Four Days in the Chiquibul - 04/06/13 03:18 PM
To arrive at Caracol just before dusk when that fallen Mayan city lies in desolate splendor emptied of tourists, ascend 136 feet to the apex of the imposing Caana pyramid and behold the sunset over the forest canopy is one of the unique natural wonders of the Chiquibul National Park.
It is stirring to ponder upon the Ozymandian ruins below, which were once, 1,500 years ago, a sprawling, thriving, conquering metropolis of 65 square miles inhabited by 120,000 people.
But now 'round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare' the forest has silently reclaimed its territory, swallowing up the abandoned temples and plazas. Out across the canopy the sight of a raging fire in the distance intrudes upon that reverie. All is not well in the Chiquibul: agricultural expansion is encroaching upon the frontiers of the park.
As dusk descends, birds that dominated the songscape concede the night to the crepuscular choir of crickets. It takes a while to adjust to the sounds of jungle nightlife; sleep is slow in coming; only patches of starlight are visible through the forest canopy like glinting terrestrial oases. Somewhere nearby an animal - perhaps a gibnut - crashes through the understory as noisily and clumsily as a human.
Even before it is light, the diminuendo of the chirping, signals the breaking of dawn. The laws of the jungle are at work. When birds emerge, insects retreat mutely into the shadows. The troik troik troik of the keel-billed toucan is uncannily froglike. But even from the distance of the canopy there is no mistaking the exaggerated bill and the retracting of its wings as it glides. The guttural growls of invisible troupes of howler monkeys echo through the trees. The hysterical, scandal-mongering piam-piam gives away our presence on the forest floor, but not before a pair of sleek-bodied scarlet macaws cruises into view.
At Tapir Camp, we transfer gear from the pickup to Danto, a 30-year-old British army land rover equipped with a luggage rack and a 10,000 pound winch for the journey to Actun Kabal. There is no traffic; nothing to disturb the tranquility of the forest except the droning of Danto. We stop from time to time: a massive Ceiba tree is bedecked with about twenty intricately woven Oropendola nests hanging high up on the edge of the branches to make them predator-proof.
A few miles before Millionario Camp we take a right, detouring into the bush. There is no road here. Derric Chan, at the wheel of the formidable Danto, takes us deftly through yawning mud pits, crunching over fallen limbs and up rough, hilly terrain, all the while overhanging, tangled branches and limbs claw desperately at Danto as we bounce and jerk along at 45 degree angles. Derric Chan wears three hats: fearless ranger, Chiquibul National Park manager and tour guide par excellence of Ecoquest which customizes extreme adventure tours.
As we come around a curve, three collared peccaries leap from a mud bath in the middle of the roughly hewn trail and dart into the bush. A pointed, spear-like undergrowth rips up through the floorboard; the metal sheet is stamped back into place.
To reach Actun Kabal, the-National Geographic-renowned cave system, involves trekking several miles through the jungle. Time goes by quickly observing Chiquibul trees with their telltale, machete-inflicted, serpentine slashes; drinking from water vines, examining the Prickly Yellow tree studded with miniature horns to dissuade itchy tapirs from inadvertently pushing them down while get a back scratch.
The buzzing of cicadas in the sun is suddenly drowned out by the amplified buzzing of chainsaws like a swarm of approaching bees. Guatemalans are illegally logging mahogany and cedar. Through the trees in the distance, orange sawdust sprayed widely across the surrounding forest cling to the leaves like blood from a hacked victim.
We cautiously continue trekking, picking up the Infladitos de Maiz and Mirinda wrappers littering the trail. The noise of the chainsaws is unsettling; it evokes a feeling of shame. While an impassioned public discourse is ongoing about taking the Belize-Guatemala border dispute to the International Court of Justice, sovereignty is being ceded tree by fallen tree, milpa by encroaching milpa, everyday in these forests, threatening the biodiversity of one of our primary natural treasures.
It is ironic that Belizeans should emphatically proclaim that "not one square inch, not a blade of grass" shall be ceded to Guatemala, when valuable plants and hardwood are being harvested everyday, and fauna hunted by Guatemalans - with impunity. It is one thing to read about it or see it on the evening news. It is in fact quite jarring to hear the chainsaws at work, knowing that Belize's natural resources are being raped, pillaged and sold by Guatemalans, making a mockery of sovereignty.
As we begin the descent to the entrance of the Chiquibul Chamber, the ethereal song of a bird is heard across the canyon. Derric identifies it is a solitaire, one of the most accomplished singers among all world's songbirds. The expectation is to discover a beautifully colored bird. It is curiosity of nature that such a drab, slate-colored little creature can sing so enchantingly and unforgettably.
The Chiquibul chamber opens to a cave system that forms a subterranean link between Belize and Guatemala; within lies a network of passages, the Belize Chamber -the largest known cave chamber in the entire Western Hemisphere - and the Great Sand Passage.
We trek back single file through the jungle, freezing in our tracks as the voice of Diaz, a 19 year-old ranger scouting ahead of the team, is heard confronting someone. Half a minute later, Diaz comes running and reports to Derric who motions us to keep moving. Diaz, coming face to face with one of the Guatemalan loggers, had ordered him to halt. The logger had truned and fled.
Had civilians not been around, Derric explained, they would have attempted to lawfully arrest the loggers as rangers of the Friends of Conservation and Development (FCD), a membership, non-for-profit, non-government organization responsible for the on-ground management of the Chiquibul National Park, the single largest protected area of Belize. FCD is the vision and creation of Rafael Manzero. Its primary goal is to motivate the public to protect the environment through conservation awareness while enhancing the development of the human resource. According to Manzanero, since the start of the year, 400 acres of the reserve has been lost to milpa encroachments. Unless awareness is raised exponentially, the battle to preserve the Chiquibul may be lost.
Posted By: Katie Valk
Re: Four Days in the Chiquibul - 04/06/13 04:16 PM
Exquisite part of Belize and well worth making the effort to see.