The Long Way to Monkey River

Night Hiking in the Cockscomb Basin
  |  Gorp.com
Waterfall in Cockscomb Basin
Tranquil beauty in the Cockscomb wilds (Photo © Erik Gauger)

Driving south on the one highway that cuts through the Maya Mountains to Belize's southern border, we journey to the Cockscomb Basin, a jungle sanctuary that protects more jaguars than anywhere in the world. The Cockscomb is both hot and humid; even at night, beads of sweat drip down around your eyebrows. It's noisy, too, filled with the cacophony of croaking tree frogs and myriad squawking birds. We're forced to break mid-sentence to let the occasional overzealous crooning bird finish its skit.

The campsites, located near the park headquarters, are clean and well maintained, costing just $5 per night. Good enough reason for us to stay for a few days. Under a moonless sky, Vicente, the night warden of the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, joins us over beer at our campsite.

"I am from Red Bank," he says, "in Toledo District. I was a banana farmer, but since the hurricane I needed to find new work. So I come here."

"Red Bank is a Mayan town?" I ask.

"Yes, I am Kekchi. We are the people from the south. We have a different language than the Mopan and Yucatec, but we like to think of all the Mayans as one people."

"Kekchi's your native language?"

"Yes, Kekchi. I learn English and Spanish and Creole because those are the languages of Belize, but I was born first speaking Kekchi."

I ask my friend Vance if he'd like to go into the jungle to look for jaguars. It was, after all, a moonless night and jaguars rely on complete darkness to hunt. They smell, they see well. They pounce. They go for monkeys and turtles and turkeys. They like the smell of flesh.


Published: 16 May 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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