I think I’m becoming a birdwatcher. I’ll let you know for sure if I ever drop a bundle on high-end binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, a light-weight bush jacket with pockets for my bird guides, notebooks, pens, spare glasses, mosquito repellent and granola bars.
Then I’ll know for sure.
Meanwhile, I just spent a very productive morning with Mario, a guide at Pook’s Hill Lodge, spotting birds.
Man, did we see birds.
And I’m not even counting the scores of parrots that flew by in pairs
I am talking a pale-billed woodpecker, hooded oriole, black-headed trogon, slaty-tailed trogon, roadside hawk, the various grosbeaks, white collared finch, the yellow-winged tanager, crimson-collared tanager, white-collared manakin, black and white warbler, tropical kingbird, and the ancient-looking Montezuma Oropendola, among others.
When we checked in yesterday, a brightly colored keel-billed toucan was picking berries from a palm tree, right outside the door of our cabana. So, add that to my list.
Right now, as I write this in the open-air communal lodge at Pook’s Hill, hummingbirds in several varieties are buzzing about my head. One, with a white front and black wings and back looks like a miniature penguin. Others look like sequined ladies at a Mardi Gras ball.
Behind me, black howler monkeys are moving through the treetops, occasionally roaring way out of proportion to their small bodies. I gather the roars either mean “Get out of my territory,” “Come, let’s make love” or “I am king of the treetops!”
Late last night, they kept this roaring conversation going for about an hour. And then picked it up again briefly at 3 a.m. I reveled in every roar. I mean, how often do you get to rest in the comfort of your bed and hear the primal sounds of the jungle right outside your door? If you heard that sound in New York City you could pretty much be sure a crime against nature was being committed.
This morning, Mario and I didn’t have to walk far to see all these birds. Pook’s Hill is a veritable 300-acre garden of Eden, just east of San Ignacio and a few miles from the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, (ATM) — about seven miles south of Teakettle, off the Western Highway, down a hard-scrabble road.
Along the way you pass acres and acres of painstakingly managed farms of fruit trees and teak, everything neatly cultivated, trees in straight lines — nature harnessed to the service of mankind. The light is bright, the landscape a spectrum of yellows, browns and greens.
Suddenly a slight dip in the road and a sharp turn, and you find yourself in a primal forest of dense green growth and towering trees and palm leaves bigger than your SUV. The light suddenly dims as the growth blots out the sun and greens of more shades than Inuits have for words for snow explode around the car. The natural chaos is in stark relief to the miles of tightly regulated farmland that we’d just passed.
But a fairly short one.
The vehicle shoots out the other end of the jungle tunnel and before you are the neatly mowed grounds of Pook’s Hill, with its rounded Hobbit-like cabanas and lodging — actually inspired by Mayan architecture. A stunningly warm and welcoming sight.
Pook’s Hill is a resolutely small eco-resort lodge, with a name inspired by Rudyard Kippling’s book of short stories, “Puck of Pook’s Hill.” It is very much in the spirit that I imagine the early tourism leaders envisioned for Belize. It co-exists with nature. It leaves almost no footprint on its 300 acres. Guests and staff alike behave like stewards of the environment, not consumers. And staff, lead by owners Ray and Vicki Snaddon, and the gracious husband-and-wife management team of Hugo and Mayra, is among the friendliest I’ve encountered in a country known for its friendliness.
Like I said, its 11 rounded, thatch-roofed mini-lodges conjure the image of a little Hobbit village — and I am hardly the first to make that comparison. The rooms are comfortably simple. Ours has a double bed and single and full bathroom. There are no TV’s, no WiFi, no music beyond the wind rustling the trees, the chirp and warble of the birds and the deep-throated upheavals of the howler monkeys late into the night.
On the grounds are hiking trails, a awe-inspiring meadow surrounded by jungle and echoing the majesty and grandeur of Europe’s finest cathedrals, and a small excavation of a Mayan great house complete with an early prototype of the home sauna. (Staff calls it a sweat-lodge but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a proto-Jacuzzi attached.)
Meals are communal and sumptuous. My breakfast today — two eggs, bacon, refried beans, toast, pancakes, granola and milk, juice, fruit. Good thing we took the walk this morning. Staff and guests eat together and share adventures from the day — river tubing, canoeing, zip-lining, exploring Mayan ruins, results from yesterday’s night walk.
Like many of the eco-lodges in Belize, Pook’s will pick you up at the airport or water taxi and drive you to their resort. Of all the guests there, we were the only ones to bring a vehicle. The staff helps you fulfill your every adventure dream and shuttles you from adventure to adventure. They even arrange an overnight in Guatemala for guest eager to explore the great Mayan site Tikal at sunrise.
Rose and her daughter, Caira, left early this morning with four other Pook’s Hill guests for an exploration of the ATM Cave, with its flowing river, ancient artifacts and skeletons and cathedral like chambers deep within. ATM is less than three miles from Pook’s Hill. The advantage to that is being the first group through in the morning, enabling an almost spiritual experience of solitude as the cave system unveils its chambered glories to you, and only you.
The commons lodge is built into the hillside, with a communal dining room on the lower level. Upstairs in the great room, a well stocked honor bar is open for guests and in the evening a game of dominoes or Uno breaks out while others read by lamp light or simply socialize. Scattered around the room are guide books for every type of fish, fowl, flora and fauna in Belize.
If you go, seek out the guest book which is filled with entries of howler monkey battles, jaguar sightings, life-changing experiences among the ruins and other encounters not found in a Ramada Inn.
Pook’s Hill came highly recommended by friends Jackie and Adam Feldman of San Pedro. It is their go-to resort on the mainland when the time comes to just get away from it all.
We can see why.
A recent tourism story reputedly listing the Top 10 eco-lodges in Belize failed to give Pook’s Hill even a footnote. And you know what? I’m OK with that. A real eco-lodge builds its reputation organically and doesn’t pursue volume. And does not offer you free WiFi and 120 channels of cable TV and an in-ground swimming pool with your gourmet dining.
On the other hand, a good eco-lodge should offer you a chance to reconnect with nature on so many levels that you barely feel the need to speak by the end of your visit, no matter how short.
And that is Pook’s Hill.
(Today is Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. This account was written at Pook’s Hill on Monday but could not be posted because — ah, yes — there is no WiFi. Hooray! Rose and Caira returned from the ATM Cave clearly in awe of the experience. I think this adventure has risen to the top of their own Top 10 Belize Adventures.)