Published on December 2014 in www.caribbeantoday.com
A fifteen-minute flight from Belize City over the Caribbean’s stunning aqua and celadon waters landed me on the fish-shaped island of Ambergris Caye, the northernmost of Belize’s offshore islands.
Over a decade has passed since I last set foot in Belize. I realize how much I missed it, a land where “tiempo latino” (Latin time) reigns: food is superb, people are welcoming, the weather is kind and wildlife and sporting possibilities soar. This trip has a two-fold focus: the first is to attempt saltwater fly-fishing off the island’s capital of San Pedro. Bravery or foolishness apart, I am headed to fish with native son Abbie Marin of Go Fish, Belize.
Abbie is not just any saltwater fly-fisherman, nor some random unknown local angler. How about this: National Geographic International TV hooked him for its ‘King Fisher’s Television Series 2013.’ He was chosen from among a handful of other globally-lauded sports fishermen – each of whom was sent to visit, fish and be filmed in the others’ country. This was the epitome of true skill in waters unseen and with fishing techniques unknown. His fisher-colleagues hailed from Ireland and Sweden.
This highly-skilled teacher heads out with me, a freshly-arrived novice, and we head out beside mangrove-rich lagoons. Here, three very astute fish – permit, bonefish and tarpon – ignite the crazy in the world’s best fly anglers. Catch all three in one day and earn the Caribbean’s coveted ‘Grand Slam of Saltwater Fly Fishing.’ Sure – I’ll test my skill.
Abbie advises me to summon strategy, strength and stamina. And however this will result, we will partake of Belize’s ‘catch and release’ conservation program.
A word of advice: Rally your inner Sherlock for this experience. These Moriarty-esque fish challenge any fool notion of savvy skills you might think you possess.
First, let’s provoke the permit: it is pancake-flat, three feet long, massively strong and an elusive and wily foe. Second, let’s brave the bonefish: this ‘ghost’ swimmer fish shoots bullet-fast across the shallow flats. It is one species you simply hope to glimpse, much less actually hook. Finally, let’s take the tarpon: the pre-historic, acrobatic silver tarpon leaps out of the shallows, may exceed 8 feet and weigh over 250 pounds. The tarpon’s boney mouth assures he is impossible to catch.
Abbie Marin is a ‘Dr. Watson’ of fishing wisdom. His calibrated voice resonates while his striking intuition amazes: “Cast right … there … just to the right …about NOW!” Net/Net: No more fish tales for now. Though, truth be told, I must say that Abbie made it elementary, my dear.
Other Island Matters
Consider Ambergris Cay: Ambergris is an intestinal product of male sperm whales that became pivotal to perfume manufacturing. Whale fishing permeated the waters here.
The island’s nickname, “La Isla Bonita,” is thought to have inspired Madonna’s rhythmic song from the 1980’s.
A linguistic sing-song permeates Ambergris – Spanish, English, Belizean creole, Mandarin and Mayan – as it does on other islands and on the mainland. Belize’s population is still less than 400,000 inhabitants.
Paved streets covered over and buried Ambergris’ sand-laden roadways only a few years back. Recently an enterprising ex-pat imported golf carts for general transport. It is a genius of an idea to witness their weaving and darting through the town’s narrow streets. Gridlock has no home on Ambergris.
A World Heritage Site
In 1996, The Belize Barrier Reef System was classified as a World Heritage Site. It is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In 1842, Charles Darwin called it “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” It houses a wildly diverse coral reef eco-system. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Belize Barrier Reef System is home to more than 500 species of fish and possibly houses the world’s largest West Indian manatee population
The Great Blue Hole is an underwater sinkhole located within this reef system, some 60 miles off the coast of Belize in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. A sinkhole is a geologic time warp, a hole formed by a collapsed surface area. A blue hole is a submarine cave so called for its deep blue depths, and lighter blue shallows. Stalactite formations arise from what is now the seabed floor. Belize’s Blue Hole is comprised of perfectly circular limestone walls that measure 300 feet across and some 400 + feet deep.
Though yet to limit the actual annual dives in its Great Blue Hole, the Belize Tourism Bureau plan – The National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan 2030 – is being chiseled out to preserve this truly marvelous wonder of the Western hemisphere.
Hidden Valley Inn’s Wildlife Conservation
Back to the mainland, I head out to accomplish my second Belize mission: to meet Fredy Pineda, Hidden Valley Inn’s on-site conservationist, and learn about wildlife and birding in Belize’s Maya Mountains. This portly man of sparkly eyes is a gem of a teacher. He possesses a wealth of knowledge and imparts it humbly and with great humor, available in perfect English, Spanish or Belizean creole. We head deep into the country, towards the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve and the Maya Mountains this side of Guatemala.
Tiny Belize’s geographic arc is vast: from Caribbean Sea to Maya Mountains rainforests. The Maya Mountains straddle Belize and eastern Guatemala while they provide the dramatic backdrop for Hidden Valley Inn and its private 7200 acre nature reserve, Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. The IUCN designates this Reserve as a ‘Managed Resource Protected Area.’
Hidden Valley Inn’s current lodge was formerly a cattle baron’s homestead whose landholdings once encompassed some 22,000 acres. It now serves as mission control – lodge, dining hall and meeting ground – for Hidden Valley’s guests.
Hidden Valley Inn offers 90 miles of well-maintained trails, for biking or hiking, and indulging any romantic whim. Stunning waterfalls, verdant vistas and majestic untouched wilderness surround Hidden Valley Inn’s twelve casitas. Handsome local mahogany and leather furnishings provide indoor luxury and a cozy haven should the rare occasion occur when nightly temperatures drop below 70 degrees F.
Fredy talks about the surrounding landscapes and wildlife upon whose residences we now trespass. Puma, jaguar, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi are five cat species who reside here. Research scientists disguise their strategic camera traps cleverly with a trip-wire to attain photos of these elusive cats. When images are taken, the excitement resounds and scientific research inches forward.
Fredy cites the fearfully-sized Baird’s tapir – Central America’s largest indigenous mammal that is a horse/ rhino relative (classified as ‘odd-toed ungulates’) as another of western Belize’s indigenous residents. Vulnerable and endangered, they are one of only four Central American tapirs. Few natural predators disturb them.
Belize’s Bird Watching
Within the Reserve, Hidden Valley Inn has become the co-partner for US-based Peregrine Fund, whose mandate is to carry out on-site avifauna and bird research. The Peregrine Fund co-partners with Hidden Valley Inn for research into Belize’s endangered birds of prey, most specifically the Orange-breasted falcon, a neo-tropical raptor, and the Harpy eagle.
The Peregrine Fund believes that the exceptionally swift Orange-breasted falcon is found primarily in Belize and Guatemala. They possess eyesight eight times as sharp as human eyesight. The Fund has bred falcons in captivity in the US state of Wyoming, and brought them for release to Belize’s Pine Ridge Reserve. They were a mere 20 – 40 days old at the time. A small population – less than 40 pairs – still reside in both side of the Maya Mountains. Two Peregrine Fund research scientists reside at Hidden Valley Inn to maintain its on-going studies.
Mayan Explorations at Cahal Pech and Caracol
Dr. Jaime Awe, Belize’s leading Mayan archaeologist, met us at Caracol, Belize’s largest Mayan site located south and west of Hidden Valley. The name is Spanish for ‘snail.’ It is notably one of the more significant Mayan political centers.
Wiry Dr. Awe possesses a scientist’s passion to detail. His enthusiasm is infectious. He is recognized for his contributions and significant work at one of Western Belize’s oldest sites, Cahal Pech. Though its name is Mayan for ‘place of ticks’ due to its proximity to tick-infested cow pastures, Cahal Pech is a lovely example of Pre-classic Mayan architecture.