UPDATE August 2012: Since our visit to Ballum Na Lodge and the other resorts operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions a disturbing series of events has taken place which has resulted in the death by starvation of one of the jaguars we speak about in this post (the spotted one) and the near starvation of his all-black brother. The surviving jaguar has been relocated to the Belize Zoo for rehabilitation. It was reported that Ballum Na Lodge has been burned to the ground by unknown persons. Former employees are claiming they have not been fully paid.The website for Belize Lodge & Excursions (BLE) has also been suspended. We are obviously horrified that any animal should starve to death in captivity, let alone rare jaguars, and if workers have been mistreated or underpaid that’s unacceptable as well. We saw no evidence of either problem when we were at Ballum Na or during any of our conversations with BLE managing director Ken Karas.
Our original post is below. It contains information and images that were accurate and verified at the time of our visit. Things have obviously deteriorated horribly since then.
Belize is full of remote and wild places like La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in the northern jungles and Turneffe Atoll out in the impossibly blue ocean. But Belize Lodge & Excursions (BLE) has created a small collection of unique lodges that take visitors deep into the wilderness, and in rare form–no roads, resident jaguars, a private island and the best jungle bird-watching platform we’ve ever seen.
Ballum Na Lodge
No TVs. No phones. No Wi-Fi. Just jungle. That’s Ballum Na just north of Punta Gorda off the Southern Highway. The lodge has plenty of roomy porches and a lovely rooftop escape with chairs and views but odds are you will spend most of your time looking down.
As the lodge’s name implies, this is the Jaguar House (Ballum Na means house of the jaguar in Mayan) and the real stars of the lodge are a pair of jaguar brothers (one a rare black jaguar) which were inherited from a breeding program run by Xcaret in Mexico.
To accommodate the big cats, Ballum Na was built around an enormous zoo-quality enclosure. You enter the lodge via a walkway that sweeps around and above the enclosure and one of the lodge’s four rooms has a wall of windows that looks down on the jaguars. The cats spend the night in a cage directly under this room and when we slept there we could feel and hear their rumblings off and on all night. When they took a break the silence was deafening.
During the day the jaguars roam and posture in their roomy fenced in habita and the view of them from our room made us feel like we were in Caesar’s box at the Coliseum, minus the gladiators. To say this room is unique is an understatement.
A wild female jaguar comes around the enclosure on a regular basis to check out the boys behind bars. Maybe that’s why the brothers don’t get along, as their multiple scars attest.
Check out our brief video, shot from our bedroom, to see (and hear) the jaguars at Ballum Na Lodge.
Ballum Na is literally the end of the road so transferring from Ballum Na to Jungle Camp requires a two hour boat trip along the Golden Stream (no jokes) which winds through acres and acres of untouched jungle. The ride is incredibly peaceful–both because of the natural silence and the scenery and because Belize Lodge & Excursions uses nearly silent, non-polluting electric engines for its boats.
The area is wildlife rich, especially the river which is a magnet for everything living in the jungle. We were hoping to finally see a tapir (the national animal of Belize). The strange pig-meets-anteater creatures are plentiful here. We saw lots of tapir tracks down to the water’s edge, but no tapirs.
We did see a troop of howler monkeys, lots of birds and a big boa constrictor warming itself up on the riverbank–the first boa we’ve ever seen though, surely, not the first one that’s seen us.
The riverbank was also home to a crazy flower called a Aristolochia grandiflora–but you can call it a Pelican Flower. It grows on a vine, often along riverbanks, and the blooms we saw were nearly a foot long with a four foot tail coming off it.
The thing has a smell that humans hate, but bugs love the stench until they realize they’re trapped inside the flower. From there there’s only one way out, a route which forces the insects to help pollinate the flower. Very Little Shop of Horrors.
Around a bend in the river, Jungle Camp suddenly appeared like a mirage. It’s got more than a little bit of the look and feel of African jungle lodges with a huge and welcoming common room and 10 thatch-roof bungalows strung out like jewels along a raised walkway that’s high enough off the ground to stay out of the way of high water. It’s not fancy, but it is very well done and the quality of the food was a delicious surprise.
In another attempt to see tapirs we got back on Golden Stream at dusk for a night tour. The water was so calm it was like velvet or mercury. Despite our best spotting efforts we still got back to the lodge with no tapir sighting which shocked the excellent guides who said they see tapir all the time–along with all of the cats in the jungle including jaguars.
The next morning we were up before dawn with other visual prey in mind: birds. Bird watching at Jungle Camp is no passive stroll through the jungle, neck craned to the tree tops, hands clutching binoculars. Here, you enter the bird’s world via a unique aluminum platform 100 feet up in a ceiba tree. Mayans consider the ceiba to be a sacred link to the underworld. In this case, it was our link to the canopy.
Using techniques developed by wildlife film makers to craft perches from which to observe and film wildlife, the lightweight platform is rigged to a section of branches and trunk without ever penetrating the bark of the tree. As the tree grows the platform, which completely encircles the trunk, raises higher into the air right along with it.
The only way up to or down from the platform is in a seat-like harness which the guides hoist up using a rope pulley system. This ensures you are fully awake by the time you reach the platform. With weather rolling in the birds were laying low the morning we made the journey up the tree, but it was still spectacular to be in the canopy. Truly one of the best bird watching locations we’ve ever seen.
Check out our video, below, for a 360 degree, birds-eye view from the amazing platform 100 feet (30 meters) up in a sacred ceiba tree.
Moho Cay private island
A restaurant and collection of 10 bungalows take up practically every inch of tiny Moho Cay, part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. BLE bought the island from the previous private owner and was granted the right to continue operating the lodge here even though it falls within the protected area.
The result is absolute serenity. Karen spent almost an entire day napping which, it’s fair to say, almost never happens. Bungalows employ an innovative mix of room-size soft-sided tents with a thatch roof over them and breezy porches built off the front practically over the gently lapping water.
The warm shallows around Moho Cay are full of red starfish and small stingrays and snorkeling gear is available as are fishing excursions–though those activities would require getting up from your nap.
As impressive as jaguars and private islands and ceiba tree bird watching platforms are, the innovative environmental work of BLE owner Ken Karas, an enthusiastic realist with Theodore Roosevelt hair, is even more ambitious and noteworthy.
Ken, an accomplished wildlife film maker who has worked on projects around the world for National Geographic, PBS and others, has amassed (and protected) hundreds of thousands of acres of land. His goal is to create vast wildlife corridors–essential to healthy migration and breeding patterns for dozens of species, including jaguars–ultimately traversing the entire country.
His string of lodges exists on a corridor that connects the last stretch of lowland broadleaf habitat (at Ballam Na) in the interior with the coastal habitat and the sea (at Moho Cay, via Jungle Camp). When we met him Ken he was in the process of acquiring 20,000 new acres of land which would provide the only connection between two inland “islands” of land in the north.
How does he work on such a large scale? He makes the land pay for its own protection. By having his land carbon certified it pays to keep the jungle pristine. Simply put, Ken is able to calculate the value of all that healthy jungle exhaling out all that clean air, then sell those carbon credits to corporations required to offset their pollution. Make a profit. Buy more land. Repeat.
Read more about travel in Belize