Central America

Belize and Guatemala

Joni with Blue Morpho Butterfly, Chaa Creek, Belize

If a time capsule could transport a person to a moment and place where the innocence of humanity still lingers it would take you to the country of Belize. This is a land in which dreams can still emerge and float on moist airy clouds that will carry you away.

Belize is a beautiful and fascinating country. The people who call this magical land home are the friendliest I've ever met. They are proud and hard working, and have a politeness about them that seems to be from a gentler time. The whole country possesses an innocence that is much like that of an unspoiled young child. Wide eyed and always smiling, the people of Belize embraced us with gentle dignity and charm.

Cockscomb Biosphere Preserve, Belize

The country itself offers everything a naturalist could ever want from complex rain forest ecosystems, to the northern climate evergreens of the Mountain Pine Ridge area to the most spectacular coral reefs known in the western hemisphere. The world’s only Jaguar preserve is here, a very large tract of land with undisturbed jungle where Jaguar can prowl in the dark shadows of towering trees with no fencing around the borders. Cockscomb Biosphere Preserve is an intact ecosystem offering its inhabitants the kind of life that all wild creatures are meant to have.

Tapir, Cockscomb Biosphere Preserve

For anyone passionate about the natural history of our own species there are numerous long abandoned Mayan civilizations to explore. The jungles surrounding these protected areas are undisturbed, the wildlife abundant and the temples speak for themselves. There is a music in the air for anyone who will listen, music in the sounds of the jungle and in the reflections of mystery that time refuses to reveal. These temples guard their secrets with surprising tenacity. Much study of these ancient cultures still leaves us mostly guessing. Theories change but there is only one truth. If those temple walls could talk…

Temples above the treetops, Tikal, Guatemala

Although I saw very little of it, neighboring Guatemala left me with a much different impression. This country seems to wear the battle scars of a war torn horse. There appears to be much confusion in Guatemala on how to run a country. The apparent priorities are perplexing to someone like me who believes that all people have the same ethical rights to dignified treatment. The Guatemalan government it seemed could be likened to a run-away train. In this country the few that enjoy financial wealth are VERY wealthy and most others have nearly nothing. Even the livestock animals are left to their own devises wandering the rubble country roads searching unsuccessfully for food. I've never seen such an abundance of starved animals and questioned how many of the ones we passed along the way would live to see another sunrise.

Our Land Rover was escorted by a van with armed guards from the border of Belize to the Mayan civilization of Tikal in Guatemala on a stretch of road about seventy miles long. Our guards, Policeman at night and our guards on this day are banditos on their off time, robbing unprotected tourists of whatever they can luck into. Guatemala is a beautiful country with tragic human undertones, a prime example of a good thing going badly, a bold illustration of what is left when morality leaves the human heart.

The Mayan civilization of Tikal is the crown jewel of Guatemala. The rain forest that drapes itself around the numerous temples of stone is alive with life. There is great natural diversity there and the Guatemalans clearly are aware of what a national treasure Tikal is. It is impeccably protected and cared for.

Oropendola and Nests, Tikal

Our visit to Tikal took us over several days through and around temples and rainforest. Visitors were respectfully quieted by the unique mystery of the place. One evening we had an opportunity to climb the “Temple of the Lost World” and watch birds in the day’s last light, saying farewell to the sun as it melted slowly into the jungle horizon. We cautiously descended down the now damp and slippery mass of temple boulders, had a short walk through the night jungle and emerged onto a mowed platform. Before us loomed the most famous temple of Tikal, the massive “Temple of the Masks” piercing a dark blue sky, accompanied only by the moon which was almost full. Together they seemed like two ancient spirits who know all of life’s secrets but refuse to tell. It was frustrating, provocative and BEAUTIFUL.

Temple of the Masks, Tikal

While sleeping in our cabin on the border of Tikal that night I was awakened by a rather hair raising sound. A group of Black Howler monkeys started their ritualistic roaring. It was difficult to determine how close they were; I had learned earlier in the trip how well their voices can travel. Up close their roar is deafening. Although clearly audible, on this night I guessed them to be some distance away. The moon sifted softly into our cabin room through open windows. Voices of great conviction echoed through the night, penetrating the darkness. To hear the commanding primeval call of a howler monkey at night in a jungle is one of life’s truly unforgettable experiences.

Black Howler Monkey

Adjoining the border of Tikal on the side nearest our sleeping quarters were a small collection of tents which hovered over a variety of handmade goods being sold by Guatemalan women. Each woman wore a warm, charming smile, but a polite determination was evident in their eyes. This was important business to them being a matter of serious consequence for their families. The money they asked was very little for their beautifully handcrafted items. Faint music could be heard in the distance, a sound with no rhythm, seemingly carrying no melody. It was reminiscent of music played by an old fashioned hand-cranked Jack in the box. This odd sound along with balmy air and smells that were new to me gave Tikal an almost dreamlike quality, making it the most strangely exotic place on our trip.
Mayan Mask

By the time we reached the shores of the Caribbean Sea on the coast of Belize we had only three days left before returning home. We spent two of those days snorkeling on a variety of reefs that were surprisingly far from the shoreline.

One of many tiny Coral Caye Islands off the coast of Belize

Life under water is fascinating to me. In some ways the creatures seem so bizarre. But a closer look reveals an eco system whose theme directly parallels that which is on land. The food chain concept is the same. There are a wide variety of predators trying to outdo each other with their adaptations, eating today, only to be eaten tomorrow. There are bright colored fish simultaneously swirling through the water as single masses, huge schools which are reminiscent of oversized herds of ungulates on the African plains, even using similar strategies for survival. All the players are there, living their lives in precarious secrecy. We were able to share only a snapshot in time in the lives of these incredible creatures.

Caribbean Reef

One comes away from a third-world country a changed person, with renewed perspective and a greater appreciation for those who are not able to live like we do. People are faced with great challenges in every culture and I am continuously amazed at the resilience, tenacity and strength of the human spirit.

Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize



Copyright © 2015 Joni Johnson-Godsy, All Rights Reserved.