Life List: Maya Mountains, Belize

Journey through a tropical jungle to discover exotic wildlife and ancient ruins.

I wake to the sound of riverflow and a machete hacking wood for a cook fire.

“What was all that racket last night?” I ask as I crawl out of my tent. I have a hazy memory of high-pitched barks, tweets, and snarls cutting through the black-blind night. Greg Sho, our Mayan guide, pauses mid-chop. “Kinkajou,” he says, lifting his eyes to the strangler fig branches high above our jungle clearing, where the furry, marble-eyed mammals forage for fruit and nectar at night. “I think he didn’t like us camping in his yard.”

Kinkajou wasn’t the only perturbed local. Sho points out a fresh jaguar paw print at the edge of camp. “They see us,” he says of the elusive cats. “We don’t see them.” Our second morning is a typical one in the Maya Mountains of Belize: Rise to a chorus of songbirds, sneak a quick morning splash in the river—mind the lurking Morelet’s crocodile—and brace for adventures a 19th-century explorer might find familiar.

Most visitors arrive in Belize seeking rum drinks and sandy beaches. Some venture inland to the ecotourism lodges, but few pull on their backcountry britches and hike into the jungly hills of the Maya massif, a rugged, densely forested, 2,000-foot-high spine that runs 70 miles up the southern half of the country. Unbroken acres of subtropical forest provide a sanctuary for a menagerie of Central American wildlife. Jaguars pad silently through the understory, floppy-snouted, pig-like tapirs cool off in shallow riffles, while spider monkeys howl and swing from the expansive canopy of ceiba trees 50 feet overhead.
Out here the wilderness contains many rivers, no villages, and few marked trails, so moving through the backcountry requires a combination of hiking, paddling, and dragging open-cockpit kayaks up the occasional stretch of shallows. A local guide—expert in terrain and machete—is a must.

On this trip, Sho hacks a path through the vine-tangled forest to an ancient Mayan site still untouched by an archaeologist’s trowel. It’s tough to see at first—centuries of forest decay obscure the jumbled limestone blocks. But Sho opens our eyes to the telltale glints of white rock, and soon we can imagine the walls and platforms built by the advanced civilization of two million that filled this region with trade and art from 250 to 900 AD.

After paying our respects to the lost empire, we continue upriver to a sparkling travertine terrace, where mineral springs have formed a natural fountain of turquoise water in bone-white pools. It’s a storybook moment, splashing in a natural playground amid a forest of wild beasts, and for an hour our group of five basks in the glory of it all, feeling like we’ve entered the jungles of our childhood dreams.

Do it Island Expeditions (604-894-2312; offers a four-day, five-night “Wild South” adventure that roughly follows the author’s itinerary. Reserve up to 8 months ahead; $1,200/person. Caves Branch Adventure Company also offers guided expeditions (866-357-2698; Season Late November to late April (dry season)