Dave's Not Here

2009 Trip to Cotton Tree Lodge, Belize

by on Apr.16, 2009, under Dave's Rants

When my wife told me she had booked a green (Eco Friendly) trip to Belize for spring break, I had doubts.  I was pretty sure I could handle it — I love to camp.  But, I wasn’t sure she could.  Who would have thought it would turn out to be one of our best vacations ever!

Saturday – Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Boats

Getting to Belize was pretty easy.  There was a direct Delta flight to Belize International Airport.  But, that was a long way from our rainforest!  Next we had to take a small plane.  Now, anyone who has traveled much has flown on a “puddle jumper” for a short flight.  You know, one of those planes where your roll aboard won’t fit, and you have to check it.  This was not one of those planes — it was MUCH smaller.

Our plane from Belize International to the closest airstrip to our destination, Punta Gorda, seated 14 people, including the co-pilot seat.  I didn’t sit there, but I made sure that on the way back, I would!  When we landed in an intermediate stop (there could be from one to four stops, we were told — depends on where other people are going), Quinn exclaimed, “We just landed in someone’s back yard!”  I don’t blame him.  There were kids playing right next to the runway.  Here is a picture of the airstrip quinn was talking about:  Google Maps Link. Believe it or not, that was the biggest airport we saw, outside of Belize International. The Punta Gorda airport was much smaller.

When we arrived, we took a small van to the Moho River, where we took a boat into Cotton Tree Lodge.  It was a wonderfully relaxing ride, after a full day of travel.

Heading to Cotton Tree Lodge

Our accommodations were perfect.  They had exactly enough creature comforts to make it enjoyable.  The compound runs off of solar cells during the day, then a generator kicks in at night to keep the ceiling fans going.  They ask that you do not bring a hair dryer — they have just enough electricity for the cabins to have their two fluorescent lights, and two ceiling fans.  (We had a family cabin).  They also had a gas instant-on hot water heater, so we had hot (well, luke warm) showers.

Our bed -- with mosquito net Two beds upstairs, ceiling fans, and thatched roof

We had a nice dinner, with excellent fresh vegetables, and went to bed.  It was a tiring day.  But, there was a small problem.  Belize was unseasonably warm.  100-105 degrees Fahrenheit.  With a ton of humidity.  I finally stopped sweating around 10:00PM.

Luckily, we had been warned about the howler monkeys.  One of the other guests described it as something that sounded like a dinosaur.  It was a perfect description.  When they started howling, at 12:30, 4:30, and again at 6:30, I knew what it was, and, I actually loved it.  It really hit home that fact that we were not in Roswell anymore.  (Or Georgia.  Or the USA.  Or North America.  [Ok — technically Central America is part of North America, but you get the picture])  Here’s a good link for what we got to hear: Howler Monkey Video

Sunday – Bush Doctor, and Cultural Tour of Barranco

For our excursions on our first day, we started out with a bush doctor tour of the rain forest.  We learned about tons of plants and their medicinal uses when made into a compress, made into a tea, smoked, eaten, and made into a salve.  We also learned that we could eat the Jippi Jappa tree, and that it’s fronds are the ones used to weave baskets.  One of the coolest things we did was drink from a water vine.  It reminded us of something you’d see on Man Versus Wild.  Here’s pictures of Quinn and Amy having a drink.  (The vine cures headaches and all internal ailments, according to the Bush Doctor!)

Amy Water Vine Quinn Water Vine

Family with Bush Doctor

After leaving the bush doctor, we took a long boat ride, down the Moho river, out to sea, and then over to Barranco, a Garufina village about eight miles from the boarder of Guatamala.  There we learned all about the Garufina people and their history.  In a nutshell, the Garufina are the descendents of slaves brought to the Carribean by the British.  So, their history includes African, Mayan, British, and later, Spanish influences.  It is a very rich culture.  It made me realize that my culture only goes back about seventy years, with my mother growing up in South Texas.  While I know my ancestry is Sweedish / Hungarian, I do not know anything about that culture.  I guess that is one of the drawbacks of living in a melting pot.

For lunch, we had a traditional meal.  It consisted of some cooked chicken with a broth (they called it gravy, but it was very runny — more of a soup — or juice).  We put the chicken and gravy over the starch.  I forgot the exact name, but, it was something like a tamale.  They took unripe bananas (The Garufina prefer their bananas unripe — they do not eat them when they are sweet), made a paste, and cooked them inside of leaves.  The consistency was much like the corn part of a tamale, but it was a loaf — no meat inside.  There wasn’t much flavor to the banana, but it was quite good mixed with the spicy chicken gravy.

Our Garufina Guide

We ended with a demonstration of drums and singing.  It was very African to me — at least, how I would imagine it, since I’ve never been to Africa. (Movies: DrumsDancers)

Monday – Lubaantun & Blue Creek Cave Swimming

Monday was our second day of sweltering heat.  But, like Sunday, we had a great time.  We started out visiting some old Mayan ruins, Lubaantun.

While Quinn and I were excited and ready for a pyramid to explore, our hopes of being Indy and son were soon crushed.  This site had no actual chambers.  It was more of an outdoor market and sports arena.  The size was impressive — that it had really withstood time well — but, that was about it.  We also found a rubber tree — the sap really is rubber.  Yes, we are amused by the simplest things!

100_1542 RubberTreeLubFamily100_1543

After leaving Lubaantun, we took a drive and stopped to eat lunch at a small creek, Blue Creek.  After lunch, we were going to hike to Blue Creek Cave, where we could swim.  My expectations were low.  As long as there was water to cool off in, I was happy.

The hike was a short, but amazing hike.  There were small cliffs to climb (6 feet or so, but lots of roots and rocks to grab on), and tons of scenery, all the while, following a creek upstream.  The hike was short (thirty minutes or so), and I wanted more of it.  It was in the shade, beautiful, and exhilarating.  Then we turned a corner, and I saw a small cave opening.  But, the opening was about 70-100 feet off of the ground.  Were we going to somehow ascend to that level?  Then we moved a bit further, and I saw the cave opening we were aiming for.

Blue Creek Cave is the biggest cave mouth I have ever seen.  It is like a circle in the face of a cliff, but it is a fifty foot wide circle!  It was immense.  Then we hit the water.  It was cold at first, but perfect for a day like this.  And,  we got to swim into the cave.  I’ve been to the Lost Sea Cave, in Tennassee, so I assumed that we would go in a bit, then come out.  Well, my definition of “a bit” and Belize’s were a bit off.

We followed the river into the mountain about a quarter mile.  Our tour guide said we were about half way through when we turned back.  It was a huge cave, with ceilings fifty feet above us, and, in most places, my feet did not touch the bottom of the water.  We all wore headlights, and had a great time cooling off.

The water was so clear and clean looking that I had to have a sip.  Tammy was sure I would get dysentery.  But, I was fine.  And, the water has to be the best water I’ve ever tasted.  I wish I had pictures from inside of the cave, but, it was obviously a little too wet for our camera!

When we swam back out, we took a few extra minutes to swim a bit more outside of the cave:


Then we made the beautiful hike back to the hot bus, and showered for dinner.  Another amazing day in Belize.

Tuesday – Chocolate – Growing, Making, and Jungle Survival

Our Tuesday excursion was the “chocolate” excursion.  At the time I didn’t know there were two chocolate excursions.  On one, you make real chocolate.  On another, you learn about eco friendly farming, and make a chocolate drink.  We were on the latter.  Had I known this ahead of time, I might have changed our excursion.  That would have been a mistake!

It was a long drive to Eladio’s Farm.  But, it was worth the trouble!  We walked for an hour or two through Eladio’s Jungle farms.  Eladio is not a typical farmer.  He did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and grow corn to sell.  He wanted to live off of the land, in harmony.  So, he planted his trees all throughout the forest.  Rows of Cacao trees line the underbrush.  Along with Jippi Jappa, bananas, etc.  He even pointed out an allspice tree.  (I always assumed allspice was a collection of spices . . .but it comes from one plant!)


Eladio taught us how he lives in harmony with the jungle.  Birds eat some of his corn, but not all of it — there is enough for him.  Animals steal some of his Cacao, but not all of it.  It is not his, he just helps cultivate it, he explains.  When our kids picked some extra jippi jappa, that he had showed them how to eat, he explained that it was more than ok, “The more you touch the plants, the better they grow.  Pick all you want!”


Eladio explained what he does with the Cacao.  First, the meat makes a nice snack.  And, the seeds (beans) are tasty to suck on.  The coating is sweet and tangy.  But, you can’t bite them — Cacao beans (where chocolate comes from) are VERY bitter.


Eladio takes the Cacao beans, and does one of two things with them.  For his own use, he simply roasts them to make a chocolate drink.  (More on that later).  But, some people prefer to use fermented beans to make chocolate.  So, he showed us his fermentation tank.  With no chemicals, just natural yeasts in the air, the cacao beans ferment.  And, they get REALLY hot in the tank.  Way hotter than it was outside, and it was a pretty hot day!  He also ran into the forest, and brought out a five gallon pickle barrel that he had hidden.  In it was meat and the seed holders from the cacao.  But, it had also been allowed to ferment.  So, we got to try some of his cacao wine.

It was bad.  But, not that bad.  I’ve made beer before.  And I’ve made mead (honey wine).  And, I’ve made bad beer and bad mead too.  So, I’ve tasted my share of yeast-gone-wild.  The cacao tasted a bit like bad mead.  Sickly sweet, with a very alcohol-ish after taste.  Eladio told us it had fermented too long.  He likes it after a couple of days, but this batch was a week old.  It was very strong (nice and warm going down)

We started heading back out of the jungle on his circuit, and he kept making different things out of the wild banana trees.  These trees have many uses.  They are an umbrella, provide some thatching, some materials for weaving, and, food.  Eladio showed us how to get to the heart of the wild banana.  I found it much more tasty than the jippy jappa.  I feel fairly confident that, if lost in a Central American rainforest, I would not starve.  I doubt I would survive, but, I would be able to eat!


Next it was time to eat.  Eladio’s family had cooked us a lunch of chicken, cole slaw, and cooked versions of the plants we had eaten raw in the jungle!


Don’t ask why Tamy takes pictures of her food.  She has a problem, and is working on it.

After lunch, the kids played, while Eladio’s wife and oldest daughter roasted the cacao beans, and made a chocolate drink.  And, while all that was going on, our kids had a field day with Eladio’s children.  They ran, played, fought, tried to start a fire, chased the dogs, pigs, chickens, and, basically, just acted like children!  We couldn’t believe how well they all got along!


And, we also got some videos: Kids, Kids, Everywhere!, and When I Grow Up!

They roasted the cacao where they do most of their cooking, over an open fire outside.  They had an oven, but, it seemed to only be used for storage, and keeping food warm.  All cooking was done over wood.


The chocolate drink was . . urm . . interesting.  It was roasted and ground cacao.  About 66% dark bean, and 33% light.  Then it was mixed with a little allspice, some raw sugar, and hot water.  Eladio’s family loved it.  We found it needed a lot more sugar for our tastes.


After our drink, and a bit more playing, we were finally ready to go home.  But, not after buying some crafts.  We knew we had recognized some of the children.  They had been at Lubaantun the day before selling crafts.  Today, they made some good sales!


Wednesday – Rio Blanco Falls, Cable Bridge, and Cliff Diving

I was really looking forward to jumping off of a cliff.  All my life people had told me to, and now I get to obey.

The drive to Rio Blanco Falls was the longest yet.  And, the bumpiest road.  Don’t get me wrong.  We saw very little pavement in all of Belize.  Everything was dirt roads.  But, these dirt roads were particularly nasty.  Tammy even got a little motion sick on the way home!  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rio Blanco Falls is a pretty big tourist site in the area.  So, there are nice marked trails for the circuit to the falls.  As we were walking, our guide stopped us and pointed out the ants.

I had seen some trails with grass missing before.  But, I assumed it was a ground hog eating the roots of the grass.  I was wrong.  Leaf cutter ants like to pave their trails.  They make paths through the grass, about three inches wide.  And, on that path, they remove every rock, and every piece of vegetation.  It looks like a very small animal path.  (very small as in rabbit, not as in ant)  And, the trail that our guide pointed out was not empty.

The leaf cutters do not move around in the sun, he explained.  They only work when it is overcast.  So, we were lucky.  Watching the ants was like watching national geographic.  They were amazing, and, exactly like I’ve seen on TV.  I just never though I’d see it live.  I mean, how often are you in a jungle in a rainforest?


I wish Tammy had taken a picture of the trail in the grass . . it looked even cooler.

Next up was the cable bridge.  The bridge was actually wider than I expected it to be.  They used one by twelves, it looked like.  But, once you got out there, it was still pretty unnerving.  I had the camera, and Tammy asked if I could turn around and take a picture.  I answered, simply, “no.” So, I took some pictures from the other side.


The kids all wanted to do it twice 🙂

Then we got to the falls.  They were ok.  I’ve seen bigger.  But, the cliffs were perfect.  One was about fifteen feet high, and the other about twenty.  Though, when you’re looking over the ledge, they seem much higher.

All of us jumped off of the fifteen foot one.  First I went, then Quinn.  Amy did it after I went a couple of times.  And, finally, Tammy got up the nerve.  I think Amy gave her courage.


That fat, blurry thing is me.  The higher one was very hard for me to get to the edge on.  It was very scary standing there.  Once you jump, it’s easy — there are no more hard decisions to make.  But, just standing there was awful.  And, after you do jump, just before you hit the water, you’re thinking, “Wow!  I’m really starting to move fast!”

We got home a little early this time.  Normally Rio Blanco Falls are done with a tour of more ruins.  But, since we saw the biggest set of ruins around, and, since we were expecting something bigger than what we had already seen, we decided not to do that part.

I have been canoeing with the kids a few times.  And, they never could understand how to paddle right, turn, etc.  Well, the Cotton Tree Lodge had kayaks, and, I suddenly realized, that the kids could just try it, and, worst case, I’d have to jump in and tow them back to shore.  Amy wasn’t really up for it, but Quinn was.  It took him a little bit, but he now finally understands how to stop, go, and turn.  And, we ended up playing  several games of kayak chicken!  I’d show pictures of me, but, I look like a Buddah, complete with man-boobs.



Thursday – Snorkeling off of Snake Cayes

For our last day of excursions, we picked snorkeling off of the Snake Cayes.  On the way out, Quinn decided to lead the way:


The boat ride was long and hard.  (My inner The Todd is snickering.)  When we got to Snake Caye, it was crowded.  Chris (owner of Cotton Tree, and our guide) told us that there are usually one or two boats of people here.  But, since it was Easter weekend, there were a bit more today.  There were probably a dozen boats all on this island.  But, surprisingly, the snorkeling was not crowded.  They were all more interested in getting tans 🙂

We lathered up snorkeling gear, and headed out.  The kids decided to stay near the beach on the first island.  The reef was a bit different than the reef off of Cozumel.  Here, there seemed much more reef life.  Tons of Conchs and Starfish, which I have never seen in the wild before.  And, many more types of coral than I’m used to.  But, on the other hand, there seemed fewer reef fish than in Cozumel.  But, that might be due to the fact that there was a bit of wind, and the water was pretty rough.


I kept popping up, to see if it was time to go, but the snorkeling seemed to go on and one.  Just as I popped a blister on my foot (Damn fins), it was time to head back for lunch.

We ate at the ranger station, and learned about the caye we had been on, and the other cayes and how they were protected.  The one we were on was protected from taking things.  We could not remove any shells, fish, wildlife from it.  At all.  Most of the other islands, you could fish off of, even commercially.  One of the islands was completely off limits.  They do this to allow the reef to rebuild after it has been over harvested.

The second island, I was going to teach the kids how to snorkel.  But, the water was completely murky from the strong currents . . Oh well . . . time to go home.

The ride home was even bumpier.  I’m surprised no one fell out of the boat, or got sick.  And, we were all sunburned.  We barely had time to shower before dinner.


Friday – Heading Home 🙁

We packed a bit Thursday night, then finished up Friday morning.  Our flight was late enough that we got to enjoy breakfast, and snap a few parting pictures.


And, a strange-looking lizard decided to say goodbye too.


So, that was our trip.  I think we have learned that a good vacation is more than just staying in a hotel in another city.  I expect our future trips will be about learning and exploring culture, more than just visiting a city that is not much different than our own!

[I’m publishing this while it’s still a bit raw, so I’ll likely make many edits as I find typos]

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