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Belize| Maya to Moho Cay Maiden Voyage

My November 2010 Belize adventure with Austin Adventures
By Linda Steinmuller

I’m excited to be on the maiden voyage for Austin Adventures’ new Belize adventure trip!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

After landing in Belize City, I boarded a small Tropic Air flight to Punta Gorda. I was met by my guide, Nathaniel, and driver, Santiago (both of Mayan descent). Santiago drove us 35 minutes to the town of Indian Creek and then another 2 miles down a dirt road to Ballum Na (House of the Jaguar), my home for the next 2 nights. Wow, we are really off the beaten path in an undiscovered, less traveled part of Belize!

As I walked up the wooden canopy walkway, I was greeted by my hosts (Virginia and Cecilia), a spider monkey who lives on the premises, and two beautiful jaguars, Bosch and Xupi. Bosch is a black jaguar, and Xupi is a spotted jaguar – brothers born in captivity.

Ballum Na is a 4-story structure. The jaguars live in a large, enclosed habitat by day and sleep inside at night — right below the guest rooms. The dining area is on the third floor, and there’s an observation deck on the top floor where you can sit and relax and look out at the treetops.

The rooms are beautiful with a spacious bathroom and a large Jacuzzi tub. There’s a sitting area with a couch and chairs all done in animal print. From my couch I can look out through a screened viewing area that overlooks a stream and the jaguar habitat. I can’t believe I’m here! As I settled into my room, I heard loud growls from the jaguars. It’s 4:30 and time to go into their cages for the night.

Needing some exercise from the long flight, I ventured around the grounds and relaxed on the observation deck. Dinner is always a 5-course meal at any of the Belize Lodge properties, and our chef was a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute. My first dinner was scrumptious — chicken and rice soup, tomato and mozzarella salad, cheese quesadillas, and delicious pork chops with strips of cabbage in apple cider vinegar topped off with rice pudding for dessert. I can get used to eating like this!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I woke to the sounds of the 2 big cats roaring anxiously to be let out of their cages for the day. They emerge promptly from their caves each day at 7:30 AM, growling and playing with each other. Today was a beautiful, sunny day and would be a full-day excursion. Our first stop was Lubaantun, one of the many Mayan sites in Belize, a 45-minute drive down bumpy roads through traditional villages at the foothills of the Mayan Mountains.

While touring the site and its small museum, we learned that it was a marketplace and a site for the notorious ball court games. Lubaantun is known as the Place of Fallen Stones.

We drove another 45 minutes over very bumpy roads (it is the end of the rainy season) deeper into the interior into less populated villages – our destination is Blue Creek.

At Blue Creek, we sat by the water and ate our lunch (chicken in tortilla wraps with lettuce and black beans) before our hike to the mouth of the Blue Creek cave. The hike was basically flat until we neared the mouth of the cave where we had to scramble over some slippery rocks.

After putting on my life vest, I jumped into the cool, clear beautiful green water and began our swim upstream. Further into the cave, the light disappeared so we turned on our flashlights. We swam and stopped several times to look up at the crystal stalactites. Finally, we reached a small waterfall. The current was too strong in the middle so we hung out on the side of a rock watching the waterfall. Then we tried to swim towards the middle, but the water kept pushing us forward. How beautiful – I’ve never seen a waterfall in a cave before. The swim on the way back was much quicker since the current was with us so we didn’t have to do much work.

What a great day, but I was anxious to get back to Ballum Na to see the cats before they went in for the night. Another great dinner and the end to a perfect day – broccoli soup and pan-seared grouper.

Monday, November 8

My last day at Ballum Na started again with the cats growling at 7:15 AM (no wake-up call needed for me!) and running out to greet them at 7:30 AM as they emerge from their caves. The fellas were a bit rambunctious this morning, growling quite loudly at each other and play fighting. Following my visit with the cats, I had a leisurely breakfast outside on the deck starting with fresh fruit (papaya, watermelon and pineapple) followed by scrambled eggs, hash browns, and fried jack.

After breakfast, Nathaniel took me on a mountain bike ride to the entrance of Belize Lodge – pretty scenery as we road by Indian Creek and to their private airstrip. After biking, we did a short but informative hike into the forest where Nathaniel cleared part of the trail with his machete and explained how the palm leaves in the jungle were used to make thatched roof houses (very typical in Belize). He also showed me how to split the palm (used for basket making) and how some of the palms are natural brooms.

Back to Ballum Na to quickly pack up and have a lunch of chicken quesadillas before leaving for another Mayan site nearby called Nim Li Punit (or Big Hat). I hate to leave the jaguars but am excited about my next adventure. Our driver, Santiago is amazing. Mayans like to build their sites high up in the mountains, and we climbed a very steep, grassy, rocky hill to get to Nim Li Punit. Another really interesting ruin with a very different feel than Lubaantun. While Lubaantun was more of a marketplace, Nim Li Punit was more of an information/education site. The Mayans went there to learn history, etc. They also have a non-violent form of the ball court game. The site is covered with stelae that are tall slabs the Mayans used to carve things on. There are many unfinished stelae at Nim Li Punit as it is believed the Mayans left the site quickly possibly due to diseases like chicken pox. Another really interesting fact is that our guide, Nathaniel, helped to excavate the burial sites at Nim Li Punit.

From Nim Li Punit, it was quick drive to Fig Tree Landing, where I met my next guide, Antonio, also of Mayan descent, to start our tour down Golden Stream to Jungle Camp – the only mode of transportation to Jungle Camp. We’re going deeper off the beaten path!

We took a double kayak down Golden Stream, and the paddling was very easy as the current flowed with us. During our 2 ½ hour paddle, we only passed one other boat – what a beautiful ride – peaceful and quiet. The only sounds we heard were birds chirping and the barking noises of howler monkeys in the distance.

At Jungle Camp, I was greeted by 2 new hosts and some delicious beef on a stick. Jungle Camp is suspended high above the jungle floor joined by thatch-covered walkways much like those at Ballum Na. Each of the Belize lodges has a very different feel. My bungalow was huge with a little entrance foyer, canopy beds with mosquito nets, and another large bathroom with the same Jacuzzi tub and walk-in shower at Ballum Na. There is an outdoor veranda with a comfy couch (in leopard pattern again) and a chaise lounge and a table. From there you can stare out at the canopy and the river — very beautiful and peaceful.

Another wonderful 5-course dinner consisting of a delicious Caribbean cabbage salad, tenderloin, and crushed watermelon with grenadine for dessert – very refreshing. I had the opportunity to meet Ken, the owner of Belize Lodge, and chat with him a bit.

Tuesday, November 9

Early wake-up with tea at 6 AM on the veranda. I met my guide, Antonio, at 6:30 AM for a 2-hour boat ride in search of early morning animals and with hopes of seeing Belize’s national animal, the tapir.

It’s peaceful on Golden Stream in the morning — the mist rising from the water has an eerie feel.

With binoculars in hand, we saw tons of beautiful birds (parakeets, kingfishers, trogans, etc.) and then returned for breakfast outside on the deck – the sun was shining and it was another beautiful day. Saw an agouti on the grounds but still no tapir.

After breakfast, I met my guide for a 2-hour hike on the Ceiba Loop Trail which brought us along Golden Stream and deeper into the jungle. Antonio pointed out the different types of trees and animal tracks. We saw tapir tracks, ocelot tracks, and areas where jaguars used the dirt like scratching posts (much like domestic cats). We also heard the wild pigs snorting inside the jungle. Very nice hike and got some exercise. We got back around Noon and now I have a break until 3 PM. – an opportunity to sit on my veranda and look out at the jungle and relax until lunch.

Lunch was so delicious out on the deck again – my favorite so far! Strips of chicken and steak on a thick piece of toast with lettuce and cucumber salad garnished with tomato, cabbage, and onions in balsamic vinegar. Back to my veranda to relax a bit more before my 3 PM boat ride to look for more animals. I’m getting better at identifying the birds and even the bird calls (I love the sound of the cat bird meowing). Saw turkey vultures, tiger heron, parrots, and scarlet-rumped tanagers (to name a few).

Had an early dinner in preparation for the night boat ride — hoping to see lots of nocturnal mammals. It was unexpectedly warm and pleasant out tonight. I loved the night tour because we were able to see birds sleeping on tree branches (they don’t move so it’s so great to see them up close — sort of in a trance). We saw so many different animals at night. We saw lots of bats, frogs, opossum, an armadillo, and a paca. The jungle really comes alive at night! I’m still waiting to see my tapir – my last chance is tomorrow. What a full day!!

Wednesday, November 10

Another early wake-up knock on the door at 6 AM (no phones or computer at any of the Belize Lodges – I love it!) so we could get to the canopy tree platform to see the early morning birds. I met Antonio at 6:30 AM for a very short canoe ride to the canopy tree platform. After being secured with cables, I was lifted up to the canopy tree platform, suspended 100 feet above the forest floor. I didn’t see too many birds but did see the colorful toucan, Belize’s national bird. It was a sunny morning, and we did have a beautiful 360-degree view. We watched the shadows rise to unveil the beautiful Mayan Mountains in the distance.

After breakfast, it was a 2-hour ride on a motorized canoe to my next stop, Rosewood Landing where I would meet another boat to take me to Moho Cay Lodge. It was also my last chance to see a tapir. The scenery along the lower portion of Golden Stream was beautiful, and the river widened a bit. Once again, each boat tour gave us the opportunity to see different wildlife along the way. We saw a family of 4 howler monkeys just hanging out in the trees and an anteater (they are smaller in Belize). The coolest thing was listening to the wild pigs in the jungle eating!. It’s the loudest noise you can imagine as they are grinding their teeth on cohune nuts!! We waited awhile to see if we could see the wild pigs but no luck. Just hearing them was entertainment in itself! I never did get to see a tapir but saw lots of really interesting animals!

As the morning wore on, it got sunnier and warmer as we headed farther downstream (it had been pleasant but a bit cooler than I had expected at Jungle Camp), and the boat lulled me to sleep. Before I knew it, we arrived at Rosewood Landing where I met my guide for Moho Cay, Breeze. Before approaching Rosewood Landing, the scenery changed very suddenly and dramatically to mangrove trees and palmetto palms — more or a coastline feel. I’m ready for the beach! I hopped on another boat for the ½ ride to Moho Cay which would be my home for the next 3 nights! I am very excited to be at a beach property — my own private beach for the next 3 days.

I was greeted again by Virginia, my host from Ballum Na, with fresh fruit juice. Moho Cay is just gorgeous. The dining area is open air with ceiling fans, oil lamps, thatched roofing and plush sofas – a real Caribbean feel. There are 10 safari-style tent lodges on this 325-foot long island — 5 on the sunset side and 5 on the sunrise side, all with verandas overlooking the Caribbean Sea. You can see Guatemala, approximately 25 miles to the south. I chose the sunset view.

After getting settled in, I had lunch on the veranda of my tent lodge. Lunch was freshly caught red snapper in a mustard sauce with red wine vinegar. This was possibly the best fish I’ve ever had and by far my best meal so far!!

What to do next? Snorkeling or kayaking? I think I’ll chose doing nothing for the rest of the day after getting up so early the past 2 mornings. Just relaxed in the sun on the beach and then watched the sunset from my veranda. It doesn’t get much better than this!

Another 5-course dinner at Moho Cay and a new (but equally great) chef who also graduated from the Culinary Institute! Cheese empanadas, fish stew soup with vegetables, and rolled chicken wrapped in zucchini – yummy!

Thursday, November 11

It was a bit chilly this morning but eventually warmed up.

Breeze had recommended that we do the long excursion to the tip of the Belize Barrier Reef for my first full day at Moho Cay. So off we went for our 1 ½ hour boat ride. It started to drizzle a bit, and Breeze gave me a rain jacket to block the rain and the chill in the air. I was getting wet but it didn’t matter — we were going swimming anyway! I’d actually be warmer when we got in the water than on the boat!

We reached our destination — Seal Cay, part of the Sapodilla Cay Preserve at the southernmost tip of the Belize Barrier Reef miles away from the throngs of tourists that flock upon more popular destinations like Ambergris Cay. We are literally in the middle of nowhere! We snorkeled around the reefs for about an hour and saw all sorts of beautiful tropical fish. Afterward, we took a 10-minute ride to Sapodilla Marine Reserve to enjoy lunch on the beach consisting of rice, beans, and chicken in a tortilla wrap along with a Coke and a delicious cookie.

I enjoyed talking with Breeze who shared a little about his life and how in lived in the East Village of NYC for 10 years. He also explained a lot about the Belizean culture and people. The official language of Belize is English. Breeze is of Creole descent — a mixture of African and English. After lunch, we rode for another 15 minutes and anchored between Hunting Cay and Nicholas Cay. We snorkeled for 20 minutes until the weather started to look threatening, and Breeze thought it was a good idea to head back a little early. It was a bumpy ride back! The boat was crashing down into the waves; it was rocking and I was miserable (boats are not my favorite things). I was so glad to be back on land! It was a great day of snorkeling in spite of the rain and the bumpy boat ride back.

Dinner was freshly caught whole black snapper stuffed with vegetables and spiced rum cake for dessert – delicious!

Friday, November 12

I can’t believe it’s my last day here. No wake up call today. I love having breakfast on my private veranda! Today’s plan is to go to the closer Snake Cay group for snorkeling. The weather is calling for off and on rain. It was rather chilly in the morning with some light rain, and the water looked a bit choppy. Thinking back to yesterday’s experience, I was beginning to think being a landlubber today was the way to go. I told Breeze that I thought would pass on snorkeling for the day. If I changed my mind or wanted to go kayaking later, I would let him know. How to spend the day??

Well, I really relaxed / read a little bit and then thought I should get some exercise so decided to walk around the island and explore. I discovered all these great, small seashells and ended up with a lovely collection. Had a great lunch of baked pasta and did some more reading. Around 2:30 the sun looked like it was trying to come out so I kayaked around the island 5 times — it was so relaxing being out on the water. Just as I came back, it started drizzling again. I ended my last day on this island paradise watching the sun set and walked around the island one last time to say goodbye. My last dinner was pork tacito (pork rolled in a round tube), fresh grouper with cabbage, and vanilla flan for dessert. This trip has been so refreshing and relaxing. I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be here.

Saturday, November 13

I’ve come full circle on this expedition. After breakfast, it was a ½ hour boat ride to Punta Gorda, where I started my journey 1 week ago. Nathaniel, my first guide from Ballum Na, was there to greet me and take me for the 10-minute drive to the airport. We drove through town again and, as it was early Saturday morning, it was market day and the streets were filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables. I boarded my Tropic Air flight to Belize City with lots of warm memories of a wonderful country with friendly, warm people.

I love the combination that Austin Adventures has put together – 3 distinct lodges in 3 distinct locations – the interior, the jungle, and the cay. It feels like I had 3 mini vacations in one, and I loved each one in a different way!

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