A Blue Morpho … and a Jaguar

I spotted my first Blue Morpho butterfly in La Selva Maya near Chan Chich Jungle Lodge in Belize in 1997. I have been hooked on butterflies ever since seeing this butterfly - the size of my hand - perched on a decaying log with its wings folded up and invisible to the naked eye. Then suddenly, it unfolded its wings to reveal a stunning, iridescent blue (photograph courtesy of National Geographic).

Chan Chich is one of the premier jungle lodges of Belize. I traveled there during the Christmas holiday with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. December is a comfortable time to travel to Belize in terms of temperature and weather. The website is enticing:

"Come and retrace the footsteps of the Maya, wander our extensive trail system and discover the unforgettable flora, fauna and Maya history unique to this tropical paradise. With an unparalleled abundance of wildlife (and the best chance to see the elusive jaguar in its natural habitat) Chan Chich is an extraordinary destination for naturalists, birders and for those seeking an authentic retreat to the jungle."

In addition to the lovely large Blue Morpho, I also spotted a jaguar while roaming the trails near the compound, after a restful afternoon nap in a hammock.

There I was, a novice “birder” with a new set of binoculars in hand staring down a fork-in-the-road, when I noticed a pair of yellow eyes staring intently back at me. I froze. Not believing my eyes, I kept raising and lowering the binoculars to be sure I was seeing accurately. The jaguar was stealthily making its way down a trail in my direction, and it had halted, waiting to see which trail I would take before making its own decision.

Suddenly, it dawned on me I was alone, and this was a forest, not not a zoo. Adrenaline surged and I sprinted uphill on another trail that led me back to the lodge.

Suffice it to say this was a highlight of the trip, and an experience jealously coveted by my vastly more experienced VENT trip colleagues. I received a special certificate to commemorate the experience.

Actually, I did have one additional heart-stopping experience when a fer-de-lance - an extremely venomous snake - leaped toward me from the side of a trail during an evening walk in the nearby woods.

After a delicious but filling supper, a small group of fellow travelers decided a walk would do us good before bedtime. After startling the snake well into our stroll (which then caused us to leap backward a few feet), our native guide told us not to worry, this snake was “not harmful.”

When we returned to the lodge and read our guidebooks, however, we learned otherwise. As one online snake guide reports, "This highly dangerous snake is responsible for a high mortality rate. It has an irritable disposition, ready to strike with little provocation." And yes, some snakes do “leap” when they become startled or angry; I’ll never forget the “thud” when this one landed on the trail after leaping at us.

In the end, this was a somewhat dangerous but delightful trip and I’d do it all over again. See the Chan Chich website for details. I also began supporting the nonprofit organization, the North American Butterfly Association after this trip and I urge everyone to do the same.

For more about this trip see, "Of Birders, and Breaking the Rules."

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