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At This Belize Lodge, Brain Required

By Andrea Sachs
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page E02

Our bush plane had just landed on a paisley-shaped strip in the Belizean jungle when a brawny Aussie from the Lamanai Outpost Lodge began removing the door panel and gutting the plane's interior with the zeal of a thief stripping an abandoned car. Guests had asked him to refit the plane so they could dangle out the door to take aerial photographs.

Requests like these are typical at Lamanai Outpost Lodge, a seven-year-old research and vacation retreat nestled in a dense rain forest in northern Belize. The lodge faces a lagoon at the end of a pitted dirt road that runs past a Mennonite settlement and through a 200-person village lacking electricity. Typical visitors include entomologists, ornithologists, archaeologists and other professional and amateur "ists." An on-site research facility attracts visiting scholars, and the more than 300 bird species and rich Mayan culture attract naturalists and anthropologists. The arrival of our humble group--a typical American family of four on vacation--was the anomaly.

We had selected a comprehensive visitors' package that included day and night lagoon trips, a 6 a.m. canoe ride, treks through the Mayan ruins and herbal walks. The lodge also offers specialized projects on mammalogy, botany, primatology, tropical biology and more. Each group is assigned a naturalist or researcher-in-residence. Our leader was Ben Cruz, a local Maya/mestizo with an encyclopedic mind and uber-vision.

Each morning, we checked a wall-size blackboard near the open-air dining area that listed times and places of activities. Our first evening we boarded a camouflage-painted pontoon boat for a nocturnal safari. With a blinding spotlight, Ben scanned the murky waters. Nothing. We sat in silence, straining our eyes for any movement. The boat skipped over lily pads. It buzzed through the tall grasses. Still nothing. Until, like a car slamming its breaks, Ben killed the engine and whispered, "See the red." He pointed to two glowing embers, the eyes of a crocodile. A blink later, they disappeared. Now we wanted more--a tail, a head, a mouth of razor-sharp teeth. And Ben delivered. We paced the channel until we heard a faint splash. This time we saw a crocodile in full view--until, blip, it was gone.

On the "sunset cruise," the wildlife was more prodigious. We tracked blue herons, purple-headed vultures, parrots, parakeets and the Jesus bird, which walks on water--but never the elusive manatee. As the sun fell, we parked in a grassy grove to view two endangered Jabiru storks. Ben timed their arrival. I doubted that birds were as punctual as he presumed. First the male swept in, his eight-foot wingspan and five-foot body passing over us like a swift-moving cloud. He rested in a nest high on a palm tree. Then came the female, flapping silently as she settled in beside her mate. At 6 o'clock, on the dot.

We explored the area's Maya past at the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve. Temples as high as 150 feet and subterranean villages--built one on top of the other--pocked the jungle. We negotiated the labyrinth of structures, scaling holy sites like high priests did centuries ago. From this perch we spied black howler monkeys in the treetops, the Yucatan on the horizon and rows of scrappy mountains that were unexcavated Maya sites.

As we walked the trails, we ran into guests setting nets to capture bats or overturning rocks in search of tarantulas. The researchers encouraged us to ask questions and participate. During our stay, it was the "bat people"--a group of Canadian university students and faculty tracking the roosting habits of an indigenous bat--who became the sideshow. One night after dinner a renowed bat scholar--the one who hung out of the plane our first day--discussed the blood-drinking habits of the vampire bat. Holding the bat's tiny body in his fist, he pried open its mouth to expose its fangs. The vampire bat, a three-deep ring of on-lookers learned, doesn't kill its prey. It takes a mere blood sampling, then flies off. After hearing that, I did as well.

There was plenty of leisure time, too. After a breakfast of warmed tortillas as thick as flapjacks with mango jam, I lounged on the dock and swam in the lagoon. Crocodiles appeared to live by the backwoods dictum: They are more afraid of you than you are of them. But a sardine did nip my toe. The thatch-roofed cabana, more rustic splendor than overnight-camp austere, provided a cool haven from the jungle heat. As did the bar, the social epicenter. Sipping a Bilikin (the local brew), rum cocktail or Coca-Cola, I learned something about slash-and-burn agriculture from a former Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and chatted with three college students who had won a free trip here in a Discovery Channel contest.

On our last day, we piled our luggage on the transom of the boat and headed to the Mennonite village, where a transfer to the airport awaited. Chica the howler monkey sat on the dock as we cast off the lines. Traveling down the lagoon, I took a final glance. Before I might have overlooked the Cow Horn orchid in the thicket or the turkey vultures overhead. Now I noticed it all.

The Lamanai Outpost Lodge offers all-inclusive packages with tours, accommodations, meals and transfers for $90 to $190 per person per day. A la carte programs and rates are also available. For more information, contact Monique and Mark Howell at P.O. Box 63, Orange Walk, Belize, Central America, or call 1-888-733-7864.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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