Hiking the Maya Way
By Michael Shapiro

For two days, Ernesto Saqui, an indigenous Maya who grew up in a rainforest in southern Belize, had been teaching me how the tropical rainforest can provide everything people need: food, water, medicines, shelter. I watched Ernesto drink from creeks (not advisable for foreign visitors) and pull mammee apples from trees when he got hungry. He showed me a plant the Maya use to stop a wound from bleeding and told me if Maya hunters get lost they cut the top of a certain tree fern, revealing a marking that inevitably points due north.

But I didn't fully understand what he was trying to convey until we approached the summit of Outlier Peak in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. The hike to the summit isn't particularly long (about 4 miles each way) and certainly isn't very high (1,800 feet). But it can be maddeningly challenging, especially during the rainy season, which is when I happened to visit. During autumn, the upper reaches of the trail -- when it can be discerned -- become a muddy slurry, and navigating through the dense jungle thicket is hard work.

As we neared the top, the slope became steep and at one point and the trail was virtually vertical and extremely slippery. I thought we might have to turn back, until I noticed a succession of vines we could use to hoist ourselves onward. At that moment, as the roots became our ladder and the vines snaked into a banister, I finally got it: The forest really can provide all we need. The rest of the hike was difficult, but from that moment on I had complete faith we'd make it to the top. Forty-five minutes later we stood atop Outlier, rewarded with breathtaking views. Hundreds of feet above the forest canopy, we could see the Cockscomb reserve to the south, another thickly carpeted forest valley (part of Chiquibul National Park) extending several miles north, rocky Victoria Peak to the west, and the cobalt blue Caribbean Sea about 9 miles to the east. Rough-wing swallows and swifts darted above us, creating an audible whoosh as they zipped by. A scarlet orchid, also called a dragon's tongue, bloomed a few feet from our perch.

As we enjoyed a lunch of bananas, Clif bars, and beef jerky, a brisk wind snapped against our skin and a light, refreshing rain fell for just a few minutes. Reaching the summit had taken about five hours, and though it was only midday, we didn't want to dawdle, because night descends early in the forest, and going down isn't much faster than going up. So I shot a few pictures, repacked my gear, and we began to hike down.

My trip to Belize was triggered by serendipity, which set the tone for the entire journey. A friend had recommended my work to the editor of a Discovery Channel book on rainforests of the world, and I was assigned the chapter on Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Another friend introduced me, via e-mail, to Peter Eltringham, the author of the Rough Guide to Belize, who suggested I hire Ernesto as my guide.

The three days I spent hiking with Ernesto along Cockscomb's trails were among the most illuminating I've had in my years of travel. Ernesto, who served as the sanctuary's director from 1986 until 1997 and speaks fluent English, is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the rainforest and its inhabitants. Because he grew up in the forest, he embodies generations of his ancestors' wisdom, which he take great pleasure in sharing.

After Ernesto and I met at his home in Maya Centre, about 6 miles from the park entrance, we drove to the sanctuary and made a quick stop at the one-room visitor center. Outside the center is a mahogany tree planted by Britain's Prince Philip, who visited in 1988. Unlike trees in the jungle, this tree hasn't had to compete for precious sunlight, and has grown tall and stately in just 12 years. The visitor center is part of the sanctuary's effort to teach visitors, especially Belizean schoolchildren, about the value of wilderness preservation. It houses snake and butterfly specimens, as well as a three-dimensional map of the park. On one wall is a resplendent jaguar pelt, donated by a local restaurateur who decided he no longer wanted such a trophy in his place of business.

This donation is one of many acts that demonstrate Belizeans' shifting attitude toward the jaguar, whose name derives from the Maya word "yaguar" meaning "he who kills with one leap." A generation ago the great cats were feared and shot because they were thought to hunt livestock and attack humans. Today, as they were in Mayan times, jaguars are once again revered, and some believe they possess a god-like spirit. That doesn't mean jaguar hunting has been eliminated -- poachers still seek pelts for sale on the black market -- but slaughtering jaguars is no longer fashionable and has declined sharply during the past two decades.

Walking from the visitor center, we entered the forest on an old logging road, now the main trail into the sanctuary. Above us rose a dense canopy, a tangle of soaring palms, massive vines, and giant ferns, engaged in a silent struggle for sunlight. I asked Ernesto if a huge watervine, probably a foot in diameter, was killing the tree that supported it. "That's the whole idea," he said succinctly. "Survival of the fittest." He then noted that during a hurricane the sturdy vines can buttress a tree and keep it from toppling in high winds.

Populating the Cockscomb's broadleaf forest are about 300 species of birds. We saw -- and heard -- more than a dozen varieties during our first few minutes in the park, including yellow-winged tanagers, a red-capped manikin with its brilliant scarlet head, and a yellow-breasted great kiskadee. A bit deeper into the forest, we spotted a keel-billed toucan, with its preposterously large and gaudy green-yellow-and-red beak. We saw a whole other world erupting beneath us. Leaf-cutter ants cut six-inch-wide highways along the forest floor; a multihued assortment of deadly fungi shot up from decaying trees, and a tarantula cowered near the edge of the trail.

Most fascinating, however, were the tracks we found in the muddy trails that wind through the sanctuary. A portly Baird's tapir, a low-riding relative of the horse which can weigh up to 600 pounds, left its three-toed imprints four inches deep in the rainy-season mud. We also saw tracks of collared peccaries (hog-like creatures), nine-banded armadillos (the jaguar's preferred prey), and brocket deer. And before long, we found some jaguar tracks, about the size of a human palm. Though it's rare to see the elusive, nocturnal jaguars, it's common to spot their tracks and scat on and near Cockscomb's trails. About 30 jaguars are believed to live in the 102,400-acre sanctuary, a number that has increased significantly since the preserve was expanded in 1990. Another estimated 40 to 60 jaguars live in adjacent protected areas, including the Bladen Nature Reserve to the south and the Chiquibul National Park to the west. Though this may not sound like a high population, it's one of the largest remaining concentrations of jaguars in the Americas.

Part of the Maya Mountains in southern Belize, the Cockscomb sanctuary was named for the mountainous ridge, which resembles a rooster's comb. Technically, it is tropical moist forest, because it receives an average annual rainfall of 120 inches, compared to tropical rainforest that can receive far higher levels of precipitation. Victoria Peak, the highest point on Cockscomb ridge, was long thought to be Belize's tallest mountain, but at 1120 meters it's actually the second highest peak in the country, after Doyle's Delight. Hiking to Victoria takes three or four days and full camping gear, so the day hike to Outlier seemed a better bet. But reaching Outlier's summit was just a small part of a gratifying three-day visit to this jungle reserve. Though I didn't see a jaguar, I sank deeper into the misty peace of the forest with each passing day. At night, I joined the dozen or so other guests staying at the sanctuary's dorm preparing meals in the communal kitchen and sharing stories of our recent travels. Though we had no television or radio, we didn't lack for entertainment.

My first night there, a recent college grad named Josh discovered he had two beef worms in his scalp, which led to a spirited discussion about how to remove them. Beef worms, so called by Belizeans because they favor bovine hosts, are the larvae of the botfly, which is somewhat similar to a horse fly. These flies lay their eggs so that they're carried by mosquitoes to living hosts, whose flesh provides food for the worms, which can grow up to an inch long. Every few minutes the worms surface, groundhog-style, for a breath of air, which led us to conclude we could suffocate them. We covered the affected areas of Josh's head with yellow paint, and about an hour later cut out the worms, which seem to put up less of a fight when they're dead or dying.

After the successful operation, I retreated to my dorm room for a little reading and reflection. The rain tapped out a staccato beat on the corrugated metal roof. Because not many people stay at the sanctuary during the autumn rainy season, each person or couple had a private room; rooms accommodate up to six people during busier months. Ernesto, who stands about five feet tall and has classic Maya features, black hair, and a sturdy build, met me early the next morning for the hike to Outlier. As we entered the reserve, we saw a roufus-tailed jacamar, with iridescent green wings, yellow neck and an orange breast. Approaching one of the many makeshift bridges on the way to the peak, Ernesto flashed his ready sense of humor, saying, "If I drop in, don't worry; I'll be back." From the other side of the creek, he asked, "Do you have good balance?"

While hiking through the foothills, Ernesto paused whenever he found something interesting to discuss. We chatted by a thick cluster of cherry-red fruits hanging from a cohune palm, and saw several crested guan: large, brown, turkey-like birds with red throat sacs. As we climbed higher we saw a few juvenile mahogany trees about a foot in diameter. "There used to be trees (mahogany) so large it took seven men stretching their arms to make a circle around one," he said. "Now there are hardly any left."

On the way down from the summit we stopped to chat under the arch of a huge palm branch as a steady rain fell. The day before Ernesto talked about how it was a bold step for the Belizean government to create the sanctuary and work to preserve the jaguar's habitat. But on this day he discussed some of the unfortunate consequences for the Mayas who once lived under the jungle canopy. "They (the Belizean government) ask people to leave for the sake of the jaguar, but what do we get?" Ernesto asked rhetorically. "What is there for people to do to meet their basic needs?" The Mayas who'd lived within the park boundary have been relocated to the village of Maya Centre, where they've been joined by other displaced Mayas, such as Ernesto's family, who relocated from a jungle area in southern Belize's Toledo district. "The idea was that the park was supposed to sustain the community," he said, "but it just doesn't happen. We get jobs like this (guiding independent tourists) once in a while, but groups bring their own guides. And tourism is seasonal -- we can't survive seasonally."

Two other aspects of the Maya's situation rankle Ernesto. First, no land was granted to families who were relocated from the forest preserves. Unless they can afford to buy land, they have to rent their plots from the government. Second, the Maya, like all other visitors, have to pay to enter the parks that once were their homes. "It's not the price but the principle," Ernesto said. "We gave up our homeland -- we should at least be able to come out here and walk through the forests." On our third day together in the jungle, Ernesto and I were greeted by a giant blue morpho butterfly. In the middle of the main trail were some fresh jaguar tracks and scat, which the jaguar use to mark its territory. The call of various frogs, perhaps excited by the heavy rain, vibrated around us. Above us a troop of howler monkeys clambered along the canopy, stopping to hurl twigs, nuts and insults in our general direction.

We watched them until they scampered away. Later, under the cover of a secropia tree, which produces leaves as large as a man's chest, Ernesto and I talked about how the Maya view the forest. "The forest is like our mother -- we never take more than we need. To us the blood of a tree is like the blood of a human," he said. "When we need something we ask our mother, `Will you give this to me to supply my family?' We ask the Gods and they grant our wishes."

Ernesto, whose first language is a Mayan tongue, said his people have a word, "cuxtalil," that means web of life. "There are powerful things in the forest, things only the Gods understand," he said. "That's why we have so much respect for it. We want to work with the forest, not against it. If you destroy it, unfortunate things will happen you and your family. When the forest is clear cut we hear the mother crying. What will happen when Mother Earth is naked? It would be the death of Mother Earth. It's so important these things are told to the children." Asked if he's angry about what's happened to his former home, Ernesto paused and said, "No, I'm hurt and disappointed. My heart is here in the forest." Then, considering that Belize has set aside about a third of its territory as parks and preserves, he sounded a note of hope. "In 50 or 100 years, the great trees will be back. I won't see it, but I hope my children will."

Michael Shapiro is a writer who lives in Sebastopol, California.

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