Devil Fish

Week Two in Belize: Mangrove Maps and Mayan Ruins
by Emma Kelley -- June 9th, 2014

I finished my last blog at the end of our first work week in Belize.  We’ve had another incredibly fun and productive week since then…

As I’ve mentioned in my previous two entries, this project will determine the blue carbon capacity of Belize’s mangrove forests.   So far, this has mostly involved scouring as many sources as we can to find mangrove maps.  We even found ourselves digging through old documents under layers of dust in our office’s untouched library for an old thesis supposedly containing “pre-settlement” mangrove maps.

In addition to analyzing maps (meaning hours of GIS work), we also want to speak with the folks involved in mangrove management and conservation here in Belize.  There’s so much you can learn with a laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection, but to really understand something, you need to get out, talk to people, and see it all for yourself.

So, on Thursday we took a bus (more on the Belize bus system later) over to the country’s capital city, Belmopan.   Belmopan has only been the capital since 1961, when Hurricane Hattie nearly destroyed Belize City and the decision was made to move the capital inland.  The city now houses most important government buildings.  We headed to the office of the National Protected Areas Secretariat to meet with the Communications Officer, who happened to have just finished his thesis work on mangrove restoration.

He told us about the mangrove forests in Belize and the unique threats they face in comparison to the mangroves in other parts of the world.  The shrimp farming industry has decimated mangroves in Southeast Asia; however, development to accommodate the growing tourism industry appears to be the most pressing threat to Belize’s mangroves.  Many foreigners (myself included) want to travel to and live in Belize, which is great for the tourism industry.  Unfortunately a balance has yet to be struck between developing land to accommodate tourism and protecting the natural treasures these tourists come to see.   All of this information has given us a better perspective on the status of Belize’s mangroves, as well as the opportunity our project has to help find that balance.

More on mangroves later this week!  Last weekend, we decided to check out another treasure of Belize: ancient Mayan ruins.

Sylvia and I decided to start off our ruin experience at Lamanai, the submerged crocodile.  Before touring the ruins though, you have to get there.  Renting cars is very expensive, so it makes sense to take the buses, which run to most major towns and cities in Belize.  From our apartment in Belize City, we can either walk or take a quick taxi down to the bus terminal, Novello’s.

Market outside bus station

The bus terminal and the market outside.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

The bus terminal is an interesting place and the bus ride is all part of the adventure.  The buses themselves are old school buses donated from the United States.  Many have broken windows and tattered seats.  Unfortunately I have no photos – the bus terminal isn’t a great place to be waving around an expensive iphone or camera and we need nothing more than our general appearance to identify ourselves as foreigners.  Both times we’ve gone to the terminal, someone has welcomed us to Belize, which is lovely, but I’m a little tired of being offered a taxi everywhere we go.

I should mention here that there is no written bus schedule.  Really.  It’s not online.  It’s not on a sign in the terminal.  There is no pamphlet with departure and arrival times for each bus going to each location.  I’m dead serious. The only people who really seem to know when and where the buses are coming and going are the locals who take the bus regularly and the terminal representatives dressed in yellow polo shirts walking around Novello’s.  We’ve taken the strategy of asking our co-workers when/if there are buses going where we’re headed, arriving to the terminal based on their suggestions, asking the men in the yellow shirts, and hoping for the best.  So far, so good.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we boarded a bus going north to Orange Walk town.  Online reviews and guides had directed us to tell the driver we would like to get off at the start of the Lamanai river tours and hope for the best.  An hour and a half and BZ$5 later, the bus stopped right at the top of stairs going down to a small dock where our guide and other tourists were waiting for us.  Success!

Our tour was run by a small Maya operator, called Reyes and Sons.  If anyone ever wants a great tour of the Lamanai ruins from the first certified tour guide in the district, then go with these guys.  We started off the tour with a brief side trip to visit a local spider monkey that hangs out in the area and accepts snacks from visitors.  I happened to have a banana with me and hand fed it to him.  He was very polite and clearly used to being fed.  This made me wonder how healthy this practice might actually be for him.  I know about the influences of feeding marine animals and I can only guess they translate to terrestrial animals as well…

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Spider monkey checking out the banana in my hand.
Photo Credit: Sylvia Chang

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Reaching for the banana.
Photo Credit: Sylvia Chang

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Just a bit more?
Photo Credit: Sylvia Chang


After seeing the spider monkey, we headed down the river, stopping to look at different plants and birds.  We saw orchids, a jacana bird (nicknamed the Jesus bird because of its ability to walk on water), and much more.  Closer to the ruins, we ran into a friend of our tour guide, spearfishing in the river.  He smiled at us and raised his catch, a good number of large cichlids.  He must be a brave fisherman, given the river is crawling with crocodiles.


The “Jesus Bird” walking on water.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

Finally we arrived at Lamanai, which is Mayan for “submerged crocodile.”  Unfortunately it was raining pretty hard, so we ate lunch first, hoping the rain might subside. Lunch was cooked by our Maya guide’s mother – what a treat!  It was traditional Maya food, rice and beans with chicken and fried plantains.  It was the most delicious meal I’ve had here thus far.


Welcome to Lamanai.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


A delicious home-cooked maya meal: rice and beans, chicken, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, and fried plantains.
Photo credit: Emma Kelley

We lucked out and the rain stopped, so we commenced our tour, starting with the Jaguar Temple.  The temple is named because of the stone faces on either side.  Across from the temple was the site of a current archeological dig, roped off with caution tape.  Our guide, who has seen these ruins almost every day for over fifteen years,gave us a detailed description of the work that goes on to uncover the ruins. 


The Jaguar Temple…and a few other visitors.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The jaguar sculpture that gives this temple its name.
Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Most of the Lamanai ruins have yet to be uncovered, partially due to a lack of funding.  The excavation occurring now used satellite images to detect mounds thought to be ruins.  The team working the site believes they are uncovering a tomb.  I’ll have to check in and see what they find over the next few months.

Next we passed through the infamous ball court, where Mayan athletes used to play a ball game.  The winners were honored as human sacrifices.


The Ball Court.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


The second temple we saw was the High Temple.   Our guide cautioned us to climb the temple at our own risk.   Although I do have a mild fear of heights (which I always forget until I get to the top of something), when else in my life will I have the opportunity to climb to the top of an ancient Mayan pyramid, one of the few things left of great civilization that died out long before my ancestors even knew of the New World?  Hopefully I’ll have the chance again, but I wasn’t willing to bet on that, so up the temple I went, being careful not to look down.


The High Temple. Let’s go!
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley

The view from the top of the High Temple was well worth the climb (and the horrifying climb back down).  The ancient Mayans must have felt like gods high above the rainforest canopy.


The view of the New River from the top of the High Temple.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


Made it to the top!
Photo Credit: Sylvia Chang



The view from as close as I planned on getting to the edge.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley  

After reaching the ground safe and sound, we moved onto the third and final temple, the Mask Temple.  The Mask Temple was named because of the well-preserved stone faces carved into both sides of the temple.


The Mask Temple.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley


One of the two masks on the Mask Temple.
Photo Credit: Sylvia Chang

This temple was the best place to observe the architecture of these ruins.  After one king passed away, the next would build their new temple over the old king’s temple.  Now, when archeologists uncover these Mayan pyramids, they find one temple inside another, inside another, almost like Russian nesting dolls.  At the Mask Temple, we were able to see the remaining walls of some of exterior temple, long destroyed by the elements.  The faces on the side of one interior temple are so well preserved because the walls built over them protected them through time.


The walls of inner temples and the outer temples built over them by new kings.
Photo Credit: Emma Kelley.

 After a quick stop at the gift shop run by our guide’s wife, we got back into our boat and headed up the river.  After returning to the dock, exhausted and wet from the rain, we thanked our tour guide for the great experience and went to catch a bus home.  Unfortunately, busing home wasn’t as easy as the trip out had been.  Many of the bus stops aren’t clearly marked, so we found what we hoped was a stop and checked with man selling fruit nearby to buy a mango and be sure we were in the right place.  After an hour, the bus back to Belize City finally stopped in front of us, packed full of passengers.  We stood the whole way home, which was somehow another hour longer than our ride there had been, but we eventually pulled back into Novello’s.

The next day, we were supposed go out to Goff Caye for some snorkeling, but the trip was cancelled due to the rain.  That might have been a good thing, considering we were so exhausted from the previous day.  My next entry will be all about our recent trip to the Belize Zoo.  Stay tuned!


  1. Kathy Dailey
    Jun 9, 2014

    Love hearing about your adventures. One day I will show you our two ancient Mayian jugs. Can’t wait for next entry

  2. Emma Kelley
    Emma Kelley
    Jun 11, 2014

    Thanks for reading Aunt Kathy! I’ll have to see these Mayan jugs- where did you get them?

  3. Russell Croft
    Jun 13, 2014

    Hello Emma

    I am an historian, not an environmentalist, but have enjoyed this post because I am interested in Mayan ruins. I think it would have been fascinating to see them when they were in use, and also in their overgrown state when explorers first came upon them and they were almost buried by jungle.

    I posted on this topic in my own blog in January, under the title ‘Mayan Mysteries’. Enjoy the zoo!

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