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Friday, January 13, 2017

January 12, 2017
San Ignacio, Belize

Day #8: Mayan culture

We woke up today knowing that this was our last full day in Belize and determined the make the most of it. We knew it would be a very long and strenuous day, but we all vowed to rally today and sleep on the plane!

We enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet at our hotel overlooking the mist-filled valley of San Ignacio. At 8:30AM, we loaded up on bug spray:

and walked a few hundred feet to our first destination, the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech:

Junior was our guide for the day. He told us about the history of the Mayan culture in general and in this area in particular. He also lectured on the flora and fauna of the area and issues of conservation and preservation.

The ruins themselves were very impressive. The students were able to climb on and in and through the various buildings and passageways.

The highlight was the climb to the top of the tallest structure (77' high):

We had this site to ourselves and the quiet calm created a nice sense of history with a touch of eeriness. We also viewed the site's museum and visitors' center.

We loaded back on to the bus and drove about 20 minutes to a river. We crossed the river on a hand-crank ferry (which the students gamely volunteered to crank) and then loaded on to vans for a ride up a steep hill to the Xunantunich visitors' center. Xunantunich is one of the largest and tallest Mayan sites in Belize and offers a wonderful opportunity to see and climb on some truly spectacular ruins:

Under a hot and bright midday sun, the students were able to explore the ruins and learn about the culture that occupied them. Again, the highlight was the climb to the 180' peak of the main castillo. From the top, we could see into Guatemala (about 2 miles west), the entire Xunantunich site, and much of the San Ignacio valley:

The students really enjoyed this experience, and many of them described the visit to Xunantunich as the highlight of the trip so far.

In addition to the main castillo, we toured various other buildings and even a ball court. From the top of one of these buildings, the students came up with the idea of forming human letters:

We walked down from the site, crossed the river on the hand-crank ferry, and rode the bus into a nearby village for lunch. The restaurant was very rural, tucked in between houses on an out-of-the-way street:

The food was quite good (the usual fare of rice, beans, fried plantain, a mayo-based salad, and stewed chicken, beef, or pork) and we supplemented it with milkshakes and some orders of nachos. The table featured a local condiment of pickled onions and habeneros, which several of us tried and then gasped and choked for about 20 minutes!

We drove into the town of San Ignacio and toured the farmer's markets, local art shops, and the local ice cream parlor (we can never pass one of those up!):

But our day was not done yet! We left San Ignacio (which is on the far western end of Belize) and drove east for about 1.5 hours to the Tropical Education Center. This facility is associated with the Belize Zoo and is the site of many research projects. The grounds are like a lovely tropical botanical garden. Students stayed in huts that were open (with screens) to the jungle air, letting in the full cacophony of jungle noises.

After dinner (chicken again!) we headed to the Belize Zoo for a night tour:

The students were able to see and interact with many nocturnal animals, including four species of cat (jaguar, puma, ocelot, and margay). Those who wished could hold a boa constrictor and feed a tapir:

The night tour was truly a unique experience and the capper to quite an eventful day!

We returned to the Center around 9PM, giving everyone a chance to work on their lab reports and get to sleep early amidst the myriad jungle sounds.

Tomorrow is our travel day: bus at 10AM, flight at 1PM, connection in Atlanta, land in Boston around 10PM, back to Henniker after midnight. I will try to post an update or two as I can en route.

Thanks for reading and following along! Everyone is safe and healthy and happy and talking excitedly about an adventure they will never forget. I was honored to be able to facilitate this experience for our NEC students.

- Prof. Eric J. Simon

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