A Cougar Tracks Jaguars In Belize

An adventure traveler ditches her worries about the economy and seizes the moment to search for the elusive cat in Belize.

By Katherine Lanpher
Katherine Lanpher and Rudy Ramirez, a naturalist from Belize, track jaguars.
Photograph: Photo by: Jessica Antola

To find out, I head north. The Rio Bravo conservation area, 400 square miles, is home to all the big cats in Central America, including you-know-which. “This is the best place to find a jaguar in Belize,” says Vladimir Rodriguez, the manager of La Milpa, a research field station that also takes in guests. “You’re doing the right thing, you’re keeping moving, you’re trying everything.”

Trying everything means cruising old logging roads with Rudy Ramirez, a 25-year-old naturalist who grew up nearby. “Let’s get that kitty,” he says.

After dinner, we go for a night run, sitting in the back of the open truck, Ramirez occasionally aiming a spotlight, hoping that a pair of jaguar eyes will flash back. We’re quiet, the truck bumping along, and my eyes drift up to the white stars punching through the blackness. I read once that the ancient Mayans believed four jaguars held up the night sky; it’s easy, here, to see how humans once could have looked up and believed that.

The next morning, I’m packing for my last stop, the Chan Chich Lodge, about 30 miles away. Rodriguez stops by to encourage me. “If it were easy,” he says, “no one would do it.”

Yeah, but I’ve only got one more day.

“You only need one minute,” he says.

That particular minute—the one where I see a jaguar in the jungle—never came. But I see my world differently now. Spend eight days waiting for something magical to happen, and eventually, it will.  

Katherine Lanpher’s Belize

Getting there Round-trip flights to Belize City this June range from $430 (Los Angeles) to $500 (New York) to $560 (Chicago) on kayak.com. Travel inland for under $100 on tropicair.com.

How to plan Socially conscious travel company gophilanthropic.com set us up with guides—including Belize specialist beyondtouring.com—and helped arrange off-trail encounters like a tamale-making lesson at Las Orquídeas, a women-run café near Lamanai.

Where to stay Ernesto and Aurora Saqui offer meals, rooms and Mayan blessings at Nu’uk Che’il (mayacottages.com) outside of Cockscomb. Sleep in a thatched cabana at La Milpa (pfbelize.org) in the Rio Bravo conservation area. Or check out the upscale Chan Chich Lodge (chanchich.com) about 30 miles away. For rustic elegance, spend the night at Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge (belizezoo.org); and for nature with a higher thread count, try the Lamanai Outpost Lodge (lamanai.com).

Not traveling right now?
Then support jaguar research. We love hottcatts.com, where a $15 shirt helps fund Ix, The Jaguar Project, a population survey in Belize led by Virginia Tech’s big-cat expert Marcella Kelly, PhD. —K.L.

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