June 10, 2012
It has been a most eye-opening, inspiring, and rewarding experience to visit Belize. For many of us, this was the first time visiting this beautiful and diverse country in Central America.
Prior to the trip, we had had a week of coursework on campus and learned about the history, climate, and geography of Belize. But seeing the land and its archaeological sites in person, and interacting face-to-face with people from various cultural backgrounds provided us with a far deeper and richer understanding than any coursework could have.
We flew into Belize City (point A), took the bus through the capital city of Belmopan (point B) and Dangriga, and arrived at Sun Creek Lodge, located in the thick of the jungle near Punta Gorda (point C). We soon got acquainted with our surroundings and some of us over time even made some new friends — moths, spiders, leaf-cutter ants, frogs, and tarantulas.
As an economist interested in the relationship between the environment and development, I was naturally drawn to the transportation system of the country. Although it was not part of the official curriculum, we did learn quite a bit about the roads and the modes of transportation in Belize on this trip.
Three major highways (the Western Highway, the Hummingbird Highway, and the Southern Highway) connect Belize City to the Toledo district in the south. The Southern Highway was the last one to be paved, significantly reducing the time needed to travel to the south. As in many other developing regions, paved roads have provided easier access, both for traders to transport local agricultural products such as cacao and citrus, and for tourists to visit this culturally rich and environmentally diverse region.
Currently, the government of Belize is working to extend the paved highway from the village of Big Falls, where we had many evening discussions with Dr. Prufer and his students, past Santa Cruz, the Mayan village where we spent two days volunteering at a primary school, all the way to the Guatemalan border. The cost of the project is estimated to be BZ$48 million, funded through a loan offered by the Kuwait Fund for the Arab Economic Development, the OPEC Fund for the International Development, and the Central American Bank for the Economic Integration (CABEI).
Although many families we came to know in Toledo have their own cars or motorcycles, the cost of owning motor vehicles is still relatively high, especially given the per capita income. For example, in Toledo in May 2012, the price for regular gas was BZ$11.58 (about US$5.79) per gallon, and the price for premium gas was BZ$12.43 (about US$ 6.22) per gallon. During the same time period, gas prices in the United States ranged from US$3.66 to US$4.22 per gallon. Bear in mind that the per capita GDP in Belize is less than 1/10 of the United States!
For most families, bus service is still the preferred method of transportation if they need to move from one city to another. The service by James Bus Line is reliable and economical. For example, it only cost me BZ$18 (US$9) to travel 6 hours from Belmopan to Punta Gorda. Their service from Belize City starts as early as 6:00am in the morning daily. But since the buses do make frequent stops, the travel time is usually extended from 4 hours to 6 hours. The Hummingbird Highway is hilly and scenic and winds through several national parks. The southern highway cuts through pine forests, grasslands, banana farms, and citrus groves. Occasionally, we saw billboards with political ads leftover from their most recent election back in March.
Given the importance of the bus service in people’s lives in Belize, it has also taken on a more significant role than a means of transportation. Buses have become a place for food vendors to sell their products. Throughout my 6-hour trip, vendors from various villages got onto the bus at different points to sell tortillas and cakes to hungry passengers. The conductors on the buses also seem to have taken on an additional role to provide delivery services from one place to another. At one time, I saw a conductor delivering goods from Dangriga for a Mayan family in a nearby village. Our guide Manuel told me that sometimes the domestic airlines also provide delivery services for a small fee. For example, it only takes about US$5 to order Indian food from Belize City to be express-delivered to Punta Gorda, some 160 miles away.
Although the Toledo district stands to benefit from all the development in recent years and the planned projects such as the road project extending to the Belize/Guatemala border, there have been concerns over whether the development will really benefit the local villagers. Many non-governmental organizations have been formed with a mission to promote sustainable development. For example, the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) has been formed since the mid-1980s to promote the welfare of local cacao farmers through fair trade. The Toledo Institute of Environment and Development (TIDE), one of the four Belizean beneficiaries of the Debt-for-Nature swap and the only one focusing on the Toledo district, aims to promote resource management and sustainable use of ecosystems within the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor.
Many local residents have also become more active in letting their voice heard in the policy decision process. For example, Mr. Alvin Alvin Laredo, our guide in the Garinagu village of Barranco, has been leading the villagers to be part of the conservation effort while maintaining their cultural tradition of harvesting non-timber forest products for medicinal purposes. The community around the Uxbenká archaeological site also has decided to elect a chairman every two years to make decisions concerning the community welfare. Mr. Jose Mes, our guide to Yok Balum cave, is actually the current chairman from the nearby Mayan village of Santa Cruz.
Hopefully, the efforts of these local leaders and organizations will enable the people of Toledo of all cultural backgrounds to thrive on their abundant natural resources and maintain their rich heritage.
 For example, the per capita GDP in Belize in 2010 was only US$4,061, whereas it was US$47,153 in the United States. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
Dr. Juliana Wang (Ph.D. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics) is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Environmental Studies Program and supervisor for the field portion of the course. She is from Mainland China and focuses on the water and energy systems in her research.
June 4, 2012
Ever since our group first received our trip itineraries, we knew that we would be hiking through the jungle to Yok Balum Cave for our last day in Toledo. Adding to the excitement, we would also be entering the cave itself; we were even required to bring helmets and headlamps along. What could be more thrilling than checking out some amazing cave formations while trying to avoid hitting your head on one? Even though we were told to expect a pretty rigorous hike up to the cave, I was up for the challenge. When the day finally arrived, though, I was hit with the reality of enduring the toughest and most rewarding hike I have ever experienced.
On the day of the hike, we started early so we could get up to the cave during the cooler part of the day. After rounding up our helmets, hiking boots, and plenty of DEET, we jumped in our van and headed to the village of Santa Cruz, the same place where we had been a few days before to do our service learning. The trail to Yok Balum started just beyond the schools soccer field. Then, after meeting the two Maya guides that would be leading us up the trail, we set off towards the cave. After hiking for about an hour and a half, which included crossing the Rio Grande and a pretty steep climb up to the actual entrance of the cave, we had reached our destination. We were greeted at the cave entrance by a really interesting formation that looked like a jaguar paw, which, as our guides told us, is what Yok Balum translates to in the local Maya dialect. Then, our guides did a final check on our helmets and headlamps, and we entered the cave.
Inside the cave was breathtaking. We saw stalagmites, stalactites, and countless other formations that looked like they came from another planet. The same formations that were so beautiful to look at also turned out to be pretty useful hand holds during our hike and climb through the cave. About halfway through the cave, we found places to sit down, and our guides had us turn off our headlamps; we were plunged into complete darkness. This almost surreal experience helped me to understand why the Mayans viewed caves like Yok Balum as such sacred places. We spent a few more minutes in the dark before turning back on our headlamps and proceeding through the cave, now joined by the bats that inhabited the cave. After spending about an hour in the cave, we emerged back into the jungle and made our way back down the trail.
Looking back, this hike was definitely one of the highlights of my experience in Belize. Between the uniquely challenging hike through the jungle and the amazing sites within the cave, I don’t think I will ever forget my Yok Balum experience. I also think that sharing this journey brought our class a lot closer together; on a related note, I would like to send a special thank you to everyone that motivated me when the going got tough during those last few hills. Relatively few people get the change to traverse this spectacular cave, and having the opportunity to do so increased my appreciation for my unforgettable Belize experience.
Lindsey Estes is a junior from Federal Way, Washington. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science.
June 2, 2012
The Blue Creek Cave is arguably one of the largest underground cave systems in the world. The creek runs through a cave that is more than five miles in length and is located in the Blue Creek village within the Toledo District of Southern Belize. Geologically speaking, the creek derives from an underground source that slowly made its way through limestone boulders, which created the cave’s configuration. After years and years of existence, stunning calcium carbonate formations, otherwise known as stalagmites and stalactites, line the walls.
Blue Creek plays an essential role in the local community as it serves as a fresh water resource for nearby residents. Archaeologists also find the cave significant because they have recovered several ancient Mayan ceramics and other artifacts from inside. Tourists, on the other hand, including myself and my classmates, take interest in the Blue Creek Cave for the caving experience.
On Friday afternoon, we drove over to Blue Creek village to begin our caving adventure.
Before arriving at Blue Creek village, my classmates and I were expecting a ‘mild’ trek to the cave and an ‘easy-going’ swim through it. However, we actually experienced the complete opposite…
First of all, the trail to the cave’s entrance was not as clear-cut as we were anticipating. The latter half of the hike involved quite a bit of rock climbing as well as crossings over slippery stones and stretches of creek water. Needless to say, we were already soaked and muddy before even reaching the mouth of the cave. After about 40 minutes of strenuous trekking we finally arrived at the cave’s opening. There, we stripped down to our bathing suits and strapped on some lifejackets and cave helmets.
Our guides, Manuel and Rosalio (also our designated van driver), jumped into the waters and led us into the darkness. After all, only the first 15 or so feet of the cave are exposed to outer elements such as natural sunlight. As we journeyed further into the pitch-black cave with our trusty headlamps, we noticed that the flow of the creek was quickly picking up. What had begun as a stroll through a lazy river stream suddenly turned into a challenging struggle through rapid currents. As we zigzagged through the cave in the opposite direction of the current’s flow, we relied on one another for strength and support. I remember that at some points, my entire body was horizontal to the water’s surface while I was hanging on to the edge of slimy limestone for my life.
In between our attempts to catch our breath, we marveled at areas that displayed embedded stalagmites and stalactites. They were quite a sight to see especially because I never expected to find such unique structures in a place that never sees broad daylight. These stalagmites and stalactites form when water drops accumulate and deposit calcium salts. The difference between the two types of calcium carbonate formations is that the stalagmites rise from the floor of the cave while the stalactites hang from the roof of the cave.
We slowly made progress as we proceeded to struggle pass the strong currents, gripping onto slippery limestone and propelling ourselves across the rapids as fast as we could. After reaching the second of five waterfalls, it was finally time to head back. As you can imagine, the trip back was nothing like the trip there. When we were ready, we let go of the walls and effortlessly drifted back to the opening of the cave.
By the time we reached the mouth of the cave, over an hour had passed. All of us were relieved to see some sunlight and to step onto stable land.
The experience as a whole was truly a bonding one because it not only tested our trust in our guides but also our trust in each other. If it were not for some of my classmates’ and both of our guides’ help, the powerful currents could have violently swept me back down the creek before finishing the tour. Looking back on that day now, I think we all can have some good laughs about how ridiculous our struggles were. It was one of those unforgettable stories that I will always retell to my family and friends back home.
Ticia Lee is a sophomore majoring in Public Relations and minoring in Environmental Studies. Upon graduation, she hopes to work for a company that effectively communicates environmental awareness to the general public. Being a city girl from San Francisco, Ticia enjoys spending time in the great outdoors as much as she can. This is her second time participating in one of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passport programs.