We were in a hurry. The border crossing from Chetumal, Mexico to Corozal, Belize was painless, however, it still took longer than we anticipated to get to the border and then get across it. With dusk approaching we drove through Orange Walk Town, made our turn toward a village called Yo Creek then high-tailed it north toward Chan Chich Lodge in northern Belize, jouncing over increasingly pot-holed dirt roads interspersed with even more brutal sections of eroded-pavement (there’s a reason most lodge guests fly in).
About an hour later we miraculously hit smooth pavement: we’d reached the Blue Creek area which was settled by members of a Mennonite community who live and farm in this part of Belize. The Mennonites, apparently, hate pot holes as much as we do.
Too soon, we left the Mennonites and their lovely smooth road and continued on through larger and larger stretches of thick jungle and deeper and deeper pot holes.
Reaching Chan Chich Lodge as dusk fell was, however, worth every bump. Chan Chich opened in 1988 at the pointy end of the nature resort trend and continues to get rave reviews more than 20 years later.
The thing at Chan Chich isn’t the luxury, though there’s plenty of that. The lodge’s 12 bungalows (plus one full house) are atmospheric and absolutely comfortably appointed with ample porches and yummy beds. The service is great. The pool is inviting. The food is superb. For more, read our full profile of Chan Chich Lodge for iTraveliShop.
The real clincher at Chan Chich is the setting. Not just deep in the jungle (it is), Chan Chich was literally built amongst unexcavated Mayan ruins. Believed to have been inhabited as far back as 770 BC, the complex includes two large plazas, numerous courtyards and other structures including a ballcourt.
Chan Chich Lodge occupies what was one of the plazas and the mounds of the other structures and sites dot the surrounding acres–many linked via well-maintained jungle trails so you can explore them whenever you feel like unleashing your inner Indy.
The lodge provides plenty of other reasons to hit the trails too and we took advantage of morning and evening walks during which we spotted (with a lot of help from the experienced lodge guides) more than 20 species of birds that we’d never seen before including a stately white hawk and the impossible-looking keel-billed toucan. While the big prize, the jaguar, eluded us other guests did see a puma the night before we arrived.
Your most common companions at Chan Chich will also be your wake up calls. As the sun rises, howler monkey family groups begin to stir in the canopy surrounding the lodge and as they do they begin to howl. True to their name, these small black monkeys really let loose with a roar that sounds like pure evil, even thought the monkeys themselves are harmless their brief, daily racket sounds like a bunch of crazed serial killers with heat stroke. You’ll get used to it.
Sleep through the howlers and you’ll be roused by the ocellated turkeys. Once common throughout the region but now considered threatened, these delicious birds (that’s the problem) are more peacock than turkey with iridescent feathers, glow-in-the-dark head warts and a distinctive call that includes a bit of gobbling plus a series of thumps that builds into a noise that sounds like someone trying to start a stubborn motorcycle or an uncooperative lawn mower. Really, you won’t think it’s a bird at all (get the full effect in our video a bit later in this post).
Chan Chich is owned by the Bowen family which also owns Belikin Beer, the only beer made in Belize. The family also owns nearby Gallon Jug which is part working cattle ranch, part coffee plantation, part self-contained town and part privately owned conservation area. They’re doing a good job at all four endeavors–their beef and their coffee are both excellent and the thousands of acres the Bowen family currently owns and protects (things are that big out here) form part of a vital wildlife habitat and migration corridor.
Check out our video, below, to see and hear ocellated turkeys in all their unique glory.
In the 1980s the Bowen family sold off more than 100,000 acres of their land to help create the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. At 260,000 acres, the RBCMA is the second largest single protected area in Belize encompassing 4% of the country’s land mass. The RBCMA is home to 200 species of trees, 390 species of birds, 70 species of mammals and—most importantly—all of the big cats that are native to Central America, including what some consider to be the healthiest population of jaguars in the region.
Programme for Belize runs the RBCMA including its two field stations (La Milpa and Hill Bank) which each offer dorms, bungalows and a restaurant for visiting researchers and travelers.
In January of 2010 the La Milpa Field Station unveiled eight new bungalows and a refurbished dorm building and all of the accommodations are sparkling clean and more than comfortable with plenty of space and private bathrooms (in the bungalows) or giant inviting shared bathrooms in the dorm (which is usually booked by visiting research and university groups).
There’s even a kitchen which turns out simple but tasty meals all day. Even better, every single tourism dollar gathered at La Milpa Field Station and Hill Bank Field Station (which offers similar accommodations) goes to support the non-profit Programme For Belize.
Another great reason to visit the La Milpa field station is manager Vladimir Rodriguez, aka The Bird Ninja. With more than 10 years of experience in and around La Milpa, Vladimir literally knows this jungle like the back of his had. More importantly, he knows the hundreds of species of birds that live in or migrate through this area. He knows them by sight. He knows them by habit. He knows them by call.
He knows them so well that one minute he can be pointing out an unsettlingly tiny green-breasted mango hummingbird in its delicate nest, then hear a call behind him and whip around to precisely point to a red-throated ant tanager on a branch behind us. That’s why we call him The Bird Ninja. His skills helped us spot more than 50 species of birds in just two days at La Milpa Field Station.
Yeah, we sound like a couple of nutty birders now but that’s what a few days in the jungle with Vladimir will do to you. You have been warned.
Darkness doesn’t bring an end to the wildlife spotting in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, it just means there are different creatures to look for. Armed with a range of high-powered flashlights (including our beloved SureFire flashlights), we hopped into the bed of a truck and headed out on a night safari along a dirt road.
New and different birds presented themselves, including an owl-like thing called a northern potoo. We also got the chance to see a gray-tailed fox which, we were told, can climb trees, and the Ninja spotted a tiny Yucatan banded gecko. Don’s ask us how.
As if all that wildlife wasn’t enough, La Milpa Filed Station also has its own ancient Mayan ruins. The La Milpa site, about three miles from the Field Station, is largely unexcavated but has been researched and explored for years–currently by profs, students and researchers from the University of Texas.
The La Milpa site hasn’t been all dug up and reconstructed like other Mayan archaeological sites in the region (Lamanai, Altun Ha). This means a lot is left to your imagination and that makes it really engaging and fun to wander around the mounds and just picture what the city might have been like.
La Milpa is also very lightly visited so you and Vladimir (as a guide) are likely to have the place to yourself except for the resident spider monkeys and other creatures. Not far from the La Milpa site we actually saw claw marks and a scent patch in the ground from a cat who’d passed through earlier in the day.
Glad We Had:
Bilstein monotube gas-pressure shock absorbers which evened out the miles and miles of pot holes we faced between Orange Walk Town and the remote Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.
Our BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires which never sucummed to the jagged rocks along the way.
SureFire M6 Guardian flashlights which kicked out more than enough light to illuminate large sections of canopy and jungle floor, helping us spot wildlife (including a gray-tailed fox) during night safaris.
Point6 wool socks, which kept our feet dry and cool no matter how much jungle tramping we did.
Read more about travel in Belize