The day had finally arrived! Nine months of saving money, bagging groceries at Publix, and slow crawling through two semesters of classes had all led up to this moment. I was about to get on an airplane destined for Belize City to start my three week study abroad in Belize! I was stoked of course. I’d be taking a Marine Biology course while living on a tropical island and a Tropical Ecology course while living deep in the rainforest and visiting the world famous Belize Zoo. I was most excited about the five SCUBA dives I had planned. Although I’m from Florida and spent my entire life around the ocean, I had never seen a shark in the wild and to me they were the equivalent of a mythical creature. I was hoping this trip would change that.
After a short puddle jump from Orlando International Airport to Miami International, it was a roughly three hour flight to Belize City. The airport there is incredibly small. Everyone walks down stairs right onto the tarmac. You go through a brief customs window and walk through a small strip of shops and you’re off to your destination. We had a bus scheduled through the company our professor used to come pick us up. It drove us four hours through the beautiful jungle covered countryside to the coastal town of Dangriga. From there we boarded a rundown speedboat that took us about ten miles offshore to the postcard pristine little island we would be living on for the next 11 days called South Water Cay.
South Water Cay
To my amazement, the dock was attached to a little island tiki bar that was open all day and late into the night and served all the local brews. Which is only two I should add. Belikin and Belikin Amber, however, they were legit and would wash the salt from the ocean out of my mouth countless times for the next 11 days! The island also had beach volleyball, kayaks and water boards, and awesome white sand beaches. We shared the island with another group of college students doing a similar study abroad program and when class was out at night we all gravitated back to the tiki bar to end the day properly.
Of course, class itself was just as fun as anything we did at the tiki bar. Other than a couple required lectures, our class time was spent in the water. We did a total of 13 snorkel trips and five SCUBA dives on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef only after the Great Barrier Reef. The water was absolutely amazing! It was crystal clear allowing underwater visibility over 300 ft. and even 60 ft. below the surface it was still 85 degrees F! I never touched a wetsuit. In those 11 days we literally saw and identified almost every species of fish and invertebrates in our identification books, but the real treats came in the form of sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, and nurse sharks. Oh yea, and the one time I swam around the corner of a massive wall of coral and finally came face to face with a 14 ft. hammerhead shark! It was one of the most surreal moments of my life, and ended my fantasy that sharks were mythical creatures. In the end, it was really hard to say goodbye to South Water Cay, but more adventure awaited us deep in the Central American Rainforest.
The Rain Forest
I honestly could not tell where exactly we went next. We took the boat back to Dangriga and boarded another bus. From
there I know we went west out of the city and southwest in to the jungle for about three hours. We unloaded all our gear in a small traditional Mayan village and humped it halfway up this mountain right into the jungle. At our destination, there was a couple of rough little cabins and a slightly bigger cabin where we would share our meals at. Oh, and a wooden platform right on the river that ran by our cabins. Who’s up for a swim in the Rainforest!
As sketchy as it sounded, the most dangerous thing about the river was the ear infection I developed a couple of days later. No crocodiles or piranhas this high up the mountain. The tropical birds on the other hand made us feel like we were in a discovery channel documentary though with all their bright yellow and green feathers. Of course there’s one thing that you can never escape from in the jungle…. bugs. I highly recommend you come equipped with deet 100% for any rainforest like excursion. Our first hike was a night hike and the size and density of the bugs we saw made me feel like I was in Avatar. I almost turned right into one that was bigger than my hand! And if you have ever been to Florida and were bothered by the cicadas there then you’re in for a real treat. Imagine 10x louder at 0400 in the morning basically right next to your ear. That first time will get you out of bed quick!
We ended up not seeing any mammals the five days in the jungle but we did climb a 4,000 ft. mountain, went spelunking in a big cave with leftover pottery from the Mayans and plenty of signs of Jaguars, and we spent a day at our guides house down in the village as he introduced us to his family, made us a local chocolate drink from the cocoa beans he grows on his farm, and explained to us life in an average Mayan village nowadays. It was an incredible experience that led to us being invited to a birthday party with music and some dancing. My friend and I ended up getting in trouble later that day though and almost sent home. We were specifically told to not travel into the rainforest without a guide and well…. I’m blogging for a company called Fearless Trek now so I guess you know what I went and did. Of course we encourage you to explore as much as possible but if you’re with a school group, just follow the rules.
After five days of adventure it was time to leave the Jungle. We had two days left and a jam packed agenda a little closer to civilization.
From the time we met at the airport we were handed a book called “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird” that was required reading for our classes and needed to be finished before we got to the Zoo. Without ruining too much, the book is about an American woman named Sharon Matola who fell in love with the wildlife of Belize and has dedicated her life to the conservation of Belize’s most important resource. Its wildlife. The book is an incredible read that will enlighten you on the history, politics, and of course wildlife of Belize as Sharon attempts to do everything in her power to save Belize’s last scarlet macaws.
Her largest contribution to Belize however, was founding The Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo is world famous and quite unique in that it isn’t like most zoos that go out and bring in the famous animals from around the world that everyone wants to oogle over and snap a few photos of. Every animal in The Belize Zoo is endemic to Belize and almost all are rescues. The zoo now boasts a healthy population of native wildlife from tapirs and crocodiles to all the big cats including jaguars and of course, scarlet macaws. The zoo has given all of the locals a place to go as a family to see what Belize’s greatest recourse looks like and to be educated on the importance of keeping those guys around. The Belize Zoo has done wonders for conservation in Belize at a grassroots level.
Of course we couldn’t leave without visiting! We stayed the night there and got a special tour of the zoo after hours where I got to pet a tapir and feed a jaguar. Both were incredibly adorable and the jaguar acted like my dog in a lot of ways. We even got to meet Sharon herself at one point, busy as ever. It was an incredible experience!
Class was officially over now but we couldn’t leave Central America without visiting at least one ancient Mayan city right? So
we traveled on a little jungle cruise up the river to the city of Lamanai. The boat ride alone would have made a fun day in and of itself. We saw crocodiles, spider monkeys and a lot of different bats and tropical birds. At the ruins themselves we finally spotted some howler monkeys and tamandua up in the trees. The city ruins were still mostly unexcavated with the exception of a few good sized pyramids that you can explore and walk up. At the top of the largest one you can see what looks like small jungle covered mountains all around you except, they’re actually other pyramids just like the one you are standing on. It’s definitely awe inspiring to take in an ancient civilization in its prime like that and might just bring out a little Indiana Jones in you!
The only really sad part of everything was that it had to come to an end. It had been an incredible journey over the course of just three weeks and yet it had a profound impact on my life.
All I can say is what are you waiting for!? It’s time for your incredible journey abroad!
If you have your own awesome study abroad experience, comment the details below or shoot us an email! We would love to hear about it!