A lodge in Central America, where sightings of big cats seem to be more the rule rather than the exception? This sounded to good to be true - even for me as an avid birder - and put Chan Chich Lodge on my radar. But I probably would not have seen the place if it was for the cats alone. Some internet research revealed that the surroundings, privately owned and protected forest and farmland, offered great birdlife, including some sought-after Central American highlight species.
In early February this year, we got picked up in Belize city by Marvin, one of the lodge’s guides and took the three-hour drive deep into Orange Walk county, close to the border with Guatemala. The lodge is only accessible for guests, either by car (4x4 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 cottages (different price ranges), beautifully nestled in the middle of the forest and amidst unexcavated Mayan ruins that emerge as grass-covered hills to the sides of the property. As we learned, it was also for the protection of these ruins, that the owner decided to establish 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 large, fearless groups frequenting the pastures of the farm, the sides of the roads and the area of the lodge. What I had 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) is striving there!
In the following days, we took part in quite some of the activities on offer. Tours in very small groups start on foot and by car - by day and by 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 of the four guides are very well-trained, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, finding and identifying birds with great security. During the tours we took, we had a beautiful Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) and Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona) as possible ornithological highlights. I particularly enjoyed night drives, ca. 2 hour long outings in an open pickup. Equipped with torches, the guides look for animal's eyeshine from the car. Very successully: Yucatan nightjar (Caprimulgus 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 animals spotted on these occasions. And my personal highlight of this stay: A magnificent Ocelot, which we found foraging peacefully and unimpressed on one of the farm’s pastures. 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. Additionally, 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 and taking pictures, so just a few words on the infrastructure: The rooms/bungalows are very nice and clean (check out the photos). Food in the restaurant was pricy but excellent. There is even a pool (protected by mosquito-netting!) and a bar. The staff is super friendly, helpful and certainly added to this outstanding stay!
The garden is neat but not overly trimmed and quite inviting to birds, which can be observed while having coffee from the restaurant's terrace: 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.
Big thanks to Amie and Crist for making this happen!