By Pat Foster-Turley
July 7, 2022
Southeast Asia is getting to feel too far away for our vacations—we no longer have the fortitude to endure sixteen-plus hour flights in coach class nor the money to upgrade much beyond that. We have spent time in most Southeast Asian countries over the years, and we’ve decided now it’s time to travel closer to home. How about Central America? Surely we can find nature and interesting cultures to explore there.
Twenty-nine years ago I had an assignment with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to look at natural resources projects in Central America. The best part of this task was to accompany The Nature Conservancy staff in Belize in their small boat from Ambergris Caye to Placencia to look at budding tourism and conservation efforts in the country. I was impressed with Placencia, a small coastal tourist-free village in southern Belize. I knew it would be far from the same now, but with its location on a peninsula near coral reefs and mangroves and rain forests, it couldn’t be bad. So off we went.
Once in Placencia I was eager to revisit the nearby Monkey River so we booked a half day excursion there to see it again. And within a couple of minutes of chit chat, I found out that Jason, our local tour guide, was an intern with The Nature Conservancy back thirty years ago and we knew some of the same people! And now we are Facebook friends. How cool is that!
Jason steered his boat through mangrove channels and pointed out a nearby island with a lighthouse on it. This artificial island was built in recent years from the spoils from dredging the mainland port for large vessels in a joint venture between Norwegian Cruise Lines and the government of Belize. To look at the cruise line’s brochures, this island is a natural paradise with lots of local culture. Well, not really. No local people live there. Cruise passengers that land there are treated to man-made pools, and bars and lounge chairs, planted palm trees and a zip line emanating from a phony lighthouse that never lights. To get to Placencia passengers must pay a premium for a boat to take them there; otherwise they are still in an artificial world created just for them. You’ve been warned.
Our trip to Monkey River was much more real. On our boat ride up the river we gazed at crocodiles, tiny bats on a tree trunk, a handful of birds and some local fishermen. But Jason was determined to show us monkeys—the howler monkeys that gave the river its name. With no monkeys in sight along the banks Jason beached our small boat and, looking at the clouds, doled out raingear but only enough for two passengers, and alas, not Bucko and I.
We gingerly stepped ashore on the muddy bank in the rainforest and only got a few hundred feet from the boat when it started to pour. It was hot and wet and raining and slippery—a perfect way to view a rainforest. I thought it was hilarious, but Bucko not so much. Jason gamely showed us a land crab that skittered across the puddled trail and when no howler monkeys were evident he did his best to stir them up by smacking his machete loudly against a tree trunk, making noises that got their attention and started them doing their namesake howl. By then our mosquito repellent had washed off and we were awash with a cloud of biting mosquitos. It stopped being fun, even for me.
But soon we were on the boat again leaving the mosquitos behind and heading back to Monkey River Town, the “real” Belize, and not some cruise line fantasy. Jason has lived his entire life in Monkey River Town at the mouth of the river and he and his three teenage children makes up some of the 200 or less residents. We dried off and scarfed down a lunch the locals had prepared for us of coconut rice, beans and plantains washed down with ice-cold drinks. The older children were away at school, a twelve hour daily routine that involves a boat trip across the river and a long bus trip to the nearest high school, then back again in reverse. Locals were repairing fishing nets and traps, and everyone seemed happy to chat with us.
On the boat trip back to Placencia we lingered a bit in an area of sea grass beds watching manatees sticking their snouts above the water to breathe than sinking away again. And soon enough we were back in Placencia for another week to explore some more.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]