Blog Archives: Belize


World Heritage in Danger?

Coral Reef, Belize

I had prepared myself for the saddening scene of a marine ecosystem on its knees. A once remarkable coral reef, the second largest in the world, void of colour and life.  Yet when I entered the shallow waters of Laughing Bird Caye in Belize, I was not met with a marine grave but a completely regenerated bionetwork sparkling before me.

“This is a no take zone. Nothing leaves the island, no matter how small.” We arrived onto the island of Laughing Bird Caye, greeted by the cries of the gull that gave this tiny caye its name and the barks of the park ranger quick to point out the rules of the island.  To our left there was perhaps half if not more of the island which we were not allowed to explore, or swim around. The beach and water were completely off limits.  As we looked to our right, we noticed small string squares pegged in the sand. “The turtles have nested here” the ranger explains. “So, each nest of eggs has been cordoned off, so they are not disturbed.”  Gingerly we sorted out our kit, and barely wanting to tread anywhere, we set off for our first snorkel.

No sooner had we stepped into the sea, we were met by two nurse sharks. Though thought to be harmless to people, it was utterly exhilarating and with my blood suitably pumping we kicked off to the North side of the island. It was packed with reef fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and conch. To my delight we also saw a pair of lobsters attempting to wedge themselves between the rocks as we approached.  We followed our guide scanning the reef and explored an area where they have been growing new coral on metal structures fixed to the sea floor.  As we meandered over the colourful coral clusters wafting with the current, we came upon a school of 15 barracuda – another heart-stopping moment, as like the shark, they have quite big teeth.  We watched them for a while scavenging around, completely unperturbed by our presence.  As we turned for shore, our guide was gesturing wildly for our small group to come over.  We caught up with him and just ahead of us we realised he was pointing to a large sting ray, some four feet across, motionless on the ocean floor.

In such a short space of time, I had had the privilege to observe such a diverse ecosystem, from Christmas tree worms, to angel fish and blue tang, barracuda, sting ray and shark. The efforts of a long battle with restoring the Mesoamerican reef was evident and they are winning.  Over the last decade, the enforcement of no take zones, farming new coral, the introduction of fishing seasons and most recently the moratorium on oil exploration in the entire maritime zone of Belize has paid dividends.  This small country is paving the way and is proof we can reverse the damage to our oceans.  In July 2018 the Belize Great Barrier Reef was removed from the World Heritage in Danger list.

Doughnuts and Crocs at Lamanai

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It’s midnight and I’m sweaty.

I’m sat outside my wooden lagoon front “sauna” on a deck that’s being assaulted by a screaming rainforest. Something, probably with fangs and red glowing eyes is scratching away beneath my veranda and whatever is dropping from the overhead grass palapa roof has finally perfected it’s aim and has zeroed in on my head. Welcome to Lamanai, a lagoon-front lodge in the Orange Walk district of Belize, only accessible by boat.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is not a place for those who don’t embrace nature in all her myriad of scuttling and fluttering forms. But it is a showcase for Belize’s flora and fauna and I’m still shaking with excitement having just jumped off a “fan-boat” night time crocodile tagging trip of the wetlands surrounding the lagoon.

Lamanai Lodge participates in a research and conservation program to help protect the Morelet’s Crocodile, a freshwater crocodilian that lives primarily off large lake snails. George and Pal are the resident croc catchers, a double act who clearly love their job and revel in entertaining as they educate. We board an aluminium-hulled contraption with a huge Everglades style fan. This is not a silent excursion and we set off wearing ear protectors into the darkness. Apparently, crocodiles sense the vibrations and noise of an outboard engine more acutely than our massive hair-dryer!

We eventually catch and electronically tag a foot long Infant. The information is filed and we learn a lot about the creature and the research program. Mission has been accomplished. It’s an extraordinary experience to hold a young croc and help with the research, but the thrills don’t end there.

Above the action, the sky hangs still. It’s cloudless evening and the night sky is a canopy of textbook star constellations.

Sensitive environmental work done, baseball caps are reversed, George revs the engine and demonstrates exactly what his fan powered boat is capable of, pulling full throttle donuts in the lagoon and racing through narrow marsh canals at breakneck speeds. He cuts the engine, turns off all spotlights and asks which way to the lodge. I, of course, point in completely the wrong direction. I fail to understand how George magically knows where we are, given the general pitch blackness and lack of any landmarks, but apparently, living in Lamanai village all your life helps. That and some joo-joo.

And so I’m back at the lodge enjoying the cacophony of a rainforest at night. Turning out time in Cirencester is tranquil by comparison. The Mayan archaeological site, ruins of colonial sugar mills and early Spanish churches are to be visited in the morning. Meantime, I’m retreating to my room and handing over my deck to the creatures of the night.

Guatemala and Belize Travels

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The end of the world, everyone is talking about the 21 December, this date comes from the calculation of the Mayan calendar. However when in Guatemala I learnt the end of this calendar, also called Bhaktun, is really about a new exciting beginning! On arrival at my hotel I also noticed Halloween was celebrated here, with a skilfully carved pumpkin grimacing back at me from the desk!

Antigua was just where I wanted to be, it was beautiful to walk around, as a UNESCO heritage city the cobbled streets are protected as well as the colonial buildings lining the streets with colour. The surrounding volcanoes were clearly visible; Agua, Acetenango and Fuego which was gently smoking. A place great for couples, families and also lone travellers, Antigua is a comfortable base with cafes, restaurants and within easy access from which to explore the surrounding villages, coffee plantations and volcanoes.

Interestingly I arrived a day before ‘All Saints Day’, also known as ‘Dias de los Muertos’ or ‘Day of the Dead’. Curious to see how this day was
celebrated, which in the latter sounds a little haunting, I went out with my guide to a local graveyard which was just the opposite to dead! The
energy and buzz as you walked around was a wonderful feeling, people came with their families to join their dead. Kites filled the sky making it full of bright vivid colours, fuchsia pink Alpinia Purporatas and Birds of Paradise flowers brimmed over the graves which were in different styles; some were the more modest Mayan style and others were built up crypts where families were buried together. Depending on the way the graves were facing you could tell what that person’s religion was; Christian or Mayan. We left the families to enjoy their happy day, all together.

Learning more about the history I felt humbled by the people, they had only recently come out of civil war which held the most haunting stories. But similarly to what I had felt whilst in Vietnam was pure inspiration, these people were very positive despite their loss and destructive past. I only hope we could be as strong as them if faced with the same situation. People still dressed in indigenous clothes which were colourful and also meaningful, I learnt the style of material showed where you were from and even which religious group you belonged to. A trait encouraged by the Spanish to further their control over the Mayans. Markets such as Chichicastenango and Comalapa were complete visual delights, the movement of colour and people exchanging local produce and clapping tortillas into perfect round flats. (shown in my photo above)

I had read about the volcanoes and lakes of Guatemala and with a big build up, Lake Atitlan lived up to its great reputation. Stopping at a view
point, I took in Atitlan’s calm waters reflecting the surrounding majestic volcanoes; even Fuego’s smoke could be seen in the far distance. Woman washed their clothes in the lake by the village of Santiago. Here you can stop by the main Church which has an impressive alter at the back telling the story of the struggle between the Mayans and Christians.

My guide Carlos Vivar was the star of the trip teaching me so much and created my ultimate Mayan evening in his home village of Uaxactun. A
campsite lined with lit torches and comfortable canvas tents with beds awaited us after a full day of exploring the Tikal ruins, which I have to
say, were mind blowing! I really felt that I was out in the jungle after showering under an audience of spiders as big as my hands clinging to the thatched roof- I had the fastest shower of my life! I felt refreshed and alive!

Carlos sat us down around the camp fire to tell us about his past. Hearing his stories of how he grew up through the civil war and worked so hard for his education made me think how very lucky we all are. He really is a tremendous human being and showed us how strong we can all be with motivation. Feeling quite moved by the whole experience we continued on to have dinner, leading us up a jungle path we came to a Mayan pyramid illuminated with the glow of candles. The sight of this spectacle against the background of the jungle and the night’s sky is one that I will remember forever. We sat at the table which was arranged for us by a local family and learnt that this pyramid dates back to 300 BC and will be the main one celebrated for the Bhaktun. This was very special, climbing to the top of the pyramid we were the only ones there apart from a stray scorpion.

Leaving Guatemala at the Melchor de Mencos border crossing we drove on into Belize, it was like stepping through a gateway into a new place. Here everyone spoke English as well as Mayan, Creole and Spanish and the people looked different, this was a country bursting with multicultural diversity! The food in Belize was delicious, the blend of the creole flavours with some Marie Sharpe’s hot sauce to give it an added buzz made for some tasty treats, not forgetting the great seafood which could be found along the coast and out on the cayes.

For me Belize felt exciting, there was lots to explore and if you don’t mind sitting in a bumpy vehicle for a couple of hours you’ll be rewarded by travelling through intricate and extensive cave networks and exploring jungles to find Mayan ruins. The reserves in Belize are home to a massive variety of birds, howler and spider monkeys as well as the very elusive jaguar. The mainland is a place where you can hike, swim, bike and ride horses which offers something to everyone and all ages.

Flying over the Caribbean jade waters I could see the long stretch of the Barrier Reef; the second largest in the world! I landed in San Pedro on
Ambergris Caye, well this was Belize’s trump card! White sandy beaches lapped by the inviting waters and clear blue skies. A snorkelling trip showed me how full of life the waters are, I swam next to skates, rays, sharks and so many tropical fish! The more adventurous went out diving at the famous Blue hole. This was a perfect place to end my trip, the island’s slow paced life let me stop and simply relax.

Night Walk in Belize’s Cayo District

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As we headed up the mountain the jungle flora slowly gave way to pine trees and the air, thankfully, cooled down. We were entering the Mountain Pine Ridge area in the Cayo District of Central Belize, a vast area where jaguars roam, raptors soar and Mayan ruins stand, defying time. Upon arriving at Blancaneaux Lodge I was welcomed with a refreshing drink and my guide, Roni, discussed the programme for my all-too-short stay.

Making the most of our time we were going to start things off with a night walk in a transitional forest area where the pines and the rainforest meet. These transitional forest areas are great places to spot wildlife as they are areas where inhabitants of both ecosystems mingle, not least after dark when the forest comes alive. We drove in as far as we could before the road became impractical and continued on foot, torches in hand looking out for eyes reflecting in the night.

I’ve always enjoyed night walks in the jungle, everything is steeped in an ethereal atmosphere with out-worldly noises and the knowledge that just out of site might be some creature watching you, or even stalking you. My two guides and I walked along a narrow path stopping from time to time to look at a gecko or wolf-spider. Almost not a word was spoken between us apart from a small explanation of what animal I was looking at or which creature made a certain sound. From time to time dead leaves would crunch underfoot and on occasion a particular cry in the night would lead us to turn off our torches and stand completely still in the hope of luring whichever animal it was into a false sense of security so that it would reveal itself to us.

This particular night bore some fruit, other than the various critters commonly seen we saw owls, bats, and even a kinkajou – a small possum like animal. On the way back my guides recounted the various animal-spotting experience they’ve had in the forest including the relatively common tapir, Belize’s national animal, and even jaguars and, on very rare occasions, pumas. As for me I haven’t seen a jaguar but the next day, down near the coast of Placencia I did see a jaguar-paw print in the mud…