Day Five – The Disneyland Jungle Cruise & Fine Dining
Tuesday, November 23rd, 1999

Tuesday morning—breakfast at Rum Point, bacon and eggs as usual.  Scheduled for today was our rainforest tour up the Monkey River.   We boarded our boat, an open cockpit speedster driven by twin outboard 50’s.  The boat left the dock and proceeded at high speed around the point. giving us an excellent view of Placencia from the sea.  This made us realize how large the peninsula is, which  we had missed on our first drive down the peninsula in the gathering dark. We resolved to drive back up it in daylight.

First stop was Monkey River Town at the mouth of the Monkey river, second largest river in Belize.  This town (recently upgraded from a village, but it still looked pretty small to us) is accessible only by water.  The roads are grass-covered, since there are no vehicles. We picked up two mestizo guides (residents of the town) who were to be our expedition leaders on this trip.

Belize, like Costa Rica before it, has realized that a small country like theirs could be quickly stripped of  natural resources if that were allowed.  A very enlightened government has designated large parts of the country as nature preserves and is actively promoting eco-tourism as a way to generate income and preserve the irreplaceable natural beauty of their country. Part of that program is training local people to act as guides (and incidentally hack out little hiking trails through the jungle for the tourists). These native guides  now make a good living introducing tourists to the wonders of their country.  Our two guides had an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna with which we were surrounded, as well as an uncanny ability to spot the wildlife that blended in perfectly with the surroundings.

If you want to imagine what it was like, imagine the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland.  The resemblance is uncanny, except here it is real, there are no hippos, and the guides don’t make constant jokes.

The first animal they spotted was an iguana.  These are large lizards that live in the trees and come in a fantastic variety of colors.  After some time, we were all able to see it clinging to its branch in the forest.  As we grew accustomed to spotting them, we saw that there were dozens of them, sitting out on branches or crouching in the brush, watching us go by. Iguana is frequently eaten by the locals, but unfortunately we never had a chance to try it.

There were a huge variety of butterflies and birds, large and small, and our guides knew them all. At one point, we slowed as we approached a tree overhanging the water and the guides excitedly pointed out a boa coiled around one of the branches.  Several people in the boat claimed to see it, but I must admit that I couldn’t quite make it out.

A mile or so up the river our captain drove the boat aground and we set off into the jungle on a little trail.  We stopped a few meters into the rainforest for a quick briefing:

“See that line of ants? those are army ants.  Don’t stand on a trail of them”.
“See that bush? It is covered with poisonous thorns.  Don’t touch anything you haven’t looked at first.”

Thus warned, we continued on.  Our guides pointed out animal tracks, and named every bush and tree we came across—strangler figs, giant kapok trees,  stands of giant bamboo—and lectured us on their history and medicinal uses.

A troop of howler monkeys lived overhead and lived up to their names as we approached.  I had a premonition about those monkeys and moved to stay out from under them.  Sure enough, they urinated and defecated above us to show their displeasure at our interruption.  Luckily, no one in our group was hit.

Here too, the DEET defying mosquitoes lived.  No matter how much chemical we slathered on, only constant slapping and waving kept them at bay.  By the time we escaped, both Judy and myself had dozens of bites and mild concerns about malaria (which is not supposed to be a problem) and dengue fever (which is said to show up occasionally).

Back on the boat we continued upriver to a lovely river sandbar where we debarked for lunch.  The lunch was remarkably like the dive lunches about the Auriga II, including the mystery meat sandwiches. Some members of our group (the kids) took a swim in the river while the rest of us lazed away an hour or so in the tropical heat.

Reluctantly we boarded the boat for our trip downriver and home.  We had another go at the boa (no luck for me or Judy), spotted many more iguana, and found a family of bats, nearly invisible as they clung to the side of a tree.  They looked more like patterns on the bark than anything, but we finally saw them with the help of binoculars.

Back at Monkey River Town we stopped for awhile to walk up and down the grass-covered streets and have a soda at the local bar (run by the wife of one of the guides).  The town has part-time power from a modern windmill and a generator. There is even a small hotel, and it would probably be a nice, quiet place to stay—a more authentic outback experience, I suppose.

A tame parrot lived in the town, and one resident kept a pet agouti in a cage! They call it a gibnut, and we are told that they eat it, but this one was a pet. I noticed more mimosa, “sensitive plant.” that closes up its leaves when touched.  We saw these plants in Fiji as well – they must be spread all across the tropics.

The boat trip back to Rum Point was a wild high speed ride through narrow channels in the mangrove swamps.  Our quarry was manatees, which frequent the area.  I’ve always wanted to see a manatee, but these shy beasts did not show themselves on this trip.

Back at Rum point we decided to take a drive up and down the peninsula checking out the other resorts and restaurants. We stopped at four or five different resorts looking at menus.  When we had finished, it was clear that two places stood out for their love of fine cuisine; Robert’s Grove, and Luba Hati (which means House of the Moon in Garafuna, one of the local languages).

After some discussion, we determined to have dinner this night at the Inn at Robert’s Grove (as advertised by the sole sign pointing to Placencia) and the following meal at Luba Hati.

Robert’s Grove is a more traditional, American-style luxury resort, and a place we would not hesitate to stay at on some future visit.  We met Robert going in and he, like all the resort owners we met, was the soul of hospitality.

I mentioned earlier that Belizian beef was, ahem, lacking in quality by USDA standards.  It makes sense, cows are enormously expensive to keep and rear solely for food and Belize is not only a poor country, but one with excellent access to seafood.  The resorts that prided themselves on providing a fine dining experience dealt with the beef issue in decidedly different ways.  Many places offered only ground beef. Luba Hati simply left beef off the menu.  Robert, it appears, must import it at enormous expense.

Dinner at Robert’s was truly excellent. Judy had conch fritters as an appetizer and some sort of fish.  I had the steak and lobster special, what else?  It was the only decent beef I found in Belize. We determined on the spot to have Thanksgiving here instead of Kitty’s.

Dusk fell as we were eating and it was time to go back to our geckos and frogs at Rum Point and settle in for the night.