Belize Cultural Landscape:
Uniqueness & Universality
Within just an hour of arriving in Belize, my husband Tom & I experienced the first of a series of surprises from this Central American eco paradise. After being picked up at the airport by Chaa Creek Lodge guide Miguel Choco, we bumped along a stretch of road through a savanna that was once a shallow sea. Miguel pointed to Spanish Lookout in the distance. There, he told us, was a Mennonite farming community, in its 50th year of providing Belizeans with beans, corn, chicken and eggs. Belize was even more diverse than I had realized!
We enjoyed Miguel’s narration on the scenery as we made the two-hour drive, and got the first of many lessons to come on Belize’s multi-faceted eco-sphere.
As we made our way inland from the Caribbean coast toward the country’s western border with Guatemala, Miguel told us that the Mennonites comprise 11 percent of Belize’s population and are responsible for producing more than half of the country’s agricultural needs. Skillfully navigating roads that ascended almost 4,000 feet to the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Miguel afforded us a whole different view of Belizean culture along with its countryside.
He told us that his homeland is very much a “melting pot,” a phrase that was to be echoed by others during our stay. Along with the Mennonites and the Maya, other cultures that call Belize home are Mestizo, descendants of the Maya and Spanish settlers; Garifuna, ancestors of African slaves who married Carib Indians; Creole, offspring of slaves and early European settlers; and East Indians, descendants of indentured laborers brought to work on the British sugar plantations here in the early 19th century. Belize also now counts among its citizens sizable Arab and Chinese communities.
Maya Ruin of Xunantunich a Lesson in Our Shared Humanity
Miguel continued his tutorial several days later during an excursion from Chaa Creek to the nearby Maya ruin of Xunantunich, which is reached by crossing the Mopan River on a small ferry operated by a hand crank. We saw a woman with coiled braids up to her waist in the flowing current. Her horse patiently grazed on the grassy banks while she washed brightly-colored clothes on river rocks. Reaching the other side, we were greeted by a small boy who offered us a piece of slate carved with an elaborate depiction of a kneeling woman, identified in the inscription as the moon goddess Ixchel.
We climbed a hill toward the site–just as the grounds came into view, the skies opened up and unleashed sheets of rain. We raced for cover under the roof of the visitors’ center, where we found ornately-engraved stelae displayed. These stone slabs extolled the exploits of important Maya rulers, and the characters depicted looked fierce.
As we waited out the rain, we asked Miguel about the bloody rituals in which the Maya are said to have engaged. The conversation turned to speculation that religious concepts brought here by the Spanish, such as drinking the blood of Christ, had made easier the conversion of many Maya to Catholicism. That observation made me think anew about how traditions long familiar to me might be perceived by others.
Tom and I had learned just days before departing for Belize that a friend’s brother was an archaeologist who had spent considerable time engaged in excavations here a couple of decades ago. Ever-seeking connections that might lie beneath the surface, but without much conviction, I threw out the brother’s name to Miguel. I was startled and delighted when he became visibly excited by my mention of the archaeologist—it was clear his name commanded admiration, and the shared association heightened our camaraderie.
When the deluge abated, we ventured out to cross the Plaza. Xunantunich means “Maiden of the Rock,” and it was one of the most powerful city states of its day–yet its center is a very compact 325 yards. We reached El Castillo, a 130-foot ceremonial temple, and one of the tallest structures in Belize, once the focal point of religious activity here.
A heavy mist shrouded the Classic Period site, so we were unable to appreciate what we were told is an impressive view of the entire river valley from El Castillo. No matter; the monument’s base offered a compelling visual: a band of stucco decoration that had at one time extended around the entire temple, believed to have been carved between 300 – 900 A.D.
Since 1892, tales have circulated of appearances by a ghost of a white-garbed woman with fire-red eyes ascending El Castillo’s stairs. In the still, humid air, it was just as easy for me to imagine an entire humming community at work and play and prayer here, all those lifetimes ago.
Tom and Miguel climbed the steep heights of El Castillo, stepping through the thick mist that shrouded the ancient and imposing monument. I sat on a nearby picnic table alongside two young soldiers who were taking a relaxed approach to standing guard. From a distance, the sight of the men in uniforms, with machine guns at their side, had frightened me—my instinctive reaction to most things unknown. Approaching them to share a seat, I realized they were barely out of their teens and their shy smiles made me surrender my defenses.
In leaving the park, we passed an elevated compound that Miguel said had been a late addition to Xunantunich’s history, built as the civilization started its decline, and the outlying areas had already begun to be abandoned. Archaeologists believe this structure was designed to restrict public access to royalty and religious ceremonies; El Castillo, in contrast, was clearly intended to command attention. Tom remarked that human nature hasn’t changed much over the eons, calling to mind other civilizations whose leaders have isolated themselves from the masses as times got tough.
Returning to Chaa Creek, we drove down the long dirt road carved into the jungle that led to the Lodge. Looking out the window of the rolling jeep, I drew in my breath when I saw a herd of horses standing very still at the crest of a nearby hill. Their sleek shapes in shades of white, gray, tan and brown contrasted with the canopy of green, and the veil of rising mist lent an air of mystery to the scene. I was reminded that if the unexpected can sometimes be disconcerting, it can just as often be inspired and joyful.
Mayan Medicine Trail Reveals the Synergy in Nature’s Economy
Over the course of the next couple of days we counted one new adventure after another.
David Juarez gave us a tour of the Mayan Medicine Trail that runs along the Macal River. David just celebrated 21 years with Chaa Creek; he was 19 years old when he joined the organization's Macal River Camp as a maintenance worker. David is from a farming family of the nearby village of Cristo Rey, which is several miles down-river from Chaa Creek.
Years earlier, Miguel, who had given us our introduction to Belize and Xunantunich, had noticed David's interest in the area's bird and plant life, and encouraged him to become a naturalist. Miguel arranged for David to take a three-month training course, earn his certification for a tour guide license, and join Chaa Creek's team of a dozen naturalist guides.
Beginning our walk on the Medicine Trail, we left Chaa Creek’s grounds and entered a jungle path; we had to shield our eyes from slits of sunlight seeping through the profusion of verdant vegetation. Our excursion was set to a symphony of calls and songs.
"Every year our list of bird species in the area is increasing," David explained. "Right now we have just around 400 species of birds that can be seen within a five-mile radius of Chaa Creek."
"Chaa Creek is a 400-acre of property, and it’s more of a reserve," he explained. "The surrounding area is getting deforested because people are getting into cattle ranching. As a result, the flora here attracts different species to come into the area now. This is like a little rest area here, a little island for them to land in, which is great for us here at Chaa Creek because the species that were not so common around here before can now be seen within the nature reserve much more frequently."
David named off an assortment of species that can be seen.
"We have groups of Great Curassow and Ocellated Turkeys," he said. "We have been spotting some Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Flycatchers, Tanagers and also seeing many larger and colorful species such as Trogans, Keel-Billed Toucans, Lessons Mot Mot and some raptors, as well."
David pointed out the healing–and poisonous–plants proliferating along the path, singling out which were species used for purposes like storing drinking water, treating diabetes and serving as birth control.
"Oregano is used for inflammation of the eardrum,” he said. “We pick the leaves and put them on the fire to grill for a little bit. Then you squeeze the leaf and extract the oil, which is used medicinally as ear drops, reducing any inflammation that’s inside the eardrum."
"Life Everlasting is also a very good one, especially for reducing the fever of a child,” David explained. “It has very thick leaves that when mashed actually take all the cooling out of the leaf. You put that on the forehead, or the feet of a child, to reduce fever. That’s also a common plant that we can have here in our backyards we use as a rain forest remedy.”
“Red Gumbo Limbo is the antidote for the Black Poison Wood Tree,” he told us. “If you get in contact with the sap of these trees, it can give you an irritation of the skin, rashes, itching and sometimes even swelling. So taking the Gumbo Limbo bark or leaves, and boiling them, then washing the affected area with the boiled water will help with the itching and the swelling. What is quite interesting is that the Red Gumbo Limbo and Black Poison Wood Trees always grow near each other.”
David says he's learned from his colleagues over the years and is proud to be helping others advance in their careers.
"I’m now supervising the Natural History department," he said. "I’m one of the senior naturalists here, so our training comes through me."
We ended the tour in Chaa Creek’s Natural History Museum, which offers a fascinating time line of the area’s evolution since its prehistoric land formation.
We witnessed each stage of a “Belizean Blue” butterfly’s life–from egg, to caterpillar, then pupa, and, finally, a gorgeous creature spreading its wings. Far from simply viewing a sterile science exhibit documenting this marvel of nature, our education was experiential. In a large, screened-in space, we held a delicate pale green pupa and stood amidst widespread fluttering of translucent azure wings, as scores of the species wafted through the air, unpredictably darting here and then there. Who knew insects could be so fun?
David now has two boys of his own, ages seven and four, who are fascinated with his career.
"When I go home, I will imitate some bird calls, and they know some of the birds calls already," he said. "Sometimes I put them to the test. When I hear a toucan, I will ask them, 'What bird is that?' And they’re already picking it out.”
"I’ve been taking them out to experience different aspects of nature and they’re really enjoy being out in nature," he said. "What I am really teaching them about is their natural heritage."