Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ecotourism and Kayaking in Belize

From Laura Farrell, Trip Coordinator and Expedition Leader of the NOC Adventure Travel College Program. For more than 30 years, NOC's Adventure Travel program has delivered unforgettable expeditions around the globe. Our trips blend exciting activities and beautiful settings with a respect for local culture to form one memorable package.

Last month NOC guided a group of Wofford College students to the tropical country of Belize, escaping the winter of the Southeast as part of a course the students were taking focusing on ecotourism. The students had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture while also experiencing the many eco-friendly adventure opportunities in the country. This was the second year that NOC Adventure Travel College Programs guided Wofford College through Belize, and I’ve been fortunate to be the expedition leader for both trips.

Sea Kayaking

Due to a huge snowstorm in the Southeast, the students’ flight down to Belize was delayed by two days. Myself and other NOC guides were already in Belize preparing the final trip details, and were quick to react in changing the itinerary. Despite losing two days all of the key activities and highlights of the trip were still worked into the schedule.

The first phase of this year’s Belize adventure began on the mainland near the town of San Ignancio, an area well known for rich Mayan history. Staying in an eco-lodge, the students spent their first days gaining insight into the Mayan culture by way of eco-tour adventures. Students enjoyed Tikal National Park in Guatemala, one of the largest known Mayan archeological sites, as well as the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) tour, involving an excursion deep into an old Mayan cave to experience untouched artifacts.

Mayan Temples

We then headed south toward the Toledo state region of Belize, where you find a high density of Belizean people still living by way of old Mayan traditions. Surrounded with thatched roofs and where farm animals abound, the students became intrigued with the lifestyle of the native people. It was especially interesting to visit this area after a few days of learning about ancient Mayan culture. It allowed the students the opportunity to compare and contrast the Mayan traditions from thousands of years past to the Mayan traditions of today.

In this area we visited the traditional Mayan village of San Felipe and were taken on a tour of one of the villager’s cocoa farms, where the fruit is harvested to make chocolate. After exploring the farm and learning about sustainable agricultural practices, we went back to the villager’s house and actually learned how to turn the fruit into chocolate! That evening the students split into groups and were given the opportunity to have dinner with various host families within the community, experiencing firsthand how they live. It was an amazing cultural experience not easily forgotten.

Grinding Cacao

The second phase of the trip is what we refer to as the “islands phase” because we take a boat out to remote islands in the world’s second largest barrier reef. We stayed in tents on the small and beautiful Pompion Caye. Our days were spent rotating through a variety of activities including sea kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, fishing and snorkeling. One day we took an excursion to Laughing Bird Caye, a National Marine Park, allowing us to see the benefit conservation can have on an area. Fishing is always one of the highlights of the trip. The students were excited about the chance to catch an infamous bonefish, which live in large numbers around the island of Pompion.

NOC Instructor Will Norris teaching the basics of Stand Up Paddlebaording (SUP)

After a few days on Pompion, we hopped on the boat and headed toward Tarpon Caye, the next stop on our island adventure. Tarpon Caye’s rustic cabanas hang out over the water with hammocks on each porch. After having spent many nights in tents and without showers on Pompion, staying in the cabanas was a great surprise to the students. Here we all continued to rotate through the various water-based activities including sea kayaking to a nearby island and attempting hand-line fishing (no poles, no reel, just some fishing line and a hook!).

Traditional Cabana

Needless to say the students were not happy when we told them it was time to get back on the boat to head to the mainland. We all would have loved another week on “island time” enjoying the sun, sand and sea. With one final night, we celebrated a successful expedition over a farewell dinner in the coast town of Placenia.

The next morning we hopped back in the vans and made our way to Belize City. After one last stop at the Belize Zoo to check out the illusive jaguar and harpy eagle, we made it to the airport and said our goodbyes. I am already looking forward to the opportunity of guiding the next group of Wofford College students on their Belize Adventure in 2012!

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