Paget’s Belize Journal #32

December 10: A Trip to Cockscomb Basin

They called me Wednesday from Pelican Beach and said that
there was a tour going to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
on Thursday that had space available. So I went. There hasn’t
been much opportunity for me to tag along on tours lately because
there haven’t been many tourists about. But the end of the hurricane
season means the beginning of the heavy tourist season and more
trips. The guide was Godfrey Young, a very knowledgeable and
enthusiastic guy (a native of the Cayo district up in the Maya
Mountains) who spent 30 years driving trucks in the States and
then came back to Dangriga where his wife is from (the writer
on this list assures me the new rules allow us to dangle when
necessary). When I was here in June, Godfrey was the guide who
took me to the zoo and Xunatunich. Tour guides here have to be
trained, tested and licensed and I suspect Godfrey is one of
the best.

The Cockscomb is 160 sq. mi. of jungle wilderness, the only
jaguar reserve in the world and the place where jaguars who are
killing cattle and chickens or frightening people in villages
throughout Central America are re-located. It’s also the site
of extensive efforts to re-introduce the black howler monkey
to its former habitat in these watersheds. I have the impression
that this sort of goes together because jaguars are very fond
of howler monkey, but no one has actually said so.

When I was wandering along the jungle trails admiring the
wildness and beauty of it all, it occurred to me that I haven’t
really said much about the common elements of the environment
here – birds, butterflies, fruits, flowers and fungi. These
are everywhere in such variety and profusion, even in town, that
it’s hard to think what to say. On this particular trip we saw
many, many different birds, parrots, flycatchers, canaries, hawks,
buzzards, exotics that don’t fit any family I’m familiar with.
One pair of birds were actually clear, bright turquoise, not
lorikeets. As I said about the fish I saw when snorkeling, though,
I’m not really motivated to identify things. It seems enough
to just marvel. On the way home, we drove by acres and acres
of blooming Bird-of-Paradise plants, and wild banana trees, which
also have a very exotic bloom. It’s really eye-boggling.

As is true in many animal sanctuaries, you’re likely to see
birds and insects at the Cockscomb and maybe the occasional snake,
but no animals. We heard a fair amount of exciting rustling and
snorting in the brush, saw a few paw and hoof prints in the mud
and actually smelled that an animal had been by very recently
(very likely one of those smelly wart hog thingies, which I think
is actually a white-lipped peccary). At one point we were walking
close by the river and heard an animal apparently digging a burrow
into the bank. Great thrashing and splashing and then clumps
of mud and sand would come flying out into the water. We waded
around and crashed through the brush trying to get a glimpse,
but even though it sounded like we were within 5 or 6 feet of
it, we never saw it. And it never quit digging. Obviously, we
didn’t smell like a predator at all and the animals that hang
out near the paths know they’re safe from humans. In this sanctuary,
you can’t bring a gun, of course, but also, you can’t bring a
large clearing machete, only a small “finishing” machete.
Makes keeping the paths clear even more labor-intensive, I suspect.

The other fairly exciting animal activity was that I finally
got to hear the howler monkeys. Pretty impressive. Godfrey said
they were a long way away, probably two miles. They can really

If the animals are content, the people who used to live in
the reserve are not, I’m told. Several small Mayan villages were
re-located when the reserve was established. They’re all together
now in a village called Maya Centre, which is at the entrance
to the reserve. It’s very tidy and has a gift/crafts shop with
wonderful baskets and slate carvings and jewelry. And all of
the reserve staff is Mayan and mostly drawn from the displaced
villagers. But it seems almost like “Here are the pet Maya.”
They have to have permission from the government to build or
use additional land for crops and so on. I guess they could always
move somewhere else and it’s certainly not an uncommon situation
for various other reasons (consider the great dam-building era
in the States and how many people got displaced), but somehow
it seems worse when you do it to people with a truly subsistence

After visiting the Cockscomb, we went to an undeveloped Maya
site quite near Dangriga (but too far to bicycle so I haven’t
been there). It’s called Mayflower and has five mounds that have
barely been explored. This is really all jungle except the paths
that have been hacked out between mounds, but you can get a good
idea of how large the city center square probably was. Lots of
interesting things to speculate on, since no one has done the
research yet. Did the little river really run through the square?
Or has it moved a lot in the last 1,000 years. How much DO rivers
move in 1,000 years? The waterfall that comes down out of the
Maya Mountains and turns into the river certainly seems stable
in relation to the mountain passes and rock formations. These
mounds are not very tall, compared to Tikal or Xunatunich. Does
that mean it was a less wealthy city? Or just a trade center?
Or what? And why do I want to know this when I don’t care much
what kind of bird I’m looking at?

Well, I won’t expose you to in any more of this sort of thing,
but does make the brain move around a little in an interesting
way and gives me a reason to re-read some books. The other good
thing that came our of the trip was that Godfrey said I could
go on a tour to see the migration flights of the Scarlet Macaw
in January (well, if I can afford it and/or I haven’t used up
all my credit with Tony and Therese by then).