The sun was nowhere near rising when I woke up. The usually-vociferous grackles were still silent, and none of the flocks of small parakeets were belting out their morning anthems yet. But what I was thankful not to hear, though, was the sound of rain.
There was a day of adventure ahead!
I had convinced some other South Africans and their neighbors to join me to hike up a hill and watch some scarlet macaws in the wild. These magnificent birds migrate to a village not too far from where I lived at the time—a mere 14 miles if we could travel in a straight line. But we first had to drive north, to the top of our peninsula, and then head south again along Belize’s Southern Highway. (The term highway is used rather loosely here as it is merely a single-lane road with the occasional speed bump as you pass through villages along the way.)
An hour and barely 32 miles later, we took the exit onto the gravel road to Red Bank, the Mayan village famous for the fact that for about three months every year, scarlet macaws call this village “home.”
From January through March, you can find a flock of between 100 to 200 pairs of scarlet macaws foraging in the jungle outside Red Bank, specifically going for the nutty, sweet, peppery seeds of the achiote trees in the area. (This week, I saw only about a quarter of the number of birds I saw at the same place last year. I can only hope that some were foraging on the other side of the valley.)
Look down—and up!
After slipping and sliding along the final stretch of road (the only reason we had to come in 4WD trucks), we parked at the end of the road and hiked up the hill—easier said than done, considering the amount of mud! It’s dangerous to walk looking high up in the trees when you’re on a muddy path. Good thing that the parrots vocalize before they fly, and often “talk” even while just sitting in the trees.
Drenched from the downpour the night before (Photo credit: Christo Swanepoel)
We were barely 10 minutes into the forest when we started hearing the loud squawks of the red, yellow and blue giants. But the first bird we saw clearly was one sitting quietly on a branch, drenched due to rain the night before. Not much further down the road, I saw what I assumed to be a mother along with a smaller parrot, still sleeping high up in a tree.
At the top of the hill, we made ourselves at home. Drank some coffee we brought up with us. Had some snacks. Took photos. Made jokes. And some of us wandered off to see if we could get a bit closer to where we heard some parrots.
We were on the mountain for almost three hours. It is incredible to see these birds in the wild, socializing, feeding, flying free, always in pairs.
Some insights from the day
It’s worth getting up early for the adventure
They might fly away, but they might not
Sometimes it’s worth moving to where the action is
It’s worth paying a local guide to take you to find the macaws as this supports the community who protects the macaws
Once you’ve seen macaws in the wild, you’ll forever feel sad for the ones having been robbed of their freedom
“Perhaps I should have paid closer attention to what other travelers had written,” I thought as I carefully stepped over thick mud along the trail. My bags were cutting into my shoulders. “There has to be an easier way than this.”
There was, but I would discover that long after I had reached the camp with its quaint cabins overlooking the Macal River.
No-one else was at camp. Not a single traveler. No staff, either. Just me, trees full of birds, like the motmot, which reminded me of the lilac-breasted rollers of Africa, but bigger. They have a tuft at the end of their tails, like a tiny badminton racquet, as if God decided, “Hold on. Let me add a little more flair to you, you biggish burrowing bird!”
I chuckled at the thought that all the staff and guests may have been raptured, but the camp looked far too neat for something that abrupt. Clearly, hanging around the Macal River Camp mid-afternoon is not the thing to do. There are jungles to be explored. Rivers to be canoed. Human remains to behold in ancient Mayan caves.
So I did what any lone traveler happening upon an empty camp might do: I claimed a cabin for myself. I lugged my luggage upstairs and made myself at home in a hammock so I could read.
Please understand: I don’t typically just barge into places and put a stake down for where I choose to sleep, but knowing that I had pre-paid for one of these cabins for two nights, and seeing that several of the cabins along the river looked exactly the same, I figured it wouldn’t be an issue.
Traveling with so much luggage isn’t typical of me, either. This summer, I set off to the US for a month and took only two pieces of carry-on luggage. But I was coming to the jungle for three days, to a camp that doesn’t have electricity.
So I thought I might need a small cooler bag with refreshments. And binoculars. Plus my computer (so I could do what I had come here to do: write.) Then some backup chargers for my devices (I didn’t know they do have solar-powered charging stations at the camp).
I also had some books with me. Plus somewhat-protective gear for traipsing through a jungle at night. And my own pillow—which I could have left at home as the pillows at the camp were perfectly fine. But I didn’t know that when I packed. And having traveled much, I know when it comes to budget accommodation, the pillows can be rock hard.
Hence, when I found myself at a spot with signs making it clear that visitors weren’t allowed to drive their vehicles past that point, I parked the car, took up my burden, and hiked.
Judging by the trenches in the hardened mud along the trail, I concluded it probably was wise that I didn’t ignore the signs. The main road probably was equally bad. (Turns out, while it might not be as bad, you do need 4WD to get up and down that route.)
The staff did show up after a while. They were surprised to find me at the camp, as guests are expected to check in at the “wildly civilized” resort from where you and your luggage will be transported to the down-to-earth part of the property: the river camp.
But that, I didn’t know. So, when I reached a fork in the road with an arrow pointing to Macal River Camp, I turned toward the camp where my reservation was.
I did wonder, though, if it’s the right choice, so I pulled over at the stables along my route to inquire whether I should turn back to do what my gut told me to do, or not. “No, you can keep going!” a friendly, horse-washing staff member told me. He must have misunderstood my question. Hence, my hike.
But I made it to camp in one piece and at peace, and as it turns out, I had picked the very cabin that had been assigned to me! The manager offered to drive me to the main lodge so I could check in, or I could hike down a 12-minute trail to check in at the main resort.
Nah. Hike, I would. I took the trail which was in far better shape than the one that had brought me from the car to the camp. Plus, without the load, I could enjoy the jungle.
I saw a pair of lineated woodpeckers. As the second largest of the North American woodpeckers, I’ll bet these birds could peck a hole through a concrete wall! OK, not quite. But I’d not like it if they took up residence around my woodpecker-bait house. (Listen to their call here.) I also saw a tiny, hooded warbler.
And I found the spa after checking in. Why not end my day’s journey by laying prone on a table overlooking a lush valley while a kind mestizo woman kneaded the muscles on my back like a pastry chef kneading bread? I couldn’t think of a reason not to do that, either.
A kinkajou did acrobatics in the tree outside my cabin, gently rustling the branches. And sporadically throughout the night, boisterous “>howler monkeys declared ownership of their piece of the jungle. Obnoxious as their sound can be, I found myself smiling as I woke up time and again, thankful for the experience, thankful for the gift of being able to drive just a few hours north of where I live and explore the jungles, thankful for the fact that I am not afraid of exploring on my own, thankful for God’s peaceful presence along these journeys.
How about you?
How about you? Do you like to explore? Or do you prefer the safety of well-known paths? Who do you like to explore with? Share some of your adventures in the comments, and if you post photos of your explorations on Instagram—even simple adventures would do—please add #bluethreadlife to your hashtags. Any photos tagged as such will appear to the feed on this blog.
If you’re interested in a trip to the jungles of Belize, whether to canoe along the rivers, do bird watching, or visit some of the Mayan ruins, Chaa Creek is a great destination! There are several other resorts in the area, but this one’s my favorite so far. And while you certainly can stay at the main lodge, staying at the casitas is significantly less pricey. You can avail of any of the facilities of the main lodge.
Included for free during your stay at the camp?
breakfast and dinner—great, home-made food, including gluten-free meals
early morning guided bird watching
transport between the camp and the lodge, should you not wish to make the 12-minute hike along the trail
use of their canoes and safety gear
use of the infinity pool
free entrance to the butterfly farm and the history center
free WiFi access at the main lodge (not at the camp)
Chaa Creek is about a 2-hour drive from Belize City, and the resort has a shuttle service. If you decide to go, drop me a note and I’ll share a code that will get you discount and free upgrades, when available!