Belize Zoo

Our trip this past weekend was to take a local bus to the Zoo. Belize Zoo is world renowned apparently, for its policy for nurturing local endangered species. It came highly recommended by a number of folk. So we made our way past the infamous market to the bus terminal, and caught a bus destined to Dangrida. Belize City is a nipple of land about one third of the way down the coast line, which is predominantly swampy mangroves and salt marsh and a haven for wild life. There are 3 roads out – Northern Highway towards Orange Walk and Mexico; Western Highway towards Belmopan – the official capital city – and Guatemala; and a branch off Western Highway to the south, to Dangrida and Honduras. Each stop is called Mile 1, 7 etc. The zoo is Mile 28. The fare for both of us was BZ$4 one way, £1, cheaper than my bus fare into central Edinburgh from the flat!

Once again, we rediscovered in a multitude of ways the openheartedness we experienced on first arriving. It is so easy to get caught up in the issues surrounding us in a very small part of the city, and loose contact with the bigger picture. Inner cities are inner cities, wherever you live. This part of the Western Highway passes through land that is predominantly the same as around Belize City….scrub land, swamps, occasional fields, some agricultural merchandise and machinery, very few villages but more often clusters of houses. Some of these are on stilts, some free standing. Apparently you need the stilts in swampy land cos it stops your house from tilting if the stilts are sunk deep enough. Otherwise the ground level shifts too much with the dry periods or the rains.

Gradually we approached the lumpy limestone outcrops we had seen in the distance, covered in dense green foliage, and the conductor told us we were there. Once more the heat hit us as we got out of the bus and began to walk up the track into the zoo. We had all our gear – sun hats, sun cream, mozzie guard, water – and once more lamented the one thing we left behind. Some years ago Steve and Fi gave us an insulated holder for water (actually it’s a posh thing for wine on picnics, but we have used it for water in a number of places – Mexico, Greece, Malta) and found it a wonderful accompaniment to a walk. I left it in a bag on a hook in the back pantry, and that bag must be about the only thing in our house that did not get moved in our preparations to leave the house in spick and span order for holiday rentals. Bother.
So, we also had warm water with us!

The zoo is set within the jungle. It is large, spacious and created in such a way that apart from obvious fences etc., it blends into the canopy. This bit of jungle isn’t dense, but rather a sun-speckled medley of foliage – large trees, shorter ones, mixed deciduous and evergreen, all interspersed with the variegated orange, white, green and red leaves we associate with house plants in the UK. There are occasional lilies breaking through the ground, morning glory, and vines trailing from one tree to another. There is also a thick carpet of crunchy dried leaves…

….As I write the evening intense stickiness has broken and the rains have come. Such an atmospheric relief. The same happened yesterday evening and overnight – the sound of a bucket of water being dropped onto your roof, and then abruptly stopping…

The zoo. The paths are stony – and much better kept than Albert Street – and each animal has its name, photo and a few details clearly marked. Actually, each animal had 3 names: Latin, English and Creole. Thus the tapir is also known as the mountain cow. The zoo has a fun style of writing a short poem about each animal, geared predominantly for kids, explaining how each is an essential part of the Belizean heritage, and how they need to be carefully looked after and husbanded back into the wild.

There were fabulous creatures there – animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, those that inhabit the trees, 2 and 4 legged land creatures, and then the watery types – crocs, turtles, and beautiful storks. I forget its name and it’s not in my bird book, but something like Jashira.

Over and over again we became entranced. The spider monkeys, so called because of the way they use their very long tail so that they appear to have 5 limbs, and can just hang from any. One seemed to love to perform for us. He would bend in two, patting his chest as if taking a bow, before playing with some ropes and branches checking to watch us watching him. Another walked passed like a little old man on an evening stroll before climbing into the trees and immediately becoming infinitely more agile.

A beautiful mountain lion lay under the shade of a bush, yet like any cat would become alert the moment a gecko made its soft-shoe-scuttle somewhere in its vicinity. They had a fabulous collection of cats, including the mountain cat or ocelot, big leopards, black jaguars and spotted ones. The black jaguar looked just like a larger version of our big, black, sleek, handsome boy cat. (Now I understand why Jaguar cars were called Jaguar!)

The harpy eagle was marvellous! Huge, and almost extinct, it has a grey head with tufty eyebrows standing upright like a kingly crown, darker grey back, and sturdy legs like a Sumo wrestler. It has thighs big enough to feed a family barbecue, and thick yellow talons as big as a bear’s paw. The underside of the wings and the thighs are white speckled with dark grey- black, which gives the sense of ermine; again reinforcing the nobility of this largest member of the eagle kingdom. Its wing span is over six feet, and we discovered that if we jiggled the green water hose passing through its cage it held it down with its massive talons and spread its wings – quite magnificent!

There were so many more – smelly old Belizean version of boar; grey mountain fox; some relation to the otter that I had never heard of, with eyes on the side of its flat face a bit like a frog. They also have a rehabilitation programme. Because the jaguars’ natural prey are hunted almost to extinction, they are beginning to prey upon domestic animals or even people, which makes folk want to kill them. So now the ‘nuisance jaguars’ are brought to the zoo and rehabilitated so they only attack the ‘right’ things. It is apparently working very well.

We made our way around and out to our bus back. We had been recommended to stop off at Old Belize – 7 miles outside of the city – to see the marina, false beach area with water shoots and other water play, plus a good restaurant. The marina was full of very posh ‘gin palaces’ as Dad would say, as well as the tourist ferry boats, all docked for this rainy/hurricane season. We asked one of the men looking after the boats what they did with them in hurricane warnings. He said that the marina was at Latitude 17.5, so if the warning was coming in at 17.4 or 17.6, he left them there. If 17.5, a bevy of lads took them 90 miles south as quick as they could! The sea was a little clearer there than at Belize City, though the sediment from the Belize River (or worse) still seemed apparent to me and put me off a swim. We had a surprisingly good pizza, and enjoyed seeing all the local families eating together, or children frolicking in the water. It was good to remember the rest of the world outside of the few inner city streets.