Roni Martinez is conservation officer at Blancaneaux Lodge, a gracious bit of tourism infrastructure in a particularly peculiar part of Belize. Take those pines, for example. Much of this country is clad in broad-leaf rainforest, damp and exotic, full of orchids and bromeliads, strangler figs, vines and creepers. Huge palms stretch upwards. Ferns shoot sail-like fronds up to the canopy. Below all the dripping vegetation lies soft limestone, riddled with caves and cenotes, once thought by the ancient Mayans to be the gateways to the underworld.
However, the area around Blancaneaux, known as Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, is a geological oddity..
It's as if 200 square miles of Scotland have been displaced to Central America, pumped up with sunshine and hung with termite mounds and wasps' nests. The off-kilter familiarity is all the more intriguing when you learn that hiding among the pines, securely camouflaged in the dappled shade, are jaguars, the largest of Belize's five wild-cat species. Elusive, magnificent, spotty, they dine on armadillo and paca (a kind of burrowing rodent). They are also, according to Roni, attracted to Calvin Klein's iconic fragrance. Or not, of course.
Let's get this out of the way now: I failed to spot a jaguar during my time in the wilds of Belize, and it is highly likely that should you visit, you will fail to spot a jaguar too. Neil Rogers, a tourism consultant who has a long association with Blancaneaux Lodge, has been coming to Belize since 1989. He has never seen a jaguar in the wild. He can spot big cat tracks, though, at one point asking Roni to stop the 4x4.
We all crouched next to a set of sizeable paw prints, with parts of a dismembered grey fox nearby, the jawbone gleaming pale against the red earth. Paw prints, then, but no paws.
According to Roni, the odds don't improve particularly should you be keen to spot any of Belize's other wild felines: the puma (pale and interesting), the jaguarundi (like a big red house cat), the ocelot and the margay (both spotty, but smaller than jaguars). On a cat-scanning night walk close to the lodge, the rain hissing on the canopy above, we saw nothing bigger than butterflies and leaf-cutter ants.
It's all very different in the morning, though, when Belize hits you right between the ears. Round here, dawn breaks with what sounds like a flock of squeaky garden gates passing overhead. Then some clicks, some whoops and the beginnings of free-form jazz noodlings: clarinet trills, trumpet calls. The local bird-life is awake, abundant and demanding your attention.
Fuelled up on coffee and a determination to see Belize's national icon, the keel-billed toucan, I met up with Geraldo Garcia, a guide at the lodge, for a 6am birdwatching session. Geraldo made up for my non-existent twitching skills with a running commentary on what we were seeing and hearing. Those squeaky gates? Red-lored parrots: green, with a vivid scarlet patch above the beak. The jazz-player? A melodious blackbird, as giddy with song as it was understated in dress.
Serious birders compile Life Lists of all the species they ever encounter – and if you want a head start, Belize is the place. The names came in a rush from Geraldo, like creatures from a Roald Dahl children's story: the yellow-winged tanager, the red-legged honeycreeper, the black-headed saltator, the boat-billed flycatcher.
We saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling holes in the lodge's almond trees, a golden-hooded tanager perched on the green spread of a vast cecropia.
Plain chachalacas rustled in bushes near the swimming pool, like small turkeys. Hummingbirds, magnolia warblers, the masked tityra — blink behind your binoculars and you'd missed another exotic flash of colour.
With the rising sun came a chance to explore the lodge itself. The property is owned by Francis Ford Coppola Resorts, part of an empire built up by the film-maker that stretches from wineries in Napa Valley to hotels in Italy via a literary magazine and a range of pasta sauce. The director of Apocalypse Now! and the Godfather trilogy also owns Turtle Inn, which brings barefoot luxury to the coast of Belize, and La Lancha in Guatemala, for those keen on a close-up of Tikal, one of the largest excavated Mayan sites in Central America.
During my visit Roni was in the process of his annual audit of the local jaguar population, checking more than 80 camera traps.
The camera traps revealed their prizes. No jaguars today, but puma, margay — and several close-ups of tapirs' bottoms.
Belize is a cultural and historical oddity: the only part of Central America that has English as its national language, a relic of its time as British Honduras. Even after independence in 1981, British troops underwent jungle training here; their bullet cases are easy to find, scattered on the jungle floor.
Now, though, Belize manages its security alone, and the ruler-straight border with Guatemala isn't far away. Belize has an uneasy relationship with a larger neighbour that has long coveted its shoreline as well as the riches of its rainforest.
According to Roni, Guatemalan xateros cross the border to take fish-tail palms for the florist industry, but will also harvest rare birds eggs while they're here. Endangered scarlet macaws nest close by in Chiquibul National Park.
For tourists, though, days in the jungle are occupied by birdwatching of a more leisurely kind. (Ben Ross/The Independent)