The group flight overnights in Miami in the USA before connecting tomorrow morning with a flight to Belize City. Hotel accommodation will be organised in Miami but a leader will not be present with the group during this overnight stay.
Clients on the group flight will arrive in Belize City today. Land only clients should be at Belize City airport by the specified meeting time in order to join the rest of the group. Together we will transfer around 1 hour to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, our base for the next 2 nights. Known as being a great destination for birds, the wildlife sanctuary gets its name from the 'crooked' cashew trees that grow around the lagoon. Wetland areas weave through the sanctuary, providing habitat for some 286 species of bird, the migratory Jabiru stork being the most famous of these. Crocodiles, monkeys, otters and freshwater turtles also reside in the sanctuary. It's a peacful destination with an interesting community and history; the village of Crooked Tree is thought to be the earliest European settlement in Belize.
Wake up fresh this morning to the sound of the birds! We join a 3 hour guided boat trip on the lagoon in search of wildlife. Migratory birds tend to flock to the area between December and May, but plenty of resident species can be seen throughout the year. From our small boat it's easy to appreciate the tranquility of the sanctuary. You can then spend the afternoon at your leisure getting to know the area, or join an optional excursion to the Community Baboon Sanctuary. This grass roots project is actually a reserve for the endangered Black Howler monkey (there are no baboons in Belize but this is the name used in the local Creole dialect), providing them with 20 square miles of forest to roam freely in. It is estimated that there are now 2,000 Black Howler monkeys living in this area - you'll certainly hear their calls as you enter the reserve!
After breakfast we begin our journey to Guatemala and the archaelogical ruins of Uaxactun (pronounced wash-ak-toon), which lays within the boundaries of Tikal National Park. Our journey is approx. 6 -7 hours, including some time spent on border formalities. Uaxactun is a remote Mayan site set within 47 hectares of dense tropical forest in the lowlands of Guatemala. The alignment of the E temples has been found to have important astrological connections, with the 3 smaller E pyramids marking the equinox and the summer and winter solstice when sunrise strikes the large temple on these important days. In order to fully appreciate the beauty and remoteness of Uaxactun we camp overnight near the ruins, in pre-erected tents with good facilities. Tonight we'll enjoy sunset at the site, after which candles will likely be lit to illuminate the ruins.
The calls of Howler monkeys in the jungle canopy are likely to wake us up this morning! We start early for a sunrise tour of Uaxactun, which gives us a chance to have the site to ourselves before the park is officially open. Afterwards we transfer to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal, approx. 45 minutes away. Tikal is the most famous and probably the most impressive of all Mayan sites; nearly 20 square miles of classic Mayan ruins surrounded by the dense jungles of Petén. We take a tour of the city, visiting the main temples, palaces, squares, tombs, residences and religious monuments. The area was thought to support a population of 90,000 Mayans at its peak and there are some 3,000 separate buildings to be explored. Tikal is also a superb area for observing wildlife in the jungle environment and visitors regularly see Howler monkeys, Spider monkeys, toucan, Weaver birds, coatimundi and even tarantula (if you know where to look and wish to find one!) We'll spend the rest of the day at Tikal, positioning ourselves at Temple IV in time for sunset - currently the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas at 70 meters tall. Afterwards, we return to our campsite at Uaxactun for another chance to experience the stars!
We leave Guatemala behind this morning, as our journey heads back to Belize to the small town of San Ignacio. Sometines known locally as 'Cayo', which means island in Spanish, the town was given this name for its location on the west bank of the Macal River. Before the arrival of roads in the area, like many small towns San Ignacio was only accessible by boat. This laid back town, with it's mixed population of Mestizo, Creole, Lebanese, Chinese and Mennonites, is a great example of multicultural Belize and a good base for the many activities that can be done in the area. After a drive of 3 - 4 hours (including a border crossing), the afternoon is free to spend at your leisure - the ruins of Cahal Pech or Xunantunich are nearby and easy to access.
Today we venture into the Mayan underworld at the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. A 45 minute journey from San Ignacio brings us to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, in which the caves are located. They were discovered only very recently in 1989, at which point archaeologists began exploring the site before officially opening it to visitors in the late 90s. The intention has been to preserve the area as much as possible; the majority of cultural artefacts found in the caves are still in their original positions and only a selected number of guides have permits to lead excursions in this area. The ATM cave was a sacred site to the Mayan people during the Classic period (AD250 - 909). They are thought to have believed that gods resided in the cave and that its chambers led directly to the underworld. Human sacrifices were conducted in the caves as a way of appeasing the gods, with the hope of creating a more fertile land. We'll hike through sticky jungle to reach the entrance to the cave, which is partially hidden by leaves and branches but opens like a keyhole, allowing a stream to pass through the entrance. Prepare to wade or swim through water to enter the cave! Once inside, our guide will explain the history of the caves and we'll see some of the famous artefacts that have been discovered, such as the 'The Crystal Maiden', the crystalised skeleton of a young woman whose bones have calcified and taken on a sparkling apperance.
Our next destination is Punta Gorda, a charming coastal fishing town around 5 hours away in the Toledo district, an area that seems to showcase what Belize was like 50 years ago. On the way we make a stop at the Blue Hole National Park, just off the Hummingbird Highway. The park is famous for its large, saphhire sinkhole, which came about after the collapse of an underground river. The cool waters of the sinkhole make for a refreshing dip on a hot day! Several caves can also be found in the park and there are steps leading down to the 25ft deep pool, which is surrounded by hanging foliage and vegetation.
Beginning in the Mayan mountains, the Rio Grande flows through some majestic scenery in the Toledo district before it reaches the Caribbean sea. We join a kayaking tour this morning to look for Howler monkeys, crocodiles, birds and other species along the banks of the river. A ranger from the Toledo Institute for Development and Education (TIDES) will talk to us about conservation work in the area. We are likely to attract plenty of friendly smiles and waves from local fisherman on the way! The afternoon is free to spend at your leisure, join a cacao tour or relax in this laid back coastal town, home to English speaking Garifuna and East Indian communities.
Today we transfer to Belize City where we take a water taxi to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. As the largest island in Belize, Ambergris Caye is a popular Caribbean destination that has managed to retain the laid-back charm that Belize is so famous for. San Pedro, with its brightly painted homes and sandy streets, is the place to see the national motto 'no shirt, no shoes, no problem!' put into action. This small town is also the gateway to the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the second longest reef system in the world.
Just off the southern part of Ambergris Caye is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, meaning 'Little Channel' in Mayan as a result of a natural break in the reef. This area is now an important marine habitat providing refuge for a dizzying number of fish, coral, several species of sea turtle, the West Indian manatee and two species of dolphin. Nurse sharks also congregate in an area called 'Shark Ray Alley', now a popular dive site. We join a snorkelling tour in the reserve to see a selection of the marine life living in these tropical waters!
Today has been left free as there are many excursions available to match different interests. If you're a diver we recommend taking an optional excursion to the Great Blue Hole on the Belize Barrier Reef. Not to be confused with the sinkhole located inland, the Great Blue Hole is located 60 miles out to sea within the Lighthouse Reef System. This perfectly circular limestone sinkhole drops to a depth of 124m and is fringed by coral reef, a perfect environment for divers (Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the top 10 dive sites in the world) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Non-divers can spend the day in San Pedro, join another snorkelling excursion or take a boat trip to Caye Caulker for the day.
This morning we wave goodbye to our island paradise and return to Belize City by water taxi. Those on the group flights will be transferred to the airport in time for their return flight. Land only clients will leave the trip in Belize City.