Category: Birds

Clarissa Falls, Belize

Clarissa Falls, Belize

What’s around that corner? Greener grass? Whiter beach? On this trip, I often ruminate, sometimes pontificate, on those questions. I’m also innately antsy. And when you’re constantly looking elsewhere, you struggle to see what’s right in front of your face. I’m sure some famous person said that. Or something similar.

Third Day

We spent the first two days at Clarissa Falls, a campground a few miles outside of San Ignacio, Belize, debating if we should leave the campground. Go see those ruins. Tube in that cave. Cross into Guatemala. The debate occupied most of our free conversation — all while a beautiful river and jungle surrounded us.

Toucans

We saw a Keel-billed Toucan perched atop a ceiba tree at our first meal in the campground’s restaurant. That should’ve been the first smack on the side of the head to stop and look around. Smell the jasmine. The next morning we saw two Collared Aracaris, named for the apple red collar that wraps around it’s berry black and banana yellow belly. It has a black sawtooth pattern on its red, yellow, and orange bill.

[Can you spot the aracari in the picture below?!]

Fun fact: Toucans, at least the keel-billed ones, croak. Like frogs. You can hear them above your head every other hour of the day. Yet even when you hound the sound, and despite their crazy colors, toucans remain difficult to spot.

Jade Water

Green water is suspect. Like swimming through algae. I’m much more inclined to hop into blue, or even brown, provided its brown from mud and not other sources, water. Perhaps it’s just unfamiliarity.

Hence my hesitance to swim or paddle board in the Macal River. The water was clear. But jade. Clear…. But jade. I contemplated that as I contemplated jumping off the dock below our campsite. I mean, there’s a difference between apparent and true color, right? And this river is surrounded by jungle. And limestone. It’s reasonable, almost rational, that the color would be a shade of green. Plus its clear. Yet jade….

I eventually took the plunge. We all did. The temperature was the perfect amount of cool to offset the, at times, stifling heat. We spent as much time in the water as on the land, mainly jumping from a deceased tree and then floating to the dock (see video below). This kids also caught minnows — using crackers and plastic bags! — off the dock. It was incredible. Refreshing. Though I now may have a horn growing from my back….

Electric Fireflies

The kids spotted fireflies the second night. Compared to the fireflies we’ve seen in the Northeast and Southeast US, which have more of a candlelight glow and casual flight, Belizean fireflies are electric, both in color, neon green, and action, swiftly zagging through the night, leaving a trail of light behind them.

Awesome Host

A host is as much as part of the overlanding experience as the site. Chena, the owner of Clarissa Falls Resort, was as good of, if not the best, host we’ve encountered on this trip-venture. Amazing, friendly, accommodating. She also cooks mean tacos and Belizean dishes. She cares, sincerely cares, about her guests, not just what’s in their wallet. You’d love her smile. And you, like us, would be excited just to order a meal from her.

Placencia, Belize

Placencia, Belize

The Caye you can drive to, as the locals say.

We skipped Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, mostly because the ferries to the islands were complicated with our van but also because, as we’ve read, and confirmed through other travelers, they’re crowded. And gringo. Expats have driven up the prices and out the local charm. Everyone is trying to access the same reef anyway. Placencia seemed as good a place as any to do so.

Mariposa Restaurant & Beach Suites

We crashed in the parking lot of the Mariposa. The owners, a cordial couple from Canada, just requires campers to eat at least one meal per day in their restaurant. Well well worth it. You get access to their sparkling pool, combed beach, and stunning views for the price of an excellent, albeit slightly expensive, meal.

Flat Wallet

Everything in Belize is expensive. Beers are served in 9oz to 10oz bottles (so you pay more per ounce). Food costs as much if not more than the US. Gas is twice as expensive as the US. And unless you just happen to have a SUV and/or a boat parked down here, to explore the jungles and cayes, ya gotta pay for guides. We spent as much in a week here as we did in two weeks in Mexico.

Belize Love

Nevertheless, we love Belize.

The towns, while not picturesque like some colonial towns in Mexico, are colorful and charming. They’re also clean, especially compared to most towns in Mexico. The highways are gorgeous. The Hummingbird Highway, which bisects Belize, is like driving through a jungle fantasy. The people are also incredibly, obnoxiously friendly. Not obnoxious in that they annoy you, but obnoxious in that they remind you that you’re not that friendly….

And the culture, a combo of British colonial and creole and Caribbean and Central American, is fascinating. And an anomaly in this region. It feels different. The casual tempo, the happy demeanors, the sweltering humidity. It also sounds different. The garifuna drumming, the sing-song English, the rastafari music. It’s a place where you want to sit and do nothing — which, if you do, will save you money.

Beaches

You shouldn’t vacation in Belize for the beaches. They’re nice, but they’re not postcard, sleep-in-the-sand beaches — unless you’re fortunate to travel to one on some remote caye. The beaches are, however, excellent jumping off points for the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world. If you’re a diver and/or snorkeler, this is your place.

Silk Cayes

We took a snorkel tour of the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. Even though it was overcast (see picture below), which obscured the visibility a bit, we saw as much marine life as we’ve ever seen. Dozens of varietals of coral and tropical fish. Nurse Sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays, Southern Stingrays, and Leatherback Turtles. Even saw a Magnificent Frigatbird get into a Top Gun dogfight with a Laughing Gull. While I’ve been to more easily-accessible reefs (US and Spanish Virgin Islands) and more colorful reefs (Hawaii), I’ve never been to a larger, more diverse reef. You can snorkel for days in any direction.

Belize Zoo

Belize Zoo

Our first stop.

Actually, the Tropical Education Center (TEC), an eco-reserve ran by the Zoo, was our first stop. They allow overlanders to camp in their parking lot. They also offer several cabanas for rent. TEC frontiers the jungle and features hiking and bird watching trails, an above-ground pool, meeting rooms, and a restaurant. TEC caters, it seems, to outdoor and nature clubs from high schools in the United States. You get a good education here. I learned that it is possible to sweat out ten pounds in one day.

We went to the Zoo the next day.

Ecotourism

Ecotourism is in. So in. I don’t think we made a stop in Mexico that didn’t advertise an ecotour or eco-hotel or eco-something. However, in Mexico it mostly felt like a charade, strategic advertisements to lure gullible tourists. Nothing looked sustainable. Nothing felt ecological. And we didn’t witness any conservation (though we were told they were happening, somewhere over yonder).

Not in Belize. The ecotourism here appears legit. The facilities are built to minimize their impact. Workers and volunteers understand and can educate you on local environmental initiatives. And the conservation is easily witnessed, right there in the jungle or right over there on that reef. Kudos Belize. Kudos.

Cheers

Not many dining options exist near the TEC and Zoo, which was on a fairly remote stretch of Belize — actually, all of Belize has felt remote; only 370,000 people live here. However, the one, easily-accessible restaurant was excellent. Great burger. Fantastic local food. And they even had a Boise State t-shirt hanging from their rafters!

Traveling Brewery

Outside Cheers, we met an Argentinian duo that owns and runs Sur, Cerveza Artesanal, a traveling craft brewery. These guys brew and sell beers as they travel — they’re currently traveling to Cancun to catch a flight to Russia for the World Cup! Awesome and inspiring idea. I got the sense they brew just enough to travel and live. We bought Sur’s Red Ale and Hefeweizen. With the Red Ale, I was hoping for hoppy — not many hops down here — but it was more of a farmhouse beer. It fell flat, both with my expectations and literally. The Hefeweizen, however, was incredible. One of the best I’ve ever had. If you see these guys on the road, make sure you flag them down!

The Zoo

Andrea and I love zoos. As most of you know, I proposed to Andrea with an elephant at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC. However, we’ve also gotten increasingly skeptical of zoos as we’ve aged. I credit zoos for inspiring my love of animals — and in that sense, they add value to the world — but I get a little dejected seeing animals caged. Unless, of course, they’re caged for good reasons, like rehabilitation, breeding, legit study, and/or because they fell out of their nest and could no longer fly, like the Jaribu stork at the Belize Zoo.

All the animals here are here for a reason, not just display. They also only feature local animals. And instead of building structures and cages to contain the local animals, the Zoo just fences up areas of the jungle, leaving whatever landscaping is there. It’s the most natural-looking and -feeling zoo I’ve ever visited. You get the sense that they care, genuinely care, about each and every animal housed here.

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos

Cenotes

Thousands of cenotes — sinkholes, some swimmable, some not — pepper the Yucatán peninsula. Cenotes are formed when limestone collapses into a subterranean water source. A vast costal aquifer resides under the Yucatán. Hence all the centoes. We crashed at one for a night in route to Chichen Itza.

We were famished when we arrived. Two competing taco stands across the street from the cenote entrance canvassed for our commerce. We chose the one on the right, mainly because there appeared to be actual cooking going on — the other stand appeared to be selling tacos and tamales from a Coleman cooler. We chose wisely. Some of the best tacos we’ve had in Mexico, rivaling the goat and fish tacos we had in Guerrero Negro.

After ingesting, we walked to the cenote. Then I inadvertently ordered the deluxe package for the family — I struggled with the Spanish — which was only two hundred pesos more and which included a zipline ride and kayak rental. We never used a kayak. But we did zipline across the cenote at a fairly dizzying height. Even the kids! See video below.

Villas Arqueologicos

We decided to crash outside of the van for a couple nights, mostly because we couldn’t remember the last time we showered. That crash was Villas Arqueologicos, across the street from the more exclusive, more expensive Hacienda Chichen, yet still within walking distance to the side, less well-known Chichen Itza entrance.

For the money, about $60 USD per night, this is a fantastic hotel. A pleasant, albeit chilly, pool flanks a palapa-covered restaurant in the center of a lush courtyard. Unfussy yet fetching Mayan-themed artwork and sculptures adorn the courtyard and rooms. It even has a bibliotheca, featuring a emerald-green felt and mahogany pool table that occupied most of Everett’s free attention. He was a shark by the end of the stay.

Chichen Itza

The gates opened at 8:00am. We arrived minutes thereafter. The line, at the less well-known entrance remind you, was dozens long. It was also the most expensive archeological site we’ve yet visited. Chichen Itza is certainly aware of its proximity to Cancun.

Hundreds of tourists managed to enter (mostly from the main entrance) before us. Yet it still felt, relatively, calm. Relativamente tranquilo. We marched toward the main draw, El Castillo first.

Six iguanas were basking in the sun in front of the temple. Or basking in the attention they were receiving. As many tourists were snapping photos of them as the temple. Count us amongst those tourists. Then we turned our attention to the temple. It is, especially compared to the other ruins we’ve visited, remarkably well-preserved. Remarkably reconstructed really (they were able to find and fit most of the fallen stones). Only one side looks ruined. The other sides look like they’re ready for another human sacrifice.

We took a lap around the temple. Then, after crossing the finish line, we witnessed thousands of tourists charge the compound. It felt like the tourist zombie apocalypse. You couldn’t even move a few yards without joining someone’s selfie. So we retreated to The Grand Ball Court, the largest of the over thousand ball courts discovered in Mesoamerica, about two times the size of a football field, on the other side of the complex. Here, many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ball players lost their heads. I lost my mind. It was awesome.

After that, we ventured to a cenote where young Mayan girls were sacrificed to their gods and then to The Plaza of a Thousand Columns, which unlike most of the exaggerations above, likely does have a thousand columns. This part of Chichen Itza felt more European, more Roman than previous sites. Some scholars think the design looks Spanish, though it’s clear it was built before the Spanish arrived. Regardless, business happened here. Lots of it. You can easily picture crafts and produce and decapitated heads being sold here.

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Well, we had our first mishap with the van, in route from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque. The road was narrow, hilly, curvy, and infested with topes and semi-trucks. Semiremolques, as they state in Spanish on their rear doors. Slow going in other words. I must’ve passed dozens of, or at least a few, semiremloques — even some doble semiremloques — in route. Then came the one after a few.

The road straightened. Briefly. I saw my shot. And I took it, pushed the pedal to the carpet. Pushed it real good. The van accelerated with the gumption of a lawnmower. I had almost passed the semiremolque when, in my periphery, I saw an indigenous Mayan (presumably) mother grab the back of her son’s camisa, to prevent him from dashing in front of our van (presumably).

I flinched. Swiveled a meter. The steel bolts that jutted a few inches from the semiremolque’s wheel shredded our van’s rim and tire. It was like that famous chariot scene in Ben Hur. Except no one was injured or killed.

Maya Belle

We arrived a few hours and one cuss word later (Andrea said it was only the second time she’s heard me cuss; I wonder what the first time was…). Not to the ruins but to the campground. Maya Belle. A welcome reprieve after a fairly stressful van ride. A jungle oasis replete with a pool, blended drinks, tezmecal (sort of a Mayan sauna), and tropical birds and animals. Tent campers, van dwellers, and cabana crashers all share the facilities, which sowed seamlessly into the surrounding jungle canopy. My favorite campsite to date. One of my favorite locales overall.

Lizards and Toucans and Monkeys, Oh My!

We’d played a few YouTubes of howler monkeys before we arrived. We didn’t want our kids — especially Everett, who is going through a bit of a “everything in the world is out to kill me” phase — to be scared. Or at least not frightened. I don’t mind scared. But I’m also not winning any Father Of The Year awards.

Howler monkeys project one of, if not the (depends on what scientist you ask), loudest vocalizations of any animal on the planet. And unlike, say, a lion, which roars infrequently, howler monkeys howl frequently. Like they’re just yelling their conversations at each other. Normal stuff. Like how to eat that bug or where to toss that poop and what not. It’s loud. Louder than the video below. And it’s frightening, err, fun to hear the volume crescendo as the troop nears — they can be heard up to three miles away.

We also saw a handful of scarlet macaws, dozens of lizards and iguanas, and one keel-billed toucan during our visit. I followed the toucan, which looks like a flying banana from the ground, from tree to tree, but unfortunately, as I learned, it will not lead you to the fruity taste that shows….

Indiana Jones

Palenque will summon your inner Indiana. Thick, like baseball bat thick, vines gnarl down from the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla treetops to the moss- and fern-covered floor. Loud (sound-wise) monkeys and loud (color-wise) macaws fly between the vines and trees. Iguanas roam the grounds. Candles glow from skulls. Arrows shoot from walls! Evil cult warriors chase you through the jungle to steal back that emerald statue you stole (which they stole from the nearby village first)! You will have those fantasies while here. You just hope they don’t distract you from learning about the site.

Palenque rose to power between 600 and 800 AD, becoming one of the most prominent Mayan cities, alongside Calakmul, Tikal, Chichen Itza (where we visited a couple days later). It’s glory didn’t last long, however. It, like the Mayan civilization in general, declined in the late 800s and early 900s. The jungle reclaimed the territory shortly thereafter. The Spanish conquistadors never discovered it. It was rediscovered in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s when Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began vast excavations.

Archeologists have restored a lot here — included Pakal’s tomb, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, the American equivalent of King Tut’s tomb — yet they estimate only 25% has been uncovered (some say as little as 10%). The jungle has engulfed the rest. Thus, there’s still treasure to be found, still time to summon your inner Indiana! You can even buy fedoras (but no whips) at the entrance.

Russet-Napped Wood-Rail

Russet-Napped Wood-Rail

A bird of contrast: a flamboyant exterior and a shy interior. Bright pink legs. Delicate walk. Lime green and lemon yellow beak. Cautious eater. Bronco orange and blue body. Paranoid disposition. It’s a fun bird to watch, but if you move too fast, make too much noise, it will skedaddle.

Montezuma Oropendola

Montezuma Oropendola

Excellent name. Strange bird. Perhaps the strangest, most interesting bird I’ve yet seen. The males and females are both colorful — chocolate-colored overall with a vibrant yellow tail and white spots below their eyes and pointy, orange and black beaks — though the males are much larger. The males also — at least I think they were the males, since they seemed to be the largest birds in the colony — make a crazy, almost mechanical-sounding gurgling sound, like water being poured from an electronic teapot. While they do this, they completely flip over the branch they’re standing on, like they’re actually pouring out water from the teapot. See video blow.

Jocotepec, Mexico

Jocotepec, Mexico

We follow a few simple rules when driving: (1) Don’t let the gas drop below a quarter tank, (2) Don’t drive at night, and (3) Drive four hours or less per day. I don’t believe we’ve ever violated rules one and two. We’ve violated rule three twice: once driving from Death Valley to Oceanside, California, and once driving from the Baja Ferry Terminal in Mazatlan to Jocotepec, Mexico.

We didn’t intend to violate rule three. We’d planned to stay in Tepec after our night on the ferry (see E’s post here about the ferry). Then in route to Tepec we read about a quirky campsite in Tequila (yes, that Tequila), so we drove on an hour or so. Well, the campsite was full, so we drove on another hour or so to Guadalajara. While eating a late lunch there, we read about another quirky campsite near Jocotepec, Mexico, so we drove on another hour or so. We arrived at dusk.

The campgound, Roca Azul, was tucked behind a fetching subdivision and in front of the even more fetching Lake Chapala. Upon pulling in, we got the sense, as we have with prior campgrounds, that this one was stuffed with snowbirds. Our sense was correct. Canadian and US license plates lined the road in front of the lake. We found a shaded spot around the corner from the lake, closer to the playground, and next to a retired couple from Toronto.

In addition to the playground, Roca Azul featured two pools (one heated, one not), two tennis courts, two basketball courts, and multiple soccer fields — a semi-professional team from Guadalajara was practicing on the fields while we were there. Everett and Paheli acted like we’d discovered Atlantis. The grounds were also meticulously landscaped and manicured. Ficus trees were trimmed into cuboids and cylinders. Fuchsia and tangerine flowers stemmed from Bougainvillea vines and bushes. And flying amongst the vegetation and the lake — which was just murky enough to dissuade me from paddle boarding — was a wide assortment of birds, including many I’ve never seen before: black-crowned herons, black-necked stilts, vermillion flycatchers, yellow-rumped warblers, to name a few.

Since Roca Azul was outside of Jocotepec, we woke early the morning we departed to eat breakfast and walk the malecon in the city center. The malecon was surrounded by the nicest public park we’ve yet seen in Mexico. It features courts and fields and bridges and piers and a large water playground (that unfortunately wasn’t running at that hour in the morning). It also features eccentric yet alluring sculptures, including the one above and below. We could’ve stayed all day in that park. But alas, our next destination was three and half hours away, and we didn’t want to violate any of our rules (again).

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

Saw my first one of these at LEGO Land in Oceanside, California. I’ve seen several in Mexico since. It’s a fun bird to watch. Unlike most birds its size, which hop from branch to branch every few seconds, the Cassin’s Kingbird is patient. It’ll sit on a branch for minutes, slowly (well, slow for a bird) swiveling its head back and forth, waiting for right moment to spring forward and swallow an unsuspecting insect. It’s also a fun bird to listen to. It has, sort of, a construction-worker-whistling-at-a-passing-babe whistle, followed by a series of staccato cha-cheer-sounding chirps.

(Sorry the picture is blurry. I need one of the telescopic birdie cameras….)

Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida

Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida

Part dos of our whale shark expedition, was relaxing at Playa Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida. In route, we stopped to swim with sea lions (we ended up swimming around them; they were in a heavy state of sedation on the rocks), to see La Piedra Mascara (where natives supposedly left human sacrifices to their gods), and to watch frigatebirds mate (the males put on quite the display, puffing up their bright red gular pouches to the size of a balloon; see dude posturing on the bottom right of picture above). We also boated by cove after cove of postcard-perfect beaches. After the twelfth cove or so, I began to question our tour guide, wonder if we were to be the latest human sacrifice on this island….

Eventually, we arrived. A yacht of impressive size crowded the entrance to the bay — fortunately, though, the humans from said yacht only occupied a small slice of the beach. We set up camp on the opposite side. Our tour guide then served us excellent ceviche on tostadas. Then we spent the next few hours relaxing and snorkeling.

Playa Ensenada Grande meets most of my favorite beach criteria, discussed here. The sand was flour. The sea was calm and turquoise. Land could be seen from nearly every angle. And the snorkeling was superb. The best I’ve yet experienced in Mexico. Royal purple sea fans waved between auburn and emerald coral. Electric blue sea cucumbers did whatever they do on the ocean floors. Oysters pursed their magenta lips from the rocks (this island, like it’s larger sister island Isla Espiritu Santo, was once primed for pearl hunting; now they’re both protected). Large varietals of reef fish peeked out from various alcoves (the most interesting being a white polka-dotted guineafowl pufferfish). See video below to get a sense of this magnificent beach.