Belize is a rustic country with a very small population which is absolutely perfect for nature photography and birding. While looking for places to stay in Belize I did a considerable amount of work. I had also decided that I was going to hire a guide for a couple days on this trip, which is something I don’t usually do, so it added to the level of reconnaissance I was planning. Wading through the internet I found several locations, but one seemed to stand out with the positive responses to the stay, the people and the birds. The Crystal Paradise Resort was that place. All of the comments on the travel sites kept mentioning “The Tuts” and how welcome everyone felt under their roof. For someone who is travelling to a new country for the first time, this kind of feedback is exactly the thing that someone needs to feel comfortable. It also turns out that the Tut brothers are very fluent in the language of birding and have extensive experience guiding all over Belize. That was the clencher, I signed up for a three night stay with two days of guided bird watching.
The First Impression
My first actual interaction with Crystal Paradise was a call from Jeronie Tut on my cell. I was a little confused at first only because I have never received a call from a hotel or lodge to discuss my stay prior to the trip. Jeronie was very friendly and genuinely interested in what I was looking for during my stay so that he could make sure that my expectations were met. I am not high maintenance which made most of the call easy. The only thing I was clear on was my requirements for birding….. up before dawn, back at last light and as many spectacular birds and experiences in between as possible. Jeronie accepted my challenge and told me I wouldn’t be disappointed. I had stayed closer to the airport on the first night as I didn’t want to be travelling in the dark without knowing a little more about where I was. The Crystal Paradise Jungle Lodge is just south of San Ignacio in the district of Cayo where it is a short trek up a narrow road from the main highway. I showed up there in the afternoon to get settled and check out the grounds at the lodge. I was met by an older gentleman, grinning ear to ear, who could only be Papa (Victor) Tut. I had heard so much about this man with the warm heart in the travel reviews as being the patriarch of this little piece of paradise. He is one of those people that sets you at ease by just being around him and I felt welcome the moment he shook my hand. Papa Tut showed me around the common area in the lodge, paying special attention to showing me where the cold beer was. Jeronie showed up and shook my hand welcoming me and letting me know that Eric was going to take me out in the morning. A quick tour of my accommodations which was a two room cabana with a thatched roof. It had everything I needed including a comfortable bed, a bathroom with a hot shower, a hammock on the deck and Free Wi-Fi. Now take me birding!
The First Bird
I was so excited, I was up before the knock came at my door at 5am. “Breakfast is on” Papa Tut called. I made my way to the dining area in the dark where there was a hearty and simple Belizean breakfast. A good meal and a good cup of Belizean coffee and I was off to meet my guide for the duration. Eric Tut is one of the youngest of the family and certainly one of the more reserved, but the Tut charm isn’t missing. Eric is an accomplished birder and is very familiar with all of the birds in the area by sight and by sound. For those that want to do more than just bird, he is also very knowledgeable about the local legends and history of the people and places. We started out in the morning by hopping in the 4x4 and headed to the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. There were several areas where the road was inaccessible except by a four wheel drive. Our first stop was a farmer’s field just as we started climbing onto the plateau. There was nothing spectacular with the field save the fact that the other side of the road was a forest of mature trees but my guide knew we needed to stop. My first bird flew overhead and was definitely in the pigeon family, and landed in the top of one of the trees in the field in front of us. Eric had “Red-billed Pigeon” out before I could focus my glasses properly. My first bird at dawn was a lifer, like so many of the birds I was about to see over the next two days.
The Forest and the Falls
After our first stop we headed further up the mountain into the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. This is the only location where you can find this sub-montane pine forest ecosystem where you can find birds like Red Crossbill, Stygian Owl, Rufous-capped Warbler, Rusty Sparrow, Acorn Woodpecker and Hepatic Tanager. The next spot was also un-remarkable except for the fact that it had 15 – 20 new birds that Eric was rattling off in quick succession as we got out of the truck. In fact, he would hear and identify a bird in the undercover on the call alone and then tell me what would be poking his head out of the shrubs in just seconds. I couldn’t keep up with the ID’s so it was safe to say of the 9 birds I saw and put on my list, including a Plain Xenops and a Northern Bentbill, there were another 9 that I didn’t see and left off the list. I had put a couple of requests in to Eric for species I wanted to see and one of them was a King Vulture. He assured me that we would absolutely see one when it warmed just a bit more and the thermals would let all the raptors all climb out of the forest floor in the valley. His secret spot did not disappoint. We sat patiently while the sun rose and the winds began to blow the leaves on the shrubs next to us while we looked over a beautiful view of two valleys converging. As the raptors started to launch from their perches, a couple of striking black and white wings started to move in the valley floor working their way up the side of the canyon the thermals. In 15 minutes the King Vultures were sailing directly towards us and over our heads no more than 20 feet above us never to be seen again. It was amazing to see a target bird like that just as Eric had predicted.
The next stop in the pine forest was a trek down some very rough “roads” to get us to thousand foot falls. This is where we were going to look for Orange-breasted Falcons. Eric pulled the truck over in a rough clearing where there was a path down to a small building. We pulled the cooler out for lunch and headed to the picnic tables. He suggested I take a quick look down the set of stairs to my right. I was quite unprepared for the site that fell out below us. I have never been one for heights, but these falls were spectacular and I wanted to get closer. The platform that is the viewpoint is as close as you want to get to the edge of that fall as the name implies, it is a long way to the bottom. There were swifts wheeling around the bowl in and out of the water that was cascading down the rocks before it disappeared into the pool below. We never did see an Orange-breasted Falcon. No matter, this gives me only one more reason to put Belize on my trip list again.
On the way back to the resort just before sundown we pulled over on the side of the road abruptly. Eric told me to hop out and walk back 30 feet back up the road and start looking for the action. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for quite yet but there were several birds skulking in the undergrowth moving slowly towards us. He told me to keep an eye on the ground as there was going to be an army coming. Sure enough, the battalions of army ants started coming into view. Ahead of them were insects and reptiles trying to keep ahead of the march. I realized that this is why the birds were here and looked up to confirm with Eric and he just gave me a knowing smile. There were dozens of species of birds in the area picking off the fleeing insects. Among them, a pair of Scarlet Ant-tanagers, a barred Ant-shrike, Squirrel Cuckoo, several warblers including Magnolia, Black-throated Green and American Redstart, Brown Jays, Grey Catbird and a Buff-throated Saltator. There is a whole ecosystem on the move with the army ants which makes for one very complex relationship.
The Mayan Ruins
The next day we travelled into an area north of San Ignacio along the Guatemalan border. We were headed to find feathered forest dwellers in a Mayan Ruin that morning. We pulled into the entrance of the park and Eric paid the man our fee. It was still foggy and the light was poor so Eric gave me an impromptu tour of the site. The first thing that is completely evident is that this site is 95% unexcavated so it looks like nothing more than a forest with several mounds interspersed on the flat landscape. But as we walked through the mounds and my Belizean guide explained where each of the family groups slept, where the common area was, how the Mayan people that once lived here were farmers and built this city as the center for trade. The other stand out was the arena where they played The Ball Game. The sport where the loser’s captain would be severely punished…….. by death! Our destination was the highest point in the entire area where we perched on the main pyramid where we could sit and watch for eagles rising on the morning thermals. It turned out that we were being watched by a family of Howler Monkeys who were using the height of the pyramid as a vantage point and communications tower as well. It was a fantastic feeling to be looking out over Guatemala with the Howling of the primates behind us while we sat on top of an ancient structure built by people over 2000 years ago. The stop was a fantastic birding success with 49 species in 3 hours including a Black Hawk-eagle, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Purple-crowned Fairy, Paltry Tyrannulet and Golden-olive Woodpecker. More than that, El Pilar was a profound experience knowing that nature had reclaimed one of the great Mayan trading cities of its time.
The Farmer and the Dell
Spanish Lookout, contrary to its name is not Spanish but in fact German. This is a community of Mennonites that speak Plautdietsch, English and Spanish and is a stark contrast to the rest of the Belizean communities that I travelled through in this country. It reminded me of being in the mid-west in small town America where the glass store and John Deere showroom were on Main St. Because of this farming community, there are plenty of grass fields where you find a different breed of bird. We had gotten permission to head to a lagoon on private property to see the open country and wading birds. One of the most spectacular sites was the large number of fork-tailed flycatchers. My count was 127 of the long-tailed birds in the rice fields that we were birding. Also along the way we saw Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbill, Snail Kites, Black-necked Stilts, and Melodious Blackbirds which were among the 47 species seen.
I was excited about my last day at the lodge because I was promised that I could have some very close up encounters of some fantastic birds. The deck that overlooks the back of the property and into the jungle towards the Macal River has a platform where an offering of a split guava is set out for the bird gods. At first, a couple of the Clay-colored thrushes appeared from the lawn. These birds are standard fixtures around the lodge so not quite what I was looking for. Then…….. from the tops of the trees, just out of sight, I heard the calls of a larger bird making its way towards the patio. One, two, then 6 large billed birds are on the ledge hungrily gulping down the ripe fruit. 6 toucans feeding right there, so close you could see the details of their feathers. These birds are actually Collared Aracari, part of the toucan family but live in family groups where the Keel-billed Toucan is usually alone. After the Aracari’s have had their fill, the Plain Chachalaca’s and Brown Jays come out of the forest undergrowth to finish off the remainder of the orange fruit. Seeing these tropical birds next to you on the patio where you are having breakfast is the Eco lodge at its best and I recommend this experience for birders and non-birders alike.
The birding at Crystal Paradise was a rousing success with over 160 species seen while I was hosted by the Tut family. The diverse ecosystems that are in and around the district of Cayo and the village of San Ignacio are a wealth of bird diversity and made my entire trip an amazing experience. I was treated like an old friend by Victor, Jeronie, Eric and the whole family, and felt like I was expected to come to say hi anytime I was back their way. I was so happy that I had found this destination location that on first glance was so similar to the other offerings. Belize is a spectacular place but the folks at Crystal Paradise Resort make it one of the most spectacular places for birding in all of Meso-America.