December 30th We will depart from the Pittsburgh Airport at about 7:55 in the morning on Continental flight 1919. We will arrive in Houston at 10:18 (CST). After a three-hour layover in Houston, we will depart for Belize at 1:15 (Continental flight 1231) and arrive at the Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport, outside Belize City, at 3:41 in the afternoon. We will be greeted by staff members from the Tropical Education Center (TEC), the organization that is sponsoring our tour. After a short drive to the TEC, we will settle into our rooms then have a brief orientation session on the TEC facility and what to expect while we are in Belize. Following dinner, there will be a presentation about the history, people, geography, and ecology of Belize. We will stay overnight at the Tropical Education Center.
December 31st After breakfast, we will tour the facilities at the Tropical Education Center, which is situated on 84 acres of tropical pine savannah habitat. The ecology of the savannah will be discussed as we hike along some of the many trails here and observe resident birds and wildlife from an elevated viewing platform. We will also hear about the green iguana breeding program and conservation projects involving the yellow-head parrot and manatee. We will then visit the very unique and popular Belize Zoo, which is adjacent to the Tropical Education Center. The Zoo has over 125 animal species on display, all of which are native to Belize. It has been designed to display them in settings that closely match their natural habitats. The Zoo has a well deserved reputation for conservation of native wildlife, rehabilitation of injured animals, and an outstanding public education program. Following lunch, we will depart for the Creole village of Bermudian Landing and the Community Baboon Sanctuary. Here, conservation groups and local subsistence farmers have worked together to protect Black Howler Monkey habitat along a 20 mile stretch of the Belize River. Since 1985, the number of Howlers within the Sanctuary has increased to more than 2000 animals. In the late afternoon, we will return to the TEC for dinner. That evening, there will be a presentation about "Conservation in Belize." We will stay over night at the Tropical Education Center.
Read more about the Community Baboon Sanctuary
January 2nd Today we will continue our activities at Rio Bravo in the morning, with a visit to the local Mayan site of La Milpa, located on Rio Bravo property. La Milpa, which covers over 30 square miles of area, was the third largest Mayan city in Belize. It is located 620 feet above sea level in an upland tropical forest on a limestone ridge. The ceremonial precinct is on the highest part of the ridge, with the Great Plaza at the northern end embracing approximately 20,000 square meters, one of the largest open spaces laid out by the Classic Maya.
January 1st Early in the morning, we will pack up and travel to the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. Rio Bravo joins with reserves in Guatemala and Mexico to cover over 1.8 million hectares/4.5 million acres and makes up the largest protected area in Central America. Over 70 species of mammals and 390 species of birds have been recorded here. The entire day will be spent at Rio Bravo, as we hike on a variety of trails in tropical moist forest and discuss conservation issues surrounding this vast protected area. We will stay over night in Rio Bravo.
View a map of the La Milpa archeological site
Read about the land and people of La Milpa
Read about the tomb of a Mayan king discovered at La Milpa
Following lunch, we will depart for the spectacular Mayan site of Lamanai, which means "submerged crocodile." Records kept by Spanish missionaries indicate that Lamanai was probably the real name of the ancient city. Many representations of crocodiles can be found throughout this site. It is considered to be one of Belize's largest ceremonial centers, with over 700 structures, and to have had one of the longest occupation spans of any site in the Mayan kingdom, running from 1500 B.C. into the 19th century. Lamanai features some of the more exotic examples of Mayan art and architecture. The site also has an impressive museum, which contains incense burners, burial urns, and numerous chalices discovered here, along with eccentric flint carvings, tools and a variety of ceramics. The jungle vegetation around the ruins is quite lush and animal life abundant, especially birds and the fascinating black howler monkey. Views from the tops of several Lamanai pyramids offer breathtaking views of the surrounding jungle habitat and the New River Lagoon. In the late afternoon, return to Rio Bravo for dinner and overnight.
A virtual guide to Lamanai
View more images of Lamanai
Learn more about Lamanai
January 3rd Following breakfast, we will depart Rio Bravo for Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is made up of four separate lagoons, all interconnected by rivers and associated wetlands. Established for the protection of resident and migrant birds, Crooked Tree is one of Belize's richest bird habitats and home to the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere -- the jabiru stork. Covering 3000 acres/1200 hectares, the Sanctuary was set up by the Belize Audubon Society in 1984 and is now managed by volunteers. There are also numerous trails within the Sanctuary to hike and observe wildlife. We will have dinner and stay over night at Crooked Tree.
Read more about the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
Find out more about the jabiru
January 4th Early this morning we will depart for Belize City, the largest city in the Belize. Belize City is the capital of Belize district (but not of Belize!). The city was devastated by hurricanes in 1931, 1961, and 1978 but has since recovered and now has a population of more than 80,000. It offers the visitor an unusual combination of rustic, old-fashioned Caribbean charm and bustling modernity. The Belize River meanders through the middle of the city and twice a day, the city's swing bridge opens to allow sail boats to pass. There are many traditional street vendors selling fruits, vegetables, arts and crafts in the city's public squares, especially in the colonial marketplace on Saturday mornings. While we're in Belize City we will have some time to shop and experience the local culture.
Check the current weather in Belize City
View maps of Belize City: North South
Following lunch, our group will travel by boat to a nearby manatee sanctuary, where we hope to observe some of these gentle giants. Manatees, Trichechus manatus, the only marine mammals that feed primarily on plants, can grow to 15 feet in length and weigh over 3500 lbs. They populate shallow coastal waters from Florida to South America. They live singly or in small family groups, sometimes forming herds of 15 to 20 individuals. Members of a group frequently communicate by muzzle-to-muzzle contact and, when alarmed, by chirplike squeaking. The sense of sight is very poorly developed. Adult manatees have no natural enemies but in some areas are heavily hunted for meat, hides, and oil. Where boat traffic is heavy, manatees are often injured or killed by boat propellers. Once numbering around 30,000, their numbers have declined dramatically. Numbers in Belize have stabilized in recent years, mainly due to their protected status. In the late afternoon we will return to the TEC for dinner. That evening, we will go black-lighting for insects then stay over night at the TEC.
Learn more about manatees
Read about a campaign in Belize to stop manatee hunts
January 5th After an early breakfast, we will depart for Chaa Creek and its Natural History Center. It was designed to provide a comprehensive introduction to the natural history and geography of Belize. A short walk from here is the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm, where we will be able to follow the life cycle of this spectacular, iridescent blue butterfly from egg to adult. Our group will then travel a short distance to Ix Chel Farm, a pioneering research facility, specializing in the healing properties of tropical plants. The remainder of the morning will be spent hiking along the famed Panti Medicinal Plant Trail, as it winds through a living display of tropical plants, clearly marked for their medicinal properties.
Who was Ix Chel?
Following lunch at the Chaa Creek, we will depart for the Mayan site of Xunantunich (pronounced zshoo-NAN-too-NEECH), located near the village of San Jose Succotz, west of San Ignacio. According to one interpretation, the name means "Maiden of the Rock" in the Yucatec dialect. These ruins date back at least 1400 years. Data from the numerous excavations at this site reveal that Xunantunich was a thriving city near the end of the Classic Period, very close in time to the collapse of the entire Mayan Civilization. The site is accessible only by a 19th century, hand-cranked ferry, which will take us across the Mopan River. We will then hike for a mile into the heart of this remarkable Mayan site. Once here, a climb to the top of the 130 foot high pyramid called "El Castillo" offers one of the most spectacular views in all of Belize. Lush jungle is seen to the east, the Guatemalan lowlands to the west, and the beautiful Maya Mountains to the south. Xunantunich is presently under continued excavation by Belize's Department of Archaeology to further uncover its place in history. In the late afternoon, we will return to Chaa Creek Safari Camp for dinner and overnight.
A virtual guide to Xunantunich
More information about Xunantunich
Secrets of the Stone Maiden
January 6th Following breakfast, we will depart for the Mountain Pine Ridge. This region is made up of 300 square miles of pristine forest reserve and is famed for some of the most breathtaking scenery in Belize. Our first stop will be at Hidden Valley Falls. These drop a vertical distance of 1000 feet, where they disappear as mist into a deep jungle canyon. They are the highest falls in all of Central America.
Map and directions to Mountain Pine Ridge
Read more about the Mountain Pinte Ridge
We will then continue on to the Rio On, a tributary of the Macal River. It swirls and splashes through a maze of granite boulders, forming a number of warm, clear mountain pools. Some of these may be up to 15 feet deep and make an excellent spot to stop for lunch, swim and to sit and enjoy the spectacular scenery. In the afternoon, we will continue on to Rio Frio Cave and Nature Trail. A few miles past the village of Augustine, we will descend into an area of subtropical vegetation and one of Belize's best known cave districts. Rio Frio Nature Trail will take us to the largest and most spectacular cave in this area, Rio Frio Cave. Trees along the trail are labeled and wildlife is abundant here. Rio Frio Cave extends about 300 yards through a solid limestone mountain. This is considered to have been a Mayan ceremonial center centuries ago. The cave is characterized by enormous arched entryways at both ends, unusual colors and striations inside, and numerous stalactites that hang from the ceiling. Following our exploration of Rio Frio Cave we will return to Chaa Creek Safari Tent Camp for dinner and a relaxing evening.
January 7th Early this morning, we will depart for the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuaryand Jaguar Preserve, the world's only jaguar preserve. Upon our arrival at the Mopan Indian village of Maya Center, refreshments and crafts produced by local artisans will be available. Maya Center is also the check-in point for entrance into the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve.Cockscomb Basin is home to home to all species of Belizean jungle cats -- jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and jaguarundis -- as well as tapir, paca, deer, peccary (the jaguar's favorite meal), black howler monkeys (the rain forest's loudest animals), several species of amphibians and snakes, and hundreds of bird species. Almost 300 species of birds have been identified here, including the scarlet macaw and Montezuma oropendola. This is a true paradise for those interested in viewing wildlife and spectacular flora. Here we will hike on numerous well groomed trails through a variety of forest habitats. Situated in the shadow of the Maya Mountains, the Reserve encompasses 40,000 hectares/100,00 acres of tropical moist forest, which includes Victoria Peak, at 1103 m/3,675 ft, the highest point in Belize. It is one the most impressive locations for viewing Belize's lush tropical forests. Lunch will be provided here. The afternoon will be spent hiking in the Reserve. No place in Belize has a better organized system of well-maintained trails. These include Ben's Bluff Trail, which will take us to a ridge where jaguars have been studied using radiotelemetry. We will also have the opportunity to cool off in one of the numerous swimming holes found in "the Cockscomb." Following a memorable day, we will have dinner and stay over night at Cockscomb Basin.
Read more about jaguars
Read more about the birds of Belize
Lots of information for birders in Belize
January 8th Following breakfast, we will continue our activities in Cockscomb Basin. A brief presentation on the history of the Reserve will be included. Late in the afternoon, we will return to the Tropical Education Center for dinner and overnight.
January 9th Following an early breakfast, we will depart for Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort. Located on 215 acres of jungle, it is an animal sanctuary, sheltering an amazing variety of Belizean natural wonders including more than 500 species of birds. On the nature reserve of Jaguar Paw are the mouths of three awesome caves which will give us access to the Caves Branch River and the amazing system of caves that the river passes through. The Mayan ancestors of this land lived and worshipped in these caves for hundreds of years. The day will spent tubing and hiking on Jaguar Paw property. In the late afternoon, return to the TEC for dinner and overnight.
Read a review of Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort
January 10th Following breakfast, we will pack up and depart for the Garifuna village of Hopkins, located about 15 kilometers southwest of Dangriga, the principal town in the Stann Creek District. Hopkins, a village of some 1100 inhabitants most of whom are Garinagu or Black Caribs, was first settled in 1942 after an unnamed hurricane devastated Newtown, a near-by Garifuna community.
Learn about the history of the garifuna
After leaving Hopkins, we will travel for approximately one hour by boat to beautiful Calabash Caye, 20 miles northeast of Dangriga. Calabash Caye is located in the Turneffe Islands, part of Belize's Great Barrier Reef, largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, second largest in the world. The pristine waters that surround these islands support a variety of marine ecosystems, including seagrass beds, patch reefs, and mangrove islands. The variety of marine life found here is astounding -- colorful sponges, countless species of coral, tunicates, anemones, starfish, spectacular fish and dolphins. In 1994, the University College of Belize, in collaboration with Coral Caye Conservation, established a Marine Research Centre with a Field Station on Calabash Caye since 1994. Following lunch, we will have an orientation session and then proceed to snorkel the seagrass beds near the Caye. In the late afternoon, we will return to Calabash Caye for dinner and an evening presentation on a Marine Biology topic. We will stay over night at Calabash Caye.
View more pictures of Calabash Caye
Read more about the coastal ecosystems of Belize
View a map of the Turneffe Islands
Learn more about mangroves
January 11th After an early breakfast, we will travel to and snorkel a variety of mangrove habitats. We should see red, white, and black mangroves. The roots of the red mangrove support a wide variety of fishes. These mangroves are nurseries for juveniles of many reef fish. They also provide feeding grounds for many species of adult fish and invertebrates and introduce fixed nitrogen and organic detritus into the reef system. The coastal wetlands of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, which include mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and coral reefs, are some of the richest wetland ecosystems in terms of number of species. We will be able to observe a wide variety of colorful tropical fish and have a chance to take a close look at the fascinating marine organisms that inhabit the root systems of mangroves. Late in the afternoon, we will return to Calabash Caye for dinner and an evening presentation on a Marine Biology topic. Overnight Calabash Caye.
January 12th Following breakfast, we will get our first look at the forereef of Belize's Great Barrier Reef, which Charles Darwin called "The Most Remarkable Reef in the West Indies." The reef ranges in width from six to 20 miles and extends for a distance of 160 miles. Our skiffs will anchor inside the Barrier Reef as we snorkel over the its crest and observe the classic "spur and groove" formations found here, formations characterized by fingerlike projections of coral (spurs) separated by sand (grooves) that form in the direction of prevailing waves. This will be a great opportunity to get a firsthand look at reef zonation. In addition to countless beautifully colored marine fish, we will also observe massive coral heads that are a common here. After lunch and some time to relax, we will snorkel a variety of patch reef formations inside the Barrier Reef. In the afternoon, we will return to Calabash Caye for dinner and overnight.
Read a report on the Belize Barrier-Reef Reserve System
Read more about coral reefs
January 13th and 14th For two days, we will continue snorkeling and exploring the reefs around Calabash Caye and relaxing on the beach. During the evening on the 13th, our group will have the opportunity to do a night snorkel close to shore and to observe all of the organisms that come out onto the reef only at night. On the 14th, certified divers will have a chance to dive the reef. While diving is NOT included as part of any Rain Forest and Reef/Tropical Education Center Belize Field Courses, a local dive shop will be available for certified divers in the group to hire out. We will stay overnight at Calabash Caye.
January 15th After breakfast, we will leave Calabash Caye and take a boat back to the mainland. We will travel to Dangriga, the largest city in the Stann Creek district. It was settled by Garifunas in 1832 and today is the largest Garifuna community in the Caribbean and the hub of Garifuna culture in Belize. The word dangriga means "standing water" in Garifuna, referring to the water left standing in pools when the Stann Creek River overflows its banks and then recedes after the rainy season. While we are in Dangriga we will observe traditional drumming and dancing. Late in the afternoon, we will depart for the TEC, have dinner, and stay over night.
January 16th Early this morning, we will depart by bus for Flores, located in eastern Guatemala. Flores is the capital of the jungle-covered northeastern department of El Petén. It is is built on an island on Lago de Petén Itzá, and is connected by a 1640 ft (500m) causeway to the service town of Santa Elena on the lakeshore. Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza, which crests the hill in the center of the island. Here will have some time to shop and visit the local market then have dinner and stay over night at a hotel in Flores.
View a map of Guatemala
Check the weather in Flores
Travel advice for visitors to Guatemala
Welcome to Guatemala!
January 17th Following an early breakfast, we will depart for the famed Mayan site of Tikal, located in the middle of Tikal National Park and surrounded by more than 200 square miles of El Peten jungle habitat. There is absolutely nothing quite like the experience of Tikal, this experience will take us back more than 2000 years in time. As one walks towards the awe inspiring Great Plaza and sees the Temples of the Grand Jaguar and Masks towering over the surrounding landscape, you immediately feel the mystique that has made Tikal a "must see destination." It is estimated that it took over one million ancient Mayans one thousand years to build all the structures found here. The central portion of Tikal, alone, measures about 10 square miles. Here the remains of 3000 buildings are found, including Temple lV, which is the tallest ancient structure in the New World (212 feet) . We will also visit the Lost World Complex, a group of recently-discovered structures from the late PreClassic Period, older than Tikal itself. At the present, only a small portion of Tikal has been completely excavated. Following lunch, we will visit the excellent Tikal Museum, which houses some of the many PreColumbian treasures found at Tikal. In addition to the spectacular Mayan city found here, the area teems with howler monkeys, almost 300 bird species and other wildlife. Following a memorable day, we will transfer back to the Tikal Inn for dinner and overnight.
A journey through Tikal
Read more about Tikal
An aerial view of Tikal
More information about Maya archeology and Tikal
January 18th Following breakfast and farewells to TEC staff, will travel to Belize's Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport for our return flight home. Our flight on Continental flight 1234 will leave at 3:10 p.m. We will arrive in Houston at 5:49. After a short layover, we will leave Houston on Continental flight 1918 at 6:54 and arrive in Pittsburgh at 10:34 p.m.
Note: Due to weather conditions and circumstances beyond the control of the TEC staff, certain activities may be changed or done on different days in the best interest of the group.
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