Thursday, April 8, 2010

Adventures in Paradise - Belize's Untold Treasures

I gazed out the window of the small plane as we departed Belize City. The constant humming of the propellers drowned out all other sounds and I became entranced by the rhythmic pattern of villages, cropland, and jungle. As we approached the Boden Creek Ecological Preserve’s private airstrip, the large patches of charred land from slash and burn farming were replaced with dense jungle. We touched down on a strip of pavement surrounded by a lake and lush vegetation as birds greeted us in chorus. We had been transported into the project of Ken Karas, who has taken on the responsibility of protecting 60,000 acres of wilderness surrounded by 1.2 million acres of nationally protected land. Together they form a critical link in the Mesoamerican Corridor for wildlife to travel freely and serves as the last refuge for Jaguar in the Americas.


Herons, swallowtails, Yellow-breasted orioles, and Rufus hummingbirds are just a sample of the variety of birds that claim residence in the open trees that surround the lake, but with just a few miles down a gravel path the scenery changed to dense forest where howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and a variety of bat species dominated the jungle. The most awe-inspiring creatures at Ballum Na, though, are the brothers Bosh and Chupi. It doesn’t take long to realize why the name of the lodge means “House of the Jaguar.” Ken rescued the two cubs from Mexico and created a habitat for them enshrouded by the lodge itself. A wrap-around walkway and master suite offer intimate views into their home. Bosh and Chupi are Ken’s messengers of conservation to school groups and guests of the lodge who not only profit from the company of these magnificent creatures but also contribute to the preservation of their natural habitat with their presence. Inside the lodge, warm woods and soft lighting create an earthy and elegant atmosphere. The rooftop veranda reaches above the canopy with views of the seven hills mentioned by Christopher Columbus in his journals and the Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit. There is no other man-made structure as far as the eye can see.
Days at Ballum Na were spent bike riding, discovering the source of the Blue Creek deep inside a stalactite-filled cave, visiting the bird sanctuary, and exploring the Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun. Our next stop was Jungle Camp in the heart of the preserve, which can only be accessed by a 2 hour canoe or kayak trip along Golden Stream. We paddled our way through the jungle as our guide pointed out flora and fauna including a boa constrictor, bats, and duck flowers.

As we curved around the river bend, a multi-story lodge stood on the river’s edge, welcoming us to our home for the evening. In the heart of the untamed Belizean jungle we found ourselves enjoying elegant five-course meals, overstuffed sofas, and romantic rooms with canopy beds and private verandas that overlooked the river. Our morning was spent exploring the jungle by foot with a Mayan guide who explained the medicinal properties of otherwise unassuming tropical plants. The giant Ceiba tree at the river’s edge holds a steel canopy where guests can view birds and other wildlife and they will soon be adding a zip line to the fun. The large electric pontoon carried us away from Jungle Camp along the placid river and towards the coast. We watched the vegetation change to dense mangroves as the salt water from the Caribbean Sea entwined with the freshwater of the river. Kingfishers darted above the water's surface as an eagle flew away with a lizard in its talons and the manatees and crocodiles eluded us inside the dense mangroves. 

Soon the river opened to turquoise waters and tiny islands dotted the horizon. We cruised over the clear aquamarine saltwater as the seven hills on the mainland grew smaller in the distance. It was hard to believe we had begun our journey on the opposite side of the hills just days before. Breeze, our Belizean boat captain originally from Caye Caulker, pointed the vessel towards an approaching palm-studded island and soon we were able to distinguish the thatched roofs of overwater bungalows. The staff who had accompanied us at Ballum Na and Jungle Camp anticipated our arrival with a frozen beverage, cold hand towel, and warm smile at the dock.

The ½ mile-long Moho Caye remains the only commercial property in the entire Port Honduras Marine Reserve. It is an island frozen in time where shards of ancient Mayan pottery wash ashore from the days of flourishing pre-Columbian trade. Even the most active individual will be lulled into an entrancing rhythm of waves colliding with the shore, frigates soaring overhead in search of fresh fish, and stingrays gliding above the grassy seafloor. Days are spent snorkeling a small shipwreck just offshore, kayaking, fishing, and relaxing on the beach. Excursions include guided snorkel trips to the world’s second largest barrier reef, exploring Snake Caye and the mangroves, or visiting nearby Punta Gorda for a chocolate factory tour. Visitors are likely to discover, though, that despite their best intentions, the fresh salty air and warm sun can easily drown their motivations.

This trans-habitat experience offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy first-class service and elegant accommodations where all-inclusive means no worrying about meals, excursions, alchohol, or even tipping. Instead, visitors can absorb the messages quietly sewn into a trilogy that exposes the secrets of the Mayan civilization, the untamed depths of the Belizean jungle, and the romance of Caribbean. It is a story that conveys the importance of preserving the historical, cultural, and natural treasures of Belize and our world while the seven hills stand as a constant reminder throughout the journey of nature withstanding the test of time and serving as witness to the choices of humanity.

If you are interested in learning more about this experience or others like it, contact Great Expeditions today at 1-888-SNORKEL or

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