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Tour Belize - Chocolate, Nature and Culture


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Preliminary Tour Itinerary

Itinerary: Toledo, Belize: Organic Cacao Farm, Birding, Rio Blanco Waterfall, Tortilla Making, Ancient & Modern Maya Culture, Punta Gorda Farmers Market, Cotton Tree Chocolate Factory, Nim Li Punit Mayan Ruins, Study of Medicinal Plants, Snake Caye Boating Excursion
Duration: 8 days

Day 1: Start of the Tour - Welcome to Belize 
Arrive at Belize International Airport and board a local flight to Punta Gorda.  At Punta Gorda Airstrip, you will be met by an IBEX representative and transferred to the lodge.  Join your group leaders for dinner and orientation.
Please note: The cost of your local flight and your transfer to Cotton Tree Lodge are included in your program fee.

Day 2: Eladio Pop’s Cacao Farm  
Though tourism is now the largest industry in Belize, agriculture continues to be a main source of income in the Toledo District.  Major crops in the region include corn (milpa), rice, beans, and cacao.  Unlike the large-scale farming of citrus and bananas done in the northern parts of the country, production in southern Belize is mostly small-scale, labor intensive, and meant for local consumption. 

Cacao, one of the main cash crops for Toledo small farmers, is the fruit that is processed into chocolate. Cacao was used by the ancient Mayans as a unit of currency, and also ground into a warm, dark drink often seasoned with pepper. Today, cacao is enjoying a new popularity as a cash crop for Mayan farmers in southern Belize. A small and hearty tree, cacao can be grown organically, prevents erosion, provides habitat for wildlife, and offers an alternative to slash and burn farming.

Today visit an organic cacao farm in San Pedro Columbia village and learn how the different plants, animals, and insects balance each other to maintain this productive agricultural ecosystem.   Pick and taste cacao, along with other edible jungle plants.  After completing the farm tour, return to the farmer’s home and assist his wife and his wife and daughters to make a traditional hot chocolate drink, consumed by both the ancient and modern Maya.  Roast, crack, and winnow the beans, grind in local allspice, sugar, and vanilla, and sample your completed work. Finish your afternoon with a traditional Mayan lunch stewed chicken, rice, beans, and tropical fruit. 

After returning to the lodge, learn about modern chocolate making methods.  Roast beans, crush and grind them, then begin the conching, or refining process, to start a batch of chocolate that you will eventually mold into finished bars.  Learn about cacao percentages and recipe formulation. 

Day 3: Birding and Rio Blanco Waterfall 


Rise early and join a local expert for birding on the grounds of Cotton Tree Lodge.  With nearly half of its land in designated protected areas and an extremely low population density, Belize is a haven for wildlife, especially birds. Unspoiled tracts of tropical forests, savannahs, cayes, wetlands, and coastal plains providing habitats for a myriad of local and migratory species. As of late 2008, 587 species of birds had been identified in Belize, and new ones are recorded all the time.  The annual Punta Gorda Christmas bird count, organized by the Belize Audubon Society, regularly records over 250 species in the area surrounding Cotton Tree each year.  The Masscusetts Audubon Society maintains a strong relationship with Belize, regularly organizing trainings for local guides and trips for foreign birders. (Read more conservation efforts in Belize and "A natural connection: Intern program brings Belize naturalists to Joppa Flats.") Many migratory species which can be found in Massachusetts spend their winters in, or pass through, Belize.

Enjoy breakfast at the lodge, then transfer to Rio Blanco Waterfall.  A tiny reserve which received just under 100 official visitors in 2008, Rio Blanco National Park is as remote as it is beautiful.  Pass through the rural Mayan villages of San Antonio and Santa Cruz as you travel up Karst hills and wind through tropical forests and milpa patches.  

The Rio Blanco River is a tributary of the Moho River that flows by Cotton Tree Lodge, and the park surrounds a spectacular waterfall. Meet with a park ranger, and learn how the nearby villages of Santa Elena and Santa Cruz organized the Rio Blanco Mayan Association in 1994 to protect this waterfall and 104 adjacent acres of sub-tropical forest. Jaguar, ocelot, margay, river otter, and many species of birds and fish live in the park. The RBMA hopes this area can become a viable ecotourism destination generating income for both villages.

If you are a thrill seeker, you may jump from the 20 foot cliffs or cross the cable bridge over the river. Enjoy a picnic lunch by the falls.  Rio Blanco National Park: Floristic Guide.

Return to the lodge in the afternoon and spend your free time kayaking, swimming in the Moho, biking, exploring the grounds, or simply relaxing. 

Day 4: Tortilla Making and the Modern Maya   


Corn, or maize, has always been an important crop to the Mayan people. The ancient Maya believed it was a gift from the gods and growing it was a sacred duty. While things are changing in Toledo, farmers in Santa Anna and other villages of Toledo still use the traditional milpa growing methods of their ancestors, and their wives still make corn tortillas by hand for their families.   In this workshop you will learn how to prepare corn tortillas, a staple food in many Mayan homes. Mrs. Bo will host you at her home in Santa Anna village, two miles from Cotton Tree Lodge. She will show you how harvested corn is separated from the cob, soaked in lime, and ground to make delicious hot tortillas. Try your hand at preparing your own.    
Return to the lodge for lunch and a round table discussion, Perspectives: Yours, Mine, and the Maya, Life in Modern Belize.  Learn about the current hot topics of indigenous land rights and the preservation of Maya culture in Belize.  Discussion will be lead by Anne-Michelle Marsden, a Rutgers distance learning professor based in Punta Gorda.

Day 5: Punta Gorda Farmers Market, Cotton Tree Chocolate, and Optional Cave Trip 

After an early breakfast, transfer to the town of Punta Gorda and visit the small but bustling farmers market.  Find stalls of fruits and vegetables and fresh-caught fish, along with some local crafts, then head to the Cotton Tree Chocolate factory.

Cotton Tree Chocolate sources its beans from local Belizean farmers, and produces a selection of dark and milk chocolates for sale around Belize.  Join Cotton Tree Chocolate staff for a hands-on workshop to learn modern chocolate making methods.  Discuss Fair Trade, organic certification, and issues surrounding the confection.  Use the chocolate you began conching on Day 2 and mold and package your own bars.  

Return to the lodge for lunch.  Free afternoon to enjoy the grounds.  Kayak, swim, bicycle, or simply relax in a hammock. 


Adventurous participants also have the option to journey to Blue Creek Cave in the afternoon. The Mayan name for Blue Creek Cave is Hokeb Ha, or where the water enters the earth.  To reach the cave, you’ll hike approximately twenty minutes over mostly easy terrain, through the jungle and upstream along the banks of the green-blue river. When you arrive at the mouth of the cave, you will step into the water and swim upstream towards the cave’s interior and the river’s source. We will provide headlamps, life jackets, and a trained guide to assist you. You will see stalactites, stalagmites, and other unique rock formations as you swim and hike upstream.


Day 6: Nim Li Punit Ruins and Medicinal Plants  
The Maya Ruins of Nim Li Punit are situated on a beautiful hilltop site near the village of Indian Creek, affording views of Belize, Guatemala, and the Caribbean. Nim Li Punit was inhabited from sometime in the middle Classic Period (AD 400 700) until around 900, and probably supported a population of around 6,000 at its peak.  It is best known for the 26 stone stelae that were found there. Each stelae was carved with hieroglyphics and used to record important information such as alliances, wars and battles, and family trees. One stela depicts a ruler wearing a large headdress. This inspired the name Nim Li Punit, which means big hat in the Kekchi Maya language. Some of the best preserved stelae are set up in the visitor’s center with explanations. Others are still erect in a circular pattern in the Plaza of the Stelae’.

In the afternoon, join a Mayan healer at his farm near Cotton Tree Lodge to learn about traditional bush medicine in Belize.  Traditional medicine and natural healing was once widely practiced throughout the Mayan communities of Belize. Using a combination of medicinal plants and prayer, shamans and healers treated both the physical and spiritual ailments of their communities. In the 20th century, western influences began to discourage the use of traditional medicine and fewer and fewer healers were trained. Today the knowledge is all but lost, however, scientific communities from the western world have shown a new interest in the medicinal properties of tropical plants. Today over 25% of the world’s commercial medicines are produced from compounds found in tropical plants.  

Day 7: Port of Honduras Marine Reserve with Optional Snorkeling  

After an early breakfast, board a canopied skiff and depart from the Cotton Tree Lodge dock, 12 miles down the twisting, tranquil Moho River and out to the Caribbean.  Pass undeveloped riverbanks lines with stunning mangroves.  Pass local fishermen in dugout canoes.  See iguana, colonies of frigates, howler monkeys, and other stunning wildlife as you make your way to the river’s mouth. 

At the mouth of the river you will turn north towards the Snake Cayes, a set of four small islands in the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve. They are protected by the Belizean government and designated a ‘no-take’ zone. The shallow water surrounding them is full of coral, fish, turtles, conchs, lobsters, and other sea life.   These coral heads are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second longest reef system in the world.  The reef stretches from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, along the coast of Belize, and south to the Bay Islands of Honduras. It is over 450 miles long and home to more than 60 species of coral, 350 mollusks and 500 fish species.

After your morning of snorkeling, swim straight up to the deserted beach of Abelone Caye and the boat will meet you there with your packed lunch. In the afternoon, stop at the ranger’s station to learn more about the reserve and marine preservation efforts. Climb their 20-foot observation tower for a panoramic view of the Belize coastline before heading back up the Moho River. 

Day 8: Conclusion of the Tour and departure from Belize
After breakfast at the lodge you will be transferred to Punta Gorda Airstrip to board your flight to Belize City International Airport.  At Belize City International, clear customs and board international flights home.   
Please note: A US $35 departure tax is not included in your program fee and must be paid in cash at customs. 

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