I’m cruising a tropical lagoon on the trail of an underwater lawnmower. Elan Cuevas, my boatman and guide, is at the wheel, manoeuvering behind a telltale slick of grass clippings. He squints against the surface glitter of sunlight. Follow the trail, he knows, and we might get lucky.

The lagoon in question is Placencia, on the south coast of Belize, and the lawnmower is a West Indian manatee. This endearing sea cow finds sanctuary here, courtesy of an extensive No Wake zone that prevents collisions with power boats – a major threat. But finding one takes a bit of work.

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‘Over there,’ says Elan. ‘See the mud?’ He points to a gravy-stain bloom of sediment at the surface, betraying a manatee busy below. Bingo! Up it comes – just to gulp a breath, but long enough for a glimpse of whiskery muzzle and round paddle tail. The animal seems part hippo, part dolphin, although scientists tell us that sea cows share an ancestral lineage with elephants. Belize has the planet’s highest population.

The No Wake zone is just one of the many conservation initiatives that have been earning Belize its ‘‘country with a conscience’’ tag. This bijou nation – at 22,970 sq km it is barely bigger than Wales – looms large in environmental reputation. Last year, its 300km barrier reef, a World Heritage Site, was taken off Unesco’s “Endangered” list in vindication of the country’s far-sighted marine protection policies. In April, Belize became the first nation in the Americas to implement a ban on single-use plastics.

 

I checked in at Lamanai Outpost Lodge – a gorgeous, forested retreat overlooking New River lagoon, two hours inland from Belize City. Here, the trails of nibbled greenery were the work of the leafcutter ants that commuted ceaselessly across the forest floor, and each day dawned with the jet-engine roar of howler monkeys.

‘At Lamanai, you can expect plenty of surprises,’ Ruben Arevalo, my guide, had promised when we arrived. This was no idle boast: that evening found us setting out across the lagoon on the lookout for a Morelet’s crocodile. This rare species, found only in Central America, is the subject of a research programme that also monitors the ecological health of these lowland waterways. And the good news for me: guests are invited to pitch in.

Fishing bats strafed the surface and a frog chorus swelled the tropical night as we combed the shallows, Ruben’s spotlight playing back and forth in search of telltale red eye-shine. The first croc we located ducked out of sight but soon, with a splash and a lunge, Ruben’s young assistant, Abdul, was hauling aboard a thrashing reptile. He quickly secured its snout with an elastic band: granted, this youngster measured only 90cm from nose to tail – I noted the measurements on a clipboard, as instructed – but those juvenile teeth still posed a threat to unwary fingers. ‘Oh yes,’ confirmed Ruben, ‘they’ll go straight through the bone.’

The following day found us wandering the ruins of the original Lamanai, the ancient Mayan settlement for which our lodge is named. The site was occupied from as early as 1,500BC, and by the height of the ‘‘classic period’’ the city was home to some 35,000 inhabitants, not meeting its demise until the Spanish arrived in 1544. ‘The Mayans were very keen on the three As,’ explained Ruben, as we scaled the terraced stone pyramids. ‘Architecture, agriculture and astronomy.’

He expounded on Mayan culture, from kingship rituals to musical instruments, breaking off periodically to point out a hawk eagle or green-headed tree snake.

Most impressive was the jaguar temple, where a stone structure built into the wall depicts a snarling big cat. Jaguars are another boast of Belize’s: the country has the highest density anywhere in Central America. It was exciting to imagine the predator so revered by Belize’s first inhabitants still wandering the ruins left behind.

Later, as we stepped out for a night safari, the thought of this formidable feline padding into our torch beams was alarming and thrilling in equal measure. But it was smaller fare that stole the show: up in the branches, a Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine and a kinkajou; on the ground, red-rump tarantulas and black scorpions, the latter glowing white by ultraviolet.

Before turning in, I paused by my chalet and, reflecting on those Mayan astronomers, turned my torch to a night sky congested with constellations. A sound along the trail prompted me to lower the beam. The two eyes that reflected back clearly belonged to something large. I froze. To my amazement, a tapir stepped into the light. It raised its surprisingly equine head, long nose twitching for my scent, before discretion overcame valour and it turned on its hooves to slip back into the forest.

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‘Belize does offer those crazy moments,’ confirmed Paul Lister, the British conservationist, over dinner the following night at Blancaneaux Lodge, a sumptuous retreat owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola. Belize certainly seems to inspire some influential figures, and Lister himself, best known back home for his rewilding of the Alladale estate in Scotland, has been working with local NGO Friends for Conservation Development (FCD) to help to protect Belize’s rainforests.

His work with wolves has taught him just how the pulling power of charismatic wildlife can help underwrite conservation – and he urges a similar approach in Belize. ‘We need to capture jaguars on film,’ he told me. ‘People need to see how amazing this place is.’

With us were a young team from Virginia Tech, US, who have been capturing jaguars on film. Since 1994, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve Jaguar Project has been using camera traps to monitor the big cats and working with farmers to mitigate conflict over livestock. Darby McPhail, the project leader, explained how their 54 camera traps in this area have identified 20 individual jaguars, each known by its unique spot patterns. ‘Cats are curious,’ she explained, talking us through her images. ‘They love the shiny hoods we use.’

The research centre of Las Cuevas lies deep in the heart of the Chiquibul forest, Belize’s largest protected area. Few tourists venture this way and our spartan accommodation, a cluster of cabanas in a clearing, was hardly Blancaneaux. The centre is run by FCD, whose executive director, Rafael Manzanero, is wrestling with the quandaries of development. ‘We need tourism for funding,’ he told me, explaining how just 17 rangers safeguard this vast area. ‘But how do we do tourism in a place like this?’

Chiquibul’s riches certainly do need safeguarding. Within the park’s 1,075 sq km of pristine rainforest is not only a teeming biodiversity but also a huge limestone labyrinth, reputedly the largest cave system in the western hemisphere, and the ruins of Caracol, Belize’s largest and most celebrated Mayan city. Plans are afoot to make the whole region a World Heritage Site. I’m astonished that it isn’t already.

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Creeping along the forest trails at Las Cuevas, we watched the breeding displays of red-capped manakins, exquisite little birds whose high-speed wing claps crackled like a distant bushfire, and surprised a troop of spider monkeys. In one of the caves, head-torches led us to a cathedral-sized cavern, where bats flitted past towering stalactites and the floor was strewn with the shards of Mayan ceramics – more than single-use, I would hope.

My final morning at Las Cuevas started at a canopy tower on a hill just outside camp. As the sun rose over the forest panorama, so did the birds, their calls filtering up through the leafy layers. 

‘I guarantee it will be worth it, if we make it out there,’ said Nicole Auil-Gomez – the Belize country programme director for the Wildlife Conservation Society – as our boat slapped and lurched over a lively swell. I had now exchanged forest for coast, having arrived two days earlier at the delightful Turtle Inn in Placencia. Yesterday, we found our manatees; today, we were heading out to the research station at Glover’s Reef, a remote outpost on Belize’s celebrated reef and one of only three coral atolls in the Caribbean.

Nicole explained that this picture-perfect island protects breeding grounds for the endangered Nassau grouper and hawksbill turtle. ‘We can now trace fish from hook to table,’ she told me, explaining how all licensed fishing boats along the reef are traced through a new solar-powered satellite tracking system.

That night – the last of my trip – I found myself on the phone to Kim Simplis Barrow, Belize’s first lady. (I know: Belize is a small place.) A noted philanthropist and activist, Simplis Barrow is passionate about protecting her country’s natural environment – and, as former executive director of the Belize Tourism Authority, she’s very clear about its appeal. ‘The rawness of it; the organic nature of Belize – that’s what visitors really want,’ she said.

We discussed jaguar research, macaw protection, beach clean-ups, no-wake zones, fishing quotas, plastics bans, community education, green tax breaks... You name it, she told me, Belize has it covered. And as for Chiquibul and that World Heritage list? ‘I think I’m going to start lobbying,’ she said.

Easier said than done, I imagine, but watch this space. In Belize’s case, it seems, small is not only beautiful; it is also determined. And when it comes to showing a little respect for the world we live in, this gem of a country could teach the bigger guys a lesson or two.

The Daily Telegraph