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Looking Back on our Belizean Adventure…

July 31, 2015

As I sit on my porch, surrounded by red oaks rather than coconut palms and blue jays rather than toucans, I can begin to reflect on the entirety of our experience in Belize. While it’s good to return home to missed loved ones, familiar comforts, and long showers, my mind is still filled with images from Belize. I imagine it is much the same for my traveling companions. We were completely immersed in the landscape, culture, and ecosystem of Belize, and disconnected from our everyday world. Coming home is a bit like waking up from a deep sleep.

I think each of us will be rifling through our memories of Belize for a long time, trying to tease out what we’ve learned about ourselves and our world. But a few things stand out in my mind as I begin to gain some perspective on the week.

We were each challenged by our experience in Belize. Though each person came in with a different background and amount of experience, there were new and unfamiliar things for each of us. We learned to tolerate the heat and humidity of the jungle – with very little respite (except the vaguely air conditioned bus!). We overcame fears by facing them head on, because no one wanted to miss an opportunity – touching a snake, tasting a termite, accepting the omnipresence of biting insects, breathing through a snorkel, swimming off a boat far from land.

Doreen touched her first snake, a coffee snake, on a hike through the Jaguar Preserve.

Doreen touched her first snake, a coffee snake, on a hike through the Jaguar Preserve.

We allowed ourselves the freedom of being present in each moment and immersing our senses in the surroundings. We saw the colorful plumage of tropical birds each morning on our bird walks. We heard the overwhelmingly loud notes of cicadas as we sat eating lunch at the Rio Frio cave. We smelled the tantalizing aroma of fresh chocolate as we made chocolate with Julio in Maya Center. We tasted traditional Belizean foods and many new fruits and vegetables at each wonderfully cooked meal. And we felt the rolling of the waves as we snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea (fortunately, with the aid of seasickness medications for a few of us!).

The collared aracari was one of the most spectacular birds we saw.

The collared aracari was one of the most spectacular birds we saw.

Our eyes were opened to a larger world. We experienced the warmth of Belizean culture through our friendships with Sherry and Yolanda, and through the hospitality of the staff at each place we stayed. We walked beneath the dense jungle canopy and saw just a hint of the creatures that live within it. We were touched by the strength and resiliency of the Mayan people who, though forcibly removed from their land for the creation of the Jaguar Preserve, are now its strongest advocates. We explored the stunningly beautiful underwater world along Belize’s reefs and marveled at the biological diversity that thrives on and around the coral.

The squirrelfish is one of many beautiful fish we saw on the reefs.

The squirrelfish is one of many beautiful fish we saw on the reefs.

So we return home… the same, but different. Filled with new ideas and knowledge. Supported by new friends and colleagues. Excited to share what we’ve learned with friends, family, and students. So please bear with us as we readjust, tell our long tales, and knit our Belize experience into the fabric of our lives.

We will leave you with a few more pictures from our adventure…

We had the chance to closely observe a troupe of black howler monkeys at the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

We had the chance to closely observe a troupe of black howler monkeys at the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

This beautifully colored grasshopper was nearly 5 inches long!

This beautifully colored grasshopper was nearly 5 inches long!

We had a close encounter with a jaguar at the Belize Zoo.

We had a close encounter with a jaguar at the Belize Zoo.

We saw this beautiful butterfly roosting on a leaf on one of our night walks.

We saw this beautiful butterfly roosting on a leaf on one of our night walks.

Spider lilies along the Macal River

Spider lilies along the Macal River

Our guide, Nathan, enjoying the Cockscomb Basin Waterfall

Our guide, Nathan, enjoying the Cockscomb Basin Waterfall

On our way home

July 29, 2015
Beautiful Southwater Caye

Beautiful Southwater Caye

We are getting ready to load the boat to head home and hope to post our blog when we get to the airport this afternoon!

Adventures in Snorkeling

July 28, 2015
Sunrise at Southwater Caye

Sunrise at Southwater Caye

This morning began with a 6:00 tour of Southwater Caye. We met Nelson, who met Educators of Excellence as the first mate on one of the snorkeling boats. The island is 15 acres and is at the edge of the coral reef.

After a great Belizean breakfast, there was strong wind, so we opted to snorkel at the reef off the island rather that take a boat out to another area. The change of plans was not disappointing because we saw many interesting things including: Sting Rays, Parrotfish, Trumpetfish, Pufferfish, Porcupinefish, Sea Fans, Sponges and even a Nurse Shark.

Just before lunch we spent some time studying conchs, coconuts, and various groups of fish. After an amazing lunch including darasa, a dish made from green bananas, we prepared to head out on the boat for snorkeling. A storm was threatening, which caused us to change plans again and we headed to the mangroves to snorkel, instead of the reef. The mangroves were deep, still, and full of mysterious life. We snorkeled along the roots of the mangrove trees, which create a nursery for much marine life. As we peered through the fine silt in light rain, life began to appear —  Arrow Crabs, Feather Dusters Worms, oysters, Barracudas, Cushion Sea Star and many types of fish. Above the water line were Hermit Crabs and Mangrove Crabs.

A Lionfish seen under the dock

A Lionfish seen under the dock

An Arrow Crab from the mangroves

An Arrow Crab from the mangroves

In a few moments we will meet up with our group to prepare for our night snorkel this evening. Those waterproof flashlights Liz gave us back up at the airport are about to come in handy!

A three-day update!

July 27, 2015
Group at the Zoo with Sharon and Jamal and Rose the crocodile

Group at the Belize Zoo with Sharon and Jamal and Rose the crocodile

Tapirs, Jaguars, and Ocelots, Oh My!

Today we said good-bye to our western jungle lodge, duPlooys. We stuffed our gear and ourselves into our tour bus and headed to the much-anticipated Belize Zoo.

If you have not heard of the Belize Zoo, you are missing out. The infamous Sharon Matola started it 30 years ago. By local Belizeans she is better known as the “Zoo Lady.” The zoo had humble beginnings. Sharon was tasked with taking care of 17 animals left over after a documentary film wrapped up. From there she decided to use these animals to begin educating Belizeans about the incredible animal diversity within their own country. She worked tirelessly to dispel generations of fears and myths surrounding these beautiful animals. After reading “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw,” meeting Sharon felt like meeting a local celebrity. To say we felt inspired by her would be an understatement.

Upon arrival at the zoo we immediately began our intimate tour of the zoo with Sharon and Jamal. We were introduced to numerous Belizean animals. These encounters included;

  • Feeding Charlie the Scarlet Macaw
  • Asking Happy the Barn Owl if we could pet his nose, and he allowed us to do so!
  • Touching Rose the 3-year-old American Crocodile.
  • Feeding Indy the tapir
  • Admiring Queen and Panama the Harpy Eagles, Junior Buddy the Jaguar, Rhaburn the Ocelot, and many other animals.
Petting a tapir

Petting a tapir

As we said our goodbyes we all vowed to return to the zoo someday. We made our way to the Belmopan market for a “What’s this food?” scavenger hunt. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan, though. Our tour bus needed a tire, so this gave us extra time to explore the market for its fascinating foods and its wonderful entertainment. This included a local children’s group steel drum performance. While we enjoyed this extra time we unfortunately had to forgo our visit to the Blue Hole National Park. We continued our travels southeast across the mountains on the Hummingbird Highway, the most scenic road in Belize. We were soon driving out of the mountains and back into the coastal savannahs on our way to the village of Maya Center and the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. The preserve was created in 1984 by the Belize government as a means to protect the dwindling jaguar population. Before going to bed we took an excursion into the jungle to set up our cameras and to look for Red-eyed Tree Frogs, which we found plenty of. We settled into our accommodations and fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle.

Liz and Sherry with tree frog

Liz and Sherry with tree frog

Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Dragon-headed Bug

Dragon-headed Bug

July 25, 2015

Our first night made us well aware that living in the Jaguar Preserve is not for the faint of heart. The tropical jungle and the simple accommodations gave all of us a quick snapshot of a field biologist’s life of research.

With much anticipation we traveled out of the preserve and on our way down the Southern Highway to Monkey River. The Educators of Excellence participants and the Museum have visited this school for many years now. We were welcomed to with open arms and big grins.

The kids were split into four groups of students, ages 2-14. We quickly went into “teacher-mode” and got started with our lessons right away. The engagement and enthusiasm was easily noticed by the buzz and hum of learning occurring all throughout the school. Activities included leaf studies, microscope investigations, water-cycle games, and watercolor animals. Upon completion of our visit we sang a traditional songs from our countries together, took photos, and said our good-byes.

Group at Monkey River

Group at Monkey River

Jennifer at Monkey River

Jennifer at Monkey River

Fred at Monkey River

Fred at Monkey River

Doreen at Monkey River

Doreen at Monkey River

Blair at Monkey River

Blair at Monkey River

We made our way to Clives where we enjoyed lunch, loaded the boat to go back across Monkey River, hopped on our bus and headed to the Mayan Center.

At the center we met with Julio, a community leader who owns, Che’il, the Mayan chocolate shop. We had ourselves a nice chocolate making session and then sampled the fruits of our labor. Our night ended with a traditional Mayan meal and a telling of the Mayan’s involvement with the Jaguar Preserve.

Terry Making chocolate

Terry making chocolate

July 26, 2015

Today was our last day in the jungle. While some of us wanted to stay, many were ready to leave the heat and humidity for ocean breezes. Our last venture into the jungle was a 3-kilometer hike to a waterfall. After a couple of days with no swimming (and lots of sweating), we were excited to jump into the cool water and stand under a pounding waterfall. For a few of us, it was the first time we had felt cold all week! As we soaked in a pool below the waterfall we watched a large hummingbird — a White-necked Jacobin — fly toward the spray, seeming to catch drops of water to drink.

After a final stop to pick up chocolate at the Mayan Center, we traveled to the coast, where we were greeted with sand, wind, and blue water. We boarded a boat for a 45-minute trip out to Southwater Caye — our final stop. The Caye is absolutely beautiful: covered in white coral sand, shaded by swaying coconut palms, and surrounding by turquoise blue water. We began our exploration of the underwater world on a quick afternoon snorkeling trip. For many, it was a new experience, but everyone enjoyed watching the colorful fish and waving sea fan coral. Other snorkeling highlights included watching spiny lobster hide under a large piece of coral, a bright orange starfish, and a stingray leaping out of the waves.

We are looking forward to exploring more of the diverse sea life on Belize’s coral reef — the second-largest reef in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Waiting for Sunrise on the Caye

Waiting for sunrise on the caye

The Jungle

I had never visited the jungle before.

OK, maybe once, long ago,

And long forgotten.

I was afraid,

Of the bugs,

Of the thickness

And the unknown.

But I found that it was familiar,

Soothing, even

Balm.

For the jungle was no different than the wilderness

I seek

Closer to home.

It holds the same life—

Rich, though hidden.

The same vastness—

Inferred,

And witnessed in the incredible diversity.

And the same sense of the sacred—

A place as it once was;

As it should be.

I no longer fear the jungle.

Instead—

I hold it in high regard

(as, perhaps, I always have)

But I also have found it to be

Home.

On to paradise!

July 26, 2015

The group eating lunch

We have arrived at the Caribbean after a fabulous three days in the Jaguar Preserve!  Highlights included finding a cat track on the path, Red-eyed Tree Frogs, watching hummingbirds in a waterfall, Dragon-headed Bug, Coffee Snake and of course visiting Monkey River Village!

Xunantunich, duPlooys, and the Macal River

July 24, 2015
The Group at Xunantunich

The Group at Xunantunich

We began our activity-laden day with an early morning birdwalk around the grounds of duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge, followed by breakfast burritos, then headed westward toward Guatemala. A short ferry crossing and a mile of winding roads provided the final leg of the journey, where history awaited us. The majestic Xunantunich Mayan ruins is a place where time has stood still for 2,200 years. As we climbed the steep steps of this ancient temple and marveled at the vast view from on high, we couldn’t help reflecting on the 10,000 Mayans who once inhabited this sacred site. It was both humbling and awe-inspiring.

Sherry making tamales

Sherry making tamales

Brad making tamales

Brad making tamales

The smell of burning wood greeted us upon our return to duPlooys. At the “fire haat” we greeted John, who had readied the coals for our next activity. Liz had already explained that we would be given a tamale-making lesson! Learning about the ecology and animals of Belize has been amazing, but immersing us in its people and culture definitely adds to the whole experience. John and Lydia showed us how to mash the masa, add the stewed chicken sauce, and fold the banana leaves to create this savory meal. Our taste buds were activated, and we soon sat down to this tasty Belizean dish.

Iguana on a tree

Next on the agenda was a canoe trip down the Macal River. However, Mother Nature had something else in store for us. A torrential downpour hit, which made us all wonder if we would be able to embark on the river. Luckily, the rain subsided and we were able to load up and head down the river. Many epic events took place as we traveled. The most eventful was the Great Fig War of 2015. All the canoe teams were in competition to collect the most figs, and would stop at nothing to win! (Apparently, there is often an abundance of figs floating down the river — this year, there were many fewer, sparking intense competition.) While most boats were in competition for figs, one lone boat was striving to stay afloat as water leaked in. Luckily, Annabelle creatively used her water bottle as a bailing device and kept them afloat!

Julie

All of us read a book called the “Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” in preparation for the trip. It tells the story of the opposition to, and construction of, a hydroelectric dam on the Macal River that flooded a lowland tropical forest that was home to the last 200 macaws in Belize. We were excited to experience a section of this controversial and important river. The dam was built in 2005 about two or three miles upstream from where we paddled.

We also experienced some interesting creatures while we were on the journey. We saw giant iguanas that looked like small dinosaurs. We observed white winged bats clinging to the overhanging limestone walls. We also saw Cormorants that took off as we approached. And we enjoyed the beautiful white spider lilies that grew along the edges of the river.

As we were about to end our adventure, the last encounter was trying to steer our boats around horses that were being washed in the river.

As we docked our canoes and headed back for our last night at duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge, we all enjoyed a Blow Pop to celebrate our fabulous day.

Heading to the Jaguar Preserve

July 23, 2015

We are busily writing the blog about today’s adventures and will post it tomorrow morning. However, after that we will spend two nights in the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, where we will not have any access to the Internet and so will not be able to post. Do not worry — we are fine! Just disconnected from the Internet!

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