I had the opportunity of traveling to Belize on an EF Tours trip with my daughter Kinzey right after school let out this past spring. EF stands for Education First. They are a travel company that puts together tour packages for students wanting to learn about another culture or country firsthand.
While the price tag may cause a slight case of “sticker shock” at first glance, when you consider all it includes – flights, lodging, meals, tours, guides and insurance (not to mention any bus charters, boat rentals, pack mules) it is actually a very efficient and inexpensive way to travel.
The day after school let out, we flew into Belize City, Belize. For those not familiar with the location of this tiny independent country it is in Central America, bordered by Mexico on the northwest, by Guatemala on the southwest and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
It is famous for its Mayan ruins, its barrier reefs which includes the Great Blue Hole, and its islands, which are called cays. The mainland is only 180 miles long and about 68 miles wide, comparable to our states of New Hampshire or New Jersey in size.
Our itinerary began with a boat trip to the New River Lagoon to the Lamanai ruins, (Lamanai means “submerged crocodile”) named after the Mayan ruler Lord Smoking Shell who believed he was a descendent of the crocodile spirit.
The ruins dated to 1500 BC, and included three large pyramids, open plazas, the Mask Temple and the notorious Ball Court.
The Pok a Tok ball game was extremely difficult to master. The game is played with a solid rubber ball, weighing from 3 to 8 pounds, made from the local rubber trees. Using only forearms and hips the object was to hit the ball into a vertical ring attached high on the slanted side walls of the court. If the game was being played for religious significance the winners had the high honor of being decapitated and sacrificed to the gods.
Our tour continued with a visit to an abandoned sugar mill that the jungle was aggressively reclaiming, and we learned survival skills on a hike through the jungle which included the unique experience of snacking on termites. (Spoiler aler: they taste like a handful of sawdust but are easier to swallow.)
One enjoyable morning was spent strolling through the Belize Zoo, where all the animals are rescue animals that due to their injuries or extent of rehabilitation could not be returned to their own habitat.
We zoomed through the treetops of the jungle on ziplines along the banks of the Caves Branch River and floated on tubes through the hidden caves while bats collected in holes on the cave ceilings above us.
Our adventure continued with a visit to a local school, a stop at the Chaa Creek Natural History Center and Butterfly House and then a ferry ride to the Xunantunich (Stone Woman) Mayan Ruins.
Climbing the narrow stone steps to the top of the highest pyramid was not for the fainthearted. Crowding together on the narrow ledge at the top we could overlook most of the country and see both Mexico and Guatemala.
Our final adventures included a two-hour water taxi ride to Ambergris Caye where we snorkeled in the Hol Chan, the first marine reserve established in Central America.
Our snorkel sightings included two varieties of large sea turtles, an octopus hiding out among the seaweed, many varieties of beautiful, colorful fish and the highlight, a 5-foot-long Caribbean reef shark which Kinzey discovered first.
While she thought it was exciting to be near enough to touch a shark, I must admit, after too many episodes of “Shark Week,” I was not a fan of the up close and personal variety.
For a group of 27 kids and nine adults, everyone got along well with only a few issues of homesickness, roommate arguments and minor injuries. One night my assistance was requested to remove a green iguana with a long, striped tail, who had taken up residence in one of the girls’ rooms.
Knowing I was an animal lover they thought I wouldn’t mind grabbing it bare-handed and carrying it outside. I wasn’t quite that brave. I caught it by the tail, pulling gently, and with the help of a teacher we guided it out to the balcony with minimal contact.
The biggest surprise for me on the trip was seeing the large population of Amish and Mennonite that live in Belize. They migrated from the Netherlands to Mexico, then in 1958 a large contingent of them moved down to the colony of British Honduras, which changed its name to Belize in 1973 and peacefully gained its full independence in 1981.
The Mennonites (Amish in our culture) produce more than 85% of all the dairy and poultry production for the entire country. We saw many markets full of wagons and booths of their produce.
It was an incredible time, a journey packed full of adventure and information, and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to see beyond the familiarity of cornfields and daily small-town life.