Cover story Jaguars lurk near a luxurious forest retreat. Brilliant birds fill the sky above. But which species will Ben Ross add to his Life List?
"Calvin Klein's Obsession," said Roni, leaning round from the front seat of the 4x4. "That's what they use in Guatemala. They put it on a tampon and leave it near the camera traps." The car lurched over the pitted, clay-red road and he turned back to squint through the dust-caked windscreen. Scattered pines spiked to the left and right, flame-blackened survivors of forest fires and southern pine beetle plague. Above us, vultures circled. "Seriously?" I asked. "Seriously," he replied. "But I don't know if it works."
Roni Martinez is conservation officer at Blancaneaux Lodge, a gracious bit of tourism infrastructure in a particularly peculiar part of Belize. Take those pines, for example. Much of this country is clad in broad-leaf rainforest, damp and exotic, full of orchids and bromeliads, strangler figs, vines and creepers. Huge palms stretch upwards. Ferns shoot sail-like fronds up to the canopy. Below all the dripping vegetation lies soft limestone, riddled with caves and cenotes, once thought by the ancient Mayans to be the gateways to the underworld.
However, the area around Blancaneaux, known as Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, is a geological oddity. It's a huge granite massif, which means acid soil: no good for rainforests, but perfect for the Honduras pine, with its long, elegant needles. There's still plenty of moisture around, but the hard bedrock sees the rains flow straight off the land into rivers: the Macal, Rio Frio, Rio On and Privassion Creek, which flows past Blancaneaux in cascades of swirling brown.
It's as if 200 square miles of Scotland have been displaced to Central America, pumped up with sunshine and hung with termite mounds and wasps' nests. The off-kilter familiarity is all the more intriguing when you learn that hiding among the pines, securely camouflaged in the dappled shade, are jaguars, the largest of Belize's five wild-cat species. Elusive, magnificent, spotty, they dine on armadillo and paca (a kind of burrowing rodent). They are also, according to Roni, attracted to Calvin Klein's iconic fragrance. Or not, of course.
Let's get this out of the way now: I failed to spot a jaguar during my time in the wilds of Belize, and it is highly likely that should you visit, you will fail to spot a jaguar too. Neil Rogers, a tourism consultant who has a long association with Blancaneaux Lodge, has been coming to Belize since 1989. He has never seen a jaguar in the wild. He can spot big cat tracks, though, at one point asking Roni to stop the 4x4. We all crouched next to a set of sizeable paw prints, with parts of a dismembered grey fox nearby, the jawbone gleaming pale against the red earth. Paw prints, then, but no paws: you're about as likely to see an E-Type cavorting over these rutted trails as you are to see the real thing.
According to Roni, the odds don't improve particularly should you be keen to spot any of Belize's other wild felines: the puma (pale and interesting), the jaguarundi (like a big red house cat), the ocelot and the margay (both spotty, but smaller than jaguars). On a cat-scanning night walk close to the lodge, the rain hissing on the canopy above, we saw nothing bigger than butterflies and leaf- cutter ants.
It's all very different in the morning, though, when Belize hits you right between the ears. Round here, dawn breaks with what sounds like a flock of squeaky garden gates passing overhead. Then some clicks, some whoops and the beginnings of free-form jazz noodlings: clarinet trills, trumpet calls. The local bird-life is awake, abundant and demanding your attention.
Fuelled up on coffee and a determination to see Belize's national icon, the keel-billed toucan, I met up with Geraldo Garcia, a guide at the lodge, for a 6am birdwatching session. Geraldo made up for my non-existent twitching skills with a running commentary on what we were seeing and hearing. …