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Legends of the Jungle: Hiking in Belize's Cockscomb Wildlife Basin


By Katie Johnson, copywriter and member of a research and development trip in Belize & Guatemala

“Welcome to the jungle,” so they say. Belize’s Cockscomb Wildlife Basin is a most sensational jungle—and hiking in it a multi-sensory experience. Because there were so many layers and sensations, I found it easier to focus on one sense or one level of the forest at a time. I listened to our local guide identify birds and furiously scribbled names in my tiny, humidity-soaked notebook. Then I stayed at eye level to the vines cascading into pink, hot lips flowers springing from the swath of green. My eyes wandered to the spongy mushrooms cantilevering out of Caribbean pine. I looked down to the forest floor and focused on the path. A line of leafcutter ants trotted along bringing sawed-off bits of green to their home. An arduous trek, I was sure. A wolf spider skittered along. When our guide saw a flash of a monkey in the trees I craned my head, but he was already gone. Bromeliads poked out of the tree trunks.


Our guide spotted a Red-capped Manakin and a Black-headed Trogon, then whistled back with pursed lips and a twinkle in his eyes. Could I hear? Yes. He pointed to a smooshed patch of grass on the forest floor where a jaguar might have sat to rest, and I looked down again. Did I see the scratched dirt and paw print nearby? I did. Did I smell the high stink of the tapir that had also run ahead of us? I did. I heard it and saw it and smelled it as sweat rolled down my face. In the midst of the multi-sensory hike, I was fortunate to hear two stories of Mayan folklore from our guide.

He first told us about Tata Duende, the three-foot-high, grandfather spirit of the forest. “Tata” means “old” or “grandfather” and “Duende” means “goblin” or “dwarf.” Tata Duende is known as both a threatening and protective creature. He scares children into behaving, but also protects children who are lost or hurt in the forest. Some say he will only punish those who offset the balance of the forest by killing more than they need. You’ll know Tata Duende by his toadstool sized stature, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and missing both thumbs. His feet also face backwards, to throw people off his trail.

Then our guide told us about Xtabay, a long-black-haired forest demon of incomparable beauty who lures men with sex appeal, then turns into a snake, and devours them. The guide said when you first encounter beautiful Xtabay and have this kind of love, you see that person everywhere. “You see them in your coffee,” he said. I thought that was a perfectly desperate, romantic description of the all-consuming nature of love. But depending on which legend you follow, Xtabay is either a demon woman or “a prostitute with a heart of gold,” also doing good deeds for those in need. Our guide didn’t go into detail about whether she was truly good or bad. Instead, he spoke of how love stories have now been ruined by technology—taking romance and muddling it with text messages and emails. A poignant truth revealed through legend.

After hearing the legends, I spotted a string of heart-shaped leaves crawling up a tree and tumbling down in front of our faces. Since there was still so much to take in, I started to look for only those heart leaves. They were everywhere. Above and below, crawling and tumbling. Just like love, jungles can be overwhelming. Perhaps it’s best to focus on the simple beauty of one part at a time—knowing there’s always more to discover.

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