FROM THE BEACH TO THE JUNGLE
After spending our first few days on the beautiful Caribbean shores of Caye Caulker Oti. and I headed inland and west towards the mountains, jungle, & agricultural area known as the Cayo, Belize.
There are many reasons to visit the Cayo which seems to have endless experiences waiting for nature and wildlife lovers. The Cayo has something for everyone – mountains, jungles, Mayan ruins, rivers & caves, zip lining for the thrill seekers, and of course all kinds of plants and wildlife. It would be impossible to cover all of what we did in one blog post, so the focus of this one will be our unexpected, but fabulous adventures tracking wild howler monkeys and medicinal plants on the private farm of our Airbnb host, Hector Mar, who lives in the town of Santa Elena located right next to the more well known town of San Ignacio.
Traveling to the Cayo by Bus
The town of San Ignacio is the central hub of the Cayo, Belize. We decided to travel there by bus, because it is one of the real bargains left in the country. For example, a three hour trip might cost you $5.00 one way. Compare that to $30.00 for to a two hour bus trip from upstate NY to NYC. Traveling by bus in Belize also allows you to mingle with the local people which would not happen in one of the expensive shuttles or going by air.
There are two kinds of buses in Belize – Regular (local) and Express. Most of the the local buses are old converted Bluebird school buses. They have no air conditioning and are rather rickety, but can travel at a fast clip and seem to get you wherever you’re going just as well as the other pricey modes of transportation. The slightly more expensive “Express” buses sometimes have air conditioning. Anyone planning a trip to Belize should note that the regular buses make a lot of stops along the way and usually take much longer than the the express buses that only go to their final destination city.
It’s very common for drivers of regular buses to stop along the road side and pick up or drop people off so we waited on the highway just outside the Belize Zoo. We were told to get the REGULAR (not express) bus headed towards the city of Belmopan. Sure enough, the bus came and we hopped on. In Belize you simply get on the bus and an assistant comes around to collect your bus fare. I never seemed to be able to find any written bus schedules in Belize and finally learned that there just aren’t any …..usually. I only found one in the tourist office of San Ignacio. If you’re planning a trip there are a couple of websites that offer information about Belize bus travel, schedules & routes. Check them out before you go – It will save you some headaches. Here are the links: Belize bus info and More Belize bus info.
Anyway, it was a typical hot sunny day in Belize with a brilliantly clear sky as our bus whizzed through the emerald green jungles, tiny villages, and mountain passes along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway. Arriving in the bustling little town of San Ignacio we discovered that our destination Airbnb in Santa Elena was just a ten minute walk across a small bridge over the Macal River: The river divides the two sister towns. Our host, Hector, had a house that was perched on a hill with a balcony giving a nice view of the village and mountainous countryside. Hector is a warm, friendly Belizean with a raucous laugh who welcomed and immediately made us feel like family. He showed us around the house and mentioned that he is also a registered tour guide who could take us to those areas only accessible with a vehicle.
A VISIT TO HECTOR’S FARM
Hector made freshly squeezed orange juice for us the following morning and we had breakfast with him at the table in his large spacious kitchen. When I mentioned that we were particularly interested in nature and wildlife he suggested visiting his farm where there were wild howler monkeys, fruit trees, and medicinal plants. This was an offer Otilija and I could not pass up! We decided to go out there with him after lunch. After a morning of exploring the fascinating town of San Ignacio and discovering some wonderful tropical fruits at a nearby stand we returned to the house where Hector picked us up in his jeep.
The Cayo district of Belize is an agricultural area and driving through the pastoral countryside to Hector’s farm made me feel a bit like I was in the Emerald City of Oz – everything was so lush and green.
We passed through the Mennonite community of “Spanish Lookout” and Hector explained that the Mennonites produced a lot of the area produce. Actually the best time to visit San Ignacio is during their weekly Sat. market where the multicultural communities converge to sell fresh fruits, vegetables, and just about everything else.
DISCOVERING MEDICINAL PLANTS
After a long stretch of dirt road we pulled into Hector’s farm where he introduced us to the caretaker, Leonardo, from El Salvador. When Hector told Leonardo that we wanted to learn about the medicinal plants his eyes lit up as he motioned us to follow him, pointing out different flowers and handing us various leaves to smell. In the video clip below he and Hector show us “Yerba Buena” a type of mint used throughout Central America for stomach upsets and colds. If anyone out there knows the English name of the red flowering bush that follows I would love it if you could tell us in the comment section at the end of the post. Anyway, here we all are in the video:
Next, were taken to a Noni tree! You’ll probably remember the popularity gained by this fruit in the 80’s when companies discovered its natural health benefits and began bottling the juice which it sold online and in stores.
I had no idea what the fruit even looked like until now and this was the first time I’d ever seen the tree growing in its natural habitat. Well here it is. The noni fruit is not much to look at and is reputed to have a nasty taste, but that doesn’t deter the indigenous people who know the health benefits it offers : Have a listen below.
Hector also showed us the tree pictured below which has a delicious white creamy fruit with a custard like consistency that you can eat with a spoon. Locals refer to it as an annona, or Cherimoya. In English it’s often called a sugar or custard apple. The fruit has a sweet, tangy taste something like what you might get if you combined a pineapple with a papaya and regular apple. I discovered them for the first time in Guatemalan markets years ago, but was unable to find any in the US except for California. Actually there are a many different species of annona fruits all thriving in slightly different tropical and subtropical climates throughout Central, South America, and Asia. The juicy, aromatic fruit is used in smoothies, ice cream, and just eaten raw.
Belize has a hot climate and the sun is strong, so it’s essential to always bring lots of water wherever you go. Well, today we lucked out, because there were coconut palms all over the farm! The young green ones are what you want to choose, (when they are 5-7 months of age), because that’s when they have the most water content. Leonardo and Hector whacked some right out of the trees for us with one swipe of a machete. This was NIRVANA! (I love coconut water!!). The CLEAR COCONUT WATER (not the milky white juice) is high in electrolytes having levels similar to those found in the human body. This makes it a perfect hydration drink and Isn’t it fitting that Mother Nature would make sure coconut palms grew in hot tropical climates! In speaking to people from Belize, Guatemala, and also the southern US states I was told they used coconut water to help treat bladder infections, and even reduce the size of kidney stones. Coconut water is a natural diuretic and its high potassium content is attributed to its beneficial effect on the heart and blood pressure.
Unfortunately, some of the impressive health properties are lost in the pasteurization process that many of the packaged drinks undergo, so if you have the opportunity to buy the fresh coconut, that is the best source. For more fascinating information on the remarkable health benefits of coconuts see Jeff Primack’s excellent presentation below:
The last plant that we saw at the farm has no medicinal properties that I know of, but I’m including it, because it’s loads of fun to see especially when you pass by a long row of them growing along the ground. Hector called it a “DORMILONA FERN” (meaning “The sleepy fern”). It’s is a member of the sensitive plants (Mimosa pudica) native to Central and South America, but I’ve heard that it can now be found in Aisan countries as well. Here’s a short video clip about it. Watch what this funny plant does!!
You can actually buy this plant on amazon and grow it. Kids get a kick out of it….everyone does. Just click on any of the amazon links here and when you get to the website just type into the search bar “Sensitive plant.” It will pull up the plant you see here in the video and other varieties as well.
It was the late afternoon when Leonardo alerted us that this was usually the time when the black howler monkeys would be active and nearby in the forest, so after taking a rest in the shade and drinking some thirst quenching fresh coconut water we traipsed after him into the jungle to search for the monkeys – but that will be the subject of another blog post! Stay tuned!
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Disclaimer** The medicinal benefits of plants as mentioned on this page are meant as educational information only. The authors and subjects in the post are not advocating them as treatments, cures, or prevention of any disease nor are they recommending them as a substitute for seeking professional medical help. The reader assumes full responsibility for his or own health. The authors and people in the videos are not responsible for the use, misuse, positive or negative results from any of the above mentioned botanicals.