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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day 9 - Thu Jan 19th 2012 - Cahal Pech & Xunantunich

Click here to jump to a web album containing 39 photos from today.

I write this blog post from the outdoor restaurant at Clarissa Falls on this: our last night in Belize. I am definitely sore, a bit battered, definitely sunburned in a few parts, nursing a coral scrape, but exhilarated by the experience and grateful to have had the opportunity to lead this trip.

Today was dedicated to interacting with the culture and history of western Belize. We began with a wonderful Central American style hearty breakfast and then headed off at 8AM for Cahal Pech, a Mayan site in the nearby town of San Ignacio. Our guide Diego (who studied architecture at university) led us on a tour of the site. The students loved being able to climb on the ruins and to imagine how it must have looked when 10,000 people lived there:

To give a sense of scale, see if you can spot the student near the middle of this photo of the main plaza at Cahal Pech:

We headed into the town of San Ignacio to experience a bit of local Belizean culture (while helping to stimulate the economy). We visited the farmers' market, enjoyed locally made ice cream, and purchased gifts for friends and family back home:

When then returned to Clarissa Falls for a lunch in their thatched-hut outdoor dining room. Everyone agreed they were the best tacos we've ever had (with homemade tortillas, fish, tomato, onion, cilantro, and house-made hot sauce):

After lunch, we headed out for our big activity of the day: exploring Xunantunich, the largest Mayan site in Belize. We were met by a tour guide who explained what the various buildings were used for. All of us were really blown away by the size and scale of the site. The students loved climbing to the top of the 140' castillo and admiring the view into Guatemala. I heard some students say that Xunantunich was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

After Xunantunich, we were met by Chena, the owner of Clarissa Falls, who escorted us on a 90 minute walk through the rainforest back to our rooms. She pointed out traditional and medicinal plants along the way. We spotted huge iguanas on branches over the river, toucans, and howler monkeys:

By the time we returned to our rooms, it was about 4 o'clock and everyone was tired and hot. But we split into two groups for one last adventure. Four of the women went of horseback riding, while all the guys took innertubes down the river for an hour:

We all met up again for a fabulous dinner of rice/beans and chicken, and exchanged stories about the day and the whole trip. Tomorrow morning we leave on a two-hour drive to Belize International, then flights to Atlanta then Boston, then a 1.5 hour drive back to Henniker. It's hard to believe that in just over 24 hours we'll be back to our wintry routine. But I think it's also fair to say that all of us will think of Belize fondly for many years to come. Thank you to all the folks--friends, parents, relative, NEC staff and colleagues--who made this trip possible!

All our best from Belize! Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Day 8 - Wed Jan 18th, 2012 - Cave Tubing, St. Herman's Cave & Blue Hole

Click here to jump to a web album with 31 photos from today.

Greetings from Clarissa Falls, a lovely facility near the town of San Ignacio on the western edge of Belize (about 8 miles from the border with Guatemala). Today saw us travel from the eastern edge of Belize to the western edge, with some fun stops on the way.

We had a 6AM wake up call to make our 8AM flight. We were divided into two 12-seat prop airplanes for the short ride to the municipal airport on the mainland:

Upon landing at municipal airport, we were met by our guides for the day, Diego and Luis. We divided into two vans (by gender, interestingly) and drove to the Cave Branch river for tubing (to a site formerly called Jaguar Paw). Our guides handed out innertubes, life jackets, and headlamps, and we ventured into the rainforest for about a one hour guided nature walk:

The braver among us stopped to snack on termites (after encouragement from the guide) which, true to his word, tasted like carrots. Along the way, we ventured into some caves (on land) to view the limestone formations and the resident bats:

At the end of our hike, we put our inner tubes in the water and cruised down the river. We passed through two large caves, each taking about 15 minutes to get through. One had a waterfall inside it. It was a unique experience to be sure!

What a unique experience! At the cave tubing site, we enjoyed a picnic lunch, shopped a bit at the various tourist stands, and then drove on to St. Herman's Cave. The land beneath Belize consists primarily of limestone rock, so it has the most extensive cave system in Central America. At St. Herman's, our guides led us on a short walk through the forest to the entrance of the cave. We all had head lamps and descended slippery limestone steps into the cave. We spent about an hour exploring the cave (which has a river running through):

At this point, we were all hot and sticky from the jungle humidity. So we welcomed the opportunity for a dip in the Blue Hole, a natural limestone underground-fed pool with cold, crystal-clear water, perfect for this group of weary explorers:

Another hour's drive brought us to our home for two days: Clarissa Falls, a large working cattle ranch that also runs an ecotourism business. Students were divided into thatched huts, 3 to a room:

We enjoyed an authentic Belizean dinner (rice/beans, potato salad, fried fish, fried plantain, fresh-squeezed juice), discussed plans for tomorrow, and worked on lab reports late into the evening.

As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 7 - Tue Jan 17th 2012 - Turtle Rock Island & Hol Chan & Shark Ray Alley

Click here to view a web album with 24 photos from today.

Wow! I write this blog post at the end of a very long and very exciting day. To sum up: Best snorkeling YET! It was a day that none of us will forget. Very fitting for our last day on the island.

We followed our usual routine in the morning, heading out on Goliath at 9AM. We headed to the Hol Chan Marine Preserve, a protected reef park many square miles in size. We were met by a park ranger and paid a fee before entering. Our first stop was Turtle Rock Island. This site is famous because the last remaining conch fisherman allowed to ply the waters within Hol Chan stops at this site to clean his catch. This attracts a wide variety of creatures. The students were able to interact, up close and in person, with a variety of megafauna. The most impressive animals included turtles (of two species: green sea turtle and loggerhead turtle) and stingrays (of two species: horseshoe and southern). The students were really excited to swim alongside these magnificent creatures:

After about an hour there, we ate lunch on the boat, and then motored to the main part of Hol Chan. This is a deep-water channel that runs through the coral reef, providing habitat for a huge abundance and variety of wildlife. Nearly every creature that we've seen in Belize so far was seen in Hol Chan, often in bigger forms and greater numbers than before. The area is sufficiently regulated that we had to be led by a licensed guide (our ship's mate Jeff and TREC director Ken led the two groups). One highlight here was an underwater arch that students could swim down, through, and up. We saw many interesting animals here, including moray eels, large groupers, and tarpon:

From there, we headed to Shark Ray Alley. Is there any place on Earth with a greater, more exciting name than that? Sure enough, the area was thick with nurse sharks and rays (horseshoe and southern) providing students the opportunity to view them and interact with them. The current was up and the wind was strong, but the area was well protected so the snorkeling wasn't too bad.

Our snorkeling for this trip done, we all relaxed on the deck of Goliath, enjoying the Belizean sea breeze one last time. Upon our return, we saw that the sky itself was bidding us farewell:

After we returned to land, the students had one hour to prepare for their final exam. That consisted of 50 species identifications, all organisms that we saw on this trip (using photos/videos taken on this trip). I am very happy to report that the class average was 95. The students really nailed it! Three students had scores of 100. They battled it out with extra credit questions (involving organisms we had seen here but not discussed before arrival), and the top two students were treated to a lobster dinner at one of San Pedro's finest restaurants. A well-deserved treat!

During the evening, the students worked on their journals and lab reports and packed for our early departure tomorrow (up at 6AM for an 8AM flight). Tomorrow is the first of two full days on the mainland. I am not sure what the Internet situation is where we are going, so I don't know if/when I'll be able to next update the blog. Until then, thanks for reading, and peace from Belize!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 6 - Mon Jan 16th 2012 - Shipwreck, Caye Caulker, Coral Gardens & Night Snorkel

Click here to jump to a web album containing 28 photos from today.

Greetings, friends and family! I am writing this at the end of a long day that featured 4 dives. We certainly earned out pizza dinner tonight.

Our day began with the usual gathering at the beach for cleanup. As yesterday, the wind was quite strong, indicating that it would be a rough day on the seas. We gathered at the dock and loaded on to the speedboat that would ferry us throughout our day:

Our first step was a shipwreck, the remains of a construction barge that sunk during a storm about 15 years ago. Coral has begun to grow over its surface, and fish swarm within its hull. Unfortunately, the winds and currents were so strong that it was a real struggle to get to the wreck and stay above it. Ken (Director of TREC) said that, for some groups, he would have canceled given the conditions, but he knew our group to be hardier than most. From the shipwreck, we motored to a nearby protected reef that offered better conditions. But still, the rough conditions made photography very difficult, so I focused on shooting videos. Because of the slow Internet speeds on Belize, I am unable to upload them now, but hopefully I can soon. In the mean time, here are some shots that give you an idea of the shipwreck and some of the marine life that inhabits the area:

From there, we rode to Caye Caulker, a small island off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Caye Caulker is an incredibly mellow place, with one main dirt road, no cars, and an extremely relaxing vibe. We had fish sandwiches for lunch, stimulated the local economy, and enjoyed island-made ice cream. Several of the students were really taken by Caye Caulker and vowed to return.

Thus rested and fortified, we headed back to Coral Gardens and snorkeled a different part of the reef. Again, the rough conditions caused many to skip the dive or come back early, and prevented me from shooting many photos.

After our third dive, we returned to TREC for a brief respite. At 5:30, we headed back to the dock, boarded Goliath, and headed out to Tuffy Reef for a night dive. Ken briefed us on what we should expect to see. Many of the students were nervous, but everyone embraced the experience and jumped in for the dark tour of the reef.

Exploring the reef at night was an unforgettable experience. Many new creatures were visible, some familiar ones had different colors and behaviors, and we witnessed bioluminscence. Some of the highlights including interacting with squid and octopus (one of which attached itself to a student's arm for a good 10 minutes, much to her delight):

Upon reentering to the boat, the students were completely jazzed, swapping stories and showing videos. We returned to TREC for a well-earned pizza dinner, then settled in to work on journals and lab reports. I am finding myself a bit woozy as I type this, sun-kissed, salt-encrusted, dive-weary, adrenaline-drained, and thrilled to be part of this experience.