Despite the many charms of Peninsula Life in Placencia, we restless souls found it necessary to venture onto the mainland once in a while in search of adventure.
One attraction I kept reading about was the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve located about an hour away in Maya Centre. Better known as the Jaguar Sanctuary, this section of jungle is home to a variety of exotic (to us) animals, namely its resident jaguar population.
Visitors are free to hike on any of the trails in search of the illusive cats. The closest most people get is spotting a paw print or two in the mud. But that doesn’t mean they don’t see you – a fact that did not escape me for one second as we roamed, largely alone, through the dense jungle.
Getting to Maya Centre from Placencia is slow going thanks to the many, many, many speed humps located on Placencia Road. An easy-to-miss, hand-painted sign marks the turnoff for the preserve, right outside of the Women’s Center. We walked inside the open-air structure to purchase admission tickets ($5 US), sign the registration book and have a quick look at the shelves of hand-made crafts. We got back into our bust-ass Renault and slowly bumped down the orange dirt road leading into the sanctuary.
The Cockscomb Basin is a heavily advertised tourist attraction, so I was expecting the parking lot to be full of cruise ship tour busses. However, we arrived to find two parked cars and a taxi dropping off a single hiker.
After shellacking our skin in sunblock and bug spray, we walked over to the visitors center, gave the man behind the counter our admission tickets and asked for his opinion regarding the hike we intended to do.
The Tiger Fern Trail leads to a double waterfall – one of the most impressive in the country. But we were unsure of the distance and conditions to get there, given this was our first true jungle hike. He assured us it was a very “doable” four-mile trip with a bit of elevation gain – about 1,000 feet up the side of a mountain, then an 800-foot decent down to the base of the falls.
Fortunately, Luke and I are both “terrible fun” enthusiasts, so we happily set out on foot down the same dirt road we drove in on to access the trailhead. Along the way, a friendly older gentlemen dressed in professional-grade hiking apparel gave us a great tip – not to stop at the base, but to follow the spur trail leading to the top half of the falls, which was far more impressive.
The moment we stepped into the jungle, we entered another world. Dappled sunlight filtered through the thick canopy. All outside noise ceased to exist, aside from Luke humming the theme song of the movie Predator.
Our first mile in was fairly flat and easy-going. We started to climb just as the mid-day sun and humidity were really ramping up. Rivers of sweat were rolling down our bodies by the time we made it to the small campground at the top of the mountain.
We paused to take in the remarkable view high above the canopy. The jungle was a thick mass of hazy green that spread to the horizon, punctuated by the steep rise of a few jagged mountains. After chugging the contents of my CamelBak in the shade of a makeshift shelter, we continued down to the falls.
To say the trek was hairy is an understatement. At times, it was downright treacherous. The trail was washed out in several places. Loose rocks and soil covered narrow passages with steep drop-offs. When available, we clung to the loose wooden railing with both hands to avoid sliding into the abyss.
Finally at the bottom, we saw a small stream trickling through moss-covered rocks to the left and a lovely little waterfall feeding a deep blue pool straight ahead. As directed, we continued on along the small spur trail leading to the top half of the falls.
The gentleman was right – this half was more impressive. Water stemming from an unseen source, cascaded over tiered rock, causing it to fan out in multiple directions as it fell into a clear and cold pool below.
Remarkably, we were alone, so we changed into our swimsuits on the rocks, letting our sweaty clothes dry in the sun. It was kind of intimidating jumping into the pool. The overhead sun illuminated streaks of light in the water, allowing us to see that it was very deep. I got the vibe that the skeleton of an ancient human sacrifice might be hiding somewhere along the bottom.
I managed to psych Luke out with my hunch. Eventually, we convinced ourselves to jump in. I had to yell for a few minutes before I got used to the cold water and the sensation of floating on the surface of a very unknown world.
After swimming around for a while, we air-dried on the rocks and watched the shifting sun angle cast light over different parts of the pool. Eventually, it shifted completely to the lower portion of the falls, leaving us shivering in relative darkness. We pulled on sneakers and hiked back down to sit in a shallow “hot tub” of water at its base.
Still alone, we changed back into our hiking clothes, and started the journey back up and out. Instantly, the cool air at the base of the falls switched over to hot and humid jungle air, and the sweating began once again.
The only real wildlife sighting we had occurred on our way out of the park. I spotted a large, dark, long-legged creature with poor timing hustling across the road before Luke did. I said, “tarantula!” three times, each with increasing urgency, until the message registered.
Luke slammed on the breaks and we got out of the car to inspect the scene with fingers cross that we created no carnage. Fortunately, our car drove right over the stunned spider, who remained frozen in place. Since he was not flat, we assumed he would make his way home to his wife, where he’d complain bitterly about his evening commute.