Placencia – Belize & Tikal, Guatemala (3 of 5)

A quiet back street in Placencia.

Placencia is a coconut palm-studded peninsula of sand jutting into the Caribbean. The town proper is little more than several dozen wooden houses on stilts, with the famous three-foot wide strip of concrete running down the center. We spent our first day doing little, Dave swimming in the bright blue (but cloudy) ocean while I read and slept in a hammock.

The next day we arranged a trip up the Monkey River. We met our guide at the docks and sped south across seagrass flats that were exactly like those in the backcountry of the Florida Keys, where I live. Monkey River Town sits on the south side of the river, where it meets the sea. We turned up the river and dropped the engine to idle. In addition to the now-familiar iguanas, parrots and oropendelas, we got our first look at (and listen to) black howler monkeys.

A black howler monkey in the rainforest near Monkey River Town.

They roared in the distance, and our guide beached the boat at the closest spot to them. We followed him through the jungle – thicker and wetter here than in Cockscomb, with no defined trails – until he pointed out the howlers in the branches above us. They were small and slightly built, not at all like the muscular baboons I had seen in South Africa, but they roared with a guttural intensity I could hardly believe them capable of. One crept down a branch and came within 20 feet at us, before grunting halfheartedly and climbing away. The closer we got to the howlers, the more the mosquitoes besieged us, eventually forcing us on our way.

A Morolet’s crocodile swims down the Monkey River.

Back on the boat, I concentrated on spotting a Morelet’s crocodile. I am a crocodilian aficionado, having spent time in South Africa observing Nile crocs in the Kruger Park, and much of the previous five years photographing alligators in Florida. Our guide warned me that the smallish Morolet’s are hard to spot, but I found a five-footer hiding beneath the sprouting roots of a mangrove and got several good pictures. At a sandy bend in the river, we beached the boat and went for a swim – that is, the guide and I swam, while Dave took a pass. I don’t think he was convinced that Morolet’s crocs are generally not aggressive.

While we swam, another boat pulled up alongside us. They unpacked a cooler full of food and began eating lunch. Dave was wrongly under the impression that the two boats came from the same company, and he wandered over and took a sandwich and soda from their cooler. Nobody from the other boat stopped him, probably because they were stunned by his casual presumption. When our guide saw Dave eating, and realized where he got the food, he burst out laughing. Dave, slowly recognizing his mistake, was mortified. He literally went red in the face and begged our guide to get us out of there.

Placencia Beach

The palm-covered beachfront at Placencia.

We returned upriver to Monkey River Town, where we ate lunch at Alice’s Restaurant. Alice’s is not the sort of place you find a framed certificate from the health department. It’s basically Alice’s house, or rather, the open area beneath her house, replete with scurrying chickens and dogs. We had the standard Belizean meal: stewed chicken with rice and a fried plantain. Blue breakers rolled in from the Caribbean onto the narrow strip of beach. Our guide walked us through the town, under the looming canopy of hundreds of tall coconut palms. It looked like a forgotten trading post, beaten to submission by decades of tropical storms and the withering sun. But it was also beautiful and simple, and its residents smiled broadly and genuinely at us as we walked.

Back in Placencia the next day, I returned to my hammock while Dave swam. Later, while exploring the tip of the peninsula, I watched a pod of dolphins swim close by me, going from the lagoon to the open ocean. That evening we befriended a few locals, who promised to show me a large American crocodile that lived in the mangrove swamps of the lagoons. They took me there the next day, but we couldn’t find the croc. We spent the next two days hanging out with these guys, getting a firsthand look at life for the locals: serious but relaxed, poor but happy, and very aware of the beauty of their surroundings. Like one of them told me, while swinging in a hammock: “It’s Belize, man. Why worry?”

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