“Watch out for the peccaries” the ranger said “they can be mean.” I wasn’t familiar with this term and envisioned an aggressive tropical bird. He noticed the confused expression on my face and continued, “They are pigs with tusks, they travel in herds of 60-80 and they will charge you if they feel threatened. Can you climb a tree?” I looked around at the moss-covered trunks, none with branches low enough to climb, but decided I could climb anything if charged by a peccary. “Just be careful” he said. He didn’t say a word about the jaguars.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve is a stone’s throw from the Caribbean Sea in Belize. Brian and I convinced the ranger to let us run the 7.5-kilometer Outlier Trail; they had just finished clearing it the day before. He looked us up and down, decided we were fit enough to tackle it and said, “I’ll see you at about 3:00.” His estimate gave us nearly six hours, a generous amount of time for 15 kilometers; I ignored the tiny warning light in my head that signaled “challenging terrain ahead.”
We consulted the map board at the park headquarters which was oriented south-up. Upside-down maps are popular in Australia and South America; when viewed from the world perspective their appearance raises the status of these regions. Australia is no longer “down under”; Africa and South America take center stage, and Mexico appears dominant to the United States. The park map showed the Outlier Trail to be the lone path in the direction we were heading so the risk of getting lost was nil.
We slogged up the park road through puddles and sloppy mud on our way to the trailhead. A tropical downpour commenced five minutes into our run diluting sections of the road into a slippery soup. Sunscreen and bug spray dripped into my eyes, stinging and blurring my vision. Having already seen one fer-de-lance viper earlier in our trip, we resisted the urge to dash into the thick vegetation for cover. Startling a “mean” peccary had been added to my list of things to avoid, so we stayed on the road, heads down, and wished the rain would cease.
Our experience running trails in Colorado familiarized us with signs of mountain lion activity: half eaten deer appendages, tracks in the snow, the pungent scent of cat urine. The reward of running in the mud with our heads down was the sight of feline paw prints. In Belize, it is common to see scat and tracks from five types of felines: jaguar, puma, margay, jaguarundi and ocelot. There are an estimated 200 jaguars in the 150 square miles of Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve, the highest concentration of these cats in the world. The tracks we saw were the size of saucers so we assumed they were from a jaguar. Like mountain lions, the jaguar is elusive and our chance of encountering one was slim but spotting their tracks piqued our hope of a rare sighting and we became acutely aware of movements in the forest.
We ducked under a “Trail Closed” sign (with the ranger’s permission), and soon found ourselves swallowed up in the forest on the Outlier Trail. Under our feet was a soft bed of clippings left by expert hacks of a machete. The forest canopy created a sticky cocoon of stagnant warm air and dim light. Fronds from the giant palms and ferns twitched and waved at the slightest touch of a birds and raindrops.
We stopped frequently to look in the trees for colorful macaws and other tropical birds known to live in Cockscomb but the ones we heard were hidden within a scrambled mass of verdant leaves, branches and vines. The trail dipped through several shallow streams with steep slippery banks and then began a steady climb straight up a mountain. We grabbed trees and vines to pull ourselves up the steep gradient rather than relying on the tiny bit of traction under our feet. The Belizean National Parks Service had decided not to cut switchbacks into the hillside.
As we gained elevation, we were enveloped in the clouds. Moss hung off every tree and branch. Creatures were quiet. For the first time that day we felt a refreshing breeze; the vertical terrain broke open the forest canopy. Each foot plant depressed an area of the ground five times the size of our foot and then sprung back when released. Narrow sections with steep drop-offs to one side provided mossy tree roots to grasp for security.
Several points near the end of the Outlier Trail present expansive views of treetops and the Caribbean Sea. I was grateful the clouds had thinned so we could enjoy the surrounding landscape. We had climbed about 610 meters (2,000 feet). Victoria peak, at 1,124 meters (3,688 feet), was behind a veil of clouds.
At one point during our run back, we heard a knocking sound in the woods, not far from the trail, that made us stop in our tracks. Could it be the dreaded peccary tusks? We didn’t stick around to find out.
The ranger was surprised when we returned shortly after noon; he was not accustomed to the pace of trail runners. We asked where to find the nearest swimming hole so we could clean up and cool down. He directed us to the “Waterfall Trail”, a one-mile path to a swimming hole where we could have a pummeling shower under the falls. Tubers were hiking out on this trail wearing sandals and swim suits; they had floated 2 hours down the winding river.
After a refreshing plunge in the cool water under the falls, we sat and listened to the soothing white noise of the falls and reflected on our adventure. Butterflies the size of my hand flitted between the trees. In this little oasis, it was hard to imagine there were mean peccaries or predatory felines; even the mosquitos and flies left us alone.