23 November - 4 December 2000
by Mike Tanis
Approximately ten days birding; traveling with my wife Gabi, who not only tolerates her husband's hobby with saint-like patience, but occasionally joins in enthusiastically when more interesting species cross our path. We visited approximately eight birding sites; 197 species recorded. Previous experience in the region was a ten day visit to Belize and Tikal in January 1994.
Click here to jump straight to the Tikal, Guatelmala narrative.
Introduction to Birding in Belize
Belize has around 600 species of birds, including many families unfamiliar to North American or European birders. The small size of the country makes it possible to visit many habitats in a short period of time. Although Belize is a developing nation, the tourist infrastructure is rather mature in many ways. Accommodation with decent access to birding locations is available for a wide range of budgets. Transportation is feasible in many modes: by rental car, domestic flight, local buses, boats, taxi, or by taking day tours or packages offered by many operators throughout the country. The major roads are paved or in the process of being paved, immensely improving access to birding sites since my visit six years ago.
The national language is English and spoken by nearly everyone; Spanish is also spoken by many people as their primary language. In Guatemala, you will have to speak Spanish almost everywhere, although at Tikal English-speaking guides are available.
There is a developing conservation ethic in Belize, which is currently at battle with two foes: poverty and a frequently corrupt and incompetent government. Belize has some fabulous protected areas which, it is hoped, will maintain healthy populations of many species. Some of these protected areas also afford excellent access to forest and wetland, allowing the visiting birder the opportunity to see many of the Belizean specialties. Several of these protected areas are run by organizations of local Belizeans who are trying to manage the natural resources of their country in a sustainable way that also provides needed income.
On the whole Belize is a safe place to travel independently. However, as in any developing country, it is important to be alert and more cautious than you would at home. It is unlikely that you will be a victim of crime if you do not provide an easy target. In public areas like bus stations consider that there may always be someone watching for you to drop your guard and be careless about your belongings. Try to avoid showing where you keep your money; don't wear an expensive watch or jewelry (best to avoid any watch or jewelry); don't let your camera/binoculars pack out of your grasp when in public areas such as streets, restaurants, buses, etc.
Most strangers you meet will be curious, shy, friendly, or helpful. Conversations that you initiate are likely to be returned in a friendly manner. But be cautious when you are approached. Don't be suspicious of everyone, but avoid putting yourself in a position where you are vulnerable.
Belize does have serious crime such as murder, but tourists are rarely targets of such violence. A "tourist police" has been set up in Belize City which has supposedly reduced the harassment of visitors. As a birder, you will probably spend little time in Belize City. In Dangriga (which doesn't yet have tourist police) we were constantly asked if we needed help getting somewhere or if we wanted to buy marijuana. There is a high rate of unemployment and many men are eager to earn a few quick dollars "guiding" a tourist to the bus station, etc. You probably don't need their help, so politely decline the offer; no one harassed us further once we firmly said we needed no help.
We found that our belongings were safe in the places we stayed, but security may be a function of how rural or urban your location is. However, we never let our money or passports out of our possession by leaving them, even temporarily, behind in our room or in a vehicle.
The highways are probably a more serious threat to your safety. There is a small proportion of drivers who drive recklessly or simply so badly that they are a hazard. Most other drivers are very cautious because they must avoid the dangerous ones. Drunk driving is frowned upon on ubiquitous billboards, but I think there is little enforcement of the law in this regard. Be particularly cautious if you consider driving late at night, especially on weekends. Any night driving will require caution due to many pedestrians, dogs, cattle, etc in or near the roadways.
We suffered a bit of "traveler's diarrhea" beginning from our visit to Guatemala on the third night of the trip until we returned home. It was definitely an inconvenience and annoyance. We were cautious about drinking water and food (except the salads), but it is always hard to maintain an absolute standard of cleanliness: we had little input into how dishes were washed and dried; we ate fresh salads, so the washing may have been suspect; we swam in Lago Peten-Itza; sometimes it was necessary to shake hands with strangers; finally, the use of less-than-spotless toilets was a necessity at times.
It is likely that you will have some insects in your room, probably even at the best resorts. The presence of insects shouldn't alarm you, as it is a tropical country; but you should be prepared to deal with them, and you will certainly find a few mosquitoes anywhere in the country.
Malaria exists in Belize, but we opted out of taking Larium or Chloroquin for the twelve day visit. Talk to your doctor about the risk you will be taking and decide if you feel comfortable with the risk. I recommend taking a mosquito netting and repellent for sleeping comfort no matter what your decision on malaria prophylaxis. Since mosquitoes carry other diseases (such as dengue fever for which there is no prophylaxis) netting can double up on protection. Many places provide adequate netting over beds or screening for windows, but I never travel to the tropics without the confidence of knowing my bed will be impervious to mosquitoes. Cockroaches are also ubiquitous; occasional sightings should be greeted with a shrug or well-aimed shoe. Numerous sightings might indicate that the facility is suffering from an inadequate cleaning routine.
At Cockscomb we found a scorpion in our room. These occasional visitors can apparently inflict a sting anywhere from mild to very painful, depending on the species and severity of the sting. In some places it is probably not too wise to walk around barefoot after dark, even in your room; you might also check your shoes before putting them on.
We didn't see any snakes, but Belize does have poisonous and non-poisonous ones. Probably it is best to stick to the trails and watch where you put your feet. Maybe you'll be more fortunate than we were and actually see one!
Methods of Travel
We traveled by air from Philadelphia to Belize City on American Airlines. One of our tickets was purchased with Freqent Flyer miles; the other was purchased over the web on American's site ($490 rt) only two weeks before traveling. Working around the Thanksgiving blackout dates and other restrictions on the FF award took some effort; my wife's tireless phone work eventually succeeded in obtaining the tickets. Three of the four planes for our flights had noticeably more knee-room (at least 3" more than usual) in economy class for my 6'5" frame; if this is the new wave of airline service, I am all for it!
Much of our local travel for the first week was arranged through Crystal Paradise Resort. However, if you wish to travel more independently in Belize there are other options.
Rental cars are available in Belize City (approx $65 per day), Santa Elena/San Ignacio (approx $75 per day), and in Dangriga (approx $75 per day). The rates above are for a small Suzuki 4WD vehicle. Some can be found on the internet. You should have no trouble on the main roads in a standard vehicle, but if you plan to venture into the Mountain Pine Ridge (MPR) or Cockscomb Basin (at least in the wet season) areas you will need a 4WD vehicle. Even in November the road to MPR and Caracol was passable in 4WD and not that bad in my estimation. I wouldn't recommend these roads for a novice 4WD driver, but there were only a couple of spots where a mistake would have gotten the vehicle stuck. The MPR also didn't strike me as difficult to navigate: most of the turns (such as for the lodges) were signed. It did seem that it always took longer to reach the turn or destination than it should have--so when it doubt, keep going!
Belize has an improving network of bus transport on the main highways. Between Punta Gorda, Dangriga, Belize City, Belmopan, and San Ignacio, you can count on regular buses approximately hourly. Most are old school buses so knee room in the seats is sometimes frightfully inadequate. When all seats are full you will have to stand until a seat opens up. The buses stop anywhere someone flags them down or asks to be let out, so travel is typically 2-3 times longer than driving your own vehicle. However, tickets are very inexpensive.
Taxis are another option. We never actually hired a taxi for transportation, but the prices that were suggested to us by others seemed rather steep. I suppose overhead for maintaining a vehicle and the cost of gas (approx $2.50/gal) might be partially responsible. But typical rates we heard suggested were in the neighborhood of $80 for an hour of travel (one-way)! I think there must be a lot of room to negotiate below that level. After all, $100 for a half-day of work cannot be anything but a bonanza for the driver in a country like Belize.
We did not fly within Belize, but it seemed that domestic flights were relatively inexpensive, probably cheaper than taking a taxi between cities. For example, Belize City-Dangriga was $40 one way. Flights were also quite frequent, with several each day.
Buses from the Belize border to Tikal or Flores (Guatemala) are not as frequent. Most departures are in the morning so that visitors can get to Tikal during the day. Return to the border is less certain, except for a very early AM express bus to Belize City. I remember from my 1994 trip taking a miserably crowded and slow bus from the Belize border to the Tikal turnoff (El Remate) for only a couple of dollars. But it was excruciatingly SLOW--almost four hours. Today the same trip is probably a little quicker, because the road is now paved most of the way. If you don't mind losing a good part of a day in travel, you can get to Tikal very cheaply by bus. Hiring a taxi to/from the border to Tikal is probably a viable alternative; I would guess that taxi costs are less in Guatemala than in Belize.
Currency and Costs
The Belizean currency is the Belizean Dollar. It trades at 2 to the US$ on the street almost anywhere. We were never refused when we wished to pay in US$. Change was usually returned to us in Belizean dollars. It does require clarification on each purchase--"Belizean?" or "US$?" but really is little problem. We carried a lot of smaller US$ bills, some US$ traveler's checks, and credit cards. We found out later on our monthly statement that American Express exchanged at US$1 = BZ$1.94 for our credit purchases in Belize. ALL COSTS ARE REPORTED IN US$ on this trip report, converted from the local currency where necessary.
Belize is more expensive than many other Central American countries. It is not so expensive that you should consider another destination, but in Belize you definitely don't get as good value for your money as you would in Costa Rica or Panama.
Accommodation and Food
On my first trip to Belize I camped at all sites I visited, and my tent provided bug-free, rain-proof, and economical lodging. I ate mostly at the lodges where I was camping on that trip. We were not looking to camp on this trip, so we spent considerable time doing web-site inspections of various resorts in Belize. We ended up staying two nights at Crystal Paradise Resort in the Cayo District, two nights at a resort on Lago Peten-Itza in Guatemala, another two nights at Crystal Paradise, two nights in a cabin at Cockscomb Basin in southern Belize, three nights on South Water Caye at International Zoological Expeditions' (IZE) Leslie Cottages, and one night at Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve near Belmopan.
Belize has a few top tier resorts located in great birding (or reef) locations (such as Chan Chich or several of the Mountain Pine Ridge lodges). In these places prices start at about $550 pp for three nights, food, transport to/from, and a package of tours. They sometimes have birding guides available as well, but all have excellent habitat just ou tside. There is a second tier of resorts with locations that might or might not have good birding habitat, but are usually located outside of the towns in pleasant locations. Costs at these can run from about $25 pp including meals on up to $75 pp. Full package tour prices can range up to those of the top tier. But many offer "a la carte" tour options as well--meaning you can pay for your room (usually with food) separately and choose various day tours as you wish. Crystal Paradise falls into this category. The third tier, available in many towns and villages, consists of small hotels and guest houses that offer camping or rooms for $5 per night on up. Further details on the specific places we stayed are given under the particular location.
Guidebooks and Information
I purchased Webb and Howell's "Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America." We also checked out the new Rough Guide for Belize from our local library. Kevin Laughlin generously provided a copy of his Wildside Tours checklist to the birds of Belize and Tikal.
Crystal Paradise www.crystalparadise.com;
Belize Audubon http://www.belizeaudubon.org/
Casa de Don David http://www.lacasadedondavid.com/
El Gringo Perdido http://www.guate.net/gringo/
Tobacco Caye possibilities (recommendation not implied):
Monkey Bay http://www.watershedbelize.org/06.html
Some Central American bird recordings can be found for free at
1) Carry an umbrella. It is far more comfortable to use an umbrella in a humid tropical rain shower than to put on a rain jacket. It is even possible to balance some umbrellas on your shoulder while you put your binoculars on a bird. And an umbrella fits as easily into a day pack as a rain jacket does.
2) Carry adequate protection from mosquitoes. Repellent is mandatory--something with at least 25% DEET. Mosquitoes were active even in the daytime in some locations. Mosquito netting for your bed at night provides welcome respite and protection from whining mosquitoes. Many places will provide it for you, but the one night you don't have it, you will wish you did!
1. Crystal Paradise Resort and environs
2. Mountain Pine Ridge
3. Spanish Lookout and Laguna Aguacate
4. Tikal National Park
5. Biotopo Cerro Cahui, El Remate town, El Gringo Perdido resort, Lago Peten-Itza lakeshore
6. Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve
7. South Water Caye and boat trip from Dangriga
8. Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve and nearby Belize Zoo
1. Crystal Paradise Resort (CP) and surrounding areas (77 species)
Dates: evenings of 22,23,26,27 November; birded the property one full day and another morning.
Habitat: broadleaf humid evergreen forest, secondary growth, orchards
Details: We decided to stay at CP for a few reasons. (1) CP offered "a la carte" tours. We didn't want to tie ourselves into a full package and then be forced to take tours on rainy days because we had already paid for them. (2) Their web site touted the birding interests of the owners' sons. This actually turned out to be true. Jeronie, the primary tour leader of the family, is pretty good with birds, although I think he usually isn't challenged to find more difficult species due to the general nature interests of most guests. He didn't know exactly where to find owl species, but he knew the calls when we heard them from the resort. CP offered night owl walks, but I couldn't judge whether I would be able to actually SEE owls, and besides, it rained nearly every evening, so I never went. Jeronie also had a scope (we didn't travel with one) which provided some good views of birds and iguanas. (3) CP is run by a Belizean family, which we considered a plus. Resort development by foreigners (p articularly in the south part of Belize) has surged recently, and I suspect that only a small portion of the tourist dollars provide a living for native Belizeans. However, I also am hesitant to be broadly critical of all "foreigner-owned" resorts, because sometimes these foreigners have lived many years in Belize and genuinely work to improve the welfare of their neighbors. (4) The rates at CP were generally a bit lower than neighboring resorts, although I cannot directly compare services since we only stayed at CP. (5) Our first choice, DuPlooy's, was already booked for the time of our visit.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the cost of the room at CP. Since the resort is in a small village there are not many other options anyway. The food at CP, where we stayed four nights, was typical Belizean food but of high quality. We had fresh salads each meal. I think we had chicken three times and spaghetti with ground beef once. All the guests are served as a group in the pleasant open-air dining area, and you are free to choose whether you want to eat together at a table or separately.
The rooms were clean and roomy, with tiled floors, thatched roofs, and hot showers. With taxes and service charge, including two meals the rooms were $111 for a double. Overall, the resort is professionally run and a pleasant place to stay. They even washed our very soiled laundry one day ($5).
The CP property and surrounding roads and hillsides provide some good habitat and birding opportunities. They have a beautiful covered deck with a fine downhill view to the river. It was raining hard the entire first morning, but we saw a lot of birds from the deck. In the afternoon the rain diminished and eventually stopped, but not convincingly. So we opted to paddle a canoe across the Macal River, which is a 200 meter walk away. On the other side of the river are some good trails through a large area of recovering forest. Even on this cloudy afternoon we saw some good birds there. The walk from the resort to the river and the vegetation around the river were also very productive in the morning (Gray-necked wood-rail, Ochre-bellied flycatcher, Crimson-collared tanager).
Birds listed for this area include those seen while driving to the Guatemala border and en route to the Mountain Pine Ridge pine forest. Other highlights: Keel-billed toucan, Blue-crowned motmot, three owls heard, Violaceous trogon, Green kingfisher, Collared aracari, Northern bentbill, Rose-throated becard.
2. Mountain Pine Ridge (MPR)(15 species)
Date: 27 November Day trip
Habitat: Pine forest, broadleaf evergreen forest at lower elevations and near streams
Details: We took a full day tour from CP to the MPR area. Since the tour cost $65 each, we probably could have done it more economically by renting a vehicle and driving ourselves (see my notes on the MPR roads above). If there had been other participants the costs would have been shared, but here at least we could make stops for birds without annoying anyone else. Our first stop was the Green Hills Butterfly Farm, which we both found very fascinating ($4 each). I think they raise nearly 20 species of butterflies, with substantial manual effort. A Lineated Woodpecker was seen well in the parking area. During the day we made stops at the Rio Frio Cave, the Rio On pools (lunch), the Thousand Foot Falls, and at Five Sisters Lodge. It seemed to rain whenever we arrived somewhere, but we did manage to see the spectacular Thousand Foot Falls after waiting 30 minutes for the mist and clouds to disperse. But we actually saw few species of birds in the MPR region, definitely not the Orange-breasted falcon. Highlights: Hepatic tanager, Ocellated turkey, Green jay, Yellow-faced grassquit, Rusty sparrow, Rufous-capped warbler.
3. Spanish Lookout (30 species)
Date: 28 November morning visit
Habitat: agricultural lands, patch forest at Laguna Aguacate
Details: We visited the Spanish Lookout area of Belize as part of a tour/transportation day trip. Since Jeronie had no other guests at Crystal Paradise on the last day we were there, he offered us a "special deal": for $150 he would drive us the two hours to our next destination, Cockscomb Basin, and add a full day trip through Spanish Lookout including a canoe trip on the Laguna Aguacate. Our alternative plan was to take the bus from San Ignacio to Cockscomb, which probably would have taken at least 3 hours. We figured that we would get nearly a full extra day added to our vacation (although riding the bus is not necessarily a "wasted" travel experience in my mind), visit a new area of Belize with unlimited birding and sightseeing stops, and travel trouble-free to our destination. So we accepted.
We made stops along the way to look at Iguanas, Gray Hawks, White-tailed Kites, Vermilion Flycatchers, Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, and Fork-tailed Flycatchers. The forest around Laguna Aguacate was remarkably dead. We saw almost no birds there, perhaps because of the rain which was off and on all morning. We declined the canoe trip due to the rain.
We had lunch at wonderful restaurant ($3 each); the buffet run by Belizean Mennonites was oddly reminiscent of the Lancaster Amish here in PA. A fully-decorated Christmas tree and carols floating over the sound system reminded us of the season and transported us briefly back home.
A high moment of the trip occurred as we sped down the Western Highway towards Belmopan. Two large black and white birds flew across the road and landed in the trees ahead. Jeronie stopped the vehicle as quickly as possible on the side of the road. Finally, we had found one of the species of birds on my "most wanted list" for Belize! We were treated to spectacular views of two perched King Vultures from about 30 meters. No need for a scope here!
Since it continued to rain en route to Cockscomb we made no further stops except for groceries and an attempt to get to Five Blues Lake National Park. That effort was thwarted by a stream that was too high for a crossing, even in our Isuzu Trooper.
Highlights: Black-bellied Whistling-duck, White-tailed Kite, Gray Hawk, Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
4. Tikal National Park, Guatemala (32 species)
Date: 24 November
Habitat: Lowland humid forest
Details: Our visit to Tikal was arranged through Crystal Paradise Resort and Jeronie again served as our driver and organizer. The day trip to Tikal included transport in the resort's 4WD vehicle, entrance fee (about $10), lunch, and a guide ($85 each, minimum of 3 persons, border fees of about $17 ea. not included). A family who were also guests went the same day. We arranged to be dropped off after the Tikal visit at El Gringo Perdido resort near El Remate in Guatemala on the return trip. This would give us the opportunity to visit the Biotopo Cerro Cahui or return to Tikal the following day if we desired. We arranged for Jeronie to pick us up two days later for $60 (total). This journey can be done very inexpensively, if rather inconveniently, by bus. However, if you are interested in early morning birding or convenience in reasonable comfort, the bus will not accommodate that. The trip could also be done by hiring taxis individually for the various legs of the journey, which would be expensive for one person but more reasonable in cost for a group.
We got an early start, leaving around 6:30am, but didn't actually arrive at Tikal until about 9:30am. With the border crossing, fuel stop, and muddy roads, it is not the quick 1.5 hour drive they will tell you, at least not in this season. We picked up a guide known to Jeronie on the roadside in El Remate. He was a very interesting man, Abel, who actually grew up on the site of Tikal where his father was an excavator. His English was excellent, and he was even learning German on the side. He was extremely well-informed and enthusiastic about Tikal. Because of Abel, I learned much more about Tikal on this visit than my first, when I toured alone. In retrospect, however, I think that we would have preferred to enjoy more of the day on our own at the ruins, rather than being led by a guide for the entire time. There is a point where one needs to simply sit, rest, and contemplate the magnificence and history of the place rather than being pushed to see all the important ruins in a single day.
Birds and monkeys were seen during the day, including toucans, orioles, and trogons, but it was not a significant birding day due to our tardy arrival. If one were to stay overnight at the ruins and go birding early in the morning before the heat sets in, Tikal probably would provide excellent birding. It is certainly worth a visit even without the incentive of good birding.
(Birding) Highlights: Little tinamou, Wood stork, Great currasow (wow!), Montezuma oropendola. Click here to jump to the Trip Bird List.
5. Biotopo Cerro Cahui, El Remate village, Lago Peten-Itza, El Gringo Perdido Resort (76 species)
Dates: evening of 24, 25, morning 26 November
Habitat: Lowland humid forest, agricultural edge, lakeshore
Details: As related above, Jeronie dropped us off in the late afternoon at El Gringo Perdido resort on Lago Peten, about 3km from El Remate. It has a lovely setting right on the lake. The view from the dining area is magnificent and open, and access to the lake for swimming is right off the deck in front of the rooms. The rooms were clean, with full mosquito netting over all the beds. They have cold showers, flush toilets, and kerosene lamps for after dark. Our double room with breakfast and dinner for two was $60 per night. Our Tikal guide Abel said that the national power system was being set up in nearby towns (recently El Remate was hooked up); it is possible that soon El Gringo Perdido may also have full-time electric. The dinners were served by lamplight and were of good quality. Breakfasts included corn flakes with (powdered) milk, eggs, juice, and toast. It was from this point in our trip, however, that we suffered traveler's diarrhea. Since cooking at Gringo Perdido was done on wood stoves, it is possible that the water used to clean dishes was not heated sufficiently to kill all the organisms that would be bothersome to our systems. But we also swam in the lake, which looked very clean, but people live on many parts of this lake, and few places have genuine septic treatment. One rarely can be sure where troublesome organisms are picked up, so it would be unfair to put the blame on the resort.
On our first morning we slept in a little bit, had breakfast, and then walked over (about 1km) to the Biotopo Cerro Cahui ($3 daily, each), arriving about 9am. Birding was reasonably good just along the road. At the reserve we were greeted by some aggressive mosquitoes (bring DEET to survive) and some oppressive heat. The trails are well-built and in great condition. In the late morning heat birds were rather quiet and difficult to find, although we enjoyed the brief excitement of a couple of small flocks. The humidity was brutal; sweating did not provide the usual benefit of evaporative cooling; even with short sleeves, it felt like you were wearing a down parka, because there was not a breath of wind. There are a couple of nice viewpoints, which might be nice on a clear dry morning, but I suspect the view is often obscured by the haze of humidity as it was for us.
The Biotopo seemed to be a relatively popular place to visit. We crossed paths with several foreign tourists and quite a few Guatemalans as well (it was a weekend). Altogether we probably encountered 25 other visitors in the 3 hours we were there.
I returned alone to the reserve early the second morning, arriving at the entrance at about 6am. The day before the guard had said that it was no problem to enter by the second gate just a few meters down the road if they were not yet open. Even along the road there were many birds in the cool of the morning and several more along the edge of the lake. The mosquitoes were still present, but it was a little bit more comfortable early in the morning. I met a couple of other tourists hiking the trails this morning, but it was relatively quiet. I had to work hard to find birds, even this morning, but there were good things to be found. Because of the good trails and varied habitat (the lake and small marsh nearby) this is a great place for birding.
Highlights: Grey-necked Wood-rail, Mealy Parrot, White-bellied Emerald, Collared and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Amazon Kingfisher, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, five woodcreeper species, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-faced Antthrush, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila, Worm-eating Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler, Black-throated Shrike-tanager, Yellow-tailed Oriole.
RECOMMENDATION: While El Gringo Perdido has the most beautiful location, there is another pleasant (and quite economical) option for lodging in El Remate. Furthermore, it has a terrific restaurant if you find that you are getting tired of chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas. La Casa De Don David appears to be a first-rate backpackers' tourist hostel located right in El Remate. Information is readily available for all sorts of tourist activity, particularly regarding transportation around Guatemala. The rooms (from the outside) looked newly constructed and comfortable. Prices were approximately $10 to $15 per person per room. And--they have electric power.
NOTE: A recent BirdChat announcement indicated that in early January a couple of birders met some armed robbers at Biotopo Cerro Cahui; according to the report, one of them was left partially paralyzed in the attack.
Although I don't know any more about the circumstances of the attack, I would conclude that it came as an unpleasant surprise to the local community as well as to the unfortunate birders. Abel, our guide at Tikal, who lives just outside El Remate, proudly recommended this reserve as a great place to go birding or hiking. He had no economic interest in us birding there, as he is usually employed at Tikal. I am reasonably sure he would have warned us if it was known to be an unsafe area. El Remate, the nearby community, is quietly developing a small tourist industry with several family-run hotels and restaurants, due to its prime location on a beautiful lake en route to Tikal. This was probably a severe blow to that development.
6. Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve (85 species)
Dates: evening 28, 29, morning 30 November
Habitat: Lowland humid forest
Details: We were transported to Cockscomb by Jeronie on our day-tour through Spanish Lookout (noted above). We arrived at Maya Center around 3pm expecting to be met by Ernesto Saqui. He must have mixed up our arrival day because he was out somewhere and wasn't expected back before 6pm. Jeronie was gracious enough (for $15) to drive us the 6 miles into the reserve. We had made reservations with Belize Audubon via the internet to stay in the dormitory at Cockscomb ($17 each per night, $5 each in Maya Center for entry). Since a large group would be using the dorm the following night they put us up for both nights in the private cabin (cold shower, linens, private "dry" toilet, solar powered lights) at no additional cost. The kitchen area (with stove and fridge) is available to guests, but you must bring your own food. We prepared snacks and chicken/rice/soup for ourselves.
Before dark we headed out for a short walk to the river. We discovered that the trails were somewhat soupy at this time of year. However, the forest was alive with sound and birds (and mosquitoes). We enjoyed seeing pauraques up close right on the trail. A special treat was a Black-faced Antthrush that paced back and forth across the open trail in front of us. We eventually had to shoo it out of the way in order to continue walking the trail.
All the staff left the reserve at dark, and there were no other guests. This was both wonderful for the silence and sense of privacy, but also somewhat eerie knowing that we were very isolated because we had no transportation out. Our room also had no electric lights that first night since it had been a gloomy few days and the recharging had been inadequate. The strange calls of the pauraques completed the lonely mood. So it was very discomforting to both of us to discover a scorpion under my wife's backpack in our room. Remember we only had the light of our flashlights with which to see our surroundings, so immediately the sense of safety in our room and in our beds was reduced substantially. Furthermore, the mosquitoes were numerous enough that my wife utilized my sleep screen, and I created another for my head using an extra sheet, some line, and a few clothespins. We eventually fell asleep and lived to bird again the next morning. (By the way, it turns out that one staff member always stays overnight; we heard a motorcycle arrive sometime around 9:30pm.)
In the morning we enjoyed a pleasant, although occasionally muddy walk on the Gibnut and Tinamou Loops. The cool of the morning was very comfortable and the mosquitoes were manageable. A tropical forest is so lovely when there is bright sunshine on a clear morning as this one! The birding was great, although very typical forest birding: slow periods with just an occasional bird, and then a rare flock of several species would pass by in a whirl of excitement. We had great views of Crested Guans, and both of the manakins were easily seen. We watched a troop of howler monkeys move through the trees gorging themselves on fruits. Just as we returned to the headquarters and lodging area a spectacular thunderstorm struck. It poured heavily for the next two hours, so we visited the small visitor center with its interpretive exhibits and prepared our lunch while it rained. Another walk in the evening was more difficult due to extremely wet and muddy conditions--fewer birds for some reason as well. I went out again early on our last morning to the same trails and added only a few new species.
The birding was also excellent in the small clearing by the cabins, probably because there was little vegetation to block the view. We saw tanagers, trogons, pauraques, and flycatchers from the front porch. Cockscomb is a beautiful place, well worth the trouble of getting there and staying overnight.
Highlights: Little tinamou, White Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Crested Guan, Mottled Owl(h), Little Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Stub-tailed Spadebill, White-collared Manakin, Red-capped Manakin, Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-hooded Tanager (wow!), Black-faced Grosbeak, Blue-black Grosbeak, Passerini's Tanager.
7. South Water Caye (29 species)
Dates: evening 30 November, 1, 2, morning 3 December
Habitat: Reef, mangrove, beach
Details: We asked the park personnel at Cockscomb to arrange for a ride back to the highway. Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised, but the driver turned out to be Ernesto Saqui ($12.50 total). We waited at the highway for only about 15 minutes and caught a bus to Dangriga ($1 ea, 45 min). In Dangriga we carried our packs to the River Cafe, located, well, near the river. We were about an hour early for our meeting with staff from IZE, who would transport us to South Water Caye.
We selected IZE because we wanted a comfortable quiet place with snorkeling right from the beach. There are a few places to do this in Belize. When I visited in 1994 I made arrangements to stay at IZE's Leslie Cottages on South Water Caye. They were full, but for some reason allowed me to camp on the property at a very reduced price; I suspect that a similar arrangement would not be possible now. I remember the food being spectacular, the island setting beautifully idyllic, and the snorkeling excellent and conveniently located off the beach. I thought I (since married) should revisit this lovely spot with my wife. We made arrangements by email which was very convenient for us, particularly with such short notice. The cost exceeded our typical budget by a substantial margin, but based on my previous stay, I thought that a splurge might be tolerated in this case. The final price we paid was $700 for three nights lodging and meals for two persons, transport to/from South Water Caye (perhaps 15 miles by boat from Dangriga) with daily local boat trips to other local snorkel wildlife spots.
Although the responsibility does not fall principally on IZE, my final assessment of our visit would have to be categorized as mild disappointment. The weather was unsettled and continuously very windy, making the snorkeling a fight with waves and the underwater visibility reduced to some extent at all times. We did watch a couple of interesting thunderstorms develop, approach, and crash in on the island. Because of the weather, we only were able to do one of the daily boat trips to a nearby reef. There were also tiny biting sandfleas on the beaches that made it impossible to sit at the beach; I suspect this is a seasonal thing, because I don't remember them from my last visit (January 1994). The facility is still very lovely. There is a nice dining room area for guests; meals are shared together with all the guests, with breakfast served individually when one chooses. After our first evening, we were the only ones at the resort. This was, in a way, a negative for our visit (though obviously not the fault of IZE), because community spirit at a small resort can add a lot to the enjoyment.
Probably my biggest single disappointment was the meals. Perhaps the cook spoiled us when I visited in 1994 (I remember fresh bread and tasty seafood dishes every day.) The first evening meal this trip when we joined a group of four other visitors, we were offered barbecued ribs or fish. I probably got my hopes up too high when I heard the menu earlier in the afternoon. We had been eating a fair share of typical Belizean food up to this point on the trip (beans, rice, chicken, fried eggs, etc). I chose the ribs, which unfortunately were few and scant of meat. The other meals fell into a disturbing monotony of Belizean food: on our second day, we had chicken for both lunch and dinner, on the third day chicken was again for dinner. Maybe I'm being a little picky about the meals--they were certainly well-prepared and tasty enough. I guess that my expectations--based on my previous visit and the cost of staying there--were that I would be able to rave about the outstanding meals again on this visit.
On the positive side, the cottages have comfortable beds, electric hot showers, flush toilets, optional mosquito netting (we used it), and lovely porches facing the mangroves on the ocean side of the island. For the birder, these mangroves provide the largest grove of greenery on the island, and they frequently host migrating songbirds. I saw eight species of warblers here on this trip, although the Mangrove yellow warbler was conspicuous in its absence this time. IZE staff were courteous and friendly, although certainly a little bored since we were the only ones there. The hostess' husband generously offered his personal snorkel gear to me because they didn't have fins in a large enough size for me in their dive shop. Furthermore, they didn't charge us for the snorkel gear in a kind gesture recognizing the poor weather during our visit. And yes, the snorkeling from the beach is still quite good; colorful coral and fishes are a short swim of 150 meters from the beach.
The boat trip back to Dangriga was an experience in itself. The rough weather created swells/waves that the open skiff slammed upon one after another. My butt and back remembered the return trip for a couple of days. I give a lot of credit to Michael, the young man in charge of the boat for enduring what has to be an uncomfortable soaking, standing, posture without any rest for the entire return trip in order to get everyone safely back to shore.
Recommendations: If you want a more budget experience than IZE on an island near the reef, you might want to check out the resorts on Tobacco Caye. I haven't been there, but transportation, food, and lodging there are both relatively inexpensive, and the websites seem to indicate you can also snorkel on the coral reef from the beach. (Of course boat hire is available too.)
IZE's cottages are lovely and clean, service is good, the location is terrific, and snorkeling and diving are available, but the cost is high, approximately $125 ppd.
Highlights: eight species of warblers, Indigo bunting, the entertaining Frigatebirds and Pelicans!
8. Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve, Belize Zoo (59 species)
Dates: evening 3 December, morning 4 December
Habitat: Small farms, orchards, pine savannah
Details: I camped at Monkey Bay on my 1994 visit to Belize. It was a pleasant and very active location with several visitors at the time. I'm not sure what Monkey Bay really is--clearly it is the home of Matthew Miller and his family. They soon plan to make the move into a new modern home out of the traditional wooden buildings they have occupied for years. Monkey Bay also has a nice library that holds quite a wealth of environmental books. The "research station"/office/extra bedrooms building is a nice facility with a veranda and view of the prairie. There is a solid bunkhouse for groups of visitors and a building with a kitchen and dining area. We reserved one of the rooms over the internet ($25, comfortable bed with mosquito netting). Meals cost extra, seem to be primarily vegetarian fare, and are shared with the family and other visitors. JB's restaurant (said to be quite good) is within walking distance, so you have another option if you don't like what is on the menu. The cold showers in the outdoor shower room have good water pressure, but are best in the middle of a warm day! The toilets are pit/chemical toilets and could use an upgrade.
We made our way to Monkey Bay from Dangriga after the boat trip from South Water Caye. We walked the mile to the bus station in Dangriga with our packs and bought tickets for the next bus to Monkey Bay (via Belmopan, $4 ea). This Sunday bus was relatively uncrowded and an enjoyable 1.5-2 hr journey, listening to Bob Marley and Abba, among a few other groups on the tinny sound system, watching the countryside from the window.
Birding is done on the gravel road behind the property that leads for about a mile and a half to the Sibun River. Towards the end there is also a very overgrown orchard with muddy paths. Birding was OK in the orchard although not very friendly for walking. It seems to be occupied by a small herd of goats. At the river area there were a pair of fruiting trees that attracted a lot of birds. Otherwise it was rather quiet most of the time.
I also saw a man walking on the road with three dogs and a shotgun. Since I don't know which lands are considered the Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve nor how strongly the preservation is enforced, I won't criticize the management of Monkey Bay. It was just a startling sight, and it served as a reminder of the toll that poverty continues to extract on local wildlife.
After birding along the road on Dec 4, we packed up quickly, showered and ate a quick breakfast. We walked out to the highway with our packs and caught the next bus. It was standing room only, but it was a short 3km ride ($0.50 ea) to the entrance of the Belize Zoo. We spent two hours enjoying the captured animals on display (and a few wild birds) on the grounds. The zoo is an enjoyable stop, and definitely worthwhile for any visitor to Belize. The birder is also likely to see a few wild birds that are comfortable with the habitats provided by the zoo.
After our visit to the zoo, we returned with our packs to the side of the highway to await the next bus to Belize City. From there we intended to take a taxi to the airport. However the first vehicle, a new-looking pickup truck, stopped and offered us a ride. The driver, Charlie Sargent, was a former Nebraska farmer turned orange grower in Belize. We enjoyed nearly an hour of pleasant conversation, learning a bit about the orange industry in Belize. After making a stop for some equipment, he drove us all the way to the airport in time for our flight home. Highlights: Blue Ground-dove, Common Tody-flycatcher, Gray-collared Becard, Passerini's Tanager, Hooded Oriole, Montezuma Oropendola.
Bird List Belize/Guatemala 22 Nov to 4 Dec 2000
Y: Cayo District, birds seen on property of Crystal Paradise Resort, on the forested hillside across the Macal River from their property, birds seen en route to Mountain Pine Ridge, and birds seen from the road within Cayo District.
P: Mountain Pine Ridge, all birds seen beyond the preserve entrance gate.
L: Spanish Lookout area of Belize, including farmland and forest surrounding Laguna Aguacate.
T: Tikal National Park, Guatemala.
B: Biotopo Cerro Cahui reserve trails; also includes the shoreline and road along Lago Peten-Itza between the town of El Remate and resort property of El Gringo Perdido (about 3km of road on north shore of lake), Guatemala.
C: Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve and entrance road; also includes Southern Highway.
S: South Water Caye; also includes birds seen from boat to and from Dangriga.
M: Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve; also includes wild birds seen on the property of the nearby Belize Zoo.
(h) Heard only.
...T.C.. Little Tinamou
....B... Pied-billed Grebe
......S. Brown Booby
......S. Brown Pelican
......S. Double-crested Cormorant
......S. Magnificent Frigatebird
Y.L.BCS. Great Blue Heron
Y.L.BC.. Great Egret
..LTB.S. Snowy Egret
Y.L..CS. Little Blue Heron
Y.L.BC.. Cattle Egret
Y.LT.... Green Heron
Y.L...S. Yellow-crowned Night-heron
...T.... Wood Stork
YPLTBC.M Black Vulture
YPLTBC.M Turkey Vulture
..L..... King Vulture
..L..... Black-bellied Whistling Duck
........ Blue-winged Teal (in marsh en route to Tikal)
..L..... White-tailed Kite
.....C.. White Hawk
..L..... Gray Hawk
.....C.. Common Black-Hawk
Y.LTBC.M Roadside Hawk
..L....M American Kestrel
Y..TBC.. Plain Chachalaca
.....C.. Crested Guan
...T.... Great Currasow
.P.T.... Ocellated Turkey
Y..TB... Gray-necked Wood-rail
...TB... Common Moorhen
...T.... American Coot
...T.... Northern Jacana
Y....... Spotted Sandpiper
......S. Ruddy Turnstone
......S. Laughing Gull
......S. Herring Gull
......S. Gull-billed Tern
......S. Royal Tern
Y.....S. Rock Dove
Y......M(h) Pale-vented Pigeon
.....C..(h) Scaled Pigeon
Y...BC.. Red-billed Pigeon
Y....... Short-billed Pigeon
Y...B..M Ruddy Ground-dove
.......M Blue Ground-dove
.......M White-tipped Dove
....BC.. Gray-fronted (Gray-headed) Dove
Y......M Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet
Y....... White-fronted Parrot
Y......M Red-lored Parrot
....B... Mealy Parrot
.....C.. Yellow-headed Parrot
Y...B..M Squirrel Cuckoo
Y....C.M Groove-billed Ani
Y.......(h) Vermiculated Screech-owl
Y.......(h) Spectacled Owl
.....C..(h) Mottled Owl
Y.......(h) Black-and-white Owl
.....C.M Common Pauraque
Y....... White-collared Swift
...T.C.. Vaux's Swift
.....C.. Long-tailed Hermit
.....C.. Little Hermit
Y....... Wedge-tailed Sabrewing
.....C.. White-necked Jacobin
......S. Green-breasted Mango
....B... White-bellied Emerald
Y.L..C.M Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Y..TBC.M Black-headed Trogon
Y....... Violaceous Trogon
....B... Collared Trogon
....B... Slaty-tailed Trogon
Y...BC.. Blue-crowned Motmot
....B..M Ringed Kingfisher
....B.S. Belted Kingfisher
....B... Amazon Kingfisher
Y...BC.. Green Kingfisher
Y..TB..M Collared Aracari
Y..TBC.M Keel-billed Toucan
.P.....M Acorn Woodpecker
.....C.M Black-cheeked Woodpecker
YPLTBC.M Golden-fronted Woodpecker
.....C.. Golden-olive Woodpecker
....BC.. Chestnut-colored Woodpecker
Y....... Lineated Woodpecker
.....C.. Pale-billed Woodpecker
....B... Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
....B... Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
....BC.. Ruddy Woodcreeper
....B... Olivaceous Woodcreeper
....B... Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
....B... Streak-headed Woodcreeper
....B..M Barred Antshrike
....B... Dot-winged Antwren
....BC.. Black-faced Antthrush
.....C.. Greenish Elaenia
.....C.M Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Y....... Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
....B... Sepia-capped Flycatcher
Y....... Northern Bentbill
.......M Common Tody-flycatcher
....B... Eye-ringed Flatbill
....BC.. Yellow-olive Flycatcher
....BC.. Stub-tailed Spadebill
Y....C.. Tropical Pewee
....B... Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
.P...... Black Phoebe
..L..... Vermillion Flycatcher
....B... Bright-rumped Attila
.....C.. Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Y...BC.M Great Kiskadee
YP.....M Boat-billed Flycatcher
Y.LTBC.M Social Flycatcher
YPLTBC.M Tropical Kingbird
..L..... Fork-tailed Flycatcher
.......M Gray-collared Becard
Y......M Rose-throated Becard
Y..TB... Masked Tityra
Y....... Black-crowned Tityra
.....C.. White-collared Manakin
.....C.. Red-capped Manakin
Y....... White-eyed Vireo
Y....... Yellow-throated Vireo
...TB... Lesser Greenlet
.P...... Green Jay
YPLTBC.M Brown Jay
Y....CS. Mangrove Swallow
.....CS. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
.......M Bank Swallow
....B..M Spot-breasted Wren
Y......M House Wren
....BC.. White-breasted Wood-wren
....B... Long-billed Gnatwren
....B..M Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
....B... Swainson's Thrush
.....CSM Wood Thrush
Y.L.BC.M Clay-colored Thrush
Y......M Blue-winged Warbler
.......M Northern Parula
....BC.M Yellow Warbler
.......M Chestnut-sided Warbler
YPLTBCSM Magnolia Warbler
......S. Black-throated Blue Warbler
....B.S. Yellow-rumped Warbler
Y....C.M Black-throated Green Warbler
Y....CSM Yellow-throated Warbler
......S. Palm Warbler
YPLTBC.. Black-and-white Warbler
Y..TBC.M American Redstart
....B... Worm-eating Warbler
Y....CSM Northern Waterthrush
......S. Louisiana Waterthrush
....BC.. Kentucky Warbler
.....C.M Common Yellowthroat
YP..BC.. Hooded Warbler
....B... Golden-crowned Warbler
.P...... Rufous-capped Warbler
....BC.. Yellow-breasted Chat
....B... Black-throated Shrike-tanager
Y...BC.. Red-throated Ant-tanager
.P...... Hepatic Tanager
Y..TBC.. Summer Tanager
Y....... Crimson-collared Tanager
.....C.M Passerini's Tanager (formely Scarlet-rumped tanager, now split?)
Y....C.M Blue-gray Tanager
Y....C.M Yellow-winged Tanager
Y...B..M Yellow-throated Euphonia
.....C.. Olive-backed Euphonia
.....C.. Golden-hooded Tanager
.....C.. Green Honeycreeper
.....C.. Red-legged Honeycreeper
.....C.. Blue-black Grassquit
.....C.. Variable Seedeater
YPLTBC.M White-collared Seedeater
.P...... Yellow-faced Grassquit
Y....C.. Green-backed Sparrow
.P...... Rusty Sparrow
....BC.. Grayish Saltator
Y.LTBC.. Black-headed Saltator
.....C.. Black-faced Grosbeak
Y....... Rose-breasted Grosbeak
.....C.. Blue-black Grosbeak
......S. Indigo Bunting
..L..... Eastern Meadowlark
YPL.BC.M Melodious Blackbird
Y.LTB.S. Great-tailed Grackle
Y..T.C.M Black-cowled Oriole
Y.L..... Orchard Oriole
.......M Hooded Oriole
Y...B... Yellow-tailed Oriole
Y....C.M Baltimore Oriole
Y....C.M Yellow-billed Cacique
...T...M Montezuma Oropendola
Y....... Black-headed Siskin