The town of Orange Walk is the main stop on the road through northern Belize from southern Mexico, and unless you like Chinese restaurants (of which it has an amazing number), the only real reason to stop here is to see the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. But it’s well worth stopping, not only for Lamanai itself but for the beautiful and fascinating boat trip to get there.
Lamanai is located deep in the Belizean jungle, once exploited by British loggers for its mahogany and logwood, which was used to make indigo. You can get there by car if you don’t mind loosening a few teeth on the unpaved roads, but most people opt for a scenic one-and-a-half-hour boat ride down the New River.
The river got its name because the British loggers began to use it as a logging route after they’d cleaned out the lands around the first Belize River. But despite the intensive logging, the river still looks almost untouched, lined with dense stands of cypress and other local trees, and populated by an amazing variety of birds, animals and reptiles. Best of all, it’s a beautiful place.
If you’re looking for thrills, the ride down the river is a good choice. Our boat powered through the water at breakneck speed, carving fast turns around the many bends in the river. But our boatman, Guadelupe, was more than willing to throttle back whenever he saw things of interest, and there were many.
Only a few minutes into the trip, he drifted near the bank to show us one of the river’s most sinister denizens, a huge crocodile. This one was sunning himself, while shedding some heat by propping his mouth open. He wasn’t perturbed by having an audience: when you have rows of fearsome teeth and lightning-quick jaws, I guess these things don’t bother you.
A few minutes later, Guadelupe slid the boat up to a tree branch that at first glance seemed to hold … nothing. A closer look revealed a lovely little nighthawk dozing away the morning. True to their name, these birds get active at night, scooping up insects as they fly. During the day, they doze — but this one was keeping an eye just a little open to make sure we didn’t get too close.
A little farther on, Guadelupe pulled the boat up to a stand of cypress trees at the waterside. “Look at the trunk of the trees,” he said, “and you’ll see some bats.”
I peered at the trees, now only a few feet away. I saw nothing — until a dozen bats took off right under my nose and flew into the nearby thicket. Luckily, one flew back so I could get a picture, and here it is: a proboscis bat. It may not be cute, but when it comes to camouflage, it’s hard to beat.
As we pulled away, Guadelupe showed us another oddity of the New River, a plant called the snake cactus. Though it’s a true cactus, it winds its way around a living tree like a strangler fig, and uses it as a host.
As I’ve written here, I love to do some birding when I travel. And the trip down the river produced another rarity, one I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time: an anhinga. These “snake birds”, as they’re sometimes called, are one of the oddballs of the bird world.
Rather than plunging into the water to catch fish, the anhinga swims along with only its snake-like neck and head sticking out of the water. When it finds a fish, it spears it with its pointed bill, throws it up in the air and catches it. After its meal, it sits on a branch to dry off because of its other odd feature: its feathers aren’t waterproof.
This one posed like a beauty queen, and I managed to get a classic shot for my collection.
Further along, we came across an unexpected sight: a Mennonite farm. While much of the country’s population is black, Latino, indigenous or some mixture of the three, the country has a sizeable population of German-speaking Mennonites, who came from Mexico and Canada to escape government regulation, such as joining social security programs.
There are progressive Mennonites, mainly from Canada, and traditional ones, like this farmer hauling some sugar cane with a horse-drawn wagon. But they’re all an odd sight on the streets of Orange Walk, with their blond hair, checked shirts and cowboy hats.
Lamanai itself was well worth the trip, but it deserves a post of its own, so stay tuned. For now, enough to say that the trip back to Orange Walk was more for the scenery than the wildlife, since the birds and animals seek the shade when the sun gets high.
There was one treat left, though. As we neared town, Guadelupe stopped beside a tall tree, where we were greeted by this spider monkey. A graduate of a local centre where animals are rehabilitated after being kept as pets, he was deemed too tame to survive in the jungle. So he was given his freedom, and acts as an unofficial greeter — for the price of a few bananas. It’s not a perfect arrangement, for sure, but he seems happy enough.
I wasn’t expecting a lot from the trip down the New River, Belize, but it turned out to be a great experience. Besides the creatures pictured here, we saw iguanas, howler monkeys, herons, egrets, jacanas and snail kites by the riverside. And the river itself was beautiful, as all jungle rivers are.
I was tempted to stay another day, just to enjoy the scenery and see the birds. But sometimes, you just have to push on …