Sunday, January 18, 2015

Earth, Sky and the Underworld

Greetings All,
We have migrated south to escape the cold winter months in Vermont.  We started in Belize, a tiny country on the eastern coast of Central America.  A short 3-hour flight from Atlanta brought us to Belize City, the starting point of our trip on January 2.  Belize was a British colony from 1862 to 1973 at which time it was called British Honduras.  It became independent in 1981 but is still part of the British Commonwealth and has retained Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.  English is still the official language but Belize has a diverse society with many cultures and languages.   We spent our first week on tour with a group of eleven.  Here is a map of Belize showing the places we'll visit.

Map of the Places we'll Visit

The following day we flew to Dangriga than transferred via road to the tiny village of Hopkins on the Caribbean coast.  Just inland is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.  Established in 1990 it is the first reserve created for the protection of the jaguar.  We hiked to a lookout known as Ben's Bluff. On a clear day you can see Victoria's Peak, the second highest point (3675 feet) in the country. Today it was obscured by clouds but we could still see the lower slopes of the Maya Mountains.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

We didn't encounter any Jaguars but spotted some nice birds and a Red Brocket Deer as were we walking along the main road.

Red Brocket Deer

After we returned to Dangriga and traveled by boat to South Water Caye, a tiny island on the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest reef in the World after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  Our cabin had a great view of the reef.  That night a near-full moon rose over the reef creating a surreal sight.

Moonrise Over Mesoamerican Reef

The next morning wind and rain prevented us from snorkeling on the reef but we managed to snorkel after lunch before the next storm blew in.  Marc tried out our new underwater camera and was able to capture a Blue-headed Wrasse, a fish that can change its gender. 
Blue-headed Wrasse
During our second snorkel a storm qickly blew in and I had a difficult time swimming against the waves.  Our guide Fermin came to the rescue in a kayak and towed us in.  We left South Water Caye the following morning, stopping at Man of War Caye to see a colony of Magnificent Frigate birds.  Some of the males were trying to attract mates by inflating a bright red sack under their bills.

Male Magnificent Frigate Bird

Back on the mainland, we had a long road transfer to the Mayan Archeological site of Xunantunich.  We got there late in the afternoon and Marc and I headed out in front of the group so we'd have enough time to tour the entire site.  The main attraction is El Castillo, a 130-foot high pyramid built around 800 AD and the second highest Mayan structure in Belize.

El Castillo at Xunantunich

We climbed to the top with an exposed platform.  Some college students from Michigan State were actually sitting on the edge with their legs hanging over.  We opted to have our photo taken a few feet from the edge.

Us on the top of El Castillo

We climbed a smaller temple where we sat watching a small troop of endangered Guatemalan Black Howler monkeys until a guard came and told us it was time to leave.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey

We didn't arrive at our night's accommodation, Hidden Valley Inn, in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve until well after dark.  Enroute we came upon a Jumping Viper, one of Belize's venomous snakes, lying in the road.  He didn't move even after we climbed out of the van to take his photo.

Jumping Viper

The following morning we were up early to do a bit of birding before breakfast, then headed to the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch.  They rear dozens of butterfly species for public display and research.  It was nice getting close views of butterflies that are so difficult to see in the wild.

Butterflies at Green Hills

The Ranch also has feeders that attract a large number of hummingbirds.  Marc had fun trying to photograph them in flight.

Violet Sabrewing

Our next stop was Barton Creek Cave, a 7-mile long cavern cutting through limestone under the mountains.  To access the cave we used canoes and paddled along with Fermin who pointed out the ancient Mayan artifacts and even a human skull.  

Canoeing Through Barton Creek Cave

The Mayans used this cave for burials and for ceremonial purposes.  It was hard to imagine the ancient Mayans venturing into these caves with just torches.  For the ancient Mayans, the caves represented the entrance to Xaibalbi, the underworld.  If you emerge from the cave, you live.  If you descend to the underworld you die.  Fortunately we all emerged from the cave but in 2011 an 83-year old Canadian women lost her life when her canoe capsized and she drowned.  As a result of this tragedy we could only venture 1 mile into the cave before turning around at a low rock overhang where the Canadian woman lost her life.
Stalactites in Barton Creek Cave
That evening we went in search of one of the rarest raptors in the world, the Orange-breasted Falcon. The current status of these falcons appears to be in steep decline with only 40 breeding pairs remaining.  Resident pairs are found in Belize, Guatemala and extreme eastern Panama, representing only 4% of its historical range.  We were lucky to spot a beautiful female high up in a Caribbean Pine.
Orange-breasted Falcon
Unfortunately, 80% of the pine forest was destroyed by the southern pine bark beetle about 10 years ago.  The forest is starting to grow back but the loss of so many trees has probably contributed to the decline of the Orange-breasted falcon.

The following morning Marc and I were up early to do a private tour of Caracol, the largest Mayan archeological site in Belize.  We birded along the way before arriving at the site around 8:30.  We were the first to arrive and had the whole place to ourselves.  At the heart of this ancient city is Caana or "Sky Palace".  At 140-feet tall, the Caana Pyramid is the tallest Mayan temple in Belize. 

Caana Pyramid at Caracol

It is actually the tomb of an elite woman and was excavated in 1987.  In it's heyday, more than 100,000 people lived in Caracol and it was larger than present day Belize City.  The site was occupied as early as 600-900 BC and collapsed around 1050 AD!  We finished our tour just as the rain began to fall and returned to Hidden Valley Inn to rejoin our group.  Later that afternoon, a short flight brought us to Gallon Jug, a 30,000 acre estate in north-western Belize.  Gallon Jug lies within the largest tract of contiguous forest north of the Amazon Basin.  Conservation efforts are underway to protect this forest which lies within 3 countries, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and is known as La Selva Maya.

Gallon Jug Farm

This was not always the case. At the turn of the century, one fifth of Belize was owned by the Belize Estates Company and until the 1960's logging was the primary focus.  Gallon Jug was originally a logging camp.  During the mid-1980's the Belize Estates Company was purchased by Belizian Barry Bowen and divided into 4 parcels.  Bowen retained 130,000 acres including Gallon Jug Farm and Chan Chich Lodge were we would spend the next 5 nights.  We explored the trails around the lodge on foot hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive jaguar or one of the other four species cats that live here.  The jaguar remained hidden but the Gray Foxes were more brazen.  One trotted along the trail and came to within 10 feet of us before veering off into the forest.  

Gray Fox

We were off to a great start exploring Belize which to the ancient Mayans consisted of 3 realms, the heavens, the earth and the underworld.  We can't wait to see what's in store for us during our second week in Belize.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

1 comment:

Karen said...

Peggy & Marc,
Thanks for the terrific synopsis of our trip to the beautiful world of BELIZE along with "only a few" (!!!) of your great photos. We look forward to seeing the second post of the trip. I will forward a few pics I have to share soon.
Karen & Gary
PS: I received my Lens Pen yesterday from Amazon!