Chapter 9. Belize
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly and moving our RV's 21 miles takes most of the day. We arrive at the Mexico-Belize border shortly before 8 AM. While waiting for Henry, the owner of the RV park where we will be staying tonight, I am accosted by others who are anxious to help, for a fee, in our border crossing paperwork. Not knowing what Henry looks like, I check out each arriving vehicle and each walking pedestrian. After 20 minutes, a man walks directly toward me as if he recognizes me, or at least my caravan hat, shirt and nametag. Arriving slightly out of breath from jogging across the bridge, Henry reminds me of a younger and shorter Sidney Portier. He quickly gets down to business and talks to an official about our Mexican vehicle permits. I go back to the caravan and explain the procedure for leaving Mexico. One by one we drive to the border guard for inspection and, after passing, we radio the next RV to leave the roadside parking area. Once across the bridge we pull into a large dirt lot, fenced off for security. When we all have gathered again, Henry explains the next step. Purchasing Belize vehicle liability insurance is a slow process. Each application is filled out by hand and there are many applications: one for each car, two for each RV (day into Belize, day out of Belize). Next stop is the immigration office where the official stamps our passports and fills out a detailed line in her ledger book. Then it is on to the customs desk where one clerk fills out another complicated ledger book with details of each vehicle. Then yet another customs desk where the officer fills out, again by hand, our vehicle entrance permits. These permits record basically the same information we've now offered three other times, including vehicle identification number, model, year, color, etc. Computer technology has not reached the Belize border and each department requires its own record of vehicle information. Shari and I are last in line, finishing just before noon. Simultaneous to doing our paperwork, and the only simultaneous act occurring this morning, a pest control official sprayed the undersides of our RV's. For this required service we pay US$6.50. Next, the same official we talked to last comes out of his office and inspects each of the 26 vehicles, one by one. This done, we pull out of the security area and meet the Belize border official who once more checks our paperwork. The short drive to Henry's takes only minutes. But by the time we are off the road again, it is 1:40 PM, almost seven hours since our departure point, 21 miles distant. Henry reports we made better than average time in the border crossing.
(Shari) Our border meeting with Henry at 8 AM turns into 8:20. He says his bus was late. No problem, all we have is time. We have parked on the street lined up behind some big trucks waiting to cross. We have heard as many different stories about crossing this border as the number of people we talked to. Each person tells another variation, so that it has many in the caravan worried about it. I keep telling them that is why we have Henry and not to worry. Those are strange words coming from me, but I really am not worried. Soon Henry rides up front, telling us to come one at a time, calling the next in line on the CB after crossing the Mexican side of the bridge. All our Mexican papers are intact and we did not have to surrender anything. We park in a fenced lot and I hop out to stand on the street in order to catch everyone's eye as they come up and over the bridge. Finally we are all in and, with paperwork in hand, we begin the long red-tape process of getting into Belize. Henry has taken care of everything, including getting the pets across and fumigation of our vehicles. We wait forever to get our required liability insurance. One man in a small air-conditioned office writes out the necessary forms - by hand, in multiple copies. Then he has to transfer much of the same information to a receipt that he gives us. We mutter to ourselves about the inefficiency and we still have four steps to go. We then walk over to immigration where they process our tourist visa, stamp our passport and motion us on to the next line. Here the vehicles get a temporary pass to drive into Belize and the same questions asked for insurance purposes are again asked here. Again multiple forms are filled out. Next line same thing, only this inquisitor links the passport to the driver. Finally we go out to the lot. It is noon, four hours after we started and the rig inspection is still ahead of us. Luckily we have the nice young man who did our last batch of processing. (Actually all of the Belize people have been nice. AND they speak English). He boards each of our rigs, opens the refrigerator and looks inside. From what I gather, we cannot bring any fruits, vegetables, beer, dairy products like milk and cheese, eggs, fish, ham and pork, chicken and even beef unless it is cooked. That is just about everything. He does not confiscate any foodstuff, but does warn us about next time. Henry says he has never seen any food taken from a caravan. Finally we are on our way, just before it starts to rain buckets of water. Again we are stopped at the gate, and the guard there wants to see our passport and our temporary vehicle pass. Finally again we are on our way. Henry leads us the short distance to the campground and Bert notices it is now 1:40 PM. This had got to be the record for the longest time to travel the shortest distance. We are parked across the street from the sea and we catch the wonderful cooling breeze it offers. In fact, I see Beryl wearing a sweatshirt, for heavens sake! It seems like another good night to have a margarita party. With the help of many contributions of ice, we imbibe in the refreshing taste of the frozen drink. Scotty has contributed popcorn and Anne has brought fresh baked bread for a snack. Believe it or not, Bert and I are eating at home tonight: grilled Hillshire sausage links that I bought in Cancun. The package was written in Spanish, but the meat tastes just as good as at home.
(Bert) First impressions of Belize start this morning at 6 AM. In a half-dozen cars we head south from Corozal, first on a local road and then on the Northern Highway. Both roads are smooth and wide, permitting 55 to 65 mph with ease. Our transit is through gently rolling countryside, mostly planted in sugarcane in the process of being harvested. We thread through sleepy little villages - San Francisco, Concepcion, Buena Vista - with buildings that reflect a British colony architecture contrasting with the last few weeks of Mayan influence. The big town is Orange Walk, 10 minutes drive time through streets closely lined with shops and houses. Then we cross the bridge over New River where we stop to see a Gray-necked Wood-Rail that Dorothy spots beside the road. Now the countryside reminds me of eastern Florida: a thinned pine forest with random palm trees poking out of the flat wet land. Our destination is Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we rent three boats with drivers and explore the lake and river ways for 3½ hours. As we are clicking off bird species, the sky darkens. One boat has a roof with open sides, the other two are just 8-passenger flat-bottom fishing boats, so we are unprepared for the downpour when it comes. On our boat we hold a too-small green tarp over our heads, but each time we dip a hand, the accumulated rain pours down our shoulders and onto our knees. Larry, Carmen, Sid and others get drenched while sitting in the open rain. Thankfully, the warm rainfall is of short duration and the warm drying sun is back out. The rain dampened the birds as well and we soon see many perched on trees and airing their wings to dry. Serendipity offers us a damp Black-collared Hawk that permits ample photographs. Further down the river the birding gets even better both because of habitat and the rainfall. At 11:30 we turn around and at full throttle, Roy guns the outboard and we swerve around the river bends back to the dock in a half-hour. Comparing our lists with the other two boats we come up with 73 species this morning, including Sungrebe, Limpkin, Pale-vented Pigeon, five kingfisher species, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and a bird heard by one boatload that driver Leonard identified as a rarely seen, but occasionally heard, Striped Cuckoo.
(Shari) We are just nine short miles from the Mexican border, but oh how it differs. That just amazes me, since traveling from Texas to Alaska, crossing many state borders and Canada, the differences are slight. The biggest, and most welcome difference is we have switched from a Spanish-speaking nation to an English-speaking one. Therefore, directions, road signs if they exist, menus, TV stations, etc. are in English. Next the people are darker. Over 80 percent are Creole; the rest are of Spanish, Maya or Mennonite descent or a mixture thereof. English is taught in the compulsory school through the 8th grade. At home, Spanish or Creole (sounding very similar to the stereotype Jamaican language heard on TV) is spoken. In town, Don and I go to the open-air market. The town is neat and reminds me of Palacias, Texas. Built along the water's edge is a seawall and wharf. In the morning, the fishermen come with fresh fish to sell and I see Red and Yellow-fin Snapper lined up in the shade of an old warehouse. People pick out their fish, get them weighed and then give them to a man outside to clean. I see some kind of dried fish for sale also. Walking through the warehouse, I see freshly butchered meats lying on the counter, awaiting buyers. In the streets, vendors in an array of small shacks sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Don takes me to one young man who tells me he needs American dollars to buy a keyboard from the United States. He exchanges $25 for me into Belizean money so that I can purchase some fresh produce. The rest of the town is not much to look at. The standard of living here is higher than its Mexican neighbor, but still poor by our measure. Certainly no zoning laws exist and what may be nice homes are hidden in the myriad of surrounding haphazard buildings. We find a neat open-air French restaurant that goes on our list of places to try, but no pollo asada places. We check out a Chinese restaurant that does not impress us. Looks like we may be eating in more while we are here.
(Shari) By 6 AM, we are already on the road for our trip to Lamanai, up the New River by boat. I have decided to join the birders on the longer version of this popular trip to be able to see the river with its nightlife in the darkness on this evenings return. Eight of the others are taking the shorter version. As we pull away from the dock, Gwen notices a truck in the parking lot with its windows down. As she is berating Woody for not rolling up the windows, she notices the door also has been left open. Woody says nothing and she continues to get riled up asking the boat driver to turn back. With frustration she asks Woody, "Why did you leave the door open?" I too cannot understand why Woody is taking it so calmly. The answer comes in the words Woody deadpans, "It is not my truck." Poor Gwen, she is ready to jump out of the boat in embarrassment. The trip up river takes forever and I start to read my novel as the birders find one interesting bird to look at after another. It is nice and cool at the dock where we finally stop five hours later. The other group is about to turn back and I am tempted to jump ship to join them. I still want to see the monkeys, the museum, the ruins and the nightlife so I remain. The local Mayans are excavating the ruins under the guidance of archeologists and we can watch the work in progress. I would like to walk the paths along the grounds a little faster, but the birders find so many things to look at, the trip takes forever. After an hour of standing in the hot shade of the jungle, getting bit by some bugs, trying to decide if some bird is a yellow macaw or an orange sparrow, I decide to walk back to the dock and read my book in the shade of the palapa and enjoy the breeze off the water. Finally at 5:30 it is time to board the boat and head back. Most tours take 1½ to 2 hours to travel the river. Coming upriver, we took five hours. Going back it takes us over three. Even Lee, the birder extraordinaire, wants to hurry Emir, our guide. Emir has sharp eyes, and I think he has shown us every nighthawk that exists on the river. I did not see the monkeys or any of the toucans and other pretty birds I expected. However, it was thrilling to see a nightjar take off, our high beam flash light following its flight to Anne's shoulder and away. It was beautiful to watch the night sky with its millions of stars shining down without being spoiled by city lights and air pollution. It was peaceful to listen to the chirp of insects and the call of birds in the darkness. It was eerie to see the red eyes of crocodiles and owls reflect in the light. This all said and done, for me it was a long day and not one I care to repeat. By the time we get home it is well past 9:30 PM.
(Bert) From Orange Walk, we take two boats - one with eight for the standard river trip and one boat with 17 for a special dawn-to-dark trip. Normally a 90-minute boat ride one-way, we stretch the New River segment into six hours as we prowl every bend looking for birds. With the keen eyes and excellent birding knowledge of our boatman Emir, we are almost constantly in sight of birds. Given all of the birding we have done so far, finding new species is more of a challenge, but repeated sightings gives everyone a chance to add the bird to their lists and to become familiar with the bird's identity. So we are happy to see again Boat-billed Herons (6), Snail Kites (12), Black-collared Hawks (4), American Pygmy Kingfisher (2) and many others. By 12:30 we are hot in the sun. Emir guns the twin 150-hp Yamaha outboards and races through the narrow and serpentine river from the Mennonite community of Shipyard to the ruins at Lamanai. Just as the river opens into a small lake, Emir tells us to look right, over the low swamp, past the rising shoreline and to an enormous Ceiba Tree - the national tree of Belize and source of Kapok, used in clothing insulation - silhouetted against the horizon. There on a broad horizontal branch rests a huge nest holding two juveniles double the size of any bird we've seen this morning. At a height of 52-in. and a wingspan of 7½ ft., the adult Jabiru standing beside the nest is clearly recognizable even at this ¾-mi. distance. The large black bill and head, red neck and white body further identify the stork, a life-bird for almost all of us. Docked and lunched, we hike through the jungle surrounding the Lamanai ruins. Although we've been traveling through jungles earlier in the trip, this is the first time the forest deserves the name we usually imagine as jungle: steamy (our brows), tall and lush with vines, palms and mahogany, echoing with parrots, tropical songsters and the screams of Howler Monkeys. Birds are plentiful and we soon list Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-crowned Parrot, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Olive-backed Euphonia and dozens more exotic species. The ruins are appealing as well, Lamanai being founded by 1500 BC, the temples are more ancient than many of the others we've seen thus far. Against one unearthed temple we see the mask of an unknown ruler, dating to 500 A.D. By 5:30 we are back on the water, enjoying the setting sun. As darkness falls, out come Lesser Nighthawks, spinning through the sky like huge bats. But the real bats stay closer to the river's surface - small Long-nosed Bats and large Fish Bats according to Emir. Paraques call from the marsh, still in dim light. Now the stars come out; legions brighten the sky. The river and the trees surrounding us are black in darkness, except when we beam our powerful flashlights, scanning for birds. For a couple hours we follow glowing eyes. Those at the water's surface are crocodiles, surprisingly common give that we only saw one on our daylight trip. Those in the trees and in the air are nocturnal birds: a crouched bird with a tawny collar (Yucatan Nightjar), an extension of a stout upright branch (Northern Potoo), a very large erect owl perched high on a big tree (Stygian Owl), and a medium-sized owl illuminated in the spotlight (Mottled Owl). A half-dozen comments from the group prompting Emir to head home have little effect. Emir has a captive audience of eager, although tired, birders and he makes sure we see every last bird he can pull from the river environment. We end the day with 95 species.
(Bert) Some days don't go as planned, but still turn into an adventure. From Corozal, nine of us - the others tired from yesterday or committed to errands - drive a new dirt road heading east. When I reach the ferry at the New River, I see two small pickup trucks parked and the ferry at a standstill. Being only about 6:30 AM, I get out and ask one of the drivers when the ferry starts operation. To my surprise he says it is operating. And, sure enough, the ferry is moving - slowly, that is. Our turn comes and we drive our two vehicles up the rickety gangplank. Now, a man turns a crank that turns a horizontal wheel, the pulley connected to a taunt steel cable stretched from shore to shore. Slowly, under his power alone, he moves the ferry, three vehicles and a dozen people across the 100-yard river. Approaching the other shore, another attendant tells Jim and me to back up our vehicles to the rear edge of the ferry. This allows the front edge to rise higher and reach further onto shore. Disembarking, I'm glad I have high clearance on my Pathfinder, because the ferry-to-gangplank angle is acute. For a dirt road, the new road is quite smooth. But when we make the turn toward Progresso and later Shipstern, onto the older road, the going gets tougher. The hard packed dirt is littered with pumpkin-sized potholes and the next thirty miles is a driving challenge of going as fast (topped at 45 mph) as I can, but still avoiding potholes. Since the road is very wide - enough for six vehicles side by side - and no one else is traveling this way, I have ample opportunity to shift left and right in the hazard avoidance course. Upon arriving at Shipstern we are greeted by a young man who explains our birding options. Electing to look for forest birds, rather than water birds, he says he will guide us on a hike through the woods, a distance of three miles. Calculating one mile per hour for birding, I figure we will be back to our cars at noon, just in time for lunch. To our surprise, he shuffles us onto the bed of a pickup and the driver takes us three miles back on the dirt road we just came. When asked, he says we will hike back to the parking lot from here. The young man is beginning to remind me of a teenager that only volunteers information when asked a specific question and, even then, the answer is misleading. Birds are far and few between, but we do see a few new species: Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yucatan Flycatcher and Rose-throated Tanager. About a mile into the woods, with no end in sight, Sandy asks our guide Jaraldo how much further we have to go. To our surprise we find out that Jaraldo is leading us in the opposite direction of the parking lot, toward a savannah. We tell him we've had enough walking - there are no birds to see - and we want to head back. We backtrack for a mile and then take another path through the woods. Unfortunately, this path is single-file only, stumbles along rocks and over roots and climbs over tree limbs and between hanging vines. In the high heat and humidity, progress is slow and is obviously taxing some of the hikers. We again ask Jaraldo how much further it is back to the parking lot and he tells us we still have much more to hike. We ask for an alternative and he suggests hiking to the highway that is very close. But going directly through the thick forest without a path is not a good plan, so we continue north until we reach another path that heads west. Much further along, we eventually reach the highway. Here, Jim and I drop our backpacks with the others and the two of us hike the dirt highway. Under the searing hot sun, each bend in the road I hope will be the last. It takes a half-hour for us to hike the distance I later clock at 1.8 miles. We return in our vehicles and pick up the rest of our party. Still more surprises - the next, more pleasant - await us. We eat our lunch at the little Carribean fishing village of Sarteneja, just a few miles further north. Here a lady approaches us and asks if we can give her a ride to Corozal. She tells us her story and we consent to giving her transport. The 82-year-old introduces herself as Isabelle from Montreal, Canada. She has been traveling alone in Belize and was stranded in sleepy Sarteneja when the bus broke down, could not be repaired and had no alternate. Amazingly, or perhaps out of a clear explanation for visiting this remote area, Isabelle is also a birder. So together we trek back to Corozal, stopping occasionally for her to add a few birds to her life list. I pull right up to the bus station in Corozal, blocking a bus that looks like it is not local. Coincidentally, this bus heads across the border toward Cancun, where Isabelle has a scheduled air flight, and we get her on the bus just seconds before its departure. Like I said, some days don't go as planned, but they are still an adventure.
(Shari) Le Cafe KeLa is not written in your tourist guides. In fact, it does not even have a sign on the street to locate its position. People find it anyway because it has wonderful food served in a picturesque thatched palapa on the shore of Corozal Bay. Run by a local Corozal woman and her French husband, all meals are cooked to order with fresh ingredients. We start with conch cevice, followed by fried conch for me and fish almandine for Bert. We finish with crepes and ice cream. The tab for all this is just at $22 and that includes four Belikan beers brewed in Belize. The restaurant is small and can only hold 16 people at a time. Don, Gayle, Ralph, Dorothy, Anne, Jim, Bert and I fill half the tables. Locals of differing skin colors fill the other tables. By the way, conch is a type of clam. Its white meat is a little rubbery, like squid, but with a milder taste. You are probably familiar with the conch by its distinctive large shell that when put to your ear seems to have the ocean waves inside. I would love to find one of these shells on the beach.
(Shari) Singing familiar songs, our four voices add to fifty others in the small St. Paul's Anglican Church. Arriving 10 minutes early for the 7:30 AM service, Ed, Carlyn, Bert and I sit in the second of six pews. The big windows and doors are open to let in the sea breeze, but also the dust. Two women are busy wiping the pews for today's service. No musical instrument accompanies the congregation, but luckily the pastor has an excellent voice to lead us in song. Walking down the aisle behind three young black boys dressed in red and white acolyte robes, the white minister sings lustily. The service starts 10 minutes late and people continue to arrive for another 10 minutes. Young and old, men and women, black, white, brown and in-between they come all dressed in their Sunday best. Everyone is friendly and welcome each other and us to the service. I do wonder if this mixture of people associate with each other outside of these walls. After church, Bert and I drive to the Last Resort in Copper Bank, a small village ten or so miles from us. A group of five leftover hippies from the 60s play music at the resort every Sunday afternoon. They seem to attract a crowd and the restaurant/bar/palapa soon is filled with people; again a mixture of skin colors. This area appears to be attractive to burned out Americans looking for a slower paced life style. Everywhere we go, we run into a few white faces. They all seem to know we are with the caravan staying at Henry's place and welcome us warmly.
(Bert) Back in an English-speaking country, Ed, Carlyn, Shari and I attend St. Paul's
Anglican Church after a hiatus of missing church services while in Mexico. We are almost
the first to arrive, with only a few black ladies there ahead of us. As more arrive, the
congregation becomes a racial microcosm of Belize: Creoles, Ladinos, Mayas, White
Europeans and Americans and even a woman and three daughters whose tall erect stature and
long blond hair suggest they are converted Mennonites. Thumbing through the
"Joy" hymnal, Carlyn finds one song that aptly fits the congregation. The first
This is the day, this is the day,
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
The second verse reads:
Hoy es el dia, hoy es el dia,
Que lo hizo Dios, que lo hizo Dios.
And the third verse continues:
Dis da di day, dis da di day,
Weh Gad mi mek, Weh Gad mi mek,
Mek we rejice, mek we rejice,
An be glad teena it, an be glad teena it.
Later in the afternoon, Shari and I drive to the remote village of Copper Bank and head to the Last Resort, aptly named for its position at the end of the world. Here in a palapa-covered restaurant bar, we enjoy Bluegrass music performed by the Amigos - three bearded Americans, a slender lady and a new drummer not yet indoctrinated into wearing a beard. Their music is all fun and quite entertaining. We drink Beliken beer, the local Belize beer. During the break we talk to the lady, now living nearly full-time in Belize. Her story, and that of others we've heard, reminds me of Alaskans: drifters who have found a different lifestyle - more Spartan, simpler, less complicated than the hectic lives we lead in the U.S. They pick up income from odd jobs, just enough to keep them self-sufficient in their version of paradise.
(Shari) Driving in a strange country without a log is an adventure. Driving in one without a log and without road signs is an adventure and a half. We leave camp at 6:20 AM all excited about our vacation within a vacation. Jim and Anne join us in our car for the 150-mile trip to Dangriga, Belize. Henry has told us to take two short cuts, both dirt roads. Armed with a map, Henry's directions, and a cartoon type book with directions for major roads, we are off. Our first short cut has me worried and we stop to ask for confirmation from two nice looking gentlemen. Yes, we are headed the right way. The road is terrible. It not only is dirt, but also is littered with potholes, washboard and narrow one-lane bridges. We make a left turn, thinking it is correct, but ask another young lady just to be sure. Another eight miles on wretched road gets us to the western Highway and we have successfully by-passed Belize City. Our first stop is at the Tropical Education Center where the birders delight in new species. Then it is on to the Belize Zoo, a fascinating natural environment for animals indigenous to Belize. I take a picture of Bert the Jabiru. The jaguars and Scarlet Macaws at the zoo are worth the trip alone. At the little snack shop, some of us have meat pies for lunch. This is the Belizean version of what is called pasties in northern Wisconsin and they are delicious. After lunch we find ourselves on the second shortcut of the day and it too is a doozie. This one is a good 40 miles of dirt and washboard road through uninhabited jungle. About half way along the road we stop for a break. The hot humid air hits my face as I get out of the car and I start to pray that we do not encounter car trouble. I mean, this is the middle of nowhere with jungle all around. I find our hotel in Dangria with the help of a map in a tourist book. The owner knows we are coming and assigns rooms to everyone. Carlyn and Ed and Woody and Gwen take downstairs rooms because they have dogs. Sid and Beryl do also because of dear 100-year-old Alice. Larry and Carmen take the last downstairs room. The remaining six rooms are up 32 stairs. I know because Ben has told me numerous times. The hotel only has ten rooms so Jim and Anne graciously volunteer to join Bert and me at the other hotel. Debra, my Internet contact for the trip, and her husband Derek take us around to the hotel and then to the restaurant that will be serving our next nine meals. There we discuss meal arrangements and breakfast menus. I decide, for ease and expediency, to serve everyone in the group the same menu for breakfast. Our lunches will be packed and dinners will be a choice from the posted board. At 5:30 PM the group arrives, fills the restaurant to capacity and happy voices emanate out the windows. The food is wonderful, especially the lemon meringue pie that generous Ben shares a bite with me. Unfortunately, one pie is not enough to serve 24 people and I threaten that anyone that had pie tonight and does so again tomorrow night will get parked in the sun without electricity for the rest of the trip. That shuts Lee up real fast. (He does not realize that the restaurant intends to have three pies tomorrow and I let him good naturedly stew about it.) We walk back to our hotel rooms quite happy, excited about tomorrow's excursion and thrilled to be able to watch American television before we fall asleep.
(Bert) Today starts a four-day adventure to the southern part of Belize and the Maya Mountains. On the Northern Highway, we head toward Belize City, but take a dirt shortcut that avoids the city and connects to the Western Highway where our first birding stop is the Tropical Education Center. On the entrance sign I'm surprised that my hometown area of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is partial sponsor for this facility as part of the Birds Without Borders program. Across the highway, we stop at the Belize Zoo, which many have told us about beforehand. I love zoos and this one definitely lives up to its reputation. Unobtrusive areas are carved out of a jungle of trees; the wire cages, painted black, are all but invisible. Foliage is so thick that finding the wild cats, tapirs and other Belize natives is often a challenge, and coming upon them is like discovering them in the wild. Bird life is abundant, both in and out of the cages. Although a few birds are deliberately caged (like Bert, the Jabiru), most are wild birds that wander about the zoo, attracted to the water and the food sources. We see Tody-Flycatchers, Hepatic Tanagers, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Yellow-backed Orioles. From the zoo to Dangriga, we travel along the washboard and dusty coast road. Although scenic, the rough ride emphasizes that we should take the alternative paved highway on our return in a few days. We settle into our hotel rooms and then have dinner together at a local restaurant. Dangriga is a small, relatively poor, coastal town and probably not one often visited by tourists, except for those flying here from Belize City and heading to the reef for diving. Our hotels - we fill one and spill over into another - are near the sea. In bed at night, I can hear the soothing lapping of the waves just outside our hotel room.
(Shari) At 5:30 AM, we start our walk to the restaurant. By 6:10 the whole group is assembled outside the closed doors. The cook must be late. We are off to a late start, but the breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, French toast, coffee and juice is tasty. The bus is ready to take us to Cockscomb National Park. No sooner has the bus started down the road to the park, when it stops. The driver has seen a bird and all the birders get off the bus. Birds are showing themselves left and right and even the bus driver gets a lifer. I get a kick out of seeing the group so animated, but about an hour later I am ready to get to the destination. We have to stop one more time to see a Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize, (fantastic even for me) before we reach the park. Protected by my bug suit - a nylon mesh shirt and pants that pull up over my clothes - I sit at the picnic table in the shade of the palapa. We all cannot get over the sight of the jungle. I have seen movies about the jungle, but experiencing it is something else. Thick, green, buggy, steamy and moist aptly describes it. We often comment about not understanding how our young men could have fought in such conditions in Viet Nam. The thermometer on Sid's car only registers 82 degrees but it feels like 100. It is so humid that it is hard to breathe and my glasses steam up whenever I look through my binoculars. Not handling heat very well, I decide to join Sid and six others after lunch and head home in the comfort of his air-conditioned suburban. Boy, is that nice! I take Gail to the open-air market to buy a pair of shoes. She brought only one pair and that pair is totally full of mud from her trek in the jungle this morning. I look at socks and a young boy tells me they are $3 a pair. Wow! Too much I say. He then retorts that I can have two pair for $7.00. I think not! Later at dinner, the conversation is really animated as the birders relive their fantastic new sightings of the day. The heat sure does not bother these people when it comes to birding: different strokes for different folks. I, for one, am thankful for Sid and his air-conditioned car. The food is fantastic again and I think everyone has the pie tonight.
(Bert) Cockscomb, named for the mountain range's resemblance to a rooster's comb, is unlike other areas we have visited so far: this 100,000-acre area is very nearly virgin jungle. Although the British removed the mahogany here also, the logging was selective, the other tall trees were left standing, and in the intervening 250 years the gaps have long since grown shut. Were it not for the paths cut through the jungle, it would be almost impenetrable. The variety of birds is most appealing. Almost every bird we see is different from any others we have seen during the day; only a few appear in quantities greater than one. Even the road into the park offers many birds and our bus stops frequently for us to get out and see Keel-billed Toucans, Barred Forest-Falcon (through Gene's spotting scope), and a colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas building nests that look like 3-foot-long oriole nests. We reach the visitor's center and the small grassy area, positioned like a reverse oasis in the midst of thick jungle. Our guides, Claude and Theodore, are excellent birders and their exuberance is contagious. Unlike other birding guides, when these two see a neat bird they whoop and holler, rush to the site, point enthusiastically and continue to shout out the bird's identity. Rarely does all these antics scare away the birds. From our position in the small plot of lawn we jump from one species to another, rattling off White-collared Manakin, Passerini's (Scarlet-rumped) Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Piratic Flycatcher and Variable Seedeater. Each bird is a splash of different colors, so dramatically bright that they seem unreal compared to the species of more temperate climates. We start our walk along one of the jungle paths and come to another clearing. Here we add Long-tailed Hermit, Bananaquit and Buff-throated Saltator. Along the trails we record Little Hermit, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker and Plumbeous Kite. Other birds, largely unseen, are identified by song. Claude has cute phrases for some of them. The Short-billed Pigeon says, "Who cooked the food?" and the Pale-vented Pigeon chimes in with, "You cook good." The tiny Spot-breasted Wren loudly and incessantly announces, "Kattie, the baby is crying." During a lull in birds, Claude and Theodore tell us about the diverse plant life surrounding us. I absorb few of the many names they announce, but notice the many pharmaceutical properties that the native Maya people knew about these bushes and trees. Palm trees are abundant, but not the conventional kinds we see lining streets in Florida, Texas and California. Most impressive is the Cahoon Palm, a trunkless palm with 30- to 40-ft. fronds emitting from a grounded hub. It looks like a fern from the Jurassic Period. Our visit to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary will long be remembered. A glance through each of our life lists will show 10+ new species were added this day. Bob and Dusty record an amazing 19 lifers.
(Bert) With twin 200-hp engines, the new boat - largest in Dangriga - transports us along the Inner Channel to the mouth of the Sittee River. Captain Norland slows the boat as we putter upriver. Osprey mark the entrance, Common Black-Hawks circle above, Red Mangroves cluster along the riversides but only occasionally offer a bird sighting. Norland and his four cohorts apparently know little about birds and offer few words of additional comments. Getting sunburn in the direct light and seeing few birds, most of us are ready for the captain to turn around the boat. Back at the dock, a number of birders leave the group and Shari joins us. The disappointment of the morning is more than made up by the pleasantness of the afternoon. Norland points the boat to the barrier reef and we race for 30 minutes across the Inner Channel. On the way we encounter a school of Bottlenose Dolphins and stop to watch them approach within a dozen feet, performing graceful swimming maneuvers at close hand. At a small palm-studded island on the reef , we enjoy lunch and then take a quick swim in the warm water. Back on the boat, we head to the coral reef and don our snorkeling gear. Underwater we watch the panorama of colorful brain coral, sea fans and dozens of tropical fish varieties. On our way back from the reef, we stop at Man-O'-War Cay Bird Sanctuary and thrill to the sight of hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds perched on trees and circling a small island. The males boastfully display their red balloon-like throats, trying to attract the females. Brown Boobies mix with the frigatebirds, but they seem so drab by comparison. We spend 30 to 40 minutes enthralled by the performing frigatebirds, certainly one of the highlights of my trip.
(Shari) After breakfast, I follow the bus to the dock. I want to know where to meet the group at 11:30 when they return, before heading out to one of the islands for a snorkel trip. It is only 7 AM and I go back to the room to watch the Today show, read a bit and take a nap. I don my swimsuit before joining the rest of the group for lunch and our afternoon excursion. It takes us 25 minutes on the boat to reach a small island, populated with palm trees and a few beach houses. We stop to watch some porpoises cavort and show off near the boat. After eating lunch on the island, we take a short swim to get used to our snorkel equipment. Then five minutes later our boat is over what once was an island, but now is submerged coral and sand due to the 1961 hurricane. We slither off the side of the boat and spend the next hour lazily drifting through the shallow water looking at brightly colored fish through our masks. We are on the second longest living coral reef in the world and it is just full of interesting things to look at through the clear water. Carmen, Bert and I are snorkel buddies and are to keep an eye out for each other. That is not hard to do with Carmen. She is very tiny but is easy to see because her life vest sticks out of the water like orange wings. Plus she does not have any fins on her feet and under the water her legs pump up and down like riding a bicycle. She is easy to spot. The boat is anchored near by and when we get our fill of snorkeling we swim back to it. Soon we are all ready and our guides take us to an island populated with nesting frigatebirds. This is another treat for all of us. The birds are in the mating season and the male birds have a red pouch that they inflate to attract females. This pouch looks like a big balloon filled with water ready to burst and it really is hilarious. We watch the males in various stages of excitement as their pouches inflate and deflate. Many oohs and ahs can be heard along with the clicking and clacking of the birds. I think this excursion is a highlight of the trip for many. I know it is for me.
(Shari) Breakfast comes fast and by 6:30 the group is ready to head home. Unfortunately, the sandwiches that we ordered are not finished and we wait at the restaurant for them for over 45 minutes. We stop to look at some property outside of Dangriga as a possible RV site for next year. It is open land, full of jungle overgrowth, but the owner says he will have it cleared for us next year. I think we will wait until we see it cleared before making any commitment. Our next stop is the Blue Hole National Park. Boy! Hot and humid, but birds galore! I think Gail finds ten lifers in the two hours we stay here. A nice inviting pool of water bubbles up from the ground. I debate whether to take a swim, but decide against it. First I would have to climb the 100 steps back to the car to get my suit. Then I would have to find the changing house to change into it. I know the water would be refreshing but by the time I got back up the steps, changed to street clothes and back to the car, I would be all hot and sticky. I am also afraid that without my bug suit, I would be full of bites (an unnecessary worry as it later turns our, since few insects are at this park today). I elect to sit on the stone bench by the water watching the birders get excited over their finds. After this stop, Sid takes his carload home. They invite me to come along and I longingly wish to join them but opt to suffer the heat and humidity for the next stop. Bert furiously writes down birds seen by the group as we eat our lunch in the shade at a picnic table. Our next stop is Guanacaste National Park and again I sit, along with Larry and Gwen, at a picnic table in the shade while the birders tromp a path through the jungle. They return 90 minutes later, again covered with smiles. That means more lifers for most of them. When we get back to the RV park, the cool breeze off Corozal Bay is wonderful and R-TENT cools quickly with all the windows open. It is good to be home.
(Bert) Heading west from Dangriga to the capital city of Belmopan, the Hummingbird Highway skirts the northern edge of the Maya Mountains. A smooth wide highway, we cruise first beside mountain-grown orange orchards bounded by palms and then second, at higher elevation, virgin jungles. The mountains are rugged in shape, but we see no hint of the underlying soil since tall trees smother every available space. We pass Bob and Dusty standing in an orange orchard. Later we find they had been watching Mealy Parrots and Yellow-headed Parrots. The rest of us drive a bit further to Blue Hole National Park to start our birding. Barely out of our cars, Dorothy is the first to spot the White Hawk easily visible with the naked eye, on a perch over a half-mile away. An extremely handsome hawk, its whiteness reminds me of a Snowy Owl. We take the trail leading down to the Blue Hole, a collapsed karst sinkhole surrounded by dense jungle. Although it would be great for swimming, we can't keep our eyes off the exciting birds surrounding us. Even Shari checks off a few life birds, most notably, a cooperative Royal Flycatcher with its strange hammer claw feathers protruding from the back of its head. As I'm watching a White-breasted Wood-Wren, Carmen comes with the report that King Vultures were just seen high above the parking lot. Back up the stone steps I climb and am soon rewarded with an incredible view of this huge black and white vulture soaring above me. King Vulture is a bird of the zoos, one you stand and stare at for long minutes before moving on. I never thought I would actually see one of these in the wild. We continue to add new birds, finding White-whiskered Puffbird (an aptly named fluff of feathers) and Gray-headed Tanager. After lunch at a picnic table, we drive further through the mountains to Guanacaste National Park, named for the enormous trees growing along the river. Here, even in the heat of the day, the birds are active under the cool jungle canopy: Barred Antshrike, Greenish Elaenia and Blue-crowned Motmot. It's hard for us to pull ourselves away from the birds, but we still have several hours drive back to Corozal so we force ourselves to move on.
(Bert) Twenty-seven years of careful planting has turned Felipe's 15 acres into a floral garden that is beautiful and peaceful. You would think we had enough birding the past week to keep us occupied with other activities today, a free day. But last week, Woody, Gwen and others found the floral garden on a dirt road south of Corozal and Felipe invited the group to visit again. This time we arrive early enough to hear the dawn chorus of birds and to witness the multitude and diversity of species attracted to the varied plant life. In the gardens, we bird from lawn chairs, a constant parade of color passing through the trees and shrubs: Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Blue Grosbeak, Black-cowled Oriole, Blue-black Grassquit. I can see that spring migration has begun with a higher count of warblers and dozens of Indigo Buntings, many nearly complete in their new spring wardrobe. Later in the day, Shari and I travel to the border to review the process for tomorrow's departure. In the evening, out for pizza at the French restaurant, I feel a bit let down. Belize has been a great place to visit and I am sorry to be leaving already. The people have been so friendly and helpful; the river, sea and mountain scenery so beautiful, and the bird life so abundant and diverse, it seems that ten days only wet my appetite for more.
(Shari) With a free day to sleep in, guess when I wake up? At 5:45 AM my eyes are wide open and I watch the two carloads of birders take off to another site. I start a load of wash, talk to Henry about our exit from Belize, chat with Pat and Sid, read a little and write journals. Bert is back by 10 AM and we ride to the border to reconnoiter the crossing. After determining the departure procedure we stop in town to pick up some Belizean grocery products. Marie Sharp hot sauce, cashew wine, rum and bread make it into my basket. Now isn't that a well-balanced meal? At 5 PM we have a travel meeting and Happy Hour. While the group sips their drinks and munches on snacks provided by Carmen, Anne and Gail, I explain our morning procedure. I know the group is worried about the length of time it will take to travel the 304 miles to Palenque and I try to assure them all will work out in the end. After the meeting Bert and I go to Le Cafe KeLa where we order a pizza and beer. It is extremely good and so large we have two pieces left to take home.
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