Tropical Ecology

“Seremei and Ayou!”

We are traveling back to Raleigh today. As our trip concludes, we have been spending a lot of time reflecting on our experiences, both as a group and individually. It is a bittersweet time. We are excited to see our families and be in our own beds but are going to miss our new educator friends. It has been an amazing trip full of laughs, inside jokes, and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. We are thankful for the group that Megan, Melissa and Andy assembled and for their endless attention to detail, unwavering enthusiasm and leadership. We are also thankful for our Belizean guides Nathan and Zhawn, who were incredible ambassadors for their country and passionate to share about their culture and all the flora and fauna of Belize. Lastly, we’re grateful to Neysy and Kaylie, the two Belizean teachers who joined us, for jumping on the bus with fifteen strangers and sharing the journey.

group on boat

Our final boat ride, departing South Water Caye for the mainland at Dangrigia, a bus ride to the airport, and a flight home to Raleigh

Thank you for following along with us and goodbye! Seremei and Ayou! (Thank you and goodbye in Garifuna!)

Tropical Ecology

“Last Day on the Island”

We can’t believe this is our last full day in Belize! At times, it feels like we just got here, but we are all looking forward to returning to our loved ones at home as well. For our last day, we started off with another delicious Belizean breakfast before taking off on a boat to the Carrie Bow Caye Smithsonian research station. We met the manager of the facility, Kevin, who showed us around and explained the important work being done at the center.

group standing in front of research station

The start of our tour at the Smithsonian field station on Carrie Bow Caye.

After finishing at the research center, we made our way by boat to the mangroves to snorkel around their amazing roots looking for all kinds of life. Even though we did not get to see a manatee (la vaca del mar), there were some very impressive starfish. The experience of snorkeling in such an incredible ecosystem was unparalleled.

We then explored more reef life snorkeling just behind the barrier reef. We saw spiny sea urchins, friendly parrotfish couples, flowy sea anemones and all variety of beautiful coral that plays host to a ton of important sea life. After an invigorating swim back the boat, we headed home to South Water Caye for our lunch and our closing events.

snorkler holding large starfish

Neysy posed for a photo with one of the starfish we found.

parrotfish on reef

Parrotfish and various corals.

group eating lunch at long table

Our final lunch at South Water Caye.

We had a relaxing afternoon with some well-deserved free time after an action-packed trip. Some of us did some journaling on the beach while others went on one final snorkel off the beach. We also had to prepare presentations/performances for our last night together. We worked on skits, charades and superlatives, which we presented after our final dinner on the island. It was great to laugh and have fun together; it’s hard to believe we barely knew each other a week ago! After dinner, we were visited by Ugudarigi Cultural Group for a Garifuna drum performance and dance lesson lit by a beach bonfire. It was a great way to experience some more local culture and the best way to finish off our stay in South Water Caye!

skit on porch

For one of our final presentations we played the newly invented gameshow “Parody” with answers all about our Belize experience.

Dancers in front of bonfire

Learning the punta.

Tropical Ecology

“Life on the Island”

Late last night (Saturday) a small group of us gathered around Danny, a young Belizean boy who just finished eighth grade, on the pier at our Pelican Beach lodging. Danny was casting his line and a hook with a chunk of bait fish (without using a rod) into the crystal clear Caribbean water. Almost instantly his line tugged because he had hooked something. The fish fought but, as he expertly pulled the line in, we marveled at a magnificent 28” barracuda. The sleek scales shimmered in the light of our flashlights as he pulled it onto the dock to unhook it. Soon, after such a long and eventful day, we all drifted to sleep to the soothing rhythm of the Caribbean waves crashing onto the shore and reef of South Water Caye Marine Preserve.



This morning, we were awakened by gusts of ocean breeze entering our rooms as the sun rose over our little piece of paradise. Nathan guided us around the perimeter of the island for our morning walk. We saw seashells, coral fragments, pumice, conch shells and a few friendly island dogs. Nathan demonstrated the proper way to clean and crack a coconut for the group. We continued our way back around the shore until we arrived back to our resort and our open-air dining room. We were served a traditional Belizean breakfast of eggs, bacon, cheese, fruit and fry jacks. We were eager to get out and explore the wondrous underwater world of the Belize Barrier Reef, which is the second largest in the world.

As we rode out to the reef, we first stopped at Tobacco Caye range, and Mr. Omar (our snorkel guide) briefly told us the importance of protecting the West Indian manatee, also known as the “sea cow” in Belize. We were really hoping to see one, but we had no luck. These animals are endangered because only one calf is born every two to five years and they are often harmed by boats and humans since they hang out mostly in the mangroves and shallow water. We marveled at a new fun fact: they only need to come up for air every five minutes.

man cracking coconut

Nathan showing us how to open a coconut

group on boat in front of green island with birds overhead

Watching magnificent frigate birds and brown boobies at Man O’ War Caye

Next, we stopped to check out Man O’ War Caye (aka Bird Island) and viewed frigate birds and brown boobies in their natural habitat and nesting area on the mangroves. When we arrived at the reef, everyone put on their mask and fins, before jumping into the clear Caribbean water. We viewed many coral formations and numerous species of fish including a school of tarpon, stoplight parrotfish, and sting rays. This was a reminder of why we need to preserve and protect our valuable coral reefs.

school of yellow fish in front of coral

School of grunts

sea urchin in hand

Sea urchin

multi colored fish

Stoplight parrotfish female

After a splendid time filled with snorkeling we returned to our resort and enjoyed a traditional Belizean Sunday lunch of BBQ chicken, potato salad, rice and beans. We also got to taste Danny’s catch of barracuda from the previous night and some snapper caught by our Belizean teachers Neysy and Kaylie. We had some down time after lunch and enjoyed some rest and relaxation in the oceanside hammocks and chairs, listening to the peaceful sounds of the ocean waves. At 3:30pm, we all jumped back in the water to snorkel to the nearby reefs off our island, which were teeming with fish and beautiful coral specimens. We then met for a short group meeting. Endless laughter followed as we discussed what challenges we had encountered for our trip and what was our favorite thing we saw at the reef while snorkeling. We had dinner and a night snorkeling session to wrap up our day.

group sitting on deck in front of sunset

Group meeting

Tropical Ecology

“Island Time”

We’re on island time now!

We slept last night to the tune of torrential downpour in the jungle. While the newly muddy paths did not dissuade any of our avid birders from tramping through the jungle in search of wildlife first thing this morning, the rain did cancel our original plans to paint the St. Jude Roman Catholic Primary School near the Maya Center. Instead, we dropped off all our painting supplies and our various donations at the Maya Center and then said goodbye to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Remember what we looked like when we met in Raleigh in April…

12 head shots of group

Before the trip…

After our time in the Jaguar Preserve, here we are…

12 head shots in a grid

After the Jaguar Preserve.

On the outskirts of Dangriga, we stopped at the Garifuna Museum. We were welcomed by Wahrisi, our phenomenal museum guide; she then led us through the various exhibits telling us about the history, cooking, and agricultural accomplishments of the Garinagu people. Along the way, she sang us traditional songs, and then showed us two of the drums, the Segunda and the Primero, central to their rich musical traditions.

two drums side by side, one larger

The Primero (left, tenor) and Segundo (right, bass) drums used in Garifuna music

We then headed to the Pelican Beach Resort to drop off our luggage and eat lunch. After a delicious meal, we loaded up two boats – one for our luggage and one for us – and headed to our new, temporary island home at South Water Caye. The boat ride was forty-five minutes of endless blue water and brilliant blue skies overhead, and it ended at a tropical island paradise.

After settling into our cabins around the island, we all met up with our snorkel gear to check everyone’s masks and get a feel for swimming in a group in the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. What most of thought would be a brief check of our gear turned into an hour of snorkeling, exploring the shallow waters right off the beach. We got to hold a sea cucumber, and we saw conch shells, a spiny lobster, a southern stingray, coral, reef butterflyfish, rock beauty, cocoa damselfish and graysby.

group walking down dock

Heading down the dock in Dangriga to board a boat for the trip to South Water Caye

three people next to chalk board with palm trees in the background

We were warmly welcomed to our island home on South Water Caye

Our daily meeting was held at sunset on a platform overlooking the sea. It was a perfectly picturesque end to a day that started wet and gray in the jungle. After dinner, we have our first night without a night hike, so we are taking advantage of the time to set up hammocks and enjoy the island breeze. We’re looking forward to the next two days of snorkeling and keeping our fingers crossed for more beautiful, sunny weather.

Tropical Ecology

“Welcome to the Jungle”

July 20, 2023

Despite the rain on day four, we were still able to fulfill all our planned experiences! It was our last day at the Sweet Songs Jungle Resort, and we started the day by eating breakfast before loading the bus. Then, we rode 29 miles down the George Price Highway to the Belize Zoo. The zoo is home to the rehabilitated, orphaned and rescued wildlife of Belize. With the help of our outstanding tour guide Jose, we had the chance to explore. He responded to all inquiries, told tales, and provided some background information on the creatures we saw. We observed many different species including coatimundis, harpy eagles, pumas, tapirs, howler monkeys, ocelots, river otters, white-tailed deer, crested iguanas, scarlet macaws and a great number of others.

Neysy feeding a colorful scarlet macaw

Neysy feeding a peanut to one of the Zoo’s scarlet macaws

jaguar on top of a cage with paw out

One of our groups got the chance to enter a cage where guests have the chance to interact with Lindo, one of the Zoo’s jaguars. Lindo has been trained to give high fives!

It was exciting to visit the Belize Zoo, a place we had become familiar with through the “Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” nonfiction novel we were given in preparation for our trip. Many in the group remarked on how amazing it was to see these beautiful and strange (to us) creatures. It felt almost like seeing them in their natural habitat, as the Belize Zoo has taken great care to maintain their enclosures in such a way that they are almost identical to what the animals would have in the wild. Unlike some zoos in North America where the enclosures have sparse vegetation for almost guaranteed views of the animals, this zoo had enclosures dense with foliage that means the habitat is more like a home away from home.


A Baird’s tapir.

Blue Hole National Park was our next stop; a popular tourist attraction due to its vividly blue water, created by the reflection of the sunlight on the limestone underneath. This is the site of a former cavern which had collapsed. We did a quick change from our sweaty, sticky clothes to take a quick dip in this 37-foot-deep cenote. This felt amazing after a humid morning of trekking through the zoo.

From there we left for our day’s final destination: our new, two-day accommodations in the Jaguar Preserve located in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This new lodging is much like your traditional summer camp cabins (and a tad more rustic than our last accommodations). After having checked off a lot of species we could identify at our previous lodgings, we were excited to be in a new environment where our chances of seeing new species increased.

people on steps of rustic dormitory building

Our home in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary!

After settling in, we were treated to dinner prepared by Ernesto and Aurora Saqio, a previous Jaguar Preserve director and his wife. We got to taste traditional Maya foods we had not yet had a chance to try, including amazing tamales.

Finally, we ended the day with a night walk and were rewarded with seeing a plethora of treefrog species. We were fortunate that today was as rainy as it was. Belize has been experiencing a drought and with the rains today it brought out many of these frogs, who are mating and laying eggs on the tree leaves above us. Now we are off to bed to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures!

yellow colored frog on a person's thumb

Yellow tree frog.

green frog with red eyes and black pupils

Red-eyed treefrog (now called Taylor’s leaf frog).


July 21, 2023

Today was our full day at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary! We started off with our morning bird walk, where we walked down to the river and started to orient ourselves to the Preserve. After some much-needed downtime, we walked part of the Ben’s Bluff Trail to a waterfall for some swimming. Behind the waterfall, we found a small cave and a swallowtail swift nest! The waterfall was both cooling and provided some free massages (thanks to the pounding water). After returning to camp, we enjoyed a little more downtime and a delicious lunch.

group in waterfall

The waterfall was a great swimming hole!

In the afternoon, we traveled out of the Preserve to Maya Center for the afternoon! We were able to grab some ice cream and gifts from the Maya Women’s Center. The gifts at the Maya Women’s Center are all handcrafted and used to help connect Jaguar Preserve visitors to the community. We enjoyed our short shopping trip and then traveled down the road to learn about how chocolate is made!

We started at the cacao farm and learned about the life cycle of a cacao tree. We were able to taste the seed at multiple stages, including the raw seed (which is covered in a citrusy pulp), the dried bean and eventually the powdered bean. At the cacao farm, Narcisio showed us how to break open the cacao bean with a few whacks of a stick. A machete would have damaged the seeds but is used when taking the bean off the trees. All the cacao at the farm is harvested by hand! After the cacao beans are harvested, the seeds are removed and then put in bins to ferment for 5–6 days. After they become vinegary the seeds are then laid out to dry in the sun for 6–8 days before crossing the street to be processed into chocolate.

group under shelter listening to presentation with cacao pods

Group listening to Narcisso describe how organic cacao is grown.

We finished up at the farm and crossed the street to Che’il Mayan Chocolate to learn about the Maya way of making chocolate. Robert, our chocolate guide, gave us dried fermented cocoa beans to eat, then explained how the shells were removed from nibs by a fan, (one of the few steps not done by hand) and then placed on a quern (a traditional Maya grinding stone) to be ground into a paste. We tasted the chocolate at each step until we eventually created an 80% dark chocolate. Both Robert and Narcisio kept repeating that their chocolate is high in antioxidants and other nutrients — so eat your (good) chocolate!

woman using tradiional grinding stone to crush cacao nibs into chocolate

Meredith making chocolate.

After our chocolate lesson, we moved down the road and were able to walk around Aurora’s herbal shop before joining she and Ernesto at their restaurant. Ernesto started dinner off with telling us about the history of Cockscomb and Maya Center. In the early 1980s, Belize wanted to find a place to protect jaguars. A scientist, Alan Rabinowitz, was hired by the Belizean government to research jaguars in their natural habitat. Because of this push for jaguar conservation, traditional Maya land began being preserved and the Maya were forced to relocate to what is now Maya Center. Ernesto believed in the protection of jaguars but faced many challenges because of the relocation. He stepped in to be an advocate for both the preserve and the Maya people. He started the Women’s Center to help bring revenue to the Maya and to create a bridge between the community and the preserve. This informative talk was followed by a delicious dinner prepared by Aurora. We enjoyed stewed chicken, rice and beans and Belizean banana bread pudding!

We returned to our accommodations and some of us trekked into the jungle for a night walk. We saw several tarantulas and scorpions, found two coffee snakes, and a HUGE fig tree (we guess it was about 7 feet in diameter but only about 100 years old). We also saw a click beetle with two glowing green spots on its back and a branch that was covered in glow-in-the-dark fungi. We enjoyed a moment on the trail with flashlights off and sat in the peace and darkness of the jungle. When we returned to camp, it was time to pack up and sleep. Tomorrow, the beach!

woman smiling with small snake in her hand

Neysy held her first snake!

brilliant green insect with transparent outer edge, circular

A strange (and large – about 1″ across) scale insect (we think).

scorpion glowing under UV light

Small scorpion glowing under UV light.


Tropical Ecology

“A Jam-Packed Day”

Day three was jam-packed with adventure. We started with an early morning bird walk, followed by breakfast where two collared aracaris (a type of toucan) graced us with their presence at the bird feeder. We loaded the bus for a short ride to Xunantunich Archeological Reserve. This ancient Maya site sits on the edge of the Mopan River where we crossed by hand-cranked ferry — the ferry workers have to turn a crank to move the ferry across the river. After a mile walk, we entered the historical site, where we viewed different structures that were used for ceremonial purposes. We climbed to the top of the largest structure on the site, El Castillo, where the king would have performed rituals. While at the top you could see Guatemala in the distance. Below, on the plaza between the buildings, we viewed a ball court where ancient Maya would have played.

group sitting on tall stair-stepped stone structure

Group photo with El Castillo at Xunantunich.

When we returned to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge, Rita, who is Ketchi Maya, shared her culture including an authentic tortilla-making lesson using a Maya grinding stone. We shaped and cooked the tortillas on a traditional Maya wood-burning oven. We ate them for lunch with plantains and grilled habanero peppers.

three people making tortillas

Corinne and Neysy learn how to make tortillas from Rita.

After lunch we headed down to the Macal River where, in groups of three, we canoed down the river, enjoying the flora and fauna along the banks. On our journey we collected figs to investigate later. At the end we were able to stop and take a dip in the cool, refreshing water. As we headed back to the lodge, we stopped for a local ice cream treat at the Ice Cream Shoppe in San Ignacio.

three canoes on a tropical river

Canoeing the Macal River.

woman swimming in river

Mary enjoying the cool water of the Macal River.

Back at the lodge, Melissa, Megan and Andy led us in an engaging activity where, in groups, we dissected the figs that we found earlier in the Macal River. We learned all about the fig wasp, which has a mutualistic relationship with the fig, and its life cycle. We finished the day with a delicious dinner and a short night walk led by Nathan.

four people looking closely at a plate of figs that are cut open

Meredith, Corinne, Scarlett and Kaylie dissect figs.

group waving arms on porch

The group re-enacting the fig life cycle… Shawna is the female fig wasp. Can you tell?

Tonight we pack up for the next stop at the Jaguar Preserve! For the next two days, it is unlikely we will be able to post new blogs. So stay tuned for a big post on Saturday detailing our time exploring the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary!

Tropical Ecology

“First Full Day”

A man holds a grasshopper in his hand

Andy was happy to capture and show off the grasshoppers and their flashes of color (salmon pink, bright magenta, yellow, etc.) underneath their wings, which are used to startle predators.

Our first full day in Belize began very early with a bird walk at 5:45 am. We were rewarded for rising early with coffee, and then we headed off to explore the land surrounding the lodge. In addition to seeing Belize’s national bird, the keel-billed toucan, we saw a white-necked jacobin, a golden-fronted woodpecker, a spiny-tailed iguana and giant grasshoppers that were similar to our lubbers back home. And the plant life did not disappoint either. We saw starfruit and avocado trees, lobster-claws, and got to taste a velvet apple, a type of fruit that looked like a fuzzy peach with the leaves of a persimmon, that tasted reminiscent of a floral pear.

A group of teachers hikes down a sandy road in open pine forest.

Hiking in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve felt similar to our sandhills region in North Carolina.

After a delicious breakfast, we loaded into the bus and drove to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve where we hiked along the road and then through the jungle — up what we now lovingly refer to as “death hill” due to the steepness and narrowness of the path, the low-hanging branches we had to limbo underneath, and the ever-present heat and humidity — to the entrance to Domingo Ruiz Cave. Once in the cave, we saw stalactites and stalagmites, bats, spiders and kissing bugs; then we sat for a minute in perfect darkness and silence to fully appreciate the majesty of the space.

group of teachers sitting in a cave

Our group sitting inside Domingo Ruiz Cave immediately after our moment of silence in total darkness.

The next cave we visited was named “Rio Frio” (cold river). This is where Late Preclassic and Classic period Maya may have performed sacrifices and other religious ceremonies. Unlike Domingo Ruiz Cave, this one was open on both ends, so we had natural light to aid us as we climbed over rocks to reach a sandy beach along the river running through the cave.

A large open cave entrance with vines hanging down from above

Rustina, Andy and Jeff at the grand entrance to Rio Frio Cave.

silhouette of a woman looking out from a cave into the light

Meredith looks out towards the light and forest from inside Rio Frio Cave.

After a lovely picnic lunch outside the Rio Frio Cave, we headed to the Rio On Pools to cool down after a taxing morning of hiking. We changed into our swimsuits and then got to play like children, clambering over smooth granite rocks, sitting under small waterfalls, sliding into the different pools and swimming around the crevices.

Teachers gather around the base of a small waterfall over smooth granite rocks.

Most of the group at one of the small waterfalls in the Rio On Pools.

We returned to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge where most of us spent our free hour enjoying the infinity pool, and we then had our daily meeting where we discussed highlights of the day and what we learned from our experiences and our top notch tour guides, Nathan Forbes and Zhawn Poot.

After our fabulous dinner, we are headed off on another night hike. Fingers crossed we find some new creatures to observe.

Tropical Ecology

“We made it!”

After three years of waiting, we finally landed in Belize. The early morning was worth it — we took off from RDU at 5:05 AM. We had a layover in Atlanta and then had our final leg to Belize. Our first day was full of animal sightings including howler monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, spiders and lots of birds!

group in bus

We loaded our bus full of excited teachers and lots of luggage!

After visiting the Howler Monkey Preserve, we continued our way to Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge for some rest and air conditioning. We had our first group meeting by the pool and created some group goals for the trip. Some of our goals included taking risks and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. After a delicious Belizean dinner, we took our first night hike of the week and saw a fishing bat, a marine toad, and our first scorpion!

scorpion in Nathan's hands

Our guide, Nathan, showed us how the scorpion fluoresces under UV light.

Now off to bed for some well-deserved rest.

Tropical Ecology

“Back to Belize”

Way too early on Monday morning, 12 educators and three Museum staff will meet at the RDU airport to head to Belize! This amazing group of educators has been waiting since 2020 to make this trip.

grid of 12 head shots

These awesome educators are ready to get to Belize!

One of our trip participants, Corinne, had this to say about getting ready for our adventure:

A week out and preparations are well underway! Here are some necessities, not including clothing, that will be coming with me. Outside of my “I need to be prepared for the weather this close to the equator” items, my gear also includes a couple of books for our Belizean teachers and fun pencils and erasers as a donation to a local school. Now we cross fingers that it’s under 50 lbs all packed!

The Museum has been sharing the wonders of Belize with educators since the start of the Educators of Excellence program in 1987. Its extensive tracts of reserved land provide habitat for a vast array of plants and animals; its friendly people represent diverse cultures including Maya, Mestizo, Creole, and Garifuna; and its barrier reef is home to a rainbow of fishes and other marine life. Everyone is excited to experience all that Belize has to offer and gather information, ideas, and inspiration to bring back to North Carolina students!