Coke & Som Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition to Guatemala & Belize!


 

 

Click the links below to see more images from the Galapagos and South & Central America

Animals of South & Central America

Birds of South & Central America

South & Central American People & Places

 

This expedition was one of our most epic trips ever!  I was finally able to convince Lien to do some serious international traveling.  In fact, this was our honeymoon!  In my mind, what could be better than exploring the rainforests and jungles of Central America, searching for amazing wildlife and ancient cultures.  While it did end up being a fantastic trip that even Lien fondly remembered, there were many hardships and horrifying moments along the trip that made for interesting conversation for years to come!  "Sure, Coke takes me on a "honeymoon" to the depths of the Belizean jungle to be surrounded by roaring Jaguars all damn night....and to be chased by some snake called the 'Fer de Lance'..."  This always made for great jokes with our friends who knew what kind of idiot I was...

Our trip started in Louisiana with a couple days hanging out in the Bayous near New Orleans and the surrounding areas.  We had a great time kickin' it in the French Quarter, eating Cajun grub and hitting the pubs.  We were collecting beetles in some of the scrub of a local bayou and I will never forget what some redneck in a mongo 4x4 truck screamed at me when he saw me swinging my insect net in the foliage near the road: "Why don't you go back to San Francisco, you fuckin' butterfly collecting faggot!"  I laughed and blew him a kiss.... That really pissed him off as he screeched his tires in fury.

Our first stop was Belize.  We obtained our 4x4 Suzuki Outback which was to be our main transportation for the coming few weeks.  I remembered reading how dangerous Belize City was so we booked it all the way to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan Border.  We spent s couple days exploring the town and surrounding areas to such places as Xunantunich ruins, until we decided to cross the border and explore the jungles and ruins of Tikal, Guatemala.  We had to leave our Outback in San Ignacio as it was not cleared for international travel.  In all we spent a few days in the Tikal reserve.  Aside from seeing the amazing ruins, we got good looks at Yucatan Howler Monkeys, Red Brocket Deer, Ocelot, Peccaries, Spider Monkeys, Agouti and many bird species.  All in all it was a great wildlife experience.

After we made it back to Belize, we spent several weeks journeying virtually the entire country.  By the end of the trip, we had taken our rental Outback on every road that the map had!  We traveled all the north to the Mexican Border, visited the amazing birding location of Crooked Tree, and visited the remote Caribbean fishing village of Sarteneja, which we loved enough to spend several days.  There was a really nice butterfly sanctuary there if I remember correctly.  We spent a nice couple days in Orange Walk enjoying daily Belizean life. 

One of the high points of the trip for me was the trip in to the interior highlands of Belize to the wilderness of Pine Ridge.  At the time, there were very few visitors to this remote pine-forested area of the country.  Once an American fellow named, "Bull" owned nearly 2/3 of the entire country of Belize.  While he no longer owned all this land, he still did own most of Pine Ridge.  Somehow we ingratiated ourselves with Bull and his staff when we met them while basically traveling down one of his roads and we ended up being invited to stay at his place for nearly a week!  What a blast!  And what a place!  We spent time trekking his woods and visiting his waterfall, "Pine Ridge Waterfall", which is the highest in Central America.  We found some lovely streams near his compound and would take daily skinny-dips to start our days.  On one day we were taken to some amazing and still relatively jungle-covered Maya ruins located about a day's horse-back ride from his pad.  Wow!  Now they are more easily accessed.  I believe their name was Caracol, and I hear they are much more spectacular now that they have been more excavated.  In those days they were still pretty hidden by the jungle.  It was cool to see them in that natural state.

Another amazing part of this trip for me was when we made it down to Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve in southern Belize.  I had only read of this place in an obscure journal and in a book that I found in the budget book table at our local book store in Sacramento titled, Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz.  At the time I read the book, I really was not paying attention to the author's name or what he looked like.  Anyway, Lien and I cruised the "Hummingbird Highway" which was perhaps one of the worst roads I had ever traveled on.  The 100+/- mile drive south took over 14 hours of neck-breaking pothole-riddled death road.  We did get some great scenery and some amazing birding in.

We spent nearly five days in Cockscomb Reserve.  We were the only people there except for one other gringo who was staying in the bungalow next to us.  We were staying in an old logging dorm that was now being used as temporary researcher quarters.  I was impressed with the English language natural history library that this little dorm sported.  And there were notebooks filled with field notes from the various researchers who had stayed there over the years.  I was wondering why they were still there and not with the researchers who had written them.  Never could figure that one out. 

Our days were spent trekking the forest of the Cockscomb basin.  Filled with spectacular primary and secondary forests, Cockscomb is a spectacular mosaic of plant communities.  Lien was not that impressed with the accommodations but toughed it out for me pretty well.  She kept "joking" with me that I was a real shmuck to take her on her honeymoon to such a dive.  But she knew what she was getting in to when she married me!

During our evenings in the reserve, I was collecting insects with the black lights I had lugged on the trip.  The collecting was actually quite good with tons of interesting species of scarabs and cerambycids.  On one particular evening, I was walking my black-light traps and was noticing this very loud and abrupt barking noise coming from various directions.  I heard this noise many times and was not sure what on earth it could have been.  It sounded somewhat like someone clearing one heck of a phlegm ball from their throats.  I was assuming it was the other fellow staying near us in the next bungalow.  It continued all night and even got more loud and abrupt as the night progressed.  I wasn’t all that concerned for my safety – just worried about what could possibly be wrong with the other fellow! 

The next morning, the man next door came over to our bungalow and was asking if we had seen any Jaguars.  I replied, “I wish.”  He was a bit surprised.  He said he had been researching Jaguars for years and had never heard so many right near the camp.  He told me they were barking all night and they were in fact giving the warning bark. Something was agitating them and they were trying to warn what ever it was that was disturbing them.  I started to put two and two together.  I was the one they were warning!  Oh my god!  I was nearly a Jaguar’s dinner!  I could not believe it!  The researcher confirmed my fears.

Our neighbor seemed to know a lot about the area and the Jaguars.  He asked if I wanted to do some rounds with him.  I was happy to accompany him.  I told him that I thought it was me that the Jaguars were warning and he was curious about this.  He asked if I could take him to my black-light traps and show him what I was up to.  As we came to my first location, we noticed tons of Jaguar prints all over the ground near the trap AND on top of the sheets I was using to collect and attract the beetles!  They were right in the forest less than a few feet from where I had been collecting beetles all damn night!  He was amazed at this fact…I was mortified.  He informed me that I was very lucky.  I agreed.

We spent a couple more days with this person and he even invited us to share time with him and his Mayan family who lived in a village a few km down the road.  I felt very privileged to be able to visit these lovely people.  He was clearly a very close friend to them. Even more like a member of their family.  He explained how he had lived there for years and was even the person responsible for the formation of Cockscomb Reserve itself!  This was all sounding so familiar….  Even after hearing all of this and seeing him in person, I never put it together that this person with whom I had just spent several days in the jungles of Belize, was actually the author of the book I had just read in preparation for our expedition, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz!  And it was because of him that I was much more attentive and actually saw my first wild Jaguars!

We met Alan again in San Francisco a few years later during a talk he gave at the California Academy of Sciences.  He did remember us.  Well, actually he remembered Lien.  Of course he did…  He even told us that he was involved with a woman from Thailand and remembered Lien because of here Southeast Asian connection.  Now I have followed the footsteps of this great scientist all over the world. I have explored many of the regions of the planet that he did and have used his writings and life as an inspiration for my own.  Just last year, Som and I spent time in his other major research location, Huai Kha Khaeng in Thailand. Som has now read one of his books, “Chasing the Dragon’s Tail” and also respects his work and cultural awareness.  One of these days I really hope to reconnect with Dr. Alan Rabinowitz.

 

  

Click the links below to see more images from the Galapagos and South & Central America

Animals of South & Central America

Birds of South & Central America

South & Central American People & Places

 

 

 Here are some images from our Belize and Guatemala expedition!

 

 

 

The amazing primary forest in Cockscomb. These spectacular buttressed trees were a few miles trek in to the deeper primary forest.

 

 

Here are our five-star delux accomodations at the logger's cabin!  Lien as a bit disappointed with these beds but made good use of them...  The sound of the nightly rains hitting the tin roofs of this cabin was deafening.


 

 

Lien taking a break reading and lounging in one of the hammocks in the cabin.

 

 

 

We were lucky to be in Belize and Cockscomb during the rainy season and there were insects out in large numbers.  The orchids were in full floral display as well!


 

 

 

My first wild Jaguar seen on day 4 in Cockscomb Reserve.  It was most likely this one that was warning me with very aggressive warning barks the night before as I was unwittingly approaching too closely while collecting beetles at my black-lights!

 

 

 

This beautiful Margay was a semi-wild visitor to one of the Maya villages near Cockscomb.  He had become habituated to the refuse piles near the village and was a daily visitor.


 

 

We came across this Collared Peckary at another refuse pile while driving near a village along the Hummingbird Highway.

 

 

We saw this and many other Red Brocket Deer strolling the grounds of Tikal National Park.  They are fairly habituated to people and show no fear there.


 

 

At the time we were in Belize, Coca Cola Corp had just purchased about 25% of the available land in Belize and was deforesting it to plant oranges for Fanta brand orange drink.  I have never thought of Coke the same again. 

 

 

The fishing village at Sarteneja on the Carribbean coast.  We enjoyed a couple fantastic days there!

 


 

 

 

I really cherish our afternoon with Dr. Alan Rabinowitz' Mayan family.  They welcomed us in to their homes where we shared their food and drink.  What a phenomenal experience.

 

 

This yound girl was just too beautiful not to photograph.  This is one of my favorite images from the entire trip.


 

 

 

One of the Garcia sisters who own and operate a cantina and craft's shop on the way to Pine Ridge Reserve.  We were there when they were builing their new homestead.

 

 

 

I was impressed with the diversity of habitats in Belize.  This palm savannah grasslands was an interesting ecosystem.  I was hoping to see a Giant Anteater or something else that would seem appropriate here.


 

 

 

We basically bush-whacked our way through the wilderness of Pine Ridge.  We had free reign in this area, thanks to our serendipitous meeting of "Bull" who basically owned the entire place!

 

 

Pine Ridge Waterfalls are famous for being the tallest in Central America.

 


 

 

Xunantunich Maya ruins seen easily along the road to San Ignacio.

 

 

This female Blue-crowned Motmot visited us daily in Cockscomb probably hoping for a handout.


 

 

 

Ocelated Turkeys were also a coming resident of the grounds of the Tikal Reserve.

 

 

 

This Keel-billed Toucan named "Rambo" was fun to hang out with!  I think he thought he was a person.  He lived freely at the visitors center of the Belize Zoo.


 

 

We saw many King Vultures while in Belize.  This one was at the Belize Zoo and I could not resist taking this close-up shot of this spectacular vulture.

 

 

The grand tower at Tikal.  I loved climbing this tower every morning for exercise!  The steps are massive!


 

 

The Tikal ruins in the main courtyard.  I believe these are where they played their infamous ball games.


 

 

One morning, I climbed all the way up Tower #5 (I think this is what it was called...) and I looked out from the tallest point of this massive pyramid in to the surrounding jungle.  The first thing I thought to myself was that this was a scene from Star Wars!  This is exactly where they filmed some scenes from many episodes of the initial trilogy.


 

 

 

We spent one afternoon at Belize's "Baboon Sanctuary" searching for (and finding!) Black Yucatan Howler Monkeys.  We came across two troops of these fascinating and curious primates.  We heard many more than were actually saw.

 

 

 

The dry forests of Crooked Tree were a great habitat for birds and wildlife.  The forests were filled with fascinating epiphytic bromeliads and cacti species.


This was one of the more symboilc images of our trip (and it was not posed!).  The "Jesus Christ" lizard here represents the wildlife of Central America.  The boot represents the "footprint of man", and the Coke bottle represents the corporate interests that are destroying the nature of the region.

 

Click the links below to see more images from the Galapagos and South & Central America

Animals of South & Central America

Birds of South & Central America

South & Central American People & Places