Monkey Bay Travel Journal
At the airport in Belize City we met Juan who would be our guide for many of our activities in the area near or in the sanctuary and later in the trip for our stay in the rain forest. We soon discovered how perceptive and knowledgeable Juan was. He guided us through our first hike through the savannah in which the sanctuary is located and ultimately led us to the Sibun River for swimming and bathing. On the second day Juan also led us to the Belize Zoo (http://www.belizezoo.org/zoo/zoo.html) where we discovered that he could speak not only English, Spanish, Creole, but also the special language of many of the animals in the zoo.
As it turns out, Juan (prior to his appointment as a guide at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary) had worked at the zoo and developed a special relationship with most of the zoo's animals. The zoo itself is unlike virtually any zoo elsewhere in the world. In essence, the zoo is populated by animals, which for one reason or another are not able to return to their natural environment in Belize. Here we saw at close quarters howler monkeys, various cats including jaguars, ocelots, and margay, crocodiles, strong smelling peccaries, tapirs (the national animal), and colorful and majestic birds like macaws, egrets, and keel billed Toucans (the national bird). On many occasions Juan with a calm and reassuring voice or call was able to coax shy or wary animals from their resting or hiding places. In the afternoon of our second day we returned to the Sibun River for canoeing, swimming, and a close examination of the Sibun River and its environmental context. During our time on the river with both guidance of both Juan and Mike Amspoker we tried to observe, identify, and make sense of the fauna and flora of the area and how they fit with one another.
On our third day we visited the Community Baboon Sanctuary (http://www.howlermonkeys.org/)
--a preserve for the black howler monkeys, which are locally in Belize called baboons. On our hike through the sanctuary we observed and heard the distinct and unforgettable guttural call of the howlers. Since the monkeys in the sanctuary are more familiar with humans, we were able to approach, to touch, and be touched by the primates. On our way back to Monkey Bay we spent a couple of hours in Belize City where we visited the National Museum, which is housed in what was previously the central prison of Belize, ate at a Chinese restaurant, and visited a tourist enclosure set up to serve the cruise ship industry. In the museum we found small but extremely informative collections - especially of Maya artifacts, stamps of Belize, and local insects. Our lunch at the Chinese restaurant was another reminder of how diverse culturally and linguistically Belize is. Likewise, our brief excursion into the "tourist village" also gave us the chance see for better or worse the impact that the cruise ship industry has had on the local economy and how our own immersion into the local environments of Belize differed from most cruise ship experiences.
On our fourth day we traveled out of savannah and headed west away from the sea towards the border with Guatemala. After first visiting the attractive market town of San Ignacio, we had lunch with a Maya family in the small town of San Jose Succotz. After a traditional Maya meal we also visited the family's pottery workshop where they make reproduction of Maya ceramic - in some cases in the most traditional manner without the use of a potter's wheel.
After lunch we crossed the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry and ascended the prominent hill on which Xunantunich is located. The site is one of the many spectacular Maya sites in Belize, Guatemala, and the Yucatan region of Mexico. Most of the site dates to the late Classic and Terminal period of the Maya (ca. 700-1100 C.E.) and consists of a series of inspiring stepped pyramid temples, broad plazas, some inscribed stelae, and a modest ball court where the popular and often lethal ball game of the Maya took place in a monumental setting. From the largest temple (El Castillo) you can observe from observe the forest canopy the Belize River Valley and the area of Guatemala to the west.
On our fifth day we spent the morning hurling ourselves through the canopy of the jungle on a zip line. In retrospect, it is difficult to decide what was more intense--the spectacular views of the jungle or the visceral rush of flying through the trees and over rugged ravines while strapped in a harness. Our suspicion is that most of the group would in a minute choose to repeat the aerial experience. In the afternoon we returned to the earth and had the opportunity to play an intense soccer match with a talented and spirited youth team from the nearby village of St. Matthews. The soccer match was clearly the day's main attraction for the village, and members of the community congregated at both ends of the field to cheer and encourage both sides. As hard as the Westminster contingent tried, we were hard pressed to keep up with our opponents, but managed to keep the score to a respectable 3 to 1. Of greatest value and pleasure, however, was the chance to interact with the St. Matthew team and the people of the village. I think most of us came away with a few bumps and bruises but also with a sense that we all had made some new friends. We hope to be able to repeat the event during our next trip.
On our last day in the Monkey Bay area we spent several hours exploring a network of caves near the wildlife sanctuary at Tiger Sandy Bay. As it turns out, much of the landscape of Belize is a honeycomb of karst caves that are astounding for both their geological formations and some of the Maya artifacts found deep within them. In several of the chambers in particularly difficult to reach areas we saw in situ various Maya pots used for rituals designed to communicate with spirits and deities of the underworld. Like the monuments we saw at Xunantunich (and what we would see later at Altun Ha), the artifacts and their physical context reveal much about the nature of Maya culture and inevitably prompt challenging questions as to exactly what actually took place in the places that we visited and why.