Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | August 10, 2011

To Thatch or not to …

thatch.  It is a question of sustainability.

Thatch is undoubtedly beautiful and creates an authentic ambience that guests really love.  It was our own enjoyment of sleeping under thatch that led us to want to include it in the design for our own lodge. It looks good and it keeps the room much cooler than other roofing materials. It is local, so transport costs are low making the carbon footprint of the roof low. It provides income for local people who, having gained permission from their village and the Forest Department, will cut the leaf and carry it to the road side for collection in bundles.

So it looks like a win win for sustainable building; great aesthetic and provides income for local people. What could be simpler?

The thatch in question is bay leaf palm rather than the more commonplace but less attractive and less durable cohune palm. Cohune grows everywhere on disturbed forest land. The leaves are cut, split along their central stem and then placed in bundles of three to five along the roof.  The bay leaf palm is a sub canopy species that grows in the shade of other trees so can only be found in well forested areas. It is circular fan leaf that is then squeezed into a broom shape and woven into the roofing framework.  It grows on forest land that is managed by the neighbouring villages.

Bay leaf makes a beautiful roof as can be seen in innumerable lodges throughout Belize but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find and therefore more expensive and transport costs rise as people look further afield.  So why is this a problem? It is a renewable resource. It is a plant after all and can be fairly easily regrown although it is a slow grower and may take up to ten years before it can spare leaves for roofing. Why is it not being replanted?

The answer appears to lie in the system of communal landholding. One of our recent suppliers told us that he was not planning to plant more palms closer to the village because if he did a neighbour might harvest it. This raises all sorts of interesting questions about landholding. Surely the village council can devise a simple system to ensure that the person who plants can also reap. And surely a villager who knows that the palms were planted by a neighbour would respect that and leave them alone. Apparently not. So despite the fact that most villagers recognize that bay leaf palm is a diminishing resource that will lead to a vanishing income in a few years time no-one seems to be devising and implementing simple systems to ensure its sustainability.

So it seems that land holding is rather similar to property holding.  The owner of a house is more likely to maintain and improve it than the tenant of a similar house.  And by the same token the owner of forest land is more likely to maintain and ensure its sustainability. Right now thousands of feet of valuable rosewood is being extracted illegally from the forests of Toledo with the aided and abetted by local residents but while land issues remain uncertain it is likely to continue.

In the meantime we have changed the roofs on our two new rooms from bay leaf palm thatch to zinc over a ceiling made from very attractive secondary woods such as Nargusta, Billy Webb, Cabbage Bark, Santa Maria and Milady. I hope that someone is replanting these too.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 20, 2011

Favourite Places to Visit in Toledo: Your View

This one is for those who already know and love Toledo.  What is your favourite place down here; inland or island? Couldn’t find a picture of the Sapodillas but will add if anyone cares to send me one.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 12, 2011

House hunting…

in southern Belize.  Well, in fact most people do not look for houses but for land on which to build and the rain over the past few days reminded me of our own experiences looking for a place to build our lodge.

I am not in the real estate business and have no aspirations in that direction so do not have much advice to offer apart from the following:

1. “Caveat emptor”,

2. Do check the person you are buying from owns the land. I know, it shouldn’t need saying but… And finally…

3. It is a pretty good idea to do your searching during the rainy season. That way you will have the chance to see how the land drains, whether it floods and if so how badly and how often.

Our last flood worthy of the name was back in 2005 so they are not necessarily an annual event.

We generally do not follow the weather much since it will happen anyway and will rarely spoil your fun.  On the other hand, if you are planning boat trips then weather forecasts become quite crucial. If you need to check ahead then the Accuweather site and Weather Underground  provide the most reliable forecasting service although the Weather Underground uses Puerto Barrios so it is about thirty-five miles south east of our location.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 11, 2011

Communal living on the calabash

The calabash, like mango trees and a number of other species, is a magnet for orchids and bromeliads that colonize its branches readily, creating a fascinating eco-system on our single tree that includes mosses, half a dozen orchid species and one or two bromeliads. The unusual appearance of the tree is because the leaves grow straight out of the main branches. Those branches become entwined by the roots of orchids that use it for support.  All these other plants that take up residence are epiphytes, not parasites, living on the tree but not taking anything from it or causing other harm.

The large calabash gourds contain a greyish pulp and seeds that are not edible; it is scraped out and then the gourd boiled and cured for use as a drinking bowl. Our gift shop contains a number of gourds carved with the images of Mayan gods by Fileon Choc from Pueblo Viejo close to the Guatemalan border. The five pointed orchid is “Epidendrum nocturnum”

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Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 8, 2011

The most abused word…

on web sites in Belize is…. now, there are a number of contenders, but the outright winner has to be “pristine”  We have “pristine reefs”, “pristine beaches”, “pristine rainforest” and quite a number of other “pristine” thingies. Now the people who use the word either do not know its meaning or are simply abusing it.

The most common meanings are “In its original condition; unspoiled” or “clean and fresh as if new; spotless”. Chambers online thesaurus offers “1 IMMACULATE, undefiled, uncorrupted, untouched, virgin, unspoiled, unsullied  2 ORIGINAL, earliest, first, initial, former, primary, primitive, primal formal primeval, primordial.” You can say what you like about our beaches and cayes but they are certainly not in their original condition or unspoiled.

Plastic bottles and trash regularly wash up on the pristine beaches and cayes of Belize; some of this arrives labelled as originating in Guatemala and floats down the Rio Motagua and then out to sea. Some is dumped by cruise lines and other ships that have green policies on the wall of their office in Miami forbidding dumping.  It all has to be raked and removed. People generally look after the beaches in front of the homes, hotels and restaurants extremely well; not least since the raking breaks into the breeding cycle of sand flies.  It looks really beautiful after it has been raked and cleaned but it doesn’t look pristine.

Inland the pristine forests have been walked and exploited by man for aeons. Whether it is logging for mahogany, collecting the xate (pronounced shat-ay) palm which goes into flower arrangements or hunting the local wild animals for bush meat which offers free protein.  Every generation or so a passing hurricane will cut a swathe through the forests and primary forest may disappear literally overnight taking decades to fully recover. But recover it does…very quickly, so that after five or six years it can be be hard to tell what had happened.  It looks really beautiful but it isn’t pristine.

So let’s get rid of this word that has become a fairly meaningless cliche through no fault of its own and delve a little deeper into our dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?); there might be other adjectives out there in pristine condition so why not use them? “Really beautiful”, for example. No probably not.

Hurricane damage

Looking pristine after Hurricane Iris

Lodge at Big Falls before hurricane Iris

Before Hurricane Iris

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 6, 2011

The Rain in Spain…

…falls mainly on the plain, as we know. The rain in southern Belize falls nightly over pretty much everything.  The dry season down here began during March and ended at the beginning of June.

In northern climes the deciduous trees drop their leaves to protect themselves during the cold winters.  In the tropics they drop their leaves to prevent evaporation during the dry season. For those three months there are plenty of bare trees and branches although other species put on their new growth during this parched season. The ground cracks and the grass turns purple and then brown.  Even during the dry there are occasional showers to relieve the heat but nothing beats the relief when real rain starts falling.

rain in toledo, Belize

Early morning shower

But when it starts falling is the interesting thing; because just as it was decreed in Camelot: “The rain may never fall till after sundown, By eight in the morning fog must disappear, In short, there’s simply not, A more congenial spot, for happyeveraftering than here in Camelot.” When Alan Lerner wrote this in 1960 he might have been thinking about Toledo where by far the most rain falls at night.  The gods might crash and bang and hurl their lightning bolts all night long but by six in the morning the wind will die, the rain eases and the sun comes out while the world goes about its business as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

And as one of our visitors said.  “What they don’t tell you about the rainforest is when it isn’t raining the sun shines.” It is shining right now so I will escape from this computer and enjoy it.

Posted by: southernbelizeexpertise | July 5, 2011

Getting Started

southern highway in Toledo, Belize

The Southern Highway at Elridgeville

Toledo district in the south of Belize has been our home for the past ten years. When we had finished building and began operating The Lodge at Big Falls in 2003 the southern highway remained to be fully paved and Toledo was not yet connected to the national electricity grid.  Although those infrastructure improvements have now been made, Toledo still remains an emerging destination with all that implies for exciting authentic experiences with diverse traditional people and cultures. We plan to bring you news and stories from all around the deep south.

The older generation in Toledo remember the days when the only way to Belize City was by the coastal ferry which kept the deep south in touch with the outside world. Later the James Bus took eight to twelve hours to bump its way over one hundred and eighty miles of mainly dirt road. When the paving of the Southern Highway was completed in 2009 the last piece was in place. Toledo was finally “part of the rest of Belize” with modern infrastructure and quick and easy access (3.5 hours from Belize city) on some of the best and quietest roads in the country. And these days ten flights a day bring other visitors to Toledo.

Toledo is Caribbean on the coast and Central American inland. The coastal communities from Barranco in the south  to Punta Gorda, Punta Negra and Monkey River Town in the north are either Garifuna or mixed communities with Creole, Hispanic, East Indian and other races. The Garifuna village of Barranco has its own thatched temple (dabuyeba) and the village museum tells the story of the Garifuna in Belize.  Inland there are around sixty villages of Mopan and Kek’chi Maya whose civilization dominated this part of Central America until the arrival of the conquistadores.

Mayan village in Belize

Aguacate village

Our village of Big Falls is located right in the heart of the district. It was founded in the 1920s by Hispanic families from Honduras; Aleman, Palma, Caliz, Martinez and Hernandez who remain in the village today although Kamela Palma is currently Belize ambassador to the United Kingdom and others have also left to make their living elsewhere.

The rivers Sarstoon in the south, Temash, Moho, Rio Grande, Golden Stream, Deep River and Monkey River all flow from the Maya mountains eastwards into the warm shallow waters of the Gulf of Honduras and towards the Sapodilla Cayes at the southern tip of the Belize barrier reef about thirty-five miles off shore. The Maya mountains are karst limestone with a multitude of caves and underground water systems carrying streams like the Rio Blanco that swirls down into a sink-hole and re-emerges three miles south at Blue Creek (Hokeb Ha) Cave with a new name and colour. Having reached the broad flat coastal plain the rivers, home to important breeding populations of the endangered American Crocodile, meander through the lowland rainforest, itself home to troupes of Black Howler Monkeys and a myriad of exotic tropical birds.   Only in March 2011 Wilfred Mutrie,  Lee Jones and others positively identified a number of Great Potoo on the Rio Grande just north of Punta Gorda and thus added one more species to Belize’s list of around 575 different birds.

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