Study Abroad

From Ruins to Resorts

May 25, 2014

After our long night of Belizean drumming and dancing, our early morning wakeup call came. We packed up our rooms and grabbed a quick, but delicious, breakfast before saying goodbye to Monkey Bay. We were sad to leave our new friends so soon, but excited for what the next couple days would bring. We boarded our bus where we met our driver, Justin and then began the trek to the ancient Mayan ruins, Xunantunich. Along the way we picked up our new tour guide, Chester. We also got to see a little bit of Belize’s capital, Belmopan, while driving through. We finally arrived at the ruins, where it’s safe to say we were all in shock by the breathtaking structures.

belizeruinsChester and Justin began to tell us about the 8,000 year old ruins. Xunantunich, which means maiden of the rock, was built by the Mayans somewhere around 320 A.D., however each time a new ruler took over, they would build over everything already there, so building continued on for many years. The ruins were discovered in 1850, just a year before Lasell was founded. At the time, they were mostly covered in trees and brush. The exhibit opened in 1980, and they are still working to uncover more of the ruins. The biggest structure was 13 levels, reaching about 135 feet. Everything was built with the limestone of the White Mountains by hand. Mayans didn’t believe in using animals for manual labor, so each stone was carried and placed by hand. In its prime, close to a million Mayans lived in the complex.

ruinsAfter our brief history lesson, we climbed to the top of the tallest, 135 foot ruin, where the rulers of the area once lived. Some of us had to conquer our fears of heights to get there, but we all made it! The view from the top was absolutely amazing; we could actually see Guatemala on one side. We spent some time taking photographs and exploring before heading back down. Many of us boarded the bus with souvenirs like woven headbands, wooden cutting boards, and t-shirts handmade by local Mayans at the gift shop.

We then headed to Chaa Creek, an eco-tourism resort and lodge not too far from the ruins. There we met the Marketing Director, Roberto. He gave us a short presentation on the resort, sharing information on how they are able to provide luxury to their guests and still remain eco-friendly. On site, they have an organic Mayan farm where they grow all the produce for their restaurant and they use solar power and energy-efficient products throughout the resort. Their on-site activities are eco-friendly as well. These include bird-watching, canoeing, mountain biking, horseback riding and more. One of the most important aspects of ecotourism that Chaa Creek seems to put a lot of emphasis on, is benefiting the community and locals by keeping their culture intact. Many of the employees are local; some of them living just across the river. The resort also runs a lot of programs, like scholarships for local students, teacher training workshops, summer camps, and more, that all benefit the community.

While waiting for dinner, we all sat around on our porch and a fellow visitor to Cockscomb came over to grab us. He had spotted two baby peccari on one of the trails and we all quietly ran over to look. Peccari look very similar to wild boar. They have glands that secrete a very unpleasant smell which they use to communicate. We were given some insight and tips for our night hike later, stressing that we have to be quiet if we want to see anything.

After our presentation, Roberto escorted us and then joined us for lunch in the beautiful restaurant at the resort. The food was so delicious! Soon after, we were able to see one of the biggest villas at the resort, which houses six people. The villa was pretty roomy and very luxurious. The only thing the villa was missing was air conditioning. Roberto had told us earlier that the only facility with air conditioning is the spa, which is one of the reasons the resort is so eco-friendly. However, the villa was still surprisingly beautiful. All the woodwork and furniture was beautifully crafted and the first floor bathroom alone was bigger than most of our dorm rooms. Later we learned that all the furniture is handmade in Belize. A spiral staircase led to the loft, which had another smaller bathroom. The entire villa was just so beautiful it was hard to believe that it could be so sustainable and eco-friendly. Obviously the villa was much more elegant than the accommodations we’ve been staying in, however, Chaa Creek also has less luxurious, more rustic camping accommodations at their Macaw River Camp. Roberto referred to it as “glamping”, or glamorous camping. A guide led us on a hike through the medicinal rain forest trail so we could see the camping site. While on the trail, Chester explained to us that most Belizeans still use traditional herbs instead of modern medicine due to the fact that hospitals are too far away for them to travel to in emergencies.

monkeysWhile we explored the cabins we encountered some black howler monkeys hanging out in the trees. At first we could only see one or two moving around in the trees, but to our surprise they started coming out in the open. Soon four or five more appeared, all laying on the tree branches eating leaves and looking at us. It was almost like they were as interested in us as we were at them. During our day at the zoo we saw some black howlers, but seeing them outside of an enclosure and in the wild was a really cool experience. We admired our new monkey friends for a while longer before we headed back to the main part of the resort. We were able to quickly dip our feet in the pool before boarding the bus for the three hour drive to Cockscomb Basin.

On our drive we saw interesting sites including breathtaking views of the sleeping Giant Mountain, orange and grapefruit fields and even two processing plants where orange juice like Tropicana is produced. At the entrance of the Cockscomb Basin, we stopped for authentic, organic Mayan chocolate infused with chili peppers, mint leaves, and coffee beans. Once we arrived we were given a safety briefing, which explained that we had to be much more careful about spiders, snakes, scorpions, etc, than we did at monkey bay. We were told to always carry a flashlight, travel with a buddy, and stick strictly to the paths to avoid run-ins with potentially dangerous wildlife. Other than the extra safety precautions, we found the accommodations here to be similar to Monkey Bay. We are split between two rooms right next to each other with bunk beds. Thankfully our bathroom is right in the same building. Like Monkey Bay, the water we use for showers is collected rainwater, which makes it rather cold. Despite the tales of tarantulas in the bunk rooms, snakes roaming around the pathways and having no electricity after 9:30, we were all excited for the experiences we are sure to have here. Dinner was soon to follow and off to bed we went. Tomorrow will be another adventurous day on our Belizean adventure.