Ah, Belize! Straddling both the Central American jungles and the Caribbean, it’s one of the few places in the world you can still go to experience unspoiled natural beauty. It has everything an eco-tourist could love – jungle adventures, scuba diving, waterfalls, caves, Mayan ruins, and the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Its spectacular teeming jungles, lush rainforests, dry pine savannas, tangled mangrove swamps make it one of the best examples in the New World Tropics. This is a rich, biologically diverse country and appears to be a leader in conservation initiatives.
It is also home to the loudest animal in the New World – the Howler Monkey. The guttoral sound the monkey makes is so loud, it can travel three miles through dense forest. On a recent trip to Belize, we became fascinated by this unique loudmouth and went on a day-long jungle adventure to see and hear it for ourselves.
Our adventure began as we arrived in Placencia – a region perched at the southern tip of a long, narrow, sandy peninsula which borders heavy mangrove swamps in some areas. We found a remarkable variety of landscape and tropical ecology. It was here that the locals told us about a curious place called Monkey River and a small, very authentic village that still remained there. The combination of seeing a tiny remote village and coming face-to-face with the world’s loudest animal, was just too much for us to resist.
The next day, we set out on the trek into the river jungles of Belize. After we booked our river trip with the Maya Beach Hotel, we were given specific instructions to go to a small dock where our guide Jose would be waiting. Sure enough we found him in a small river boat ready to take us to out ultimate destination…..Monkey River. The one-hour water trek towards Monkey River takes you through an interesting maze of inland coastal waters, the open ocean and mangrove waterways. Along the way, we immediately began to see a wide range of bird life in flight and at rest in the dense mangrove forest. We spent the next hour jetting along the river and enjoying the wonderful coastal topography made up of beaches, mangroves and river deltas.
Monkey River is a coastal watercourse in southern Belize that rises in the Maya Mountains and discharges to the Caribbean Sea near Monkey River Town. It is one of Belize’s major rivers, and is incredibly ripe with wildlife with a habitat that includes such diverse species as the ocelot, jaguar, Guatemalan Black Howler, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Morelet’s Crocodile, and manatee. The major attraction, however, is the Howler Monkey and the River itself, hence the name. The town of Monkey River is a shell of what it once was, with only 200 residents that are involved in the eco-tourist business or work as fishermen. It is very remote – you can only get here by boat. There are no cars and beyond it the electric grid and phone lines. Yet those amenities didn’t appear to dampen the enthusiasm of the locals as we were treated to a delicious lunch before setting out for our tour and our search for the Howler Monkey and the River.
Katya in search of the perfect monkey shot
The river boat then took us about ten kilometres upriver from the mouth. Armed with our cameras and telephoto lenses we soon spotted all kinds of birdlife. Cormorants, herons and ospreys were quickly picked out by our guide but he missed one bird that flew by us and we recognized immediately, the toucan. The site of that incredible, colourful bird against the green backdrop of the rainforest was amazing and we were both left speechless.
Shortly after that sighting, we pulled up to an opening along the river bank, stepped out of the boat and began our walk through the forest. Walking paths were carefully cut through the vegetation so that visitors can see the many tropical plants and trees that make up this ecosystem like the symbiotic strangler fig or finding huge stands of bamboo that are overwhelming in scale.
But it was the Howler Monkeys we were hoping to see and we didn’t have to wait for long. For such a small monkey, they are capable of bellowing out the loudest call you can imagine and it echoes through the forest in all directions. While you can hear them clearly, spotting them high up in the tree canopy is another story and takes some time and patience. Our sighting was certainly helped by the trained eye of our guide and once located, our cameras also became our binoculars to peer in on their world 50 feet above the forest floor.
We quickly went the work with our cameras and as we spotted a clan of them with a very loud male leading them with females and baby monkeys in tow. Listening to them call to each other is an incredible experience and perhaps one of the loudest sounds you will hear in any forest. Taking pictures of them is much more difficult but we were able to get a few good shots from below looking up at the forest canopy. Soon after, it was time to leave our loud friends and we started our walk back to the boat but incredibly the monkeys followed us through the forest and right back to the shore.
Maybe they were just as curious about us as we were about them. This truly was Monkey River.