Jaguars, toucans and talking kangaroos
On safari in Belize with a visionary eco-tour outfit
Zach Stovall / Caribbean Travel & Life

This story begins in 1972, when a Long Island-based outdoors writer named Nick Karas takes his 12-year-old son Ken out of school to go on a safari the entire length of Africa, from Cairo to the Cape. A precocious lad, Ken brings along a 16 mm camera to film the adventure — and a career is born. Ken grows up to be a successful wildlife filmmaker, shooting for months on end in the wilds of Central America and Africa, and showcasing his work on prestigious outlets like National Geographic and PBS. Along the way he cultivates a profound appreciation for and understanding of nature. He learns skills that few sons of Long Island ever come to master, such as how to capture fierce predators. He learns the art of patience. And even after the video age sets off an explosion of exploitative wildlife programming that prompts Ken to retire from the nature-show business, all the special knowledge he acquired will be needed for his second career: environmental conservationist.

Karas’ bold plan is to rescue a precious piece of the natural world that he has come to know well from his film projects — in southern Belize, a corner of the Caribbean where the Yucatán Peninsula joins the isthmus of Central America — and he’ll do it by establishing a circuit of five small, up-market lodges along the lines of the best safari camps in Africa, where the guests are few, the hospitality and guiding excellent. So far, he’s got two up and running.

We land in Belize City and catch a 45-minute flight to Punta Gorda, where we’re greeted by a driver whose facial features, if they weren’t so smiley, could come straight from an ancient Maya frieze. Three-quarters of an hour later he delivers us to Karas’ Indian Creek Lodge, the flagship of his Belize Lodge Expeditions (BLE). It’s a constellation of 12 thatched-roof huts garlanding a gentle hill set in lowland tropical broadleaf forest on the coastal plain between the Maya Mountains and the sea nine miles to the east. At the dining-reception pavilion, we are greeted by the manager, also a local Maya, who offers a tray of chilled towels for us to freshen up with. A barman presents us with glasses of delicious, freshly blended pineapple and watermelon juice.

After a quick lunch of grilled chicken wraps, we are joined by Ken, who’s in his mid-40s and dressed like he’s still on safari: hiking boots and green bush clothes lightly splattered with mud. In manner, he is at once humbly unassuming and take-charge; he’s busy, so let’s get going. He wants to give us the nickel tour of the grounds before dashing off to meet his wife, whom he refers to as the Mayan Princess, and their two daughters.

We pile into his four-wheel drive, and as we bounce around the grounds, Ken explains that he didn’t choose the location simply because he fell in love with the land and the Princess. This chunk of property is strategically located in the midst of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, a species-rich sliver of the Meso-American Biological Corridor, which is an effort to connect key environments and provide native plants and animals a contiguous natural pathway from Mexico to Panama. The BLE lodges will link a variety of protected habitats from the mountains to the Caribbean cays; the goal is to allow wildlife to recover to levels prevalent between the Maya era and the modern one. In so doing, he is helping to maintain the economic viability and cultural integrity of the indigenous Maya, who live a lifestyle fundamentally similar to that of their forbears centuries ago. Partly because his plan is current with major international trends in conservation and ecotourism (“We hit all the buttons,” he says), Karas has garnered support from top environmental organizations (Conservation International, Flora and Fauna International and the Nature Conservancy).

In relating the history of the mission, Karas rattles off a blur of factoid-filled information about the scale of the task of reclaiming the land from the depredations of the previous owner who grew bananas and logged timber; about digging huge ponds to build up bird populations; about the for-export vegetable-growing operation; about the forestry project that’s already sold mahogany to be harvested 20 years hence; about the anti-poaching patrols ... the animal orphanage ... the new lodge under construction and the plans for future ones ...

Simply contemplating the man’s to-do list is enough to induce a tropical torpor; there’s no way to take it all in on a nickel tour. It will take us five days to experience the grand experiment that is Belize Lodge Expeditions.

From the outside, my hut made of local materials looks promisingly indigenous. But inside it looks like a basic British-colonial hotel room, with finished walls and ceiling, a mozzy-net covered four-poster, an armoire and an armchair. I step out onto the porch, which is perfectly poised for a sunset view, to find there’s no furniture on it. I then struggle with the no doubt energy-efficient on-demand water heater in a losing battle for a comfortable shower. Down at the bar, I order a margarita in the hopes that the relative proximity to Mexico will mean a happy result, but the neophyte bartender uses a measured shot and a bottled mix to make a chemical-tasting drink that’s not only bad but overpriced (everything but alcohol is included in the nightly rate).

When it becomes apparent that my photographer colleague and I are the only guests in the somewhat under-decorated dining room, it is crashingly obvious that even though the lodge has technically been open a few years, it’s still cutting its teeth. Two more guests are due the next day — and the dining staff calls this a busy season. But any concerns that the hospitality side of the BLE experience is going to be sabotaged by chronic growing pains are obliterated by the dinner menu, which announces a five-course journey through a variety of unfamiliar local ingredients — taro soup, vigoron salad, smoked jack fish panades and a choice of allspice pork loin or cilantro red snapper — that turn out to be flavored and cooked to perfection. The chef comes from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and on the basis of the first dinner, it’s already clear that in the food department, BLE surpasses the African safari lodges on which it is modeled.

One realm, however, where Belize is always going to suffer by comparison to Africa is that of the so-called charismatic megafauna — big animals that people like to look at. Karas has skinned that cat, so to speak, by setting up a small animal orphanage that houses a pair of jaguars (refugees from a research project in Mexico City) along with a coati mundi, a howler monkey and a toucan. In the morning, after a whopping breakfast of omelets, pancakes and fresh banana bread, we mosey down to the enclosure. Even in the confines of a chain-link cage with a concrete floor, the big cats — one spotted, one black — look magnificent as they alternately lie around being glamorous and then pounce on one another in frisky bursts of impressive athleticism. Not far away, a new, naturalistic habitat is being built for them on the ground floor of a three-story lodge called House of the Jaguar, set to open next year. It doesn’t take much imagination to project that staying in the suite overlooking a lair inhabited by a handsome pair of the world’s third-largest cats will be a spectacular, one-of-a-kind experience.

In point of fact, everyone around here is already living with jaguars — southern Belize has the highest concentration in Central America, and 40 of the big predators have been counted within the 60,000 acres that Karas has secured protection for. But they are masters of camouflage and the jungle is thick, so the captive experience is virtually the only guaranteed way to see them. That’s true not just for guests of the lodge, but for school groups who are invited to come and learn about wildlife to encourage their environmental awareness. Locals have traditionally had a reverential yet adversarial relationship with jaguars, which they regard as a threat to their cattle and goats. Karas urges them to build fences and promises to compensate them for lost stock if they call on him to come remove the problem animal. This is where his trapping experience comes in handy: He puts the fresh kill into a cage; when the cat comes back to dine, it gets captured and is then released back into the wilderness.

As Karas’ prior livelihood uniquely qualifies him for his present vocation, so does that of Nathaniel Mas. A Maya himself, he worked on the excavation and renovation of Nim Li Punit, the ruin situated a couple hundred yards uphill from Indian Creek Lodge. “If it was the old times,” says Karas, “Nathaniel would be the head mason for the Maya ruler.” So Karas put him to work building stone walls for the lodge and showing guests around the site. He does so with an obvious sense of pride — we discovered these artifacts of our culture, and I myself discovered this tomb.

Built in the 8th century, Nim Li Punit was a royal observatory. The on-site museum’s claim to fame is the second-largest Maya stela, whose chiseled legend Mas decodes for us. As he guides us around the grounds interpreting the altars, tombs and ball court, he also stops at all the major plants to demonstrate the bushcraft that goes into living off the local environment. As a bonus, he takes us to his family compound between the ruin and the lodge to show the results. His home is made of tree trunks and planks bound by vines and topped with thatch, as Maya homes have been for eons. Hammocks are slung across barely furnished rooms. I take the opportunity to ask Mas’ 41-year-old mother to compare the time when the acreage across the road was farmed and logged with the eco-sensitive era brought on by development of the lodge. I’m surprised to learn there’s no difference as far as she’s concerned.

But to Nathaniel and another BLE guide, Thomas Pop, who takes us on a cave trip the following day, things are much better now. The lodge employs 125 people, many more than the farm did — all the men from neighboring villages can now find work without having to leave their families and can afford to send their children to school, which most of their parents could not do. And the work is more agreeable, too. Pop, 39, worked the banana fields for nine years and spent four years in the army. “I guarantee this is a better job,” he says. “In the army you have to sit in the water for 12 hours at a time, making river crossings. Now I’m driving around with a cooler in the back.”

On the way to Tiger Cave, Pop stops in a Maya village to pick up Pablo Ack, a local guide who reports that he commonly sees fresh jaguar tracks hereabouts. After a short hike through a broadleaf forest, we come to a gash in the face of a karst wall and duck in. The entrance quickly opens into a vast cathedral-like space, dimly limned by a slash of sunlight piercing the ceiling eight stories overhead. Ack shines his flashlight on the cave floor, playing over pottery shards estimated to be 500 to 600 years old. He explains that until the cave became a tourist attraction in recent years, Maya elders performed rituals here. We come to a perfectly sculpted altar that looks handcrafted, but it’s a natural formation made of sparkly limestone. This is where the elders would sacrifice mice to the corn gods so the rodents would stop devouring their crops; such practices are still carried on today, Ack says, at a more discreet locale.

We delve deeper into the cave, and at one point Ack suggests we stand still and douse our lights in order to experience the powerful combination of pitch-blackness and silence broken only by the cheeping of bats overhead. We clamber onward. At some points the cave is silty and slick like a riverbed; at others the path becomes a rocky tunnel that requires climbing. I gradually feel myself regressing to a childlike apprehension of the cave as font of mystery and myth, a role it has always played for the Maya as part of the multi-layered Underworld. As the journey becomes more and more strenuous, and we all become covered with a heady patina of sweat, mud and batshit, the divide between guide and guest dissolves; we’re all in this together, and it’s officially an adventure. It’s a great feeling, as is the post-spelunking picnic lunch and swim in a pool formed by the fresh headwaters of a river as they spill from the mountain.

Golden Stream is not only the main artery of the ecosystem Karas is working so hard to preserve, it’s also the only way to reach his Jungle Camp. Which is why I’m paddling a kayak down a jungle waterway overgrown by trees with patchy camouflage bark. We’ve pushed off in mid-afternoon because tapir are often spotted in the stream as the day wears on. I’m eager to see Belize’s national animal because, well, they’re funny-looking: up to 875 pounds, thick of body and short-legged, with trunk-like snouts. But all I can spot are the mudslide tracks where they enter and exit the stream. I perk up when I hear some snorting and snuffling, and find myself locked in eye contact with a curious-but-wary wild pig that quickly turns and scoots off into the bush. The stream is draped with vines covered in little white bouquets that create sweet pockets of fragrance, like honeysuckle but stronger. Those spots are an antidote to the other vines that give off a smell more evocative of a 7th Avenue subway staircase in late July. That’s biodiversity for you.

Three hours of steady stroking brings us to the camp, where it looks as though Tarzan has been working overtime. There’s a thatched-roof main building connected by a catwalk to a string of six huts stacked on steel stilts 20 feet above the stream, as a precaution against floods. (“I took the local style and super-sized it,” says Karas of his design and construction modus.) Once again, we’ve got the place to ourselves, and the hosts are clearly happy to have us.

Entering my room, I’m pleased to find that the native building materials are exposed, the shower works fine and there’s furniture on the porch overlooking the water and jungle canopy. And despite the remoteness of the camp, the standard of cuisine is maintained: Earlier today, at Indian Creek, lunch was a lobster quesadilla; tonight’s dinner at Jungle Camp is thyme-marinated filet mignon, with yampi gratinado and demi-glace provençal. With this combination of deep wilderness, high comfort and total exclusivity, Karas has achieved his Central American safari ideal.

In the morning I set out with the kayak guide Antonio Shol for another session of tapir spotting. “If you hear a cuckoo on the right-hand side, that’s good luck,” Antonio says, and sure enough, we soon hear one on the right. As we paddle back upstream, Antonio identifies the various fruiting trees and the birds that favor them. He points to a snag above the canopy where some toucans, with their comically outsized brilliant yellow-orange beaks, are resting. A pale-billed woodpecker with a crimson head hammers on a dead trunk; a hummingbird flits around a stream-side vine, its wings whirring like a tiny electric fan. An Amazon kingfisher skims the surface ahead of our boats, as if reconnoitering for tapir on our behalf, albeit unsuccessfully. Antonio explains that tapir walk underwater, submerging for minutes at a time. I say hippos do the same, but he’s never heard of them. I start trying to describe them, but despair of doing justice to such an outlandish beast. Then Antonio starts talking about kangaroos, which he saw for the first time last night on a DVD movie in camp. He says they’re tall and fast, and asks me where they come from and whether they can speak, “the way you and I are speaking now.”

No they cannot, I regret to inform him, but I am very glad he asked — his complete ingenuousness is as sweetly refreshing as it is hilarious. Here’s a young man who speaks several more languages than I do, knows every bird in the jungle, who sees a kids’ movie and thinks kangaroos can talk. The MTV revolution has definitely not been televised in this part of Belize.

Antonio and I spend a good chunk of the afternoon paddling downstream, where the bush thins out to allow a different kind of seeing, clearer and more vivid; individual ceiba trees appear grander, against a bluer sky. It’s probably just due to better light, but I feel my perception and appreciation is being sharpened by exposure to the jungle, the remove from civilization’s chatter. For a long time we watch a family of four howler monkeys feeding in a big tree; a pair of iguanas sun themselves in another. I paddle in close to study a citroline trogon perched on a branch hanging over the stream; it’s exquisite, plump with a yellow breast and brilliant blue-green-violet back and tail. We marvel at the dangling colonies of Montezuma orapendola nests, and the bizarre bowing gesture the bird makes when it calls.

In two days on Golden Stream we encounter no strangers. I’m so completely immersed in this lush, wild environment that occasional airplanes passing overhead momentarily jolt me from the reverie with a reminder that the outside world is not so far away. Still no tapir, but I fully concur with Antonio when he remarks at the end of six-and-a-half hours of paddling, “The cuckoo gave us good luck today.”

No trip to Belize would be complete without a snorkeling excursion to the reef, and the lodge provides a skiff to ferry us the nine miles downstream to Port Honduras Marine Reserve. There we are greeted by a curious dolphin and exactly zero other boats. We stop to see two-acre Moho Cay, where Karas will soon begin building a lodge, another link in the chain. From there it’s another 30 minutes out to the vast barrier reef that stretches all the way up the Yucatán. As soon as I plunge into the water, I find myself hovering over a spotted eagle ray; the moment I lose it, a southern stingray enters my view.

A few days ago I was caving in the Maya Underworld, yesterday paddling through tapir and toucan territory, and today I’m catching rays on one of the world’s great reefs. What a place. No wonder Ken Karas fell in love with it and wants people to see it at its natural best.

Contact Belize Lodge Expeditions: 888-292-2462, 011-501-223-6324; Closed August and September.

Going Green in Belize and Beyond

Turtle Inn & Blancaneaux, Belize
La Lancha, Guatemala
This trio of lodges represents Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of rustic luxury in an overgrown environment that harks to the Southeast Asia he became so identified with in making Apocalypse Now. The director’s personal influence resounds throughout the three lodges, which are combinations of villas and cabanas. Turtle Inn is a Balinese-inspired seaside compound in Placencia, with a dive shop and spa. Set on a river in a forest reserve, Blancaneaux is an inland jungle camp. The lakeside La Lancha offers fishing, bird-watching and tours of Tikal. 800-746-3743;

The Lodge at Chaa Creek, Belize
Having opened in 1981, this place was “eco” before there was such a thing. The lodge is a compound of thatched-roof cottages with tile floors and mahogany beds, set on a riverside in the foothills of the Maya Mountains in western Belize. The Camp at Chaa Creek, located in a nearby nature reserve, presents a far more rustic (and cheaper) alternative, with basic accommodations in screened-in platforms. Activities include horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking and canoeing; there is also a spa. 011-501-824-2037;

Hamanasi Dive and Adventure Resort, Belize
The coastal location and on-site dive and snorkel center imply a certain focus on the famous barrier reef, but the resort also looks inland for adventure, with hiking, canoeing, caving and Maya history tours. It’s also convenient to the Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins. There are 12 beachfront rooms and suites, as well as four jungle treehouse cabanas. 877-552-3483;

The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
With a riverside location in a rain forest at the foot of a mountain, adjacent to a national park and near the Bay Islands, this 22-cabin luxury lodge inhabits a variety of Meso-American habitats and presents a correspondingly diverse selection of activities: bird-watching, hiking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, kayaking, snorkeling, diving and touring the Mayan ruins of Copan. They’ve even got a butterfly farm. 888-428-0221;

Las Cascadas Lodge, Honduras
This brand-new lodge near Pico Bonito National Park is opening with three suites this month and adding only three more by the end of the year. Surrounded by waterfalls and laced with trails that lead to natural plunge pools, Las Cascadas promises an intimate and private encounter in the rain forest and way beyond — there’s a mounted telescope for star-gazing guests. 011-504-964-9688;

Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, Panama
Staying this close to the sea usually requires a yacht: The six cabins and restaurant are on stilts over the water, Tahiti-style. Fishing, diving, swimming, snorkeling and exploring the nearby Bocas del Toro archipelago are the main activities, and dolphins abound. 011-507-612-1088;

Al Natural Resort, Panama
The rustic, Lonely Planet alternative to Punta Caracol, Al Natural provides easy access to the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park. Nine bungalows made of local materials are furnished with queen-size beds and have terraces and sea views. 011-507-757-9004;

Petit Byahaut, St. Vincent
Set on 56 acres of lush hillside on a bay on the southwest coast of St. Vincent, Petit Byahaut is more camp than lodge — one of the five secluded rooms is a safari-style tent, the others little more than screened decks. There are no roads, phones or TVs; hiking and water sports are encouraged. Nice bath amenities, serious cooking and enlightened hosting invest the low-impact facilities with an air of tropical chic. 011-784-457-7008; (Calls and inquiries might take a few days before being answered.)

Tiamo Resort, South Andros Island, Bahamas
A stack of ecotourism awards corroborates Tiamo’s claims of environmental purism, and so does its pristine, remote location at the end of a three-mile boat ride across a crystal-blue channel. The 11 beachfront bungalows, set among palms and sea grapes and outfitted in traditional Caribbean style, make no sacrifice of simple comfort for correctness. These world-famous bonefishing waters are also ideal for snorkeling, diving, sailing and kayaking. 800-504-1794;

Ecolodge Rendez-Vous
Saba, N.A.
Set along the fringes of Saba’s park system, Rendez-Vous is composed of 11 solar-driven cottages built from eco-friendly materials. Hammocks strung from private balconies offer sea or garden views. Weekly slide shows of local flora and fauna enhance hiking and bird-watching, and underwater adventure abounds at the 27 dive sites that surround the island. Organic fruit, vegetable and herb plantings stock the kitchen of the lodge’s Rainforest Café. 011-599-416-3348;