ORANGE WALK TOWN, Belize -- The less-than-sonorous squawk of parrots woke me at dawn. St. Christopher's Hotel is located on the edge of Orange Walk, a town about 65 miles northwest of Belize City, but it sounded as if we were on the edge of the jungle. Indeed, in Belize, the edge of town is the edge of the jungle.
Belize boasts the highest percentage of protected land in the Western Hemisphere: Almost half of its 8,800 square miles is protected by a network of national parks and nature reserves. In an area that is roughly the size of Massachusetts, vast stretches of rain forest are almost untouched.
While tourism is the mainstay of the economy, the focus in Belize, which lies on the Caribbean Sea next to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula (to the north) and Guatemala (west), and Honduras (to the south), is on ecotourism, an attempt to use tourist dollars to preserve these natural resources. The idea is that small-scale, non intrusive tourism adds value to wildlife conservation, while contributing directly to local communities. I was about to experience firsthand what ecotourism is all about.
My wake-up call was an auspicious start to the day. I had come to Belize in hopes of catching a glimpse of its national bird, the famous keel-billed toucan . We've all seen this big-beaked buzzard following his nose in search of breakfast cereal, but I wanted to spot the real thing in its natural habitat in the wilds of the Belizean rain forest. The setting for my search: the slow-moving New River, a lazy waterway winding through miles of Atlantic rain forest and teeming with wildlife. By all accounts, it was a birder's paradise.
My guide: Orlando the ornithologist, so dubbed for his amazing ability to identify -- down to the species, gender , and age -- just about every bird sighted along the river. Orlando claims an intimate knowledge of 98 species of tropical birds; in one day, we would see more than 30.
My companions: Sharon, a professional bird trainer at an aviary in Salt Lake City, and her husband , Michael. It was Sharon who , within two minutes of our departure, spotted the awkward northern jacana strutting his stuff across some lily pads. Sharon explained that the bird's disproportionately long toes allow it to walk on floating vegetation and to feast on the bugs and mollusks living there. I was impressed, by both the jacana and Sharon's knowledge. ``Yes, my wife is a bird nerd," Michael boasted.
Our destination: Lamanai, a remote archeological site containing the ruins of hundreds of Mayan temples. Lamanai comes from the original Maya name, ``Lama'an ayin," meaning ``submerged crocodile." This name would prove appropriate.
The 30-mile journey from Orange Walk to Lamanai normally takes about an hour, but our trip turned into a three-hour odyssey, as Orlando indulged his bird-loving clients. He steered the six-seat motorboat around the twists and turns of the jungle river, stopping to point out an elegant anhinga posed on the riverbank. He spotted a coy grey-neck wood-rail hiding among the reeds. Our boat drifted close enough for us to catch the shy bird's pink legs, yellow beak, and blue-brown feathers on film. At one point, Orlando insisted that we keep our eyes on an overhang that seemed absent any fauna. Our boat floated within a few feet, and the tree's bark erupted, as dozens of startled little proboscis bats not 3 inches long fluttered into our faces and dispersed.
The only development along the river between Orange Walk Town and Lamanai is a Mennonite farm. A Germanic religious group that eschews modern conveniences and military service, the Mennonites found their way to what was then British Honduras in 1958. Having come into conflict with governments in Mexico, Canada, and several European countries, they were eager to settle in a place where they would be able to work the land and live out their conservative values, without outside interference. Belize turned out to be a good fit. Today, Mennonites are about 4 percent of the population (of about 285,000), yet they produce much of the country's food.
A lone man dressed in overalls and a floppy hat sat on the dock at the Mennonite settlement outside of Orange Walk. He observed us as curiously as we observed him while we slowly motored past.
We spent several minutes idling, trying to get a good look at a boatbill heron . Bluish in color and squat in stature, it stood in stark contrast to its more elegant heron cousins. As Orlando finally allowed the boat to drift away, Michael gasped, ``A baby croc!" The young reptile was inches from our boat, camouflaged among the reeds and lilies, exposed only by his enormous eyeballs and spiny snout. It was the ``submerged crocodile" to which the Maya referred. This baby was too small to be scary, unlike the Morelet's crocodile (also known as the Belize crocodile) we would see on our return trip, sitting on a log with his jaws open wide, waiting to snap up any prey that came close.
We finally arrived at Lamanai, which is a part of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area . Archeologists believe that the site contains hundreds of Mayan temples, only a few of which have been excavated. Orlando explained that the area is flat lowlands; each mound we climbed was another temple, covered by hundreds of years of overgrowth. The temples -- pyramid-shaped structures with no apparent interior -- invite climbing and exploring and gazing over the treetops.
A deep howl resounded in the air, making me think we had entered a haunted forest. I felt a shiver run down my spine, but Orlando just smiled. ``Howler monkeys ," he explained. Their namesake howl, audible for miles around (they are the loudest land animal), warns competing animals away from their territory. We could not see them, but they made their presence known.
We clambered over 100 feet to the top of the High Temple for a panoramic view of the New River Lagoon . When it was built in 100 BC, the temple was the tallest structure in the Mayan world. It might have been called the steep temple, I thought, as I stared straight down at Orlando, who appeared tiny at the base of the structure, and wondered how I would get down.
Exhausted from our day of exploration, we sat on the lower steps of the Mask Temple , hoping for one last wildlife sighting -- a grand finale -- before we returned to Orange Walk Town. We could hear two howler monkeys sharing a feast in the treetops, but they were barely visible through the branches. Suddenly I noticed a rustle of leaves, a flash of black -- was it howlers?
I stared at the dark figure, not a mammal but a bird, complete with vibrant yellow chest and Fruit Loop-colored beak. It was none other than a keel-billed toucan. He hopped around the heights of the mango tree, enjoying a late lunch with his mate.
Unable to contain my excitement, I waved my companions over. Sharon gazed through her binoculars, marveling at the toucan's rainbow of colors in the dark green canopy. ``Look at you, gorgeous," she crooned, ``frolicking in the wild, just as you are meant to."
And that is what ecotourism is all about.
Contact Mara Vorhees, a freelance writer in Somerville, at email@example.com.