Inland to Island, and in the Middle a Zoo

La Democracia Travel Blog

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Good sayings on the Shaw's bus--this was my seat
Armed with the paltry sum of our remaining quetzales, we puttered back to Santa Elena on a tuk-tuk and caught a slightly bigger bus bound for Melchor. That morning, the market was buzzing with activity, and we snaked through it searching for customers. It was a good 45 minutes before we actually got out of town, but the bus was relatively empty compared to our sardine tin trip from the border. We sailed through the border with no incident, and even a friendly "you'll come back next year?" in Spanish from the smiling customs agent.

Back in Belize, we caught a real colectivo (with two other passengers) into Benque and the bus station there. We waited for about 15 minutes with a couple of Romanian tourists before boarding another school bus bound for the Belize Zoo. The bus was a different company, and someone had been clever enough to paint sayings over each of the seat numbers on the side.
This is April, the tapir!
Several were actually serious life lessons; others playful and pithy. One of my favorites was above seat number nine, "Do not follow where the path may lead / go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." That's been my motto for over 20 years. Another good one was "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." Amen!

It was a predictable ride, stopping and picking people up, dropping them off. We went through San Ignacio again, this time without injurious consequences, and the nondescript capital city of Belmopan. I had wanted to get off the bus to take a quick picture of the government buildings but we didn't dawdle here and from what I could see over the roof of the bus station, there really wasn't much to behold. Apparently, security is so lax that you can walk right up on the steps and may even catch the president in the flesh, although we didn't of course.
A howler monkey, balls out!


The Belize Zoo is right on the highway, smack dab in the middle between Belmopan and Belize City. A signpost and small gravel road welcomed the visitor, but otherwise it was hard to tell anything existed besides a patch of forest. As soon as we paid the modest entrance fees, the mosquitoes attacked us in droves. This made the visit quite cumbersome, but the zoo itself was something to behold. Set amidst a real jungle, animals were kept in a very natural habitat, and all animals were native to Belize. Most were in some type of enclosure, but the spider monkeys and some lizards had free reign if they so chose. We saw spider monkeys from a distance, but there had been reports of monkeys stealing hats and cameras from tourists, so I kept my eyes peeled just in case. One of the first animals was actually the national symbol and my personal favorite zoo animal of all, the tapir.
The magnificent scarlet macaw
I don't know why, but these creatures have a sweet, shy gaze that I find endearing.

We finally saw the howler monkey, an animal we'd hear quite a bit at Caracol and also in Tikal, but hadn't seen. The ones in the zoo were quiet, but clearly visible. We also caught a glimpse of the paca, or gibnut, the little rodent that we'd eaten a couple days before. It was cute! I couldn't get a good picture, but the poor fellow was probably afraid of being caught for dinner.

Of course, the famed scarlet macaw had a large enclosure with several of the beautifully colored birds inside. I suppose it is called scarlet for the predominance of red found in its feathers, but it has radiant blue and yellow as well, and sometimes green. The scarlet macaw is endangered and was the subject of a book by Bruce Barcott, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, which is based on the true story of zoo founder Sharon Matola's fight to save the bird's habitat and consequently the zoo itself.
An aracari


Other impressive birds here were the aracari, a toucan-like bird with yellow-ringed pupils, an elongated and tipped beak, and tufts of color. The pheasant-like currasow stood at the edge of its cage, near the signpost explaining what the bird was. The mighty jabiru stork made an impressive display of its wingspan for us. It supposedly is the tallest bird in the Americas and has one of the longest wingspans of any bird in existence today. There were parrots, egrets, a mottled owl and the crested guan. Belize's version of a wild turkey, the ocellated turkey, shared the cage with the guan.
The jabiru stork
We'd seen it on our trip to Caracol, flying over the road and into the forest.

One of the highlights of the visit to the zoo was the jaguar. We were lucky to catch her walking around the enclosure and then climbing onto a low-lying branch, sprawling out to lie down and then licking her paw. Beautiful creatures! The perfection of the spotted fur and her sleek movements. I caught a short video of her moving, which captivates me. Belize is home to the world's first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, located south of Dangriga and maintained by the Belize Audubon Society.

Another memorable creature was the harpy eagle.
Her royal highness, the jaguar
They had a male and a female, in two separate cages. They were the epitome of regal, with their heads erect and plumed, feathers in shades of ash gray and deep set eyes that commanded respect. The female had a stern look that connoted her power. I'd never seen these huge creatures (they were larger than a middle school-aged human), and they are indeed a rare find. I noticed on the Wikipedia page for "harpy eagle," a picture from the Belize Zoo is featured, which may be the male of the species that we'd seen.

Across from the harpy eagles was the kinkajou pen. We caught sight of the cute little guy curled up inside the hollow of a log. This member of the raccoon family has cute beady eyes and squiggly padded paws. I wanted reach through the fence and tickle its belly. It reminded me a little of another animal we'd seen earlier, the grison.
Harpy eagle
Grisons are much like ferrets and weasels. It was also very cute, and actually came all the way up to the fence and stuck its nose out to sniff me. It moved rapidly about its cage, but did not run, almost like a snake would move if it had legs and feet.

Other animals we saw included a white-tailed deer (venado), king vulture, ocelot, two kinds of peccary, puma, tayra, crocodiles, jaguarundi, gray fox, and a boa constrictor (in an aquarium, thankfully). We couldn't find the margay, although we looked in its cage, and we must have missed the tamandua altogether.
This little guy is a grison
The mosquitoes had been voracious throughout our visit, and we were anxious to get back on the road and to our final destination. But the zoo was definitely well-worth the diversion and mosquito bites. I was reminded of all the wildlife cards I had as a kid, with all the interesting animals and their habitats. Those cards, along with my stamp collection, instilled in me a sense of adventure and wonderment of what this world had to offer. I only wish I had started traveling earlier in my life and could figure out how to do it as a living!

Back on the road, we effectively hitchhiked our way onto a bus, although we had to pay another fare to get the remaining 30 miles to Belize City. A taxi whisked us from the bus stop to the water taxi stand, and we were ushered to the ticket booth, where we snagged two tickets for the 4:30 taxi to Caye Caulker. It was a little after 4pm. It really had taken all day to do this, but we were still on time.
I stood still long enough for the picture, but the mosquitoes were relentless
I had heard that the last water taxi was 5:30, but it would be nice to get there earlier. The ride took 45 minutes.

Before the water taxi took off, I ran across the street and grabbed some street food to calm our stomachs. We hadn't eaten all day, save for some crackers and granola bars in the morning. The chicken and rice was good and cheap, with a dash of Marie Sharp's, did the trick. I came to love the ubiquitous hot sauce. Before long, they called the passengers for the departure, and virtually everyone in the place got up and crowded around the small door to the dock. The first boat loaded up and left, and we were wondering what happened. Apparently, they don't just have one boat. The rest of us loaded onto the next boat and we were off. It didn't take long to load everyone on, despite the restlessness of the crowd. The seating was enclosed but unassigned, and we didn't really get a vantage point from where we sat.
Dangling flower at the zoo
Still, we could see the back of the boat and the trailing waves left behind as we sputtered away from Belize City.

It was not quite as easy finding a hotel as I thought it would be. Or maybe I should say finding an air-conditioned room was not as cheap as I had hoped it would be. We walked around the island a little while before settling on the Blue Wave Guest House, one of the few with an air-conditioned room. We would later discover that air conditioning was not as essential as it had been in San Ignacio or Flores, but at the time we were so overheated from the day's journey that we were willing to pay the double rates a/c required. Luckily, the guesthouse turned out to be a great place and an excellent location. We had a small porch with a hammock and our own bathroom, and of course the coveted cool air at our disposal. We were about 30 steps from the nearest water and a dock that belonged to the hotel.
Fast food Belize style, in Belize City
Also, across the street was Raggamuffin Tours, who we ended up doing a trip with later.

Ritualistically, we showed and changed and then headed out to explore the island and find a place to have dinner. We'd been recommended to try Rose's, near where we had gotten off the water taxi. In front of the restaurant was a large grill next to a display of seafood ready to be cooked. We simply pointed to what we wanted and the chef threw it on the grill, then we went in and actually told the server what we'd ordered. We both settled on the grouper kabobs, even though the lobster looked heavenly. We also ordered drinks: Mark got a rum punch special and I ordered a drink known as the "Panty Ripper," consisting of pineapple juice and coconut rum.
Mark's rum punch
Mark's drink came in a goblet a la the kind we had in Flores, whereas mine was in a small Belikin beer glass. Still, it was refreshing and tasty. Our meals arrived with a heaping portion of carrot rice and gingered carrots. Very satisfying!

Along the main street, which was a sandy lane separating the beach from the rows of hotels, restaurants and stores, vendors sold food, trinkets, desserts or just lingered about in true island fashion. We bought a small bottle of coconut rum and some pineapple juice and went back to the little porch to enjoy the first night on the island. It had been a long day and we finally had a blank slate for plans the next day, so we were in no hurry to go out or do anything but get some rest and enjoy some down time. We took the island motto to heart, "Go Slow." A warm breeze comforted us as if a lullaby and we both had the best night's sleep. It would be a well-chosen destination to end our trip.
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Good sayings on the Shaws bus--th…
Good sayings on the Shaw's bus--t…
This is April, the tapir!
This is April, the tapir!
A howler monkey, balls out!
A howler monkey, balls out!
The magnificent scarlet macaw
The magnificent scarlet macaw
An aracari
An aracari
The jabiru stork
The jabiru stork
Her royal highness, the jaguar
Her royal highness, the jaguar
Harpy eagle
Harpy eagle
This little guy is a grison
This little guy is a grison
I stood still long enough for the …
I stood still long enough for the…
Dangling flower at the zoo
Dangling flower at the zoo
Fast food Belize style, in Belize …
Fast food Belize style, in Belize…
Marks rum punch
Mark's rum punch
Lobsters on the barbie
Lobsters on the barbie
See the little guy on the lower le…
See the little guy on the lower l…
Cute little kinkajou
Cute little kinkajou
View of Belmopan
View of Belmopan
La Democracia
photo by: sayohat