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Friday, January 16, 2015

Day #9: January 16th, 2015
Location: Clarissa Falls, San Ignacio, Belize

St. Herman's Cave, Blue Hole, San Ignacio, Cahal Pech

From the title of today's blog entry you can tell it was a busy day! We began with a 7AM breakfast and a 8AM departure. We had a different bus, which might best be described as "shabby chic". Okay, that would be a little too kind, but just a bit!

We drove about 1.5 hours, mostly west on Belize's main highway (which is constantly interrupted with speed bump pedestrian crossings!). We arrived at the Blue Hole National Park, home to St. Herman's Cave. We all donned helmets and with head lamps:

We took a short 10 minute hike through the jungle until we arrived at the entrance to the cave, which was carved by a river that runs through the limestone:

Walking through the cave felt quite treacherous, with lots of slippery and slimy mud coating all the rocks. There were handrails at some places, ropes at others. Here is a shot near the start:

Just inside the entrance looking out

Just inside the entrance looking in

We spent about 2 hours in the cave in total. Along the way, our guides stopped to teach us about the cave geology and about the Mayan legends surrounding the cave, which was believed to be an entrance to the underworld and was a site of human sacrifices. There were shards of Mayan pottery throughout the site.

As we proceeded deeper into the cave, it became narrower and shorter, so that at times we had to crawl and squeeze between some tight crevices:

Eventually it became steep enough that we had to use a rope to climb.

In previous years, we had stopped before this point, but this year our guides took us as far as can be traveled in this cave system. It was challenging! I'm not going to lie, it was really tough at some points, twisting and reaching and grabbing and pulling upward. The final view was pretty spectacular, with lots of crystalline rock formations.

By the end, the space was tight enough that we had to split into groups and view it one group at a time. It was quite warm and very humid in the cave. By the end, most of the guys had steam floating off their bodies, set aglow by headlamp light.

Going back wasn't quite as scary or treacherous as going in. Once we reached the surface, we drove to a spot called the Blue Hole, a natural freshwater pool carved out of the limestone. It was cold and very refreshing after our hot and sweaty workouts!

After cooling off, we enjoyed a picnic lunch at the Blue Hole.

We then drove about an hour to the town of San Ignacio. We visited the farmers' market, enjoyed ice cream (courtesy of visiting professor Ashley who offered to buy ice cream for every student who outscored her on the final species ID quiz - which ended up being every student!), and wandered the town in order to "stimulate the Belizean economy" as we say.

We drove to our final stop: the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech (which translates to "Tick City" - fun!) This site doesn't have a tall impressive central castillo like Xunantunich, but it is quite spread out with lots of buildings to climb on and explore. There are Mayan bedrooms still intact, with limestone slab beds. It was very cool to be at Cahal Pech at sunset, with the entire place to ourselves. It was easy to imagine the Mayan civilization occupying that same spot (did you know that it is estimated that, at its peak, there were 5 times the number of Mayans living in Belize and Belizeans living here now?).

This was a great capper to our Belize experience. We returned to Clarissa Falls just in time for a fish dinner at 6PM:

Fish soup was slurped, flan consumed, toasts made, and memories shared. All in all a great night cap to a wonderfully adventure-filled day.

Everyone is well and most are feeling bittersweet about our adventure ending. We have a 7:30AM breakfast tomorrow and then we depart at 9AM for a two hour drive across Belize to Belize City airport to catch our flight, which should depart at 1PM and get us to Manchester by 11PM or so. Hopefully there will be NEC buses waiting for us. I will try to post one final update indicating that we are all safe and sound at home.

I've really enjoyed working on this blog, and I really appreciate all the kind comments I have received via email ( or via comments made to the folks on the trip. It's nice to know that someone is reading and appreciating the work that goes into the blog.

Everyone is happy and healthy, a bit scraped up from today, and a lot more bug-bitten than we were on the island, but all in all not bad for 10 days of adventure!

As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Day #8: January 15th, 2015
Location: Clarissa Falls, Belize

The Mayan ruins of Xunantunich

Everyone was allowed to sleep in late today - breakfast didn't start until 7:30AM! Our latest start yet. At 8:30AM, our host Miss Chena (the proprietor of Clarissa Falls, our lodge on the mainland) led us on a nature walk through the jungle. We traversed through thick mud, stomped along riverside trails, and paused frequently to hear lessons on the local flora and fauna from Miss Chena:

I ain't gonna lie - the hiking was tough! Accosted by bugs, slipping in the mud, losing shoes that were sucked deep into muck, stumbling over branches, braving the heat and humidity - everyone did it all without complaint! The hike lasted a bit over 2 hours. Go NEC!

We reached the road and headed to a hand-pulled barge that brought us over the river. 

We then hiked about a mile uphill on a road to the Maya ruins of Xunantunich. We were met by a guide who taught us about the history of the site, the largest Mayan ruins ever discovered in Belize:

We then spent several hours exploring the site. Incredibly, it is perfectly fine to climb on and around the ruins to explore them up close:

The highlight was climbing the 130 foot tall castillo, the main structure. It was truly amazing to scale to the top and see the view. We could see into Guatemala and across much of Belize. It was a wonderful and breathtaking view. The students tested my sense of safety by sitting right on the edge! Get back you students!

We were able to spend a few hours touring the site, and it was a wonderful experience to imagine a vibrant city occupying this spot, then the jungle swallowing it, and then locals and finally archaeologists rediscovering the site.

After we had our fill of touring, we walked back down to the visitor center and enjoyed a burrito and banana lunch brought by Chena:

We then continued back to the main road for some souvenir shopping and a ride back to Clarissa Falls on the bus. A few students had pedometers that indicated we had walked about 7 miles over the course of the day. By the end of the day, we were all covered with a thick funky layer of sweat, DEET, and sunscreen.  But we were also invigorated by all the wonderful sites we had seen. Fantastic!

Once back at Clarissa Falls, everyone quickly changed and jumped on inner tubes to ride down the river that borders the ranch. There were a few minor rapids, but mostly it was a relaxing, cooling 1:15 ride. We all enjoyed the opportunity to cool off and clean off in the water.

We also saw many iguanas along the riverbank:

Trucks were waiting for us at the end to drive us back. We had time for a quick shower and change before our 6PM dinner (mashed potatoes, salad, and a very tender beef prepared in a local style, with carrot cake for dessert). By 7:30PM we were all relaxing, playing cards, and joking about the day.

There were many bumps and scrapes over the course of the day, but nothing that couldn't be treated with a Band aid. Everyone is happy and healthy and amazed that we have just one full day left in Belize.

Thanks for reading!

Day 7: January 14th, 2015
Location: Clarissa Falls, San Ignacio, Belize

Traveling to the mainland

We awoke extra early today for a 7AM breakfast and a 7:45AM departure from TREC. It was, as you'd expect, bittersweet to be leaving Ambergris Caye, the site of so much joy and adventure over the last week. But the disappointment was naturally counterbalanced by excitement for what lay ahead.

We drove us and our luggage to the tiny airport in San Pedro and boarded two planes (a 13 seater and a 10 seater) for the 20 minute right to the municipal airport on the mainland.

You know its a small plane when there is a student in the co-pilot's seat!

At municipal airport, we gathered our 32 bags and settled into our touring bus. It's a nice bus with cushy seats and plenty of room for everyone.

We drove westward across Belize for about an hour to a location called Jaguar Paw. We changed into swim clothes and were issued tubes, helmets, and lifejackets.

Thus prepared, we began the first of what will be several hikes through the jungle. We crossed and then headed upriver.

Along the way, we explored some caves that are resident to (harmless) bats:

As we continued on, the braver (or more foolhardy?) among us paused to sample some termites. By "sample" I mean "eat"! I am happy to report that they taste like carrots.

I feel like I should earn some sort of special Professor Badge for getting multiple students to eat live bugs in the jungle! <sound of me patting myself on the back>

After walking upriver for about a half hour, we put our tubes into the river, joining into large chains for floating.

We soon enter a series of limestone caves. We wore headlamps to illuminate the grey, sparkly walls. It was very unusual to be floating through these caves, something that can be done in very few places in the world.

After about 20 minutes, we exited the cave system and floated downriver for about another 30 minutes. It was very peaceful. The water was warm and clear and seemed very clean. The students could not resist jumping off a rock that marked the end of our route.

We toweled off and drove back toward the main highway, stopping for lunch of burritos or rice/beans:

We then drove about 1.5 westward, completing our journey across Belize. It only takes about 2.5 hours to drive from the Caribbean on the east coast to the Guatemalan border on the west side. We arrived at our home for the next 3 days: Clarissa Falls, a working cattle ranch on the banks of a river. The students moved into thatched huts, 4 people per. The grounds of Clarissa Falls are lovely, with cattle and many fowl. There is also a nice open air common eating area where we had dinner. The owner, Miss Chena, prepares wonderful local Belizean food (tonight: salad, rice, beans, spicy chicken) and makes her own hot sauce (which is very flavorful with just the right amount of heat).

We had planned to visit a Mayan ruin this afternoon, but we ran out of time, so we'll move that to another day. We used the extra time to meet and discuss the lab reports. Students diligently worked throughout the evening on their reports and journals; most (but not quite all!) have turned in their final lab reports. I look forward to reading them! Clarissa Falls is quite isolated so (unlike on the island) there is nothing to do in the evening. Since the sun sets by 6PM, that leaves a lot of free time to socialize and relax in the evening.

Everyone is doing well. The bugs are biting here, but nothing we can't handle. We look forward to two full days on the mainland.

Thank you for your comments (I always pass them along) and than you for reading!