Wednesday, January 21, 2015

You'd better Belize it

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber, existential philosopher 

AFTER OUR day in Cozumel, we sailed all night to Belize, and in the morning tendered into Belize City.

I've wanted to go to Belize for 25 years, so unsurprisingly, I'd conducted a bit of research before we left home and proposed that we spend our day at the Belize Zoo. Paul was enthusiastic about the prospect. 

Although there were various excursions available though the cruise ship, once again we thought the better plan was to secure our own driver and embark on a private adventure. We were lucky in the driver we chose. A native-born, well-educated BelizeanAlbert was knowledgable about the history, culture, religion, politics and language of Belize, generous in sharing it with us and patient with questions.

I found the below synopsis on a travel site called Adventure Life which follows very closely what Albert told us:


Located in the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is a small country (9087 square miles) bordered by Mexico to the North and Guatemala to the West.

The first inhabitants in what is now Belize to develop a succinct culture were the Maya. Belize was an important part in the great Mayan Empire. The Maya Empire was possibly the most sophisticated civilization in the ancient Americas. Including modern day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, the Mayas reached their peak in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries AD. However, by the 14th Century this once great civilization mysteriously declined. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, Maya presence was barely felt.

Even though the Spanish ruled Belize since their arrival in the new world, they were never able to truly control the area. For them, Belize was a backwater, good only for cutting dye wood. This lack of control eventually allowed for pirates from England and Scotland to come in and find sanctuary during the 17th century. When pirating became a less popular profession, these former buccaneers turned to cutting log wood in the rich tropical forests of Belize.

From the outset of Colonization, Belize's roots were more British than Spanish. Britain gained full control from Spain in 1798, when they defeated the Spanish Armada off St. George's Caye. While the United States was embroiled in Civil War, Great Britain declared Belize to be the colony of British Honduras, against the terms of the Monroe Doctrine.

As in many other countries, Belize's economy faced decline after WWII. This eventually led for the push for independence. Self-government was granted in 1964, which allowed for the formation of democratic parties and parliamentary style of rule. Belmopan was named the new capital since Belize City was practically destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. In 1981 the country gained full independence and officially became Belize.

Belize's independence and rule has always been threatened by the neighboring country of Guatemala, which has maintained that Belize has always been their rightful property. In 1972 during Belize's political transition from colony to an independent nation, Guatemala threatened war. British troops stationed on the border prevented any incident.

In recent years the US government provided additional stability to Belize. In the 1980's the US invested large amounts of aid into Belize's economy. For this reason it has remain extremely pro-US. Belize is an extraordinarily peaceful country. It's standing army of 550 soldiers is testament to this stability. Due to civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador, Belize has experienced an influx of refugees from these struggles that have significantly increased the population of Spanish speakers in the country. Still, the country remains peaceful, and tolerance prevails with the mix of cultures from Garifuna and British Ex-pats to Mennonites and settlers from Hong Kong.

Culture, language and religion

The official language of Belize is English, but many other languages are also used. Along the coast you're most likely to hear Creole spoken. A colorful variation of English, if you listen carefully, you might notice a familiar word or two. Spanish is the main language in towns that border Guatemala to the west and Mexico to the north, and it's possible to run into several other languages such as Mayan, German, Chinese, Lebanese, and Arabic.

The majority of Belizeans are Roman Catholic, however due to the heavy British influence, Belize has a larger Protestant population than any other country in Central America. The Maya and Garifuna practice their own fascinating mixture of shamanism and Christianity.

The Belize Zoo bills itself as "The Best Little Zoo in the World," and I think it just might be. It's located 29 miles from Belize City, making it about a 45-minute drive. 

The zoo has an interesting and admirable history. From Wikipedia:

In 1983, a film making team, headed by cinematographer Richard Foster came to Belize to create a documentary entitled "Selva Verde." Sharon Matola accompanied the crew as an assistant and animal caretaker.

At the end of filming, funds were exhausted, and there was debate over what to do with the now tame animals. Releasing them into the wild was out of the question and there was no zoo in Belize to take them to. When the film crew left, Sharon remained with the 17 animals (an ocelot, a puma, a jaguar and several exotic birds), and started a makeshift zoo, using the animals' enclosures as exhibits, to generate funding for their care.

It became apparent that Belizeans were largely unfamiliar with the native animals of Belize, and had many misconceptions and superstitions about them. The zoo's focus then shifted to educating residents and visitors alike about the native wildlife of Belize.

After garnering local support and both local and foreign donations, the zoo was relocated to its present 29-acre site in 1991. By 2010 the Belize Zoo was home to more than 170 individuals of 48 species native to Belize. Keeping to its goal of bringing visitors closer to Belize's natural heritage, the zoo only houses native animals. No zoo animal has ever been taken from the wild. Zoo residents were either people’s pets, donated to the zoo, injured and brought in for healing and rehabilitation, born at the Zoo, or sent to the zoo from another zoological facility.

We love, love, loved the zoo! Albert waited for us while we strolled through it, and lucky us: there were only a few other people in the zoo.

Then we got even luckier. We rounded a turn on the path, and from having poured over the zoo website several times before we left, I recognized the woman who came into view as zoo founder Sharon Matola.

I asked her if I could give her a hug for being such a hero. She not only indulged me but invited us to walk with her while she fed the jaguars! Could we have gotten any luckier?!?

When we approached the enclosure, Sharon said, "Now this might sound strange when you hear it, but this is how I call our black jaguar, Lucky Boy," and she started loudly calling out, "I'm sorry, I hoped to be able to show you Lucky Boy, but he isn't here. Nope, no black jaguar to be seen. I'm sorry." Then we heard a rustling and crashing of leaves, some deep "chuff chuffs" and in seconds here was this very, very big black cat who jumped up and put his humongous front paws on the fence to high-five Sharon.

What a treat!!

Founder Sharon Matola, Lucky Boy and lucky me!
Don't let the camera foreshortening fool you. His head was easily as big as mine.

Spotted jaguar. Those spots are effective camouflage.

This eerie-looking creature is a female Harpy eagle. This is the one
species of animal where the female is larger (by a lot) than the male.

Mrs. Harpy in profile. Harpy eagles are the largest eagles in the world.

Mr. Harpy is much smaller than his mate.

All the informational signs are handmade.
Spider monkey.

Folded-up pelican.
Mystery bird.

Mystery bird.

Keel-billed toucan, the National Bird of Belize.


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