan Chich lodge inland in Gallon Jug. Few photos from this journey; Liza’s trip journal follows.
Chan Chich New Year
December 26, 1995 – January 3, 1996
Tuesday, Dec. 26 – Los Angeles to Miami
For temporary misery, the only thing worse than having the flu must be having a head cold on an airplane. Both of us were afflicted with the last gasp (we hoped) of colds, but only I wound up with plugged ears; oh well! Despite the discomfort the first leg of our flight, to Miami, went quickly; we traversed the continent in only a little over four hours, while I got most of the way through the latest Len Deighton spy novel, Faith. In the Miami airport Ramada overnight, a short flight to Belize City awaited us the next day, mid-morning. We were both pretty tired, even with the time difference in our favor. There’s something about sitting motionless in an airplane for hours that seems to zap all of my energy. It was probably a good thing we didn’t get all the way to Belize in one travel day.
Wednesday, Dec. 27 – Miami to Belize City to Chan Chich
Robert seemed to have gotten a good night’s sleep; I was pretty restless, thanks to a very hard mattress and the roar of overnight flight activity at the adjacent airport. (No big surprise there.) At least we had a leisurely morning before shuttling back to the airport for our 11:50 flight. We temporarily shared the shuttle with three Croatians; the driver later told us they were there to work on the cruise lines. Low income by our standards, but considering their situation at home, it probably seemed like a fortune to them. We met a few folks at the gate in our Victor Emanuel Nature Tour group; looked like we”d be the youngest, again.
Turned out there were ten people on our flight (including us) on the VENT tour. Robert”s seat partner on the flight, interestingly enough, turned out to be a Weisler; they discussed our genealogy research, she was most likely related to the “Maikammer” branch of Catholic Weisslers that settled in Texas and Missouri. Small world!
We arrived in Belize City a little after 1:00 PM local time (same as Texas), and after making our way through customs, met one of our guides, Peter English. We had to wait at the Belize City International Airport until the rest of the group, including our other guide, Victor Emanuel himself, arrived on a Continental flight out of Houston, just about an hour; we spent it “up top” on the “waving platform” watching the twin-engine Tropic Air prop planes come and go on the single runway. A nice breeze wafted over us as we surveyed the tropical forest encroaching on the runway, and it was relatively cool, maybe about 75°, and damp. Soon enough, we were loading, or should I say cramming, onto our Tropic Air flight (a 20-seat, DeHavilland Twin Otter). At an altitude of no more than 1500 feet or so we flew inland, due west, to the private Gallon Jug farm, over green expanses of unbroken rainforest. The flight was only about 30 minutes; same journey by car was said to be over four hours, as the road was not only slow going, but went way to the north and around.
At Gallon Jug a minibus for the Chan Chich Lodge met us, and took us 10-15 minutes up a very good road to the lodge. En route we passed beautiful forest, including the tall, familiar cecropia trees and very large-fronded Cahoun palms. The Cahoun fronds came straight out of the ground and can reach 80 feet in length; they arched gracefully over the road and made us feel incredibly small. The air was heavy and dank and had that slightly musty/mildewy rainforest smell that we had come to know so well in Costa Rica.
Then, suddenly, there it was – the Chan Chich Lodge! Owned by Belikin beer magnate and Belize’s sole Coca-Cola distributor, Barry Bowen, himself a seventh-generation Belizean, Chan Chich Lodge was designed and built about seven years ago by Tom Harding; Tom and his wife Josie now manage the Lodge for the Bowens. The lodge was situated on a Mayan ruin, which to the casual eye looked like big, suspiciously uniform grassy knolls. The Mayan siting just a few miles from the Guatemalan border was controversial when the lodge was first built, but either the controversy died down or else the agitators found something else to complain about. The surrounding 125,000 acres, more or less, comprise the Bowen Gallon Jug farm, which itself was part of an original 700,000 acre purchase. The Nature Conservancy now owns much of the balance of the property.
The lodge was comprised of a number of cabañas, a dining room, and a bar, all built of local hardwoods and topped with thatched palm roofs. The cabañas were arranged around a central plaza, and the site was honeycombed with immaculate walkways. Bouganvillas creeped up the sides of most of the cabañas, and immaculate flower beds and beautiful flowering trees caught one’s eye no matter which way you turned.
After a welcoming drink – beer and coke complimentary! – we adjourned to our spacious cabaña. Each with our own queen-sized bed, we were surrounded by screened “windows” (no glass, just screens) that allowed the breeze to float over us, helped by the large ceiling fan. I checked out the white nylon-rope hammocks on the huge, wrap-around porch – quite comfortable – and we went on a brief walk on one of the trails before collapsing on our beds. A group meeting at 6:30 and dinner still awaited us, but at that point, sleep was about all I could think about.
Thursday, Dec. 28 – Chan Chich
Going to sleep on a too-full stomach wasn’t the best of ideas, but it didn’t seem to bother us too much. We were, however, both awakened very early – 4:00 am – by an insect that managed to sound exactly like our travel alarm clocks!
Breakfast was at 5:30 (groan) and then we were off at 6:15. We didn’t go far, though; mostly we stayed around the lodge area, eventually going to the dump around 9:00 am. The greenery was so abundant around us; really one did not have to stray far from the door to see good birds. Bat Falcon, Red-lored Parrots, Collared Aracaris, and Purple-crowned Fairy (hummingbird), just to name a few. Poinsettias abounded, as did the “Queen’s Trumpet” (genus Deptira?), familiar to me as Dad’s white trumpet flower at home in San Pedro. The dump was full of birds, many “northern” warblers from the eastern US. Lots of Clay-colored Robins flitted about, too, and we finally got a good look at a male American Redstart, after years of only seeing drab females!
The group split up at the dump; we went with guide Peter up a trail to an area called Norman’s Temple, where he found us a Tody Motmot. A enjoyed a nice look at the cute little bird before getting distracted by spider monkeys crashing through the treetops.
Eventually we were back at the lodge, five hours after starting; we overate lunch and wound up sleeping some in our hammocks. Comfy things, those hammocks. A light breeze came up and the air scarcely felt humid at all. And better yet, almost no bugs!
A late afternoon walk brought us Masked Tityra near the lodge, then took us down the road to the elegant suspension bridge crossing the currently slow-moving river. There we spied male Summer Tanager and Black-cowled Oriole. A Social Flycatcher seemed to invite us onto a trail following the murky river; no kingfishers there but we did see a nice big Pale-billed Woodpecker beating its brains out (or so it seemed) on a tree.
I hoped I would make it through dinner; I was incredibly tired, and coughing all day long did not help matters.
Friday, Dec. 29 – Chan Chich
It was easier to get up this morning, but that’s not to say we didn’t both wish for more sleep. Nevertheless we were out as expected for breakfast at 5:30 am, and at 6:30-ish our group, “the Jacamars” (the other group being “the Motmots”), split off from the others with Victor. We birded in the clearing a bit immediately outside the dining room – this day was the Chan Chich Christmas Bird Count – and were told that we’d all get listed in the records as participants. Cool!
We meandered upwards of five hours, picking up some good species on the mostly-drier Bajo trail (in an area called “the tintal”, because the trees in the drier habitat provided the indigenous people with dyes and pigments), including Gray-throated Chat and Rose-breasted Tanager. The coloring of the Rose-breasted Tanager reminded me very much of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, with the rose being a very dark pink set against a deep blue back. We found an army antswarm, too, accompanied by many woodcreepers, ant-tanagers, and tanagers.
After lunch, Robert and I strolled out to the bridge again; he did well but I got much too sleepy. We were headed back for our afternoon “Temple Tour” when some local guides put us on to a Barred Forest Falcon. We never did see the falcon, but did come across a second antswarm.
Our Temple Tour was led by a local guide named Carlos. The Chan Chich site is on a Mayan plaza; temples and tombs surround the site. The temples and tombs were completely overgrown; all the lodge had done to them was remove some trees and mow the grass. Bits of pottery were evident along the trails once we were shown what to look for, and here and there one could see limestone steps and bricks. The tombs had been looted by the 1950’s. We crawled/walked up several “looter’s trenches” to small tomb chambers. Some just looked like caves; others had very smooth, red-painted walls denoting that someone of importance had been buried there. The red in the “paint” was presumably blood. A few bats whined at us as several of us navigated one short passage on hands and knees.
Exiting a tomb on the upper plaza, we walked across a ledge which dropped off steeply to the lower plaza/lodge. From there we had a wonderful overall view of the lodge and a far ridge on whose opposite site lay Guatemala.
It was hard to imagine how the lodge site appeared originally (i.e., before the lodge was built). The area had been tamed – it retained an obviously tropical ambiance but provided the most painless tropical experience we have had to date. The weather helped; this day was practically dry, no obvious humidity. Almost no bugs, too.
Saturday, Dec. 30 – Chan Chich
Incredible raptor day! We drove out in the morning to an open marshy area called Zibal, getting Keel-billed Toucan en route. At Zibal right off we spotted an American Pygmy Kingfisher perched on a reed in the sunlight, while a Yellowthroat hopped around hear him. Victor tried calling out a Ruddy Crake with the tape, but although the bird was nearby, none of us ever saw it (save Peter, I think). A raucous bunch of Brown Jays then alerted us to the presence of a Collared Forest Falcon! We got a great look as the falcon flew overhead to get away from the mob. One jay stayed behind but continued to shriek anyway; “Coward!” pronounced Peter. “He’s telling the women, ‘see what I did for you?'” Eventually the jay flew off, his yellow bill revealing himself to be an immature jay who, as Victor said, was just learning how to drive off falcons.
The falcon was just the first of the raptors; as the morning warmed up, more were evident taking advantage of the thermals. A Crane Hawk, a dark bird with long, bright red legs, perched in a tree in good scope view. A King Vulture soared by; Gray-headed Kite perched obligingly for us, too. In short order we soon added Short-tailed Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, and Double-toothed Kite. When we thought it couldn’t get any better, a Black Hawk-eagle soared above us, his flight profile showing the swept-forward characteristic look, and later an Ornate Hawk-eagle passed by, too!
For variety, Victor called out a Barred Antshrike, “the kookaburra of South America”, as I like to think of them. We also got Violaceous Trogon and a few pigeons, Red- and Pale-billed, along with numerous Ruddy Ground-doves, a Blue Ground-dove, many White-collared Seedeaters, a Gray-headed Yellowthroat, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and Yellow-tailed Orioles, among others.
After a snack break we drove to Laguna Seca, a lake that was not at all dry. Peter explained that last year the lake was dry, and Norm (the manager Josie’s brother and lodge bartender), flying over by helicopter, noticed where the water was draining away. So Josie’s husband came out with a bulldozer and created a 9-ft berm around the drainage, with the end result that the lake became very full, substantially changing the habitat. They were thinking of dynamiting it now to revert to the natural state.
Anyway, we were only there briefly, but did get nice Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Blue-black Grassquit (me only!), Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and a great look at Black-collared Hawk.
We had the afternoon off, a good thing because I had felt exceptionally lousy all morning with something resembling an allergy attack; I skipped lunch and slept from 1:00 to 6:00 PM.
After dinner (yummy shrimp creole) we went on a night drive out to Gallon Jug and back. (Night drives do tend to separate the serious from half-hearted birders!) Got numerous looks at Common Pauraque – Peter nearly caught one by hand – and several Common Potoo. Also found a boa constrictor on the road! Wound up back at the lodge at 10:15, and neither of us had any trouble getting to sleep.
Our guides on this tour were wonderful. Peter English was a young doctoral student at UT Austin working on his dissertation. He spent a year in Ecuador studying mixed-species flocks, and now needs to “analyze the data using math I don’t understand.” He has kept us amused and fascinated at more than one meal with his “jungle stories”. A couple of his jungle illness stories sounded particularly horrific:
“I had this sore on my arm that looked kinda nasty, and got infected, so I got some antibiotics. My girlfriend doesn’t deal too well with sores, but we were looking at it one day, and I was thinking, ok, this is getting better…and then we saw a tentacle pop out and wave at us! She screamed and ran out of the room, and I ran to the window, like I could get away from it!”
It turned out to be the bot fly larvae we’d first heard of from Steve Hilty; the eggs get into an open wound, then the larvae hatch and eat the flesh around it. It has to be cut out; if you bother the larvae, it can poison your limb and worst case, the limb may be amputated. Ugh.
Another illness was even worse; last year he wound up in the hospital in Quito – after spending 12 days hacking 20 km of jungle trail with a machete – with a bizarre combination of symptoms. Cyclical fever to 105°, lymph node swelling, weight loss…at first the doctors asked him when was the last time he had seen his girlfriend, did he visit any whorehouses, did it hurt when he peed?…thinking he had syphilis. Then they thought malaria and gave him drugs for that, which did absolutely nothing. Then they thought AIDS, but that test was negative, too. Soon they brought in a doctor from the World Health Organization, thinking he had a new jungle virus, started asking him about all of his contacts, and ordered bunches of blood tests to look for parasites. His weight dropped to 125 (he’s about 5 ft 10 in), and his organs and lymph nodes were swelling. Eventually the doctors figured out that he had toxiplasmosis and histoplasmosis (a blood infection and a lung infection), plus a couple other nasty things, and it was simply the odd combination of symptoms that had them stumped. Pretty scary…but Peter joked about being more worried about his research: “My first two weeks in Ecuador I cleared trails and nearly died before collecting any data!”
Sunday, Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve!) – Chan Chich
This morning we drove – slowly – to “the escarpment” for more raptor watching in the warming morning air. It took us two hours to reach it, about 9 miles from the lodge, due to frequent stops for Red-capped Manakin, toucans, Brown-hooded Parrots…and after each stop Peter would declare, “and now to the escarpment without stopping!”. Wishful thinking. We did make it around 9:00 and had a good 90 minutes avoiding ants and getting great looks at an immature Gray Hawk in a tree, two pair of soaring White Hawks that got closer and closer (beautiful broad wings with dark tips), and best of all, Black Hawk-eagles, close enough to see the barring underneath. Hook-billed kites with “checkered” wingtips visited us too, along with more Crane Hawks, Short-tailed Hawks, and another King Vulture. And on the way “home” even a good old familiar Red-tailed Hawk was spied in a tree.
We stopped briefly at Zibal coming back to look for the damn Ruddy Crake again; guide Marco hacked a small trail into the reeds while Victor supervised, then we watched the gap intently while Victor played the crake tape. Nada. But at least a beautiful Yellow-tailed Oriole perched nearby, giving us long looks at his fluffy yellow upper tail coverts.
We “celebrated” New Year’s, after a fashion, in the Looter’s Trench bar, with a couple of “jungle juices”, basically mango and pineapple juices with a lot of rum. And then to bed at 9:00 PM (oh well, so it was already 1996 in Europe, why stay up?)
Monday, Jan. 1 – Chan Chich
We had a “late” start at 7:00 am in honor of the new year, but mostly we didn’t need it. Our Jacamar group followed Victor off onto the Silvester Village road, taking us back into the drier “tintal” forest to look for specialties of the area. Pretty quiet, though we did get a really good look at the Pale-billed Woodpecker.
After lunch, as Robert went out “motmoting” with the Canadians on the tour, I retired to the hammock outside our cabaña. The early afternoon sun was shining very brightly – in the direct sun you could say that it was hot – but I was safely in the shadow of the thatch-roof, swaying gently. I could see a basilisk lizard running crest- and tail-up down the path; some wasps continued working on their nest under the thatch near our door; butterflies fluttered to and fro, and occasionally a howler monkey would bellow in the distance. The breeze rustled through the big palms and the sky was so blue. I supposed back home at about that time the Rose Bowl was about to start, but pretty much I didn’t give a damn. Lying in the hammock seemed an ideal way to start the new year, although I could have done without the cough that has plagued me since before Christmas.
It has been interesting to get to know Victor a bit on this trip. 55 and soft-spoken, he was not formally trained in ornithology, but instead received an MA in government from Harvard, and would have gotten a Ph.D. had he not become involved in Houston school board politics in 1967. He started VENT in 1975 after he’d had enough of politics.
Tuesday, Jan. 2 – Chan Chich
Our last full day in Belize dawned nice and early, as usual, and our jacamar group was out with Peter at 6:15 to hit the “tintal” one more time. We did extraordinarily well, finding Ovenbird on the way, and in the tintal itself got long looks at Blue Bunting, Mangrove Vireo, Red-capped Manakin, and many others.
An after-lunch walk was a dud, but a little later Robert coerced me to the upper plaza to see the Blue-crowned Motmots. By leaving the group we missed the Scaly-throated Leaftosser – oh well. As Peter joked, “if you leave the group, you take your chances…and you have to ask yourself, ‘is it worth it?'”
The evening recap was amusing – every bird seen by our group was announced by Peter drawling “tin-taaaal”. All told the group had about 212 birds for the trip; personally I had 175. I think we voted the Red-capped Manakin as our trip bird; although more than one of us joked it should have been the blasted Ruddy Crake!
Wednesday, Jan. 3 – Chan Chich to home
We went on one “last gasp” walk at 6:00 with Peter, Victor, et al., and it was worth it, nabbing a Barred Forest Falcon just a bit down the road. Also a Bright-rumped Attila. Farther on at the bridge, things were slow, but we did some more White-crowned (Pionus) and Red-lored (Amazona) Parrots, and reviewed Peter’s drill for parrot identification:
clap and roll Pionopsitta
(i.e., deep wingbeats, and crooked
flight, as if going through trees)
clap, no roll Pionus
(i.e., deep wingbeats, straight flight)
no clap, no roll Amazona
(i.e., shallow wingbeats (like with fingertips only, straight flight)
While we were talking about parrots, Victor related a wonderful parrot story of his own. Seems a friend of his in Africa had an African Gray Parrot; when one entered the room, the parrot was fond of saying “have another cup of coffee?” One day the parrot was outside, and an eagle swooped down and nabbed him. As it was being carried off, the parrot was heard to squawk frantically, “have another cup of coffee?” The eagle was apparently surprised to be offered a drink, and dropped the parrot, who made his escape. This may be the only time that coffee has ever saved a parrot from being an eagle’s lunch!
We birded briefly in Gallon Jug, picking up white-tailed kites and a roseate spoonbill, before boarding our 20-seat Tropic Air (De Havilland Twin Otter) to Belize City. We said our goodbyes to Victor there; Peter we had thanked while still at Chan Chich. With luck we will see them both again next New Year’s in Ecuador! It was then on to Miami on a late American flight, then finally home. Great trip, overall!
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