Monday, December 7, 2009

This Week: Ambergris Caye, Belize

The People Perch

Some 25 years ago Susan Lala bought six acres of land one mile south of the tiny fishing village of San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize. Her plan: To build a secluded hotel. People said she was crazy to build so far away from town. Hardy and rare was the tourist that took the tiny plane or lurching ferry boat to San Pedro. After all that, why would anyone want to trek on the bumpy dirt road to stay at a hotel in the middle of nowhere? What stunned locals even more was that she only built the resort on three of the six acres.

Today Caribbean Villas are just one of hundreds of places tourists can spend their vacation. At the time it was built, the hotel was the farthest place south of San Pedro anyone could stay, but not anymore. Exclusive resorts, luxury condos and private houses take up every available space along the Caribbean Sea all the way to the southern tip of the island. And the road heading south is mostly paved. What makes the Caribbean Villas unique is the three acres of space that Lala didn’t develop. Today those acres are part of a bird sanctuary and three of the precious few acres of littoral forest left on the island. Standing three stories tall in the middle of this forest is Lala’s People Perch.

A littoral forest is a forest that exists near the shore. Any place near a body of water can have a littoral forest and the plants and animals contained in such forest depend on the body of water, the land and the latitude so each one is unique. A littoral forest in Georgia will not be the same as one in Oregon, Madagascar or Guam. Ambergris Caye’s littoral forest, which was only a thin slice of land on the windward side, has been stripped to make way for more and more housing. Lala’s bird sanctuary comprises most of what is left; a piece of what the island looked like 25 years ago. A small path near the resort’s office leads you into the forest. So thick is the foliage, you can’t see the sky. However, when the wind blows, you can catch glimpses of the sun’s rays filtering through. The path is marked with signs that provide the names of the different trees in the forest such as the seagrape, palmetto and wild oregano. The forest is filled with birds, but the challenge is to see them through the constantly shifting branches that change the light and shadow.

The People Perch sits about half way through the path. Its base is a concrete storage structure brightly painted with tropical birds and trees on a yellow background. The stairs and upper decks of the perch are unpainted wood. The stairs are steep, but sturdy. The structure does not sway in the breeze or creek under your feet. From the top are 360 degree views of the island just above the trees. The Caribbean is to the east and San Pedro Lagoon to the west. San Pedro town is to the north, and to the south is Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Even from the top of the perch, the birds can be difficult to find. You hear them first; a whistle here, a rustle of branches there. By the time your eyes focus in on the sound’s location, the bird may already be gone, but don’t let that deter you from climbing to the top. When first built, the People Perch was the tallest structure on the island. Now with condo development rampant, several buildings are taller, but not by much. The People Perch still provides a rare view to those who climb it.

During our walk in the sanctuary, we find great Kiskadees. Their bright yellow breasts give them away. However, all the other birds, I have no idea what they are. Most are tiny, but like an image inside an optical illusion, once you see the first bird, they start popping up everywhere: black cat birds, orioles, tody flycatchers and seedeaters. I admit it; the names are from a list of birds the hotel has documented as living in the sanctuary. Don’t ask me to tell you which birds are which. I just enjoy the challenge of finding them. Along with the birds we also see tiny frogs, beetles and geckos climbing the trees. Their stillness makes them easier to find.

Caribbean Villas Hotel is small by today’s standards, only 12 rooms in two buildings, but it has everything a visitor to the island needs to have a safe, relaxing stay: clean rooms, lounge chairs on the beach and a private pier. A few years ago Lala retired, selling her hotel to a gentleman from Great Britain. That man’s son and daughter-in-law, Graham and Ruth, manage the place. They have made many fabulous changes, such as a new teak-decked swimming pool with two hot tubs and a thatched-roof bar and snack shack called The Catamaran. However, many things, including Susan’s bird sanctuary and People Perch, remain untouched.

Along with the birds, the Caribbean Villas also set up a sanctuary for marine life. Several years ago the new owner recycled an old golf cart chassis and crane jib by placing it under the hotel’s pier to create an artificial reef. It’s loaded with all sorts of fish while crabs and other underwater creepy crawlies cling to the posts of the pier. The reef is a great place to practice snorkeling. We use it as a quick tune up before heading out to the barrier reef. If you can’t swim or are just plain lazy, you can sit on the pier’s ladder with a mask and stick your head in the water to catch the view. When you are done, take a nap in the pier’s hammock while swaying in the Caribbean breeze.

I don’t know what Susan’s motives were for creating the bird sanctuary along with her hotel. Twenty-five years ago the words “environmentalism” and “conservationist” had yet to become common vernacular, but foreseeing the island’s development potential, saving the forest could have been on her mind. The hotel could be considered green with its solar panels and rain water irrigation system, but back then island electricity was unreliable and connecting to the town’s water system expensive. Perhaps she just wanted to create a peaceful place where she and her guests could relax. Or she happened to like birds and trees just as much as beach and water. Whatever her motivations were, she saved a tiny bit of ecosystem for the birds and us to enjoy.

To learn more about the hotel and the island in general, go to their website: Caribbean Villas Be sure to view the hotel video on their home page. It will make you wish you were there.

To learn more about bird watching in Ambergris Caye visit: Birds of Ambergris Caye