See photos from the trip.
If you are on a quest to track jaguars in the jungles of Belize, you could do worse than to contemplate your mission while sitting on top of the Jaguar Temple in the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, on the northern side of this Central American country.
Dawn is a particularly fine hour up here. The sun starts to play on the broken limestone steps below, and if you crane your head to the east, you can spy the lagoon of the New River. Listen to the birds: The chachalacas are always the first up in the jungle, but the brown jays are the land’s guardians and they are cawing, alerting everyone and everything to your presence.
If you’ve already made your assault on the nearby High Temple and its almost 110 feet of steeply raked stairs, skipping up the Jaguar Temple is like climbing a Mayan wedding cake decorated with lichen and moss and two distinctive stone jaguar faces.
Some guides titillate tourists by telling them the temple was used as a site for bloodletting ceremonies, but on this particular March morning, it is the site for a midlife woman to lean back in her sweat-stained clothes, study the robin’s egg blue sky and wonder:
When in the hell is that cat going to show up?
I am not normally a cat person. Then again, the jaguar isn’t a normal cat. To the early Mayans, the jaguar connoted power, and the rosettes on its pelt symbolized the night stars. Sleek, mysterious, beautiful, the jaguar eludes the very species that once worshipped it.
Smart cat. While still sometimes hunted, jaguars face an even bigger threat in loss of habitat, a decline conservationists hope to reverse by establishing a jaguar corridor to stretch from Mexico to Argentina. Giving the cat the room it needs to roam and reproduce helps the whole cycle of life in the forest, right down to the leafcutter ant. Save the jaguar and you save the planet.
When I started the research for this trip, I was in need of a little salvation myself, surrounded by people who felt just as I did: that, somehow, when we weren’t looking, our own lives had slipped onto an endangered list. Perhaps the only good thing about an economy that looks like a big-cat scratching post is that you start thinking about what really matters: time, love, life, travel.
I knew I needed my own midcourse correction, something to shake me out of the panic-tinged view I had of the future, a way to concentrate on the beauty of what was actually in front of me. I needed a quest. That’s when I decided to find a jaguar in the jungle.
Most people visit Belize for its coral reef and its blue waters, but I’d start my eight-day trip inland at the world’s first jaguar preserve, 200 square miles of trop-ical forest known as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. From there I’d head to points north: Lamanai, the expanse of the Rio Bravo conservation area, and the Belize Zoo, where I’d be guaranteed a jaguar sighting, even of a tame one.
At Cockscomb, in south-central Belize, the allure of jaguars outweighed the Spartan accommodations—a ramshackle cabin replete with kerosene lamps, tepid water and a refrigerator-fed lake on the kitchen floor. On my first day, my guide, Ernesto Saqui, picks me up before dawn so we can start on the 12 miles of trails. When the sun is high, we pause at a small lagoon to watch a Morelet’s crocodile spin lazy eights in the water. I’m mesmerized by its languid motion, its glistening hide, the ridges that notch its tail. Boatbilled herons guard their nests in the trees above, and I assume they’re the croc’s usual prey. Then Saqui details his safety plan: If attacked, we’ll stand behind a wooden bench near the water and let those massive jaws clamp onto the seat instead of us.
Time to move on.
Saqui, once the sanctuary’s director, points out the flora and fauna along the trail. Here is a give-and-take palm tree, so called because relief from the sting of its thorns can be found in the tree’s sap. Over there, a tourist tree, named for its peeling red bark, which strikes locals as a facsimile of the sunburned skin of a gringa. And there, the palo de hombre, a second-chance tree. Its bark is boiled into a tea that’s said to cure infertility and impotence.
I am going to need a lot of second chances if I am going to see a jaguar. While tourism books warn you that the chances are nil, Saqui is more sanguine. He has known people to spot one in their first half hour. He points to a scuff in the ground. Jaguar scratch. It’s the end of the mating season, and the cat raked his paw in the earth to leave both scent and a message: I’m around.
Not that I can see him.
As we walk through an archway of cohune palms two stories high, the trail curves, and suddenly we are in a vast grove of green. Even the air looks emerald-hued. “The old-growth forest,” Saqui announces, as if throwing open the doors to an enchanted castle.
The trees are more than a century old, with thick trunks and big buttress roots that rise some five feet above the ground. Vines loop from tree to tree,bromeliads and orchids sitting on them like birds on a wire. As we walk, the smells shift between the musk of tapir and monkey to the sweet scent of a philodendron in bloom.
“If this forest were not here, the jaguar would not be here,” Saqui says. He has his own quest: to help tourists realize that the preserve is a package deal. You have to want to save it all.
Two predawn hikes, one night patrol, one hilltop climb, and here is the closest I come to a jaguar while in Cockscomb: a pile of poop. On my last afternoon in the sanctuary, Saqui discovers the fresh scat on the trail. “This is the shit! This is the shit, I’m telling you!” he says, with no apparent sense of irony. “This is the closest you can get!”
I am not as moved. Poop is poop.
“The jaguars,” Saqui says with a sigh, “are really here. It’s just all about the timing. And the best time for me to see a jaguar is when I’m not looking.”
Just like love, I say, and he nods his head. We are headed into the nearby village, where he and his wife, Aurora Garcia Saqui, have a restaurant and guest rooms, and where Aurora runs an herbal healing practice. She also has a booming business dispensing Mayan blessings. I ask for one and watch as she wraps the leaf of a pheasant tail plant around my wrists. Then she places it on my head, and whispers a prayer in a dialect of the Yucatán Mayan.
The pheasant tail should draw out any negativity, she says, and I am instructed to throw it over my shoulder into a river sometime after four pm and then walk away and not look back.
The next morning, when Saqui arrives for my last predawn pickup—this time, I’m leaving for the zoo—he has the mien of a doctor with a bad diagnosis. “Katherine,” he says, “I have bad news. We saw el tigre.”
El tigre is what most native Belizeans call the jaguar. As Saqui drove to-ward my cabin, the cat darted across the road, not far from a jaguar crossing sign posted on the preserve. On the drive out, Saqui stops to show me the faint imprints left by a cat that has now disappeared into mahogany trees.
I had missed it by minutes.
My next stop is the one surefire place to see a jaguar. A beloved national institution, the Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by Sharon Matola, a biologist and U.S. Air Force veteran who had also worked as a lion tamer. Lured to Belize to help with a nature documentary, Matola was left in charge of the animals when the filming was over; today the zoo she started has 45 species of animals on 29 acres.
She introduces me to Junior, the offspring of a jaguar who was brought to the zoo. We duck under an electric wire and enter the animal’s enclosure. (He’s being kept in a shelter for the time being.) Once Matola and I are locked in a cage, Junior is released.
Now I am face-to-face with a two-year-old jaguar, close enough to see his whiskers glint black and gold in the light. I brush my hands against his fur and tremble a little. Yes, I want to see a jaguar in the wild, but there’s no denying that outside of the zoo I would never get this close.
The next day, I cruise up the New River to the ruins of Lamanai, built when people didn’t just revere jaguars but incorporated them into their religion. Local villagers have stories of running into a jaguar on the road. When, I wonder, will that happen to me?
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.