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Friday, January 11, 2019

Day #9 January 11th, 2019 - Sunset over Tikal

Greetings from The Jungle Lodge within Tikal National Park in Guatemala! I am writing this blog post before/after dinner at the end of a long and exciting day. The internet connectivity is much worse here than any place previous, so I am not sure how much I will be able to share today. If I cannot share much, I promise to update again when the connection is better.

Our day began in San Ignacio, Belize, with a nice breakfast buffet. Everyone really enjoyed our hotel (Cahal Pech Resort) and so we extended our time there by one hour, leaving at 9AM:

We met our driver LaSelle and drove about 30 minutes to the border with Guatemala. We made our way through customs and immigration on the Belize side, then immigration on the Guatemala side. We left our big bus in Belize and switched to two smaller vans (with two Spanish-only-speaking drivers) in Guatemala. We all then proceeded into Guatemala.

The drive was enlightening to all of us. Guatemala is significantly less developed than Belize. We saw people living in thatched-roof houses and washing clothes in the river. We passed colorful cemeteries and tin-roof shacks. We stopped at a gift shop for a bit of rest and a very nice locally prepared lunch:

We watched some local women preparing the tortillas over a wood-headed metal pan. The food seemed healthy and was very flavorful.

The students were happy to stimulate the local economy:

We drove onward for another hour until we entered Tikal National Park. We are staying The Jungle Lodge, which is a hotel within the park grounds:

We had about an hour to shower and get ready for our sunset hike into Tikal. We met our guide Luis and purchased our mandatory wristbands to prove that we had paid for admission into the park:

Luis led us through the jungle, pointing out the flora and fauna (howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coati, colorful turkeys) along the way:

We began to notice the ruins around us, and we soon reached a large courtyard flanked by two large temples:

Some structures were marked off limits, but others allowed us to climb up and/or over them:

We spent nearly an hour exploring this area and taking in the many amazing views:

Our guide Luis gave us many details about Mayan history, culture, construction methods, and how these structures were "discovered" and recovered by Western scientists. There are way too many details for me to go into here!

We continued to hike the grounds, stopping at several other tall temples to admire the ancient and quiet beauty:

The highlight of the day was walking to a tower that offered a good view of the sunset. We climbed up many stairs to a viewing platform, and then sat and watched for about 45 minutes as the sun set and the color changed:

We climbed down in twilight and hiked back in the dark (with flashlights). What a great time! We all felt a connection with this place and the deep time that it represents. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to learn about and interact with the site. Thank you Tikal!

We regrouped back at the lodge for a quick rest and a 7PM dinner (your choice: beef steak, chicken, or vegetarian pasta) along with soup and bread. We all need to go to bed early tonight as we must load the van and leave for a 4AM sunset Tikal hike. Whew! 

I'm not sure when I'll next be able to log in and update the blog. We have a very crazy day tomorrow: 4AM hike, 6AM departure, boxed breakfast in the vans, cross the border into Belize, drive all the way across the country to Belize City airport hopefully arriving by 11AM, 1PM flight to Atlanta. I'll check in when I can!

Everyone is doing wonderfully. Every student handed in their lab reports on time and seemed to do a very good job. Everyone continues to live this experience to its fullest. We are all happy and healthy and enjoying it here but ready to come home.

Thanks for reading!

- Eric J. Simon, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biology & Health Science, New England College

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Day #8 January 10 2019 - San Pedro to San Ignacio

Greetings from Cahal Pech Resort, San Ignacio, on the western border of Belize! I am writing this blog post before/after dinner after a long day traveling all the way across the country.

Our day started with a 5:45AM breakfast followed by a 6:15AM departure from TREC. We arrived at the ferry around sunrise:

We checked into the ferry, handed over our baggage, and took one last walk on the beach to say goodbye to beautiful San Pedro and Ambergris Caye:

We boarded the ferry for a 90 minutes ride to Belize City on the mainland:

At the Belize City ferry terminal, we were met by our driver LaSelle from the tour company. We boarded the bus that will be our home for the remainder of our time in Belize:

We drove west about an hour to Jaguar Paw, a site famous for a lazy river that runs through a cave system. We were issues our gear of tube, life jacket, helmet, and headlamp. We hiked through the rainforest and across a river:

After about 30 minutes, we reached the site where we entered the river on our tubes:

Led by guides, we slowly drifted through the caves, marveling at the crystal rock formations:

Such an unusual location! It's not every day that you can ride an innertube through a crystal-lined cave. We were able to stop within the cave and walk around a bit:

After the cave system, we drifted down a lazy river, taking in the views of the rainforest:

After a short hike back and returning our equipment, we enjoyed a traditional Belizean lunch (chicken in chile sauce, rice/beans, cole slaw made with mayo, and fried plantain) at a local restaurant:

We boarded our bus and drove another hour west to St. Herman's Cave, a national park famous for a large river-carved cave that was used by the Mayans for ceremonies. We followed a guide on a 10 minute hike through the jungle, during which we learned about leaf-cutter ants and various trees and their uses, until we arrived at the entrance to the cave:

We hiked down into the cave using our headlamps. It was fairly slow going, as the walkway was wet and slick with rock and sand. We slowly made our way into the cave, learning about the origins of the rock formations, and the ways that the Mayans used the site.

At this point in the cave, our guide Pedro had us turn out all the lights and sit silently for several minutes (5? 7? 10?). It was pretty remarkable, you literally could not see your hand in front of your face, or tell if your eyes were open or closed. The only sounds were drip drip dripping off in the distance, echoing around the cave. It gave a fairly profound sense of ancient time.

After hiking back out, we rejoined LaSelle in our bus and drove another hour west. This completed our journey across the country of Belize from east to west - notice that the country is small enough that we easily traversed it in about 4 hours of driving today.

We arrived in San Ignacio after night fall and checked into our hotel for the night, Cahal Pech Resort. Everyone was pretty happy with the accommodations, which are spacious and clean. We all relaxed for an hour and then gathered at 7PM for a nice buffet dinner (pork, chicken, rice, potatoes, cole slaw, fried plantain). We are on a hill overlooking the town of San Ignacio. The view is impressive, and it is highlighted by a cool tropical breeze that is blowing across the veranda where we are sitting for dinner. Everyone feels clean and relaxed and happy. The students are chattering away, sharing experiences from Belize and elsewhere. It's a wonderful night after a full, fun, and exciting day. I'm quite happy and content to be leading this group of wonderfully engaged students.

Thanks for reading!

- Eric J. Simon, Ph.D, Professor, Department of Biology & Health Science, New England College

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Day #7 January 9th, 2019 - Now that's some snorkeling!

Greetings from Belize! Today was a day that none of us will ever forget, a day filled with amazing snorkeling adventures. This day was brimming with activities that many students had been dreaming about since they first registered for Tropical Marine Biology - and no one left disappointed!

Our day began as usual: up early to work on lab reports, 8AM breakfast, 9AM walk to the dock and boarding of our speedboat. (We've been on the speedboat these past 3 days because there are a total of 3 schools at TREC, including Central CT State U and Hofstra, and there is only room for 2 of them on Goliath.)

We headed to Hol Chan, Belize's oldest marine reserve park. There were lots of other boats at this popular site, both for snorkeling and SCUBA. We all moored together under threatening skies:

To enter the park, each boat is met by a park ranger who collects fees and issues wristbands:

This allows for limits on the number of visits at a time and during a day, and also provides revenue to promote Belize's thriving ecotourism industry.

We split into two groups and followed our guides across a reef and to a deep water channel (after which Hol Chan is named). We crossed the channel and followed the wall along the other side. All together we snorkeled for about an hour. We saw a wide variety of marine life as we toured, including many specimens that, due to the deep water, are much larger than what we normally see. Some students dove down and through an underwater cave. All of us saw many beautiful sea creatures:

These are some happy snorkelers!

Even though it was only 11:15, the students were hungry from their trip and so enjoyed sandwiches on the boat. We drove a short way to Turtle Rock Island. Here, students were able to interact with four different species of stingray and our first turtle of the trip, a friendly loggerhead:

Seeing and interacting with the turtles and rays was thrilling for many students. We had all wanted to see a turtle during the entire trip, so you can imagine that this one was well documented! Again, everyone returned to the boat thrilled and excited.

We headed to our final site of the day: Shark Ray Alley. Go ahead, read that name again. How great is that? How much do you want to snorkel there? This location did not disappoint. This spot within the marine park has a special designation that allows us to feed and touch the sharks and rays. And we did plenty of both!

Imagine a dozen sharks, all jockeying to get at chum, rolling across each other and around you, as dozens of smaller fish dart between to try to snag a small meal. It's quite a sight! The students loved the sharks and rays and couldn't help but swim near them and stroke their slick-but-leathery skin.

We also ran into our old friend, the loggerhead turtle, and watched as he ate a lobster:

After about an hour, we returned to the boat. None of us could stop chattering excitedly about all that we had seen. We posed for one final photo on the reef:

Our day could not have ended on a finer note!

We arrived back at the dock by 2:30PM, walked back to TREC, rinsed off in the pool, dried off, and then met for a lab meeting to finalize and organize the data for lab reports:

My co-instructor, Prof. Elizabeth Harper, has been leading the research project during this trip. Elizabeth has been provided guidance and feedback to students at each step. This is our final lab meeting, and students are now responsible for completing their lab reports and handing them in for grading:

To celebrate our last night on the island, we all enjoyed a dinner out together in town. Afterwards, the students were free to wander about to buy souvenirs, eat ice cream, etc.

Breakfast is at 5:45AM tomorrow so that we can leave by 6:15AM to meet our tour company at the ferry at 7AM for our 7:30AM ferry. Whoa! More on that at the end of the day, assuming that we have Internet where we are staying on the mainland.

Everyone is great. I could not be more proud of this group and the effort they are putting in. No one is slacking off, everyone is working hard and getting the most out of this experience.

Thanks for reading!

- Prof. Eric J. Simon, Ph.D, Department of Biology & Health Science, New England College