My wife, Carol, and I were staying at a nature lodge near Gallon Jug, Belize called Chan Chich – Mayan, we were told, for Little Bird. The lodge was situated in the plaza of a Mayan temple complex. What appeared to be hills surrounding the lodge were ancient temples, now overgrown with tropical forest.
The cottage we occupied was faced on three sides with a covered porch that hosted a couple of chairs and, along one side, a canvas hammock. The single large room had a dresser and a chair and a queen-sized bed. The ceiling was open, and we could see the palm-leaf thatch that covered it. It was, however, completely water-proof. That was a necessity since we were in the ‘little dry season’ between seasonal rains. As with most tropical forest Chan Chich basically had two seasons, the wet and the dry. In the middle of the wet was a less rainy period called the little dry season. The little dry was not a big tourist season, so only one or two other families were staying at the lodge.
Carol and I were both products of the western U.S. I was raised in the deserts and Carol in Denver, Colorado. We had met in graduate school in southern New Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert. However, we had done post-doctoral training in Florida and had visited Puerto Rico, so we had a smidgen of understanding of tropical environments. We had not realized just how tropical Florida was until we drove from the airport in Belize City to Gallon Jug with our friends Bruce and Carolyn.
We were simply amazed to see pine flatwoods with palmetto trees that looked just like those we had known in Florida. As we moved into the interior of Belize, however, the environment changed and became truly tropical forest – jungle. We had seen similar forest in Puerto Rico in El Yunque National Forest, but the Belizean forest was different. Towering trees, most of which I couldn’t name, other than knowing that some of them were figs – that is in the genus Ficus. There were also mahogany trees, which provided a lumber industry. We saw numerous stacks of logs and logging trucks.
We were in Belize as guests of our friends who lived in Gallon Jug. Bruce and Carolyn were conducting research into aspects of the Belizean fauna for an international wildlife conservation group. Bruce was doing studies of bats using their echolocation calls to identify the various species and how they utilized the forest and the open areas created by agriculture or logging. Carolyn was in the midst of a study trying to identify individual jaguars by their tracks. I was there to try to help her with the statistical analyses. Similar work had been done in India on tigers and in North America on pumas. The prior studies had shown that multivariate analysis of measurements of components of the animals’ tracks could be used to identify individual animals. With that information, it seemed possible to get a handle on how many jaguars occupied an area. The statistics were complex and sophisticated, but we had software to do the calculations and plot the results. I was trying to help Carolyn sort out what measurements worked best and how to interpret the plots of the results of the analysis. As it turned out, the technique worked well in a relatively small, local area, but could not be expanded to large species-range sized regions.
In between bouts of cussing and discussing the data, we touristed. My wife, Carol, wandered around the place while Carolyn and I were at the computers. It was about a mile or so from Bruce and Carolyn’s house on top of a hill – I believe it was a real hill, not a temple mound – to the lodge. Carol walked, one day, the entire distance. There was a dump along the road between the house and the lodge. It was the feeding ground for 20 or 30 black vultures. There was a meadow along the same stretch of road, and Carol saw several deer feeding there.
Bruce and Carolyn took us on a couple of drives around the area. At one place, we were treated to the sight of a tremendous old mahogany – a patriarch of the forest and one of the few ancient ones left. We stood on top of a small mountain and could see into Guatemala. We visited a place called Lago Seco, dry lake, which was not dry when we were there and was full of some sort of cichlid fish.
The economy of Gallon Jug revolved primarily around the production of coffee. We visited one of Gallon Jug’s plantings of shade-grown coffee. Gallon Jug was part of a private land-holding, a plantation, which had been declared to be a wildlife preserve by its owner. Hence, Chan Chich Lodge and a small nature tourist industry existed, and Carolyn and Bruce’s opportunities to do research were maintained.
Belize has a significant coastal tourist economy, but, at least in 2000, it had not penetrated inland to any great extent – or least that was my understanding. Several Maya temple sites in the interior that had been excavated had become tourist destinations, and Tikal in Guatemala was and is a major tourist attraction. Nature lodges such as Chan Chich were not considered as major tourist sites, and most of them were in the southern portion of Belize. Chan Chich was the only such facility in northwestern Belize.