Guest post by Leander Khil
A lodge in Central America, where sightings of big cats are more the rule than an exception? This sounded to good to be true and although I’m an avid birder, this is what put Chan Chich Lodge on my radar. That said, I would likely not have visited the place for the cats alone. Some research revealed that the surroundings, privately-owned and protected forest and farmland, offered great bird life, including some sought-after Central American highlight species.
On a hot day in mid-February, we got picked up in Belize City by Marvin, one of the lodge’s guides. A 3-hours drive deep into Orange Walk county was lying ahead. The lodge is only accessible to guests either by car (4×4 recommended) or aircraft from the city via the airstrip of the nearby Gallon Jug farm.
After an informative and entertaining drive, with plenty of good birds already seen from the car, we arrived at Chan Chich lodge, a small piece of paradise on earth. The lodge is set up as a small village of wooden bungalows (varying price ranges), beautifully set in the middle of the forest, and amidst unexcavated Mayan ruins that emerge as grass-covered hills to the sides of the lodge. As we learned, it was also for the protection of these ruins that the owner decided to build the lodge.
Before even getting out of the car, I was already convinced that this place must be outstanding in regard to its wildlife. Large animals like White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) were abundant, with fearless groups frequenting the pastures of the farm, the sides of the roads, and the area of the lodge. What I read about big cats at Chan Chich made perfect sense now. Hunting is banned in the whole area and prey for Jaguars (Panthera onca), Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), Margays (L. wiedii), Pumas (Puma concolor) and Jaguarundis (P. yagouaroundi) thrives!
In the following days, we took part in some of the activities offered by the lodge. Tours, in very small groups, start on foot and by car, both during the day and at night. Most of them focus on wildlife and birds, but there are also tours on medicinal plants of the forest, to the farm, the coffee roastery, and the Mayan ruins. All four guides were very well-trained, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, finding and identifying birds with great confidence. During the many tours we took, we spotted a beautiful Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) and Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona) among many highlights.
I especially enjoyed the night drives, 2 hour long outings in an open pickup. Equipped with torches, the guides watched out for animal’s eyeshine from the car. These tours were very successful! Yucatan Nightjar (Antrostomus badius), Vermiculated Screech-Owl (Megascops vermiculatus), Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata), Common Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis), Pacas (Cuniculus sp.), Red Brocket (Mazama americana) and Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) were among the creatures spotted on these occasions. My personal highlight of this stay occured on a night drive. A magnificent Ocelot, which we found foraging peacefully on one of the farm’s pastures, was unimpressed with us, giving us plenty of time to watch it with binoculars in the torchlight!
The vast trail network of more than 14 km in the immediate vicinity of the lodge offers more than enough opportunities to explore the area on your own. Dozens of kilometers of trails lead away from the lodge and into the 120 km2 reserve. The guides can be booked for private tours as well.
I didn’t have too much time to spend on other things than exploring the wildlife, so just a few words on the facilities. The rooms/bungalows were very nice and clean (check out the photos). Food in the restaurant appeared pricey for my expectations but was excellent. There is even a pool and a bar in a separate building on the property.
The garden is neat but not overly trimmed, allowing for amazing bird observations from the restaurants terrace such as Crested Guan (Penelope purpurascens), Red-lored Parrot (Amazona autumnalis), Slaty-tailed Trogon (Trogon massena), Black-headed Trogon (T. Melanocephalus), Great Currassow (Crax rubra), and many different passerines and hummingbirds were common and well seen. For the full array of bird species, check out the lodge’s hotspot on eBird.
Leander Khil is an ornithologist, birdwatcher and wildlife photographer from Graz, Austria. Driven by his love for birds, adventure and the outdoors he has traveled the world since he was a child.
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