Sunday, January 18, 2015

You Better Belize It!

Greetings All,
Chan Chich Lodge is such an amazing place we decided to stay on for 2 more nights after most of our group left for home.  Raul, one of the guides at the lodge, took us birding early one morning.  We spotted around 60 species including the Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize.

Keel-Billed Toucan
 
We were hoping to catch a jaguar crossing the road but weren't so lucky.  There are many White-tailed deer (smaller than their northern cousins) and Oscillated Turkeys grazing with the cattle of Gallon Jug Farm.

Oscillated Turkeys
 
We drove to Laguna Verde for breakfast.  We visited here the evening before but it was cloudy and spitting rain.  This morning it was sunny and the still water of the lake reflected the trees in the forest beyond.

Laguna Verde
 
A Bare-throated Tiger Heron was silently stalking for a meal along the shore of the lake.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron
 
That afternoon, Marc and I were walking along one of the forest trails when we came across four Slatey-tailed Trogons.  They were in the process of a territorial or courtship display with a lot of vocalization and tail wagging.

Slatey-tailed Trogon
 
On our last day at Chan Chich we decided to take a day tour to Lamanai, another Mayan Archeological site.  We left at 6:00 in the morning and had to traverse the Gallon Jug Estate and the adjoining 400,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation Area.  We were hoping to spot more mammals along the way but managed to see only 1 coatimundi, a member of the raccoon family.  The birding was outstanding though.  We arrived at Tower Hill where we met our local guide for a 1-hour motor boat trip down the New River to the Lamanai Archeological Site.  The first temple we visited was the Mask Temple first constructed in 200 BC and modified up until 1300 AD!  On the west facade of the temple is a 13-foot high mask of a man in a crocodile headress.  Dating from about 400 AD it is one of the finest big masks in the Mayan world.  It is unusual in that it is made of limestone blocks instead of plaster.


Mask Temple at Lamanai
 
We visited the High Temple next.  At 108 feet it is the third highest Mayan temple in Belize.  We climbed to the top with a great view of the surrounding area and the New River.

View from the High Temple

As we headed down, a couple was climbing up with a drone!  Drones are becoming more and more popular and in some places are creating problems.  It wasn't clear if they were allowed at this site but it didn't prevent the couple from flying it over the temple.
 

High Temple

The third temple we visited was the Jaguar Temple.  This structure dates back to 625 AD and is named for the boxy jaguar decorations on its front façade.
 

Jaguar Temple

Once again we finished our tour just as it started to rain.  We returned to Chan Chich lodge and did our last night drive.  Tonight was "Owl Night"!  We spotted a Vermiculated Screech Owl, 4 Mottled Owls and the rarely seen Black-and-White Owl!
 

Black-and-White Owl
 
During the course of our stay we sadly learned that Barry Bowen died tragically in a plane crash 5 years ago.  After his death the whole estate was inherited by his son who sold off 100,000 acres of the Gallon Jug Estate to a US company, Yalbec Ranch and Cattle Cooporation.  Supposedly, they plan on logging maghony in a sustainable manner and the hardwood they remove will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  We only hope they will be as good stewards of the land as Barry Bowen was.

The next day we flew from Gallon Jug to Central Farms near the town of San Ignascio.  From the air we could see the immense unbroken swath of rainforest but at the same time could see how the Mennonites are encroaching from the south.  There is a large Mennonite population in Belize and they have cleared large tracts of land for farming and cattle ranching.  They do supply most of Belize's food so hopefully a balance between farming and rainforest conservation will be met.

At Central Farms were we driven to the Lodge at Chaa Creek, our final destination in Belize.  The next day we arranged a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave.  It was quite the adventure.  A 30-minute walk through forest including 3 waist-high crossings of the river brought us to the entrance of the cave. We let a young couple and their guide go ahead of us as we were "old" and slower.  To enter the cave you have to swim about 50 feet.  I had on my trusty life jacket so it wasn't a problem.

Entering ATM Cave (photo from Chaa Creek Website)

The first half mile of the cave was wet and you are wading through the creek.  Sometimes the water was ankle deep, other times it was over our heads and you had to swim short distances.  The water was quite warm about 70F although our guide thought it was cold.  The beginning was quite challenging as we had to clambor up and over wet rocks.  Like Barton Creek Cave this cave was used by the ancient Mayans for burials and ceremonial purposes.  After a half mile we climbed out of the wet chamber and into the immense dry chamber.  Here hundreds of Mayan pots littered the ground. Some were broken while others were left intact.  Most were used for ceremonial purposes where holes were intentionally made in the pots to let the spirits of the gods out.


Mayan Pots by Jkolecki (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Deeper into the chamber were human skeletons!  The skulls were deformed by strapping boards on the heads of infants and the resulting flattened or conical shaped skulls were regarded as beautiful. One skull had a large hole in it.  "Is this how this individual died", I wondered.  Unfortunately, the hole was created when a tourist dropped his camera on the fragile bone.  As a result cameras are no longer allowed in the cave.  All the photos you will see were taken from the web.  At the end of the chamber was a completely intact skeleton, called the Crystal Maiden!


"Crystal Maiden" (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
 
Initially, the skeleton was thought to be a girl but turns out it's a boy.  Caves were spiritual places for the Mayans and females were not allowed in as they were thought to contaminate this sacred realm. The hands of the Crystal "maiden" had been chopped off.  It is believed that they were given to the parents of this unfortunate or fortunate sacrificial victim as the Mayans believed being sacrificed to the gods a big honor.

The remainder of our time at Chaa Creek was spent birding around the lodge or in nearby Blue Hole National Park, canoeing on the Macal River or going on nights walks.  Following are a few photos taken on these excursions.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Mexican Red-rumped Tarantula

Fork-tailed Flycatcher 

White Hawk

Vermillion Flycatcher

Blue-crowned Motmot
 
Sadly, our 2-week visit to Belize has come to an end.  For such a small country Belize is packed with amazing flora and fauna, the second largest reef in the world, mysterious Mayan Ruins and caves with Mayan artifacts and skulls.  If you ever get the chance, "You Better Belize It"!!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

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