"Remember, they can touch you, but you can't touch them" warns our guide as we duck under a barbed-wire fence in pursuit of a troop of black howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch.
Truth is, I've been burned so many times by unfulfilled promises of wildlife sightings that the thought of touching one hadn't even crossed my mind. But now, as Robert brandishes a bunch of leaves picked from a garden we'd crossed, I realize that I could be in for one fun afternoon.
When planning my trip to Belize seeing monkeys in the jungle was high on the to-do list. So when I read about the Community Baboon Sanctuary, based in Bermudian Landing, just 45 minutes from the international airport, I knew it fit the bill.
This grassroots, voluntary network is composed of private-property owners committed to preserving tree cover to provide habitat for the endangered black howlers, which are called baboons in local Creole. It began in 1985 with just 12 landowners, but now comprises about 200 properties in seven villages – more than 52 square kilometres for the monkeys to swing through. The efforts have paid off: The local howler population is at more than 4,000, from a low around 800. The sanctuary also aims to educate, and it connects tourists with guides for night hikes, river tours, birding and nature walks to see the monkeys.
Even if you don't see the howlers, you're bound to hear them. They're so named because of the loud howls – more like growls – the males make to mark territory; they can be heard almost two kilometres away.
Back on the jungle trail, Robert waves his leaves – monkey catnip, I assume – and one by one they come closer, ignoring us but intent on the prize. One female clambers over me as though I'm a branch; her hands grip my arm and her soft fur rubs against my face. Another female hangs down by her tail and Robert raises the leaf to get her to reach up, and we see the baby clinging to her belly. Then we run out of leaves and they're gone, up in the canopy, as quickly as they'd arrived.
Later, at the sanctuary's museum, we sign up for a second tour: a canoe ride down the calm, muddy Belize River. While the hyped-up crocodiles never materialize – you can't win them all, I guess – our guide helps us spot spiky iguanas perched menacingly in the trees and points out a cluster of leaf bats camouflaged by bark. After hearing monkey howls the whole way but never seeing them, we finally spot another troop at the landing site. They are perched in the trees and snacking contentedly, apparently oblivious to our presence – just as they should be.
For more information about the Community Baboon Sanctuary, visit howlermonkeys.org. Tours run from $7 to $90 (U.S.) a person.