Mexican tree frog, Smilisca baudinii

In search of amphibians

An expedition to Belize, 2004

Belize is a delightful anomaly. A tiny Central American country home to only a quarter of a million people, it is a peaceful little haven of Britishness within a troubled, unfamiliar and sometimes-scary region of the world. From a young age I had wanted to see Belize, having heard about the country from my mother, who spent a year doing voluntary work there after leaving school.

The opportunity to visit Belize came during my second summer at university. For five years, teams of students from the University of Edinburgh have travelled there as part of Project Anuran - an ongoing survey of the frog and toad populations in Belize's remote Chiquibul Forest. Frog and toad populations in many parts of the world are known to be declining, possibly due to environmental problems such as pollution and climate change. Data from regions such as Central America, where few relevant studies have been done so far, is urgently needed to help scientists understand the threat currently facing the world's amphibians. The Project Anuran expeditions were set up to help fulfil this need. I joined the 2004 expedition, and after a great deal of planning and preparation, we set off for Central America.

Map of part of Central America

I met up with the other five volunteers in Cancún, Mexico, and from there we headed southwards into Belize...


26 June

After crossing the Mexican border into Belize, my first impression of the country was one of spaciousness. The buildings in Belizean towns (with the notable exception of downtown Belize City) are surrounded by broad lawns, and the narrow, dusty white highways are fringed by grassy verges that are often wider than the road itself. In the coastal country through which we initially travelled, the forest was broken by open canefields with birds of prey circling overhead, and broad, swampy grasslands. We caught occasional glimpses of a shallow sea, coloured an impossible shade of green, with the low silhouettes of the cayes in the distance. Belize looks so compact on a map that it was quite a surprise to find it a country of big skies and open spaces.

The bus from Chetumal took us to Belize City, from which (after a quick foray through the ramshackle streets in search of a bank) we got a second bus inland, towards San Ignacio. A few miles west of Belize City, the bus broke down. We moved onto a second, overfilled bus just as it started to rain. That evening we arrived in San Ignacio, which is a little town surrounded by forest, built beside a river in the foothills of the Maya Mountains.

In some respects, Belize looks as if it can't have changed much since my mother lived here in 1967. The country has such a quaint, old-fashioned feel to it that there is a sense of being back in the Sixties (or at least in the happy, sunny, friendly, idealised version of the Sixties that my generation hears so much about). A few things have certainly changed - Internet cafés are now plentiful, for example, and ecotourists have invaded the country in their masses. But the historic colonial buildings, the old-fashioned cafés, and the closely-knit local communities are still very much here.

Belize is a wonderful mixture of the British and the exotic. It's a place where cafés have ketchup on the table and mango juice on the menu. And above all, the other volunteers and I have been impressed with how friendly the country is. (This may be partly because there is no language barrier here - unlike other Central American countries, Belize is predominantly English-speaking.) People greet you with a smile in the street, nearly everybody is helpful and polite, and signs outside shops and business proclaim that they are "friendly".

Having arrived in San Ignacio with a day to spare, we went canoeing up the Macal River, which flows out of Belize's south-western jungle and runs past the town. About seven miles into the jungle, we reached Chaa Creek, a jungle lodge that is home to an interesting little Natural History Centre, and a butterfly farm where beautiful iridescent blue morpho butterflies are reared. We got a tour of the butterfly farm, then paddled back downriver to San Ignacio. As we were walking back to our hotel, I heard my name, and was amazed to turn around and see Ed and Jess, the two founding members of the Edinburgh University Chocolate Society! (Ed and Jess disappeared from Edinburgh a few months ago, and all I heard was that they were "in Mexico somewhere". It turns out that from Mexico they had headed to Belize, where they are doing a three-month work experience placement in the nearby capital, Belmopan.)


5 July

The five other volunteers and I were picked up in San Ignacio by a landrover that took us on the two-hour journey to Las Cuevas Research Station. The rough road to the station crossed Mountain Pine Ridge, a range of granite hills topped by poor soil on which only pine forest will grow. Unfortunately, a few years ago a plague of beetles destroyed most of the pine trees, reducing Mountain Pine Ridge to a bare landscape of dead wooden trunks. Despite the ecological devastation, the place has not completely lost its natural beauty. From Mountain Pine Ridge the road continued southwards, deep into the rolling Maya Mountains, and the jungle returned. The woodland around Las Cuevas is not true rainforest, but is somewhat drier, and underneath the tall, vine-draped canopy there is a significant understorey of leafy palm fronds. However, it has all of the humming diversity and steaming lushness that you would expect from a tropical forest.

Las Cuevas Research Station is a cluster of wooden buildings set in a wide grassy clearing, surrounded by a wall of woodland. The main building - comprising a laboratory, kitchen and dining room, bathrooms and shared bedrooms - is in the centre of the clearing and is supported high off the ground on wooden stilts. Another building houses a small squad from the Belizean Defence Force, who were posted at the station in response to the problem of xateros (palm cutters) who cross the border illegally from nearby Guatemala and strip palm leaves out of the forest, selling them for use in flower arrangements. At one edge of the clearing, a pile of stones marks the remains of an ancient Mayan roadway. A millennium ago, the whole area around Las Cuevas consisted of settled farmland, but after the collapse of the Mayan civilisation the Maya Mountains were reclaimed by the forest. Today, the region is uninhabited, and forms the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.

Las Cuevas Research Station
Las Cuevas Research Station

At any one time, the research station is home to several teams of biologists - most of them British or American - pursuing a variety of different research projects. As well as groups working with frogs, there are currently people here working with ocelots, harpy eagles, mushrooms, and xate palms. There is also a Belizean guy at Las Cuevas who looks after the running of the station, and his wife, who does the cooking. Although located at the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the research station is surprisingly modern and well-equipped. The buildings, although fairly simple, are comfortable and pleasant, with drinkable tap water, and electricity for a few hours each evening. The food is based, predictably, around rice, beans and tortillas, but the cook also produces a reasonably variety of other dishes, and there is always plenty of ketchup and hot chilli sauce to go around (Belizeans seem to have a particular liking for these two condiments). To drink there is a good supply of real, non-herbal tea (a rarity in Central America), jugs of sickly fruit cordials, and a tin of Milo, along with plenty of sugar and milk powder to make the malty drink palatable. The station staff also sell bottles of Coca-Cola - which in Central America is widely regarded as a cure-all for minor ailments as well as a refreshment - and Belikin (Belize's omnipresent national beer).

When we are not busy working, Las Cuevas is a fantastic place to sit back and enjoy the presence of nature. Cool breezes blow across the veranda in front of the main building, on which there is a row of comfortable chairs looking out across the clearing towards the forest beyond. There is no adequate word or sound in English for the noise of a tropical forest - a sort of combination of buzz, whirr, hum and whistle - the collective voice of the billions of insects that make the jungle their home. The quality of the sound changes during the course of the day and night, as different species come out to add their calls to the cacophony, but the trees are rarely silent. Insects rule the jungle - there are flies, ants, bees wasps, cockroaches, grasshoppers (some nearly as long as my hand), dragonflies, damselflies, fireflies, mosquitoes, butterflies, months, and others that defy classification. Spiders are also abundant, and at night their tiny eyes shine by torchlight. Apart from the ubiquitous insects, the most noticeable creatures at Las Cuevas are the black vultures that roost in a group of bare trees at one edge of the clearing.

One morning a team of biologists succeeded in trapping and anaesthetising an ocelot, and invited the rest of us to come along while they examined the animal. In shape it resembled an enormous domestic cat, but its sleek fur was dappled with beautiful colour patterns, similar in colour to those of a leopard or jaguar but much more intricate.

Our first couple of days at Las Cuevas were spent finding and examining the ten ponds that feature in our amphibian surveys. The wet season should have begun by now, but so far there has been very little rain, and all but one of the ponds are empty, their sites marked only by muddy hollows. Not surprisingly, we haven't yet encountered many frogs (and the first live tree frog that we did encounter turned out to have been released that morning by another group of researchers!). Some of the ponds are only a couple of minutes' walk from the research station; others are two or three miles (3-5 km) away, at the end of long, muddy trails. Some ponds are located in open clearings and fringed by grasses; others are deep beneath the forest canopy. Most of the ponds are natural hollows, but a couple are the remains of 'aguadas' - ancient Mayan reservoirs.

One element of our frog research involves spending nights beside each pond, in groups of two or three, listening for the sounds of calling frogs and toads. It is not especially scary to walk around the forest in the dark, with head torches blazing, but lying in a dark hammock listening to the sounds of the night is another matter. There are few frogs calling at the moment, but from the moonlit shadows comes an assortment of other unexplained and bizarre noises, ranging from sounds that are merely curious to those that are frankly blood-chilling.

Rationally, we know that we are in no serious danger out in the jungle. The jaguars and pumas are afraid of lights, the herds of pig-like peccaries can be smelt a long way off and are easily escaped by climbing trees, the xateros ignore us, and our mosquito nets keep out bloodsucking creepy crawlies. Nevertheless, none of us got much sleep during the first night in the forest. Just as we had become accustomed to one scary noise, a new one would start. The worst came just after midnight, when a large and unseen animal somewhere out in the darkness began to roar - a long, deep, terrifying sound. It was answered by a second animal, on the other side of our camp, and the two beasts slowly circled us, becoming gradually but noticeably louder and nearer. Lying in our hammocks amidst the trees, we could only cower under our mosquito nets like small children huddling under the bedcovers to ward off imaginary monsters. Our monsters were not imaginary, and when their roaring stopped it only made us feel worse. We knew that whatever creatures made the noises were still out there, and now we didn't know where. At this point every sound of dripping water or falling leaves became a padded footstep, stalking us in the night. We longed for rain to drown out these tormenting little noises, but annoyingly, it was only when dawn came and we began to think of packing our camp away that the rain began. In the past I have often wondered how predators manage to stalk their prey silently on a crackly forest floor. That night, I realised that hunters don't need to be silent: they only have to blend in with the many natural noises of the forest.

The roaring animals turned out not to be the snarling predators that we had feared. I was able to record the sound, using my ever-versatile portable music player, and when I played it back to a Belizean guy at the research station, he identified it as the call of a harmless howler monkey. The howlers returned on the second night, much closer, and the whole forest echoed eerily with their deep, breathy roars (like the breathing of Dementors, as one of my colleagues described the sound).

Play soundClick here to hear my recording of the howler monkeys

The following day, I caught the mystery stomach bug that's been going around the biologists at Las Cuevas, so I stayed behind at the research station. That night, one team of froggers heard cat-like noises from the bushes a few metres away from their hammocks, and got up the next morning to find fresh puma prints nearby.

On the fourth night of research, I was back out in the field. On this occasion the ponds that we were surveying lay in open clearings, away from the trees. Unable to string up our hammocks, we squeezed into a makeshift shelter on the ground, and spent an uncomfortable night trying to sleep while being poked into at every angle by rocks, roots, and each others' elbows and knees. It was a beautiful night, however - with a brilliant full moon - and a night out in the open is far less scary than under the dark, rustling trees. (Psychologically this is not surprising: human beings evolved as creatures of the savannah.) We heard a large animal, possibly a tapir, crashing about in the nearby bushes, but never saw it. We also came across some mysterious little footprints that were identified as those of a gibnut, a large cavy-like rodent.

The fifth night of research was spent in the comparative luxury of a tent borrowed from the station manager. We got to the site early enough to see an impressive pink sunset behind the fringes of the forest, followed eleven hours later by an equally beautiful sunrise.


22 July

On our second week in the jungle, the rains came, filled the ponds, and brought the amphibians out in large numbers. This part of Belize is home to a diverse assortment of frogs and toads - around twenty species in total. The classic image of a tree frog - small and leaf-green with long, sticky limbs and bulging red-rimmed eyes - is represented by the red eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), which is featured on several Belizean posters and postcards. It coexists with a closely-related and confusingly similar species, Morelet's tree frog (Agalychnis moreletii). Both species are abundant around Las Cuevas, and can be heard making sharp "uck" noises in the trees around many of the ponds. On one occasion I inadvertently tied my hammock to a tree that was positively infested with Agalychnis frogs, one of which somehow ended up clinging to the inside of my mosquito net. Another did an impressive tightrope-walking act along one of the strings supporting our tarpaulins. After a while I discovered that the frogs were being hunted. My tree was also home to several cat-eyed snakes - slender brown creatures with broad, grinning heads. The snakes were fun to watch, and weren't likely to attack anything larger than a frog, but nonetheless I didn't wish to share my bed with them; I got up and moved my hammock to a different tree.

Snake eating frog
A cat-eyed snake preying upon a red-eyed tree frog

Another common group of tree frogs is the assortment of Hyla species, which come in "painted", "variegated", "small-headed" and "loquacious" varieties. The painted tree frog (Hyla picta) is small enough to sit comfortably on the end of a person's thumb, and makes a noise very similar to that of a cricket. Often it is necessary to go looking for the tiny creatures in order to prove that a particular noise really is coming from a frog and not from an insect. The loquacious tree frog (Hyla loquax) is the only one that sounds much like a 'normal' frog. Although it is difficult to spot amongst the leaves on which it hides, its loud croaks and rrribbits are very distinctive.

The Mexican tree frog (Smilisca baudinii) looks a lot like a common garden frog, except for the rounded pads on its feet that enable it to adhere effortlessly to vertical surfaces. Groups of these get together at night to produce a deafening honking sound, like a flock of hyperactive geese. One morning, while resting at the research station after a night in the field, I found myself inadvertently sharing a hammock with one of these frogs, which had stuck itself to the ropes at one end of the hammock and gone to sleep. On one occasion I had the task of releasing a group of 'baudinii', which had earlier been captured by another researcher, back into their native pond. I put their bucket down beside the pond, lifted the lid, and the frogs sprang out as though spring-loaded, easily clearing the tall sides of the bucket. Most swiftly found their way into the pond, but one individual landed neatly on my arm, where it rested for a minute before hopping away - clinging to my shirt with its broad sticky feet and staring at me with cute round eyes.

In addition to the frogs, the area is home to a number of toads. The Gulf Coast toad (Bufo valliceps) frequently contributes its deep, grinding noises to the cacophony of calls emanating from the fringes of a pond. The largest of the frogs and toads is the marine toad (Bufo marinus), known as the 'cane toad' in Australia, where the species is an introduced pest. (The characteristic flavour of Australian rum is attributed by some to the presence of cane toads that get caught up in the sugar cane-harvesting machinery!) Some people suggest licking the marine toad, whose skin secretions reputedly have hallucinogenic properties; others warn that the toad is just downright poisonous and best avoided.

Some of the sounds produced by the different frogs and toads at night are extremely bizarre. The Mexican burrowing toad (Rhinophrynus dorsalis), an ugly dark purplish-brown blob of a creature, sounds like an air-raid siren wailing through the jungle. The call of the narrow-mouthed frog (Gastrophryne elegans), another weird-looking animal, resembles the whine of an electric motor. The Rio Grande leopard frog (Rana berlandieri), which has a pointed head and striking brown and black markings, specialises in deep gurgling noises. The blue spotted tree frog (Smilisca cyanosticta) blows raspberries.

Team by pond
The team by Millionario Pond near Las Cuevas

After heavy rain, several species of frog and toad may come out at once, creating an absolute pandemonium of sound, as the croaking of Hyla loquax, the quacking of Hyla microcephala, the chirping of Hyla picta, the grinding of Bufo valliceps, the gurgling of Rana berlandieri, the chattering of Agalychnis moreletii, the honking of Smilisca baudinii and the wailing of Rhinophrynus dorsalis all compete to be heard.

Play soundClick here for the sound of frogs at one of the ponds

We are making great progress with our 'night-time vocalisation surveys', and are slowly become less terrified of sleeping in the dark forest. Unfortunately, other aspects of the research have so far been less successful. Our attempts to find amphibians by walking through the forest along transects, looking around carefully and turning over the leaf litter with a long stick, have so far yielded virtually nothing but creepy crawlies, exotic mushrooms, and the occasional snake. We also set up a line of pitfall traps, but these catch little except for an especially stupid species of big brown beetle that seems to delight in hurling itself into our buckets. Checking the traps has become less of an exercise in amphibian surveying and more of a "guess the number of beetles in the buckets" competition.

Top 5 ways to combat fear in the forest at night

5. Have long, repetitive conversations about all the wonderful foodstuffs that will never, ever make an appearance amongst the rice and beans in the Las Cuevas kitchen.

4. Fall asleep. (This is not always a practical option when you are meant to be listening to frogs.)

3. Ask your team mates random personal questions. ("Would you rather have a hairy nose or hairy ears?")

2. Invent a fictitious, harmless animal and blame it for all the unexplained noises. (The "Belizean night parrot" has now been adopted as a euphemism for any nocturnal beast we can hear but would rather not think about.)

1. Sing cheesy pop songs, loudly. (Hanson's "Mmm...bop!" is particularly effective.)

As our first month in the jungle wore on, the lack of success with the pitfalls and transects contributed to a feeling of boredom and malaise amongst our group. The deteriorating quality and quantity of food provided at the research station has also been a cause for depression: some meals have consisted of little more than a scoop of flavoured rice. Constant itching is another nuisance - biting insects, scorching sunshine, poisonous plants, and cheap local washing powder inadequately rinsed from our clothes have taken their toll on everybody's skin. The weather dried up again, with several scorching days of burning blue skies, followed up by late afternoon thunderclouds that towered to menacing proportions but produced little rain. Under such conditions, we encountered few amphibians.

Last Monday we were all 'grounded' at the research station for a day, following the discovery of a band of Guatemalan xateros in the forest nearby. Fortunately, by this point nobody was in the mood to work anyway. Instead of counting frogs we spent the evening drinking and playing cards by candlelight in 'The Bog' - a wooden, palm-thatched shack in the research station grounds. The Bog distinctly resembles a Vanuatu kava hut, but here the drink of choice is rum.

In spite of recent difficulties, in many ways life in the forest continues to delight and fascinate. A stint in the tropics ought to be a compulsory part of every biology student's education. Life here is so different and so diverse, and trying to understand and classify the exotic things we see provides a test of our biological knowledge that we could never get in an Edinburgh classroom. Here, things that are minuscule at home grow to enormous sizes: grasshoppers and hornets the length of my fingers, giant millipedes like thick segmented sausages that glide through the leaf litter on rows of bright red legs, and tarantulas that scuttle in the dark like eight-legged rats. Even in darkness there is life: the yellow-green points of light emitted by fireflies, and on one occasion a beetle adorned with a pair of luminescent eye spots that glowed brightly enough to be seen tens of metres away.

Author in the jungle
In Chiquibul Forest

On a hilltop about half an hour's walk from Las Cuevas is a bird observation tower from which there are stunning views across the green, lumpy landscape of the Maya Mountains. In every direction a crumpled mat of deep forest stretches unbroken to the horizon. Except for the research station itself, in the whole wide vista there is absolutely no sign of human habitation - even the roads and trails leading to Las Cuevas are buried amongst the trees. It is breathtaking that such a wilderness can exist even in as compact a country as Belize. Perhaps there is hope yet for our overexploited planet.

On our way down from the tower, we passed one of the limestone caves from which Las Cuevas gets its name. The entrance to the cave resembles a gaping mouth, with thick stalactites pointing down like teeth. Beyond the cave, further down the hillside, we came across the incredible spectacle of a harpy eagle (a huge silver bird with a passing resemblance to the hippogriff in Harry Potter) being chased by a group of spider monkeys. Normally, harpies eat monkeys, but this particular eagle had been bred in captivity (as part of a programme to reintroduce the species to Belize) and hadn't yet got the hang of the predator-prey relationship! At present the harpies depend for food upon dead rats supplied to them by two American guys based at Las Cuevas. This feeding takes place in a patch of jungle that is marked with 'keep out' signs and resounds with the eagles' raucous cries. As you walk past it is hard to avoid recalling Jurassic Park.

On our second visit to the bird tower, we took up our hammocks and strung them between the metal girders of the tower, several metres from the ground, in a safe spot just above a wooden platform. We spent the afternoon there, rocking in the fresh wind and soaking up the view. Now and then we would see scarlet macaws, usually in pairs, flapping across the forest like stiff aeroplanes. Although often a long way off, macaws are hard to miss - they announce their take-off with loud squawks, and their primary colours stands out for miles against the dark landscape.


25 July

On Thursday afternoon four of the other froggers and I headed westwards across la frontera into Guatemala. (The sixth frogger, Davva, went to meet up with some friends in Mexico instead.) The area beyond the border is green, sparsely-populated cattle farming country, rather like the Wild West. After an hour or two in a minibus we arrived at the Lago de Petén Itzá, a long, low-rimmed lake. We spent Thursday night in Flores, a small town built on an island at the margins of the lake, connected by a causeway to the larger neighbouring town of Santa Elena. Flores is a run-down yet not wholly unattractive place, with colourful buildings and narrow streets of grey mud and cracked concrete. The weather was oppressive and humid, and in the late afternoon hot thunderclouds towered over the lake.

Guatemala is a stereotypical Central American country: poor, rural, hot and Hispanic. The region's main tourist attraction (and, seemingly, the mainstay of its economy) is the spectacular Mayan site of Tikal, a 'lost city' buried in lush rainforest. Tikal rose to prominence around 700 AD under the delightfully-named King Moon Double Comb (also known as Lord Chocolate), and thrived for a couple of centuries before succumbing to the warfare and environmental hardships that brought about the collapse of classical Mayan civilisation throughout the region. When the place was rediscovered by 19th-century archaeologists, the rainforest had reclaimed the city. Though many of the temples have now been cleared and restored, the site remains surrounded by jungle, and home to a veritable menagerie of wildlife (the creatures we saw included howler and spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, foxes, vultures, woodpeckers and ocellated turkeys). Tikal's plant life is also impressive - stringy growths dangle from some of the tall trees like cobwebs, contributing to the ancient atmosphere, and climbing some of the higher temples takes you right up into the canopy amongst the birds and the monkeys. One of Tikal's temples stands right clear of the canopy and gives a stunning aerial view over the surrounding forest. The site is dominated by steep grey pyramids, which are interspersed with the ruins of palaces, causeways, an 'acropolis', and probably numerous other historic remains that have yet to be excavated.


On the way back to Belize we spent a night at El Remate, back down on the shores of the Lago de Petén Itzá. El Remate is a charming little rural village where pigs and horses roam freely, the electricity goes on and off sporadically (the owner of one handicraft shop handed us all torches and candles so we could view his merchandise), vendors on the street sell iced drinks sprinkled with an unidentifiable powder, and in one bar a pet coati sits on a stool to be stroked by passing customers. We stayed at the Mirador del Duende, an attractively-landscaped eco-campsite where we pitched our hammocks inside a tall building with thatched walls and roof like those of a medieval barn. We enjoyed a big, cheap vegetarian dinner in the campsite's whitewashed restaurant, which had Mediterranean-like views across the aquamarine lake.

This morning we got the bus back to Belize.


8 August

If I could be magically transported to Chiquibul Forest on a typical grey day in Britain, I would be awestruck by the place. Towering trees, colourful flowers, spreading palm fronds, twirling vines, giant butterflies, exotic birds, placid pools and ancient Mayan stonework all bathe in a tropical (and unseasonably sunny) climate that is pleasantly warm yet moderated by mountain breezes.

After six weeks, however, the jungle is starting to become depressingly familiar. As I trudge through endless miles of decaying brown leaf litter in search of amphibians that never show up, I start to dream of log cabins in the snow, winters by the fireside, the historic streets of Edinburgh... even the yellow moors of Wester Ross.

With the frog research nearly at an end, we've been filling some of our time by conducting surveys of the vegetation around the ponds in which the frogs live. The notorious biodiversity of tropical forests makes this a frustratingly difficult task: a huge variety of plant and tree species grows around Las Cuevas, and distinguishing them requires a level of botanical skill that none of us have.

The other day the researchers all took a day off and hiked down to Monkey Tail River, four miles away, and spent the day swimming and chilling out on a gravely beach. The other froggers and I took a camping stove and kettle and made ourselves cups of tea, to the amusement of our American colleagues.

On the night of the full moon all the researchers got together in 'The Bog' for a drunken fancy dress party. Unfortunately, our night of lunacy coincided with the arrival at Las Cuevas of a party of British schoolkids who have come to camp at Las Cuevas to get a taste of biology fieldwork. Suffice it to say that the sight of a group of 'professional biologists' variously dressed in palm leaves, face paint and ill-fitting garments borrowed from colleagues of the opposite sex was not quite what they were expecting! After the party, several of us went up the bird observation tower in the moonlight, and listened to music while watching distant lightning flashes over the misty, moonlit mountains. It was a magical view, and we would have liked to stay there all night, but as the electrical storms drew closer, we thought it wise to get off the metal tower and head down to bed.

On another evening, we visited the nearby caves from which Las Cuevas Research Station gets its name (and its clean but intensely mineral-laden water supply). Following a forest trail through the darkness, the first thing I knew of the cave was when I looked up and realised that the vines and palm fronds above me had been replaced by a ceiling of limestone. The entrance of the cave is the size and shape of a large Victorian railway station, with a deep canyon at its base and rows of toothy stalactites hanging from the ceiling. From here, it is possible to follow the caves for miles underground, passing through narrow passageways that open out into spectacular grottoes and caverns adorned with the usual assortment of stalactites, stalagmites and columns, and encrusted in some places with white crystals. Exploring the caves felt surreal, like walking through a painted backdrop rather than a real place. It was only when we returned to the cave entrance, and heard the hum of the jungle outside, that I realised why the caves seem so unreal: they are silent. The caves provided a respite, for the first time in a month, from the constant background noises of plants, people, birds and insects that pervade almost every inch of the Central American surface.

Another way in which the cave differs from the surrounding jungle is that the temperature there is much cooler, and for this reason I have spent several hot afternoons simply sitting in the cave mouth reading. I've had time to do an awful lot of reading while at Las Cuevas - about sixteen books so far.


9 August

Chris and I came into town for a couple of days, and ended up watching a Sunday afternoon football match in San Ignacio. The most entertaining aspect of this was listening to the excitable (and often foul-mouthed) Caribbean creole being shouted by the crowd.

The next morning we crammed ourselves onto an old American schoolbus and rattled coastwards down the wide, straight highway that bisects Belize from west to east. We passed through Belmopan, the nation's tiny capital, and got off the bus on a particularly wide and straight stretch of highway in open countryside about thirty miles (50 km) short of Belize City. This is the site of the conservationally-minded Belize Zoo - a chance for us to come face-to-face with all the local creatures that we've so far failed to spot in the wild. The puma looked surprisingly small close-up (just a big pussy cat with enormous feet), but the jaguars were sizeable beasts. The jungle's most dangerous animals - the white-lipped peccaries - have an inescapable piggy cuteness about them, in spite of their hungry stares and menacing grunts. Most impressive was the tapir, a big docile animal with a smooth, grey pig-like body and a bizarre floppy snout. It was a truly prehistoric creature. About thirty million years ago, relatives of the tapir ruled the world, some of them growing to the size of houses. Sadly, their clan is now reduced to just a handful of species (the modern tapirs and their relatives the rhinos), and due to human activity even these few survivors now face possible extinction.

Later that afternoon we got the bus back to San Ignacio. I wonder how many American children realise that their yellow schoolbuses will end their careers grinding along baking, dusty roads in obscure corners of Central America.


18 August

The 'wet season' in western Belize has so far dramatically failed to live up to its name, with nearly a month of almost continuous blue, sunny weather. This is obviously bad news for the frogs, although it has certainly made our lives at Las Cuevas more comfortable. As the forest dried out, squelchy mud tracks turned into pleasant paths, and the biting insects virtually disappeared. And we had a lot less amphibian-counting to do.

Even when the clouds did begin to gather this week, they produced little more than showers - English weather, not the spectacular downpours of which tropical skies are capable.

Over the past couple of weeks most of the research projects being carried out at Las Cuevas have been coming to an end, and the crowd of people with whom we had been sharing the research station has gradually dwindled. During our final week at Las Cuevas, only Adam and Shonene the American ocelot researchers remained. The only new additions to the research station were a pair of female American geologists, who are digging around in the sandstones by the river in order to learn about the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea 250 million years ago. Later they hope to go and investigate 65-million-year-old limestones elsewhere in Belize, in the hope of shedding light on their belief that the dinosaurs were killed by massive global warming rather than by the asteroid (whose impact site, in the Yucatán, was not far from present-day Belize).

Chiquibul Forest
A misty morning in Chiquibul Forest

With a smaller group of people, the atmosphere at Las Cuevas became much friendlier, and in spite of the struggle to finish our project report, my last few days in the jungle were quite enjoyable. Having worked hard to finish the report - bashing away frenetically at the laptop computer during the few hours of day when the electricity generator was on - the other froggers and I were able to leave the jungle three days earlier than we had originally planned.

Summary from the draft Project Anuran Phase V report

In the past 20 years the scientific community has become increasingly concerned by a number of reports documenting declines in amphibian populations around the world. Such declines are worrying since amphibians are an integral part of many ecosystems, and may act as bioindicators of wider environmental problems. In order to understand the phenomenon of decline amphibian populations and take appropriate conservation action, there is a need for long-term and intensive monitoring programmes, particularly in tropical habitats, which support a high diversity of amphibian species but have so far been poorly studied. Project Anuran was set up in 2000 by students from the University of Edinburgh to help address this need, by embarking upon a comprehensive monitoring programme of an entire community of amphibians in the region of the neotropical forest research station at Las Cuevas, Belize. Previous phases of the Project surveyed anuran (frog and toad) species through night-time vocalisation surveys and through visual encounter surveys. Phase V expanded the scope of the study to include salamander as well as anuran species, and pitfall trapping was carried out in addition to the other survey techniques.

Phase V encountered a total of 17 anuran species in the region around Las Cuevas, slightly lower than the species count of previous phases, perhaps due to unseasonably dry weather conditions. Eleven species were heard during night-time vocalisation surveys, the most commonly encountered being tree frogs of the genus Agalychnis. Extensive data was gathered on the spatial and temporal calling patterns of vocalising species, and their habitat preferences. During visual encounter surveys, various frogs (mainly Rana and Eleutherodactylus species) were found. During the entire study period, only two individual salamanders were found and identified. The scarcity of salamander sightings may be due to the rarity of the species involved, to unsuitable survey techniques, or to dry weather conditions.

Project Anuran has now gathered five years' worth of data on the amphibian populations of the area around Las Cuevas. It is hoped that further analysis of this data will be valuable in assessing the status of the local amphibian community, and in contributing to a wider understanding of amphibian communities and their possible current decline.

On our last morning at Las Cuevas, I got up at quarter to five and climbed the hill to watch the sun rise from the bird observation tower. For the first hour I saw only grey fog, but as the sun rose this began to evaporate and dark hilltops rose out of the mist like islands in a nebulous ocean. Proterra [a song by Scottish band Runrig] was playing on my MP3 player as the rising sun hit the surface of the mist and suffused it with an ethereal yellow light. A while later the silhouette of a toucan emerged from the mist and landed in a nearby tree.


24 August

After leaving the jungle, I travelled with four of the other froggers to Belize City. From there we got a boat to Caye Caulker, one of the many beautiful islands and islets than fringe the Belizean coast, where we rented a lovely wooden bungalow just a minute's walk from the beach. The bungalow has all mod cons - fridge/freezer, microwave, cooling fans, hammocks outside, and 35 channels of satellite TV - and the cost, split between us, is less than that of staying in a youth hostel dormitory back in Britain. We were joined a couple of days later by some of the American biologists with whom we'd been working at Las Cuevas, and by a couple of friendly local dogs that took to snoozing on the front porch.

Caye Caulker has everything you would expect from a tropical island - shining white sands, azure waters lapping at wooden jetties, frigate birds and pelicans, lizards and crabs, rastafarians playing reggae music, sandals and Hawaiian shirts, hammocks on the beach, cocktails at sunset, dangling hibiscus flowers, and of course the palm trees rustling in hot Caribbean breezes. The caye is part of the barrier reef system that runs the length of the Belizean coast (the second longest such formation in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef), and on the eastern horizon is a broken white line where the surf crashes on a wall of coral.

On one day we went on a boat tour around the local reefs and cayes. First we stopped at Swallow Caye, a nondescript mass of green and brown mangroves, where we watched the grey snouts of manatees surfacing to breathe. After stopping for a packed lunch and a couple of hours snorkelling at Sargent's Caye, a sun-baked, coral-ringed sandy islet far out to sea, the boat headed to 'Shark and Ray Alley'. Here, in a turquoise sea-grass meadow near the outer edge of the reef, harmless nurse sharks and huge rays throng around crowds of swimmers and snorkellers. Toothy barracuda hang in the water and watch the scene (upon seeing these, I suddenly re-remembered what I was taught in childhood swimming lessons about closing your fingers tightly as you swim).

The favourite night spot on Caye Caulker is an amazing bar built across all three storeys of the owner's house and filled with hammocks, swings, sofas and deckchairs on which tourists and locals gather to share 'panty rippers' (rum with pineapple juice) and Belikin beers. Extra drinking space is provided by a high wooden platform in the back yard, connected to the house itself by a rickety wooden walkway under the stars. If Peter Pan and his lost boys ever did grow up, this is the kind of place they would hang out. "I designed the whole place myself", the owner told me proudly, gazing at the sky and taking a long drag on his honey-flavoured spliff.

Caye Caulker isn't quite paradise - that word is overused in Belize - but it is certainly a great place to 'chill out' for a few days after the trials of the jungle. Though the island runs on tourism, the atmosphere couldn't be more different from Cancún - Belizeans are capable of making visitors welcome without turning their towns into poor imitations of the United States of America. Caye Caulker is quaint, laid-back and low-key, with quiet sandy streets, colourful wooden buildings and the same old-fashioned, friendly atmosphere that I've come to expect in Belize.


27 August

After a week on Caye Caulker I returned to the mainland to meet my parents, who had come to visit, and their Belizean friends in Belize City. From here we rented a 4x4 and took the now-familiar route inland, back to the Chiquibul Forest. We visited the Mayan ruins of Caracol, pale temples rising out of clearings in the jungle. These are only ten miles from Las Cuevas, and were frequently visited by the harpy researchers, who would stand on top of the temples waving radio antennae in an attempt to locate their lost eagles. However, I never took the opportunity to visit Caracol myself while I was staying at Las Cuevas, so it was good to see it now. We spent that afternoon in the sparsely-forested Mountain Pine Ridge, visiting caves, pools and waterfalls, including the Thousand Foot Falls (actually over a thousand feet high) that tumble off the pine-forested granite ridge towards the plains below.

We spent the night staying in wooden cabins at a smart wilderness lodge on the Mountain Pine Ridge overlooking the Five Sisters waterfalls. The pine-clad scenery almost resembled Scotland, but against this backdrop there were exotic flora, tropical breezes, and a fresh, warm pool at the base of the waterfall, which we swam in at sunset. The place made a nice change from grubby youth hostels, although I felt somewhat out of place turning up with my dirty, disintegrating rucksack, damp clothes (I'd dived in for a swim in one of the pools we'd visited on the way there), and old sandals (which are now being held together with superglue and parcel tape).

The next day we returned to Belize City via the Blue Hole National Park, named after a limestone sinkhole in which the water is naturally coloured an inky shade of blue, like a giant paintpot. I jumped in, joining the large fish that were swimming around the hole in the hope of being thrown crumbs of food by passing tourists.

Before returning the hired vehicle, we went on a surreal journey into my mother's past, through the ancient-looking backstreets of Belize City, passing the house where she lived and the school where she worked thirty-seven years ago. The narrow streets, grimy canals and decaying wooden buildings (many of which are just waiting for a hurricane to come and blow them away) still recall the days of British Honduras, when the town was a distant outpost of the Empire. Independence has not been entirely kind to Belize City. It is now a troubled place, a city where the numerous foreign tourists who disembark from shiny cruise ships to spent a few mercifully short hours soaking up the "funky Third World atmosphere" have to keep a close eye on their valuables. The parts of the city that Mum roamed happily as a teenager are "scarier" now, she tells me.

Not all of Belize City is impoverished, however. Mum's friend Cynthia, who runs a successful communications company, has a smart and well-kept house on the breezy outskirts of the city, at which she has made us feel extremely welcome.


29 August

My parents and I spent the weekend on Ambergris Caye - the busiest and most well-known of Belize's offshore islands, and the tourist hub of Belize. Many people who visit Belize never spend a night on the mainland, but base themselves entirely on the caye and see the rest of the country only on day tours (if at all). Palm-fronted resorts and luxurious holiday apartments stretch for several miles along the beach, little boats and planes ferry tourists continuously to and from the island, and from dozens of wooden jetties young adventure-seekers set out to dive, fish, swim and snorkel on the surrounding reef.

Ambergris Caye is nicknamed "La Isla Bonita", and inspired a well-known Madonna song of the same name. Like almost all tropical islands, the caye is undoubtedly nice, but it doesn't have the charm and tranquillity of Caye Caulker. San Pedro, the island's town, is noisy, bustling, and uncomfortably hot - when the sun rises high in the sky, La Isla Bonita sizzles. In some ways it's also shabbier than Caye Caulker, in spite of San Pedro's upmarket reputation.

Beach on Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye - La Isla Bonita

On Saturday afternoon we took a trip on a glass-bottomed boat to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a protected area of reef a few miles off Ambergris Caye. Hol Chan is situated around a deep channel in the reef, which attracts an unusual variety of fish, including some large and impressive ones such as the beautiful black-and-white eagle rays and long, mean-looking tarpon. A few minutes' boat ride further along the reef, we visited Hol Chan's Shark and Ray Alley - a different site from the Shark and Ray Alley off Caye Caulker, but with a similar abundance of large, greedy and carnivorous fish. In addition to the nurse sharks (our tour guide wrestled with one of these and managed to hold on to it while we touched its grainy brown skin) and enormous rays, Hol Chan's Shark and Ray Alley was inhabited by chubby, vicious-looking fish about a foot in length that swarmed alarmingly around the boat. Snorkelling amidst a feeding frenzy in which these toothy creatures jostled with stingrays and the occasional shark for the scraps of food being thrown from the boats, I feared for my fingers and toes. Of course, like the dozen of other tourists who snorkel the site every day, I emerged from the water unscathed.


2 September

From Belize City I got the express bus down to Punta Gorda, the sleepy coastal town at the southern tip of Belize. At the dock there, I said goodbye to my parents and to Belize, and boarded a boat heading for Guatemala. The little boat lurched and thudded across the choppy grey waters of the Gulf of Honduras, repeatedly drenching the hapless gringo (myself) who'd been given the back seat with eye-stinging salt water. The effect was similar to the lurch and splash that you get at the bottom of the log flume ride at a theme park, but repeated every few seconds for the entire hour-long duration of the journey.

My first port of call in Guatemala was Puerto Barrios, a town built for exporting bananas by the powerful US-owned United Fruit Company, which largely ran Guatemala's economy during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1950s, when a democratic Guatemalan government attempted to regain some control over their country, demanding that United Fruit pay its taxes and allow local peasants to farm its unused land, the United States cried communism and had the government overthrown. Despite America's attempts to safeguard its banana interests (at the expense of Guatemalan democracy), the power of United Fruit declined, and today Puerto Barrios is a somnolent tropical backwater. I stayed there just long enough to get an entry stamp in my passport, then got another small boat along the coast to Lívingston.

The coastline around Lívingston is very different from the swamps and beaches of Belize. In eastern Guatemala, tall jungle trees grow right up against the sea in an exotic and beautiful way. In many places, thatched wooden houses interrupt the line of forest. Compared with the brightness of Belize, with its wide skies and shining sands, the rain-drenched scenery seemed intensely dark in colour. Lívingston itself is a little town accessible only by water - the sort of outpost you might expect to find at the mouth of the Amazon. In fact, it lies at the mouth of the Río Dulce, and the next morning I got on yet another boat and headed inland up the river. First the 'sweet river' passed through an immense gorge, with vertical walls of dark green rainforest growing up its sides. Later, the boat stopped at a place along the riverbank, under overhanging trees, where eggy volcanic springs vented hot water into the river. Several of the passengers, including myself, got out for a swim, enjoying the warm bath in spite of the biting fish (small relatives of the piranha) that braved the heat and sulphur to come and nip at our skin. Further along, the river widened into the broad lake of El Golfete, surrounded by mountains. Cormorants and egrets nested on islands in the lake, and beautiful water-lilies flowered in bays along its margins.

I got off the boat at the town of Río Dulce, under the shadow of an immense concrete bridge at the far end of the lake. Here I caught up with Davva and Nita, two of the other froggers. That afternoon we got on one of the disintegrating local buses (referred to by travellers as 'chicken buses' because people sometimes carry live poultry on board) and headed along a dirt road towards a place named El Paraíso - paradise. Here, in a dappled glade in the forest, there is a natural swimming pool at the base of a waterfall volcanically heated to exactly the temperature of a hot shower. We spent the afternoon bathing in this magical spot, while the sulphurous water turned our skin and hair silky soft. With gently frothing water and steamy sunbeams shining through the trees, the place was like a scene out of a soap advert.


3 September

From Río Dulce we got the bus inland, travelling first through a Greek-style landscape of dry, scrubby mountains, then climbing into misty green cloud forests (one of the last refuges of the quetzal, Guatemala's long-suffering national bird). The climate up in the mountains is damp, chilly, and refreshing after the muggy heat of the Caribbean coast.

We spent the night in Cobán, a town built on a hilltop by nineteenth-century German coffee farmers. The guidebook was exaggerating when it likened the place to a German mountain town - with its cracking concrete buildings, small moustachioed men shouting incomprehensible Spanish, dark long-haired Mayan women, and teenage soldiers carrying fearsome weapons (guns abound in this formerly war-torn country), the place looks pretty Central American to me. Sitting in our chilly, windowless, wood-panelled budget hotel room, we could almost imagine ourselves in northern Europe, but stepping outside and seeing the caged toucan in the hotel courtyard somewhat spoiled the illusion.

This morning Davva and I went on a guided tour of a traditional working coffee farm, where we were shown how the coffee beans are grown, picked, soaked, sorted, dried and roasted. The place had a country-garden atmosphere, with patches of coffee bushes growing in the shade of a variety of larger trees and bushes including avocado, guava, cardamom, and all-spice.


6 September

From Cobán a five hour bus journey through more mountain scenery took us to Guatemala City. There we threw ourselves and our luggage straight onto another bus - a 'chicken bus' with glittery decoration, a six-inch wide aisle, erratic lighting, and loud Latin music blaring out of the stereo - on which we rocked our way through the bright, beeping throng of evening rush hour in Central America's largest city. An short while after leaving the bustle of the big city we arrived in the comparative serenity of Antigua Guatemala - Old Guatemala City.

Antigua was originally Guatemala's colonial capital, but after a devastating earthquake in the 1770s the capital was moved to the site of present-day Guatemala City (which, unfortunately, also turned out to be earthquake-prone). As a result, rather than developing into a crowded modern city, Antigua was frozen in time. Its quiet, cobbled streets are fronted by colourful old buildings seldom more than one storey high (although I'm not sure whether the lack of high buildings reflects colonial architecture or is simply the result of frequent earthquakes!). Antigua - true to its name - is one of the least modern-looking and most delightfully historic cities I've ever seen.

From Antigua we got on more chicken buses, and after several confusing changes of bus arrived at Panajachel, on the shores of Lago de Atitlán. Unfortunately, I later discovered while I was being jostled onto one of the buses a thief had managed to extract my wallet from a zipped pocket. Nita was also pickpocketed on the same bus. I lost some cash and a couple of cards, but luckily nothing I can't survive without for the next couple of weeks. We later spent a fraught hour trying to report the incident (purely for insurance purposes, of course) in bad Spanish to a sour-looking Guatemalan policewoman.

Lago de Atitlán, located high in the mountains, surrounded by the green cones of tall inactive volcanoes, is a beautiful place. It is a big lake - a few miles across - but not so big that it is impossible to take in the whole thing in one vista, a fact that adds to its beauty. Not surprisingly, the town of Panajachel on the shore of the lake is popular with tourists - here we've encountered more white faces and American accents than anywhere else in Guatemala.

Lago de Atitlan
Lago de Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands

The highlands of Guatemala have the schizophrenic climate typical of tropical mountains: in the sun it is as sweltering as anywhere else in Central America, but when the clouds gather or night falls the temperature drops dramatically. Unfortunately the clouds gather rather too frequently (on my way to this Internet cafe where I'm writing this e-mail, I was drenched by a rainstorm that turned the streets into filthy brown rivers), and even during brighter periods the cones of the volcanoes are almost perpetually shrouded in cloud. However, while the weather may be grey, the people of Guatemala are spectacularly colourful. The streets of Panajachel are lined with sellers offering a rainbow of patterned fabrics and woven handicrafts in every conceivable hue, bright paintings of the lake, and shiny Mayan sculptures. (And psychedelic mushrooms, for anyone who doesn't find Guatemala colourful enough already.) The intensely coloured and patterned Guatemalan handicrafts are not made exclusively for tourists - they are to be seen everywhere. On Sunday morning, in the nearby market town of Sololá, we saw hundreds of Mayan women and girls heading to church in their beautiful multicoloured dresses.


10 September

From Panajachel, several hours of winding mountain bus journeys took us northward into Chiapas, Mexico's wild and beautiful southern state. The contrast between the two countries was extremely obvious as we transferred from a rattling Guatemalan chicken bus (on which I was jammed so tightly into a metal seat meant for schoolchildren that my knees hurt for days afterwards) onto a smooth, luxurious, air-conditioned Mexican coach.

We spent a couple of days in the pretty colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Like many Mexican mountain retreats, San Cristóbal has long been a magnet for hippy 'alternative' travellers, and it's the kind of place where vegetarian restaurants and herbal healers abound. In 1994 San Cristóbal was at the centre of the Zapatista uprising, led by a rebel army demanding better treatment for Mexico's indigenous peoples, but the region's political troubles have, if anything, only helped to put the town on the map for idealistic young Westerners, many of whom sympathise with the Zapatistas' cause. Though the Zapatista rebellion began with violent conflict, in recent years it has consisted mainly of peaceful protests, and Chiapas is not nowadays considered a particularly dangerous travel destination. We went to see a film that told the story of the uprising from the Zapatistas' point of view - a tale of deceit and betrayal on the part of the Mexican government, which made insincere noises about peace while at the same time rolling the army into Chiapas. The Mexican government was acting partly under pressure from (surprise, surprise) the United States, which had no interest in the rights of Mexico's indigenous people and wanted a military quick fix to the problem so that it could get on with the business of exploiting the region's oil and lending money to the then-bankrupt Mexican government.

I left Davva and Nita in San Cristóbal, and got a long overnight bus down from the chilly mountains of Chiapas to the coastal sauna of Cancún.

From Cancún I made a brief trip to Havana in Cuba (where I nearly got stranded due to Hurricane Ivan), before returning to Britain.

This account of my trip is adapted from the various e-mails that I sent home.


Many thanks to everyone involved with Project Anuran - especially to the other 'froggers', and to the various sponsors who contributed to the expedition. Thanks also to Cynthia Henry and the many other Belizeans who helped to make me feel so welcome in their country.


See also...

Travels in Mexico

Where the wild things are

Travels in Cuba

Project Anuran expedition web site


Disclaimer - this is just my personal experience, it isn't a travel guide, nor is it intended to be an authoritative account of the Project Anuran expedition. Not everything I did was necessarily safe and advisable, and details of the places I visited may change over time.

© Andrew Gray, 2004