When people compliment me on my photography, I often say, “Belize is a beautiful country, I just push the shutter.” They sometimes reply that they have lived in Belize their entire lives and have never seen any of the places I have photographed. “True,” I reply, “you do have to be there to push the shutter.”
Central and Southern Belize is a land of waterfalls. The Maya Mountains, which dominate this part of Belize, are a massive watershed with no less than 15 major rivers emptying along a coastline of only 120 miles. From the headwaters of each of these rivers to the coastal plain, the water flows over a diverse geology, forming deep canyons and cascading over 1000-foot cliffs on its way to the ocean.
The more popular waterfalls are usually easy to approach by short drives or hikes, but most are accessible only with careful planning, local knowledge, major expeditions or helicopter support. Even the more accessible out-of-the-way waterfalls will test me by making me haul a tripod, camera and lenses for hours through humid rainforest and up steep terrain. Tiger Fern Waterfall in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is such a test.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s first jaguar preserve, a 400 square kilometer bowl of tropical forest rimmed by mountains of quartzite and granite. Tiger Fern Ridge, named for the aggressive ferns that blanket its slopes, lies atop the eastern rim of the basin, and is probably my favorite spot in all of Belize. The trail to the ridge winds through pristine forest and over gently flowing streams before reaching a steep, torturous rocky slope -- a slope that is even harder to navigate when I’m carrying 50lbs of camping and camera gear.
Once I reach the top, the whole basin spreads out in front of me. Towering Victoria Peak, the second tallest peak in Belize by only a few feet, anchors the ridges that ring the park. From the top of Tiger Fern Ridge, on a quiet afternoon, I can hear the sound of rushing water rising from a deep valley behind me. I turn and take the steep, switch-backed trail that leads into the valley.
The deeper I descend, the louder the sound of falling water. At the trail’s end the forest opens up into the most enchanted scene imaginable, Tiger Fern Falls. Even though the vine-draped canopy provides shade, the heat and humidity from the hike has taken its toll. Sweat drenched and exhausted, I slide my pack off, strip down and plunge head-first into the clear, cool, dream-like pool beneath the falls.
I float on my back in the middle of the jade-colored pool, taking in the lush verdant growth exploding from the surrounding walls; the bright orange iron bleeding from the rock; the gentle breeze spawned by the cascade through the flume. I plan my photo session while drifting weightless on my back.
When I create the photo, the ripples of water on the surface of the pool are captured by the long time exposure, which hides the actual clarity of the water.
Yes, many of the photos I take in Belize are beautiful because Belize is beautiful. But major effort and knowledge are needed to visit the most alluring terrains. I am so lucky to be able to venture there to push the shutter.