Birding in southern Belize is great fun and very productive, with many exotic specimens just waiting to show you their colors.  We spent lots and lots of time looking for and watching birds on this seven-day trip and got quite a few new additions to our life lists, even though we certainly didn't get photos of all of them.  We also saw many birds we'd seen before but never mind seeing again, like the exotic Montezuma Oropendola, this time hanging from its very interesting pendulous nest.  This was right outside Hickatee Cottages, and very easy to spot, thanks to its distinctive call, appearance, and size.  This is a BIG bird!
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Montezuma Oropendola and nest
While we were at Hickatee Cottages, Ian, the proprietor, presented us with a very thorough list of the birds of the Toledo district, keyed by whether each bird was a full-time resident, whether it had been previously sighted at Hickatee, and the likelihood of seeing it.  This list was very helpful, especially if we were trying to determine a bird identification and were torn between two similar species, some with a very high likelihood of being seen, and some with a very low or nil likelihood.

But let's back up a bit.  Here are the birds we identified at Mama Noots or Mayflower Bocawina National Park, on the first half of our trip, in the Stann Creek District of Belize. Starred birds are new for our life lists.  Photos we managed to catch are included below.  Sure wish we'd gotten more!

Black-Cowled Oriole* ~ Black-Headed Saltator* ~ Stripe-Throated Hermit ~ Chestnut-Colored Woodpecker* ~ Brown-Crested Flycatcher* ~ Purple-Crowned Fairy* ~ Ivory-Billed Woodcreeper* ~ Violacious Trogan ~ Great Kiskadee ~ Social Flycatcher ~ Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird ~ Smoky-Brown Woodpecker* ~ Buff-Throated Saltator* ~ Emerald Toucanet* ~ White-Collared Manakin* ~ Long-Billed Hermit ~ Yellow-Winged Tanager ~ Crimson-Collared Tanager(*Barry) ~ Masked Tityra* ~ Golden-Hooded Tanager(*Barry) ~ Blue-Black Grassquit* ~ Olive-Backed Euphonia*
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Black-Headed Saltator
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Blue-Black Grassquit (female)
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Chestnut Colored Woodpecker
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Crimson-Collared Tanager
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Emerald Toucanet
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Ivory-Billed Woodcreeper
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Smoky Brown Woodpecker
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Stripe Throated Hermit
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Violaceous Trogan
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Violaceous Trogan -- love his turquoise back!
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Yellow-Winged Tanager
And here are the birds we identified at Hickatee Cottages or nearby in the Toledo District.  Once again, starred birds are new for our life lists, and when we got photos, they are included below.

Golden-Hooded Tanager(*Emily) ~ American Pygmy Kingfisher ~ Barred Antshrike* ~ Bat Falcon* ~ Black-Headed Saltator ~ Brown Jay ~ Montezuma Oropendola ~ Red-Legged Honeycreeper* ~ Grasshopper Sparrow* ~ Red-Lored Parrot ~ Blue-Black Grassquit ~ Eastern Meadowlark* ~ Muscovy Ducks ~ Common Pauraque* ~ Little Hermit* ~ Lesser Greenlet* ~ Long-Billed Hermit ~ Masked Tityra ~ Orchard Oriole ~ Spot-Breasted Wren* ~ Roadside Hawk ~ Bank Swallow* ~ Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher* ~ Plain Chachalaca ~ Olive-Throated Parakeet ~ Northern Waterthrush ~ Black-Headed Trogan ~ White-Necked Jacobin* ~ Thick-Billed Seed Finch* ~ White-Collared Manakin ~ many Seedeaters ~ Sulphur-Bellied Flycatcher  ~ Yellow-Green Vireo* ~ Yellow-Faced Grassquit* 
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American Pygmy Kingfisher
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Bank Swallow
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Barred Antshrike (female)
This photo is blurry, but since it includes both the male and female in the same shot (so rare), I wanted to include it.  Interestingly, unlike with most birds, the female is more showy than the black and white male.
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Barred Antshrikes (pair)
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Bat Falcon
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Black-Headed Saltator
I had to include several photos of the beautiful Black-Headed Trogan.  They were singing madly on the grounds of Hickatee Cottages, and at one time we saw four in the same tree!  I love their Carolina blue eyes and brilliant yellow breast.
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Black-Headed Trogan
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Black-Headed Trogan
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Black-Headed Trogan
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Blue-Black Grassquit (male)
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Brown Jay
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Eastern Meadowlark -- this guy posed for us for a long time along the road on our bike ride, and sang and sang!
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Grasshopper Sparrow
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Lesser Greenlet
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Little Hermit enjoying the nectar of the "Hotlips" plant
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Long-Billed Hermit
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Masked Tityra
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Montezuma Oropendola
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Montezuma Oropendola
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A tree full of dangling Montezuma Oropendola nests along the road on our bike ride -- condo living!
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Olive-Throated Parakeet
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Olive-Throated Parakeets
There was a Plain Chachalaca nest in a tree right outside our cottage.  Ian was sure it was a Brown Jay nest, but we saw her coming and going.  Definitely a Chachalaca!
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Plain Chachalaca
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Red-Legged Honeycreeper
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Red-Lored Parrot
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Red-Lored Parrots -- we saw three close together in the same tree, so it must have been a family!
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Roadside Hawk
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Thick-Billed Seed Finch (female)
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White-Collared Manakin (female)
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White-Collared Manakin (male)
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White-Necked Jacobin -- so beautiful!
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Yellow-faced Grassquit
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Yellow-Green Vireo
And, just for completeness, this precious little Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher on her nest on the grounds of Hickatee Cottages that I'd already shared in a previous post:
Please stay tuned for the final post from this trip -- bug bites!
 

We'd had a wonderful time on our first trip to the Toledo District of Belize and re-visiting the Stann Creek District we'd previously enjoyed, but a week had flown by, and it was now time to head back north to Ambergris Caye.  

We had to get up quite early to catch the Hokey Pokey water taxi from Placencia to Independence as we wanted to catch the 7:30 am Express bus to Belize City.  The Hokey Pokey leaves at 6:45 am, and we had to walk to the dock.  That left us no time for breakfast -- or even coffee -- before leaving.  Fortunately we'd bought some fiber cookies at the grocery store the day before, and I lucked out -- an enterprising local was selling cups of steaming hot coffee as we got onto the bus for just $1.50 BZ (75 cents US).  Sold!  Yes, it had sugar, which I usually don't take, but I didn't care.  It tasted good, and the caffeine was what I was after anyway.  

It had rained quite a bit overnight, but fortunately had stopped in time for our walk to the dock and ride on the ferry.  We met up with the traveling Canadian girls, Heather and Lauren, at the dock, and traded experiences.  We find we have more in common with travelers their age than our own in many ways.
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Walking the Placencia sidewalk
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Heather, Lauren, and me
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Hokey Pokey dock
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Walking the very potholed road in Independence towards the bus stop
We just barely made it to the stop in time to catch the James Express bus, and it was so crowded we didn't get to sit together until it stopped in Dangriga.  Like our previous experience in Independence, this bus actually leaves well before the scheduled departure time of 7:30 am.  I guess they are trying to make up time on the route, because we still didn't make it back to Belize City early; in fact, we got there a bit later than the scheduled time.
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Nicer seats on the Express - and A/C!
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We liked this t-shirt on a fellow bus rider
The scenery on the trip north is gorgeous.  We managed to get a few decent shots out the windows of the bus (and a lot of bad ones, but won't subject you to 'em, of course!)
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Your intrepid travelers

Belize City

We'd told Heather and Lauren that we'd lead them through the streets of Belize City if they wanted to walk to the water taxi terminal with us rather than taking a taxi, and they did.  We'd all be taking the same ferry even though they were getting off at Caye Caulker, and we'd be staying on until the San Pedro terminus.
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Their packs were quite a bit bigger than ours
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Ready to walk -- tired of sitting on my butt!
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Walking in Belize City
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Emily and Lauren
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San Pedro Waterjets Express
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Waiting in line
The ferry was especially crowded today with locals traveling since school is out and folks from all over Belize and other Central American countries coming to San Pedro for the annual Costa Maya festival.  There was a big group from El Salvador, judging from their t-shirts.  We had to ride right in the front since we were one of the last on.  We normally don't ride in front as it's a bouncier, less comfortable ride, but we had no choice this time.
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Crowded ferry
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Heather and Lauren

Back in San Pedro

After the ferry pulled into the dock at San Pedro, we walked over to pick up Paisley at Pampered Paws.  She was happy to see us and knows the drill now of walking back through the busy streets on her leash to wait at the Coastal Xpress water taxi dock to take us back north of town to our condo.  It was a hot day, but some shade and water helped.  She loves her time at Pampered Paws but is always happy to be back with us and at home.
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Happy Paisley
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Paisley giving her mom some love
Here are a couple of photos the staff took of Paisley hanging out at Pampered Paws.  She really seems to enjoy herself there, and as I've said before (several times), we're so glad they are there so we can leave her in a safe and fun place.  We can tell that she's become a lot more sociable with other dogs since she's been going there regularly.
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High energy play mode -- full on!
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Relaxing in the garden
Stay tuned for birds and bug bites, still to come!  (You can see a preview of the latter in the photo of me with Paisley above.)
 
It was very difficult to leave after only two and a half days at the lovely Hickatee Cottages just outside of Punta Gorda.  On the positive side, we would be stopping for a night in Placencia to break up the trip home to Ambergris Caye, a place we loved when we visited back in January.

Ian gave us a lift into town, saving us the long hike.  We picked up a couple of things we needed, including a muffin at the Driftwood Cafe for Barry for the bus ride (I still had my PB&J muffin saved from the day before!)  We were plenty early so had some time to hang around the PG bus terminal -- and to get a choice seat on the bus, since this is where the bus north originates.
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James bus terminal and bus
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Nice painted map of Belize in bus terminal
We got off the bus in Independence on the mainland and hiked 1/2 mile down the road to catch the ten minute Hokey Pokey ferry over to the Placencia Peninsula.  Our last and only time on this boat, it had been pouring rain, so we'd been under a tarp for the entire ride and unable to see a thing.  Today was much improved!
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Heading into the Hokey Pokey terminal
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Our ferry awaits
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Our soon-to-be new friends, Heather and Lauren, in the front row as we approach Placencia

Placencia IS just as nice on a second look.

We liked it before, and we liked it just as much this time around.  Placencia is a charming and quaint village and never seems to be very busy, unlike San Pedro; however, there were a lot more folks on the beach now that school's out than when we were here in January.  Back then we felt like we were the only ones there!

When we debarked the Hokey Pokey, we took a short walk through the village to our hotel for the night.
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The "sidewalk" was empty
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Colorful signs pointing the way
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Loved this sign -- think this place was new since our last visit
We chose to stay right on the beach in the Sea Spray Hotel, which was basic but clean and perfectly fine for a night.  This location made it very easy to get anywhere in the village on foot.   The price was around $45 US for the night.  No air-conditioning, but we had two fans, cable TV, a fridge, and a coffee pot, and the side of our room ("Seabreeze" -- room 13 -- eek!) faced the beach.
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Our room was the one on the first floor on the end, a great location for catching breezes
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Right on the beach
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Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh...
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View from veranda
Since we hadn't had lunch, only some snacks on the bus, we hit the Tuttifrutti Gelateria even before the beach.  We'd only made it here only once on our previous visit to Placencia.  That wouldn't happen again -- even though we had only one afternoon and evening here.  Barry had a three-scooper with cappuccino, Bailey's, and mixed berry.  I had two scoops:  peanut butter and cappuccino.  The gelato was even better than we remembered, if that is possible!

Sitting outside enjoying our gelato, we had a nice conversation with two young women we ran into there, Heather and Lauren from Canada.  They had been traveling up from Guatemala through Belize and were on the Hokey Pokey with us.  We'd end up seeing them a lot the next day as well.  They were heading to medical and law school in the fall so were intelligent and interesting fellow travelers.  We were able to share some of our "local knowledge" with them about Placencia, Caye Caulker (where they were headed), and San Pedro, where they planned to spend a day.
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Tuttifrutti -- where the magic happens
After filling our bellies, we walked back to the hotel and hit the beach.  Barry took a cooling swim, while I sat and enjoyed the breezes and my book.
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Enjoying some R&R on the beach
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Lots of folks enjoying the beach down a ways
The restaurant "Detatch", which we'd enjoyed on our last trip here, is right next door to the Sea Spray Hotel so was a natural choice for dinner.  Though the food is not on par with some of the fine restaurants in San Pedro, it's perfectly adequate, and the setting can't be beat.  They also have $4 rum punches all the time.  Nice!
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Sea Breeze Hotel on left, Detatch on right
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Detatch
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I had the Spicy Cilantro Snapper Fillet -- tasty!
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Perfect setting for a rum punch
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Our view
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Barry's mango chicken
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My snapper
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Friendly dogs outside
Since we knew it might be a long time before we could indulge in the wonderful gelato again, a return trip to Tutti-Frutti was in order -- yep, we'd just been here a few hours earlier!  But just look at all these flavors, and you'll understand why.
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I mean, come on!
This time I restrained myself and had only one scoop -- chocolate.  Barry went for three scoops AGAIN!  This time his choices were coconut, lime, and kiwi.  I did have a small taste of his lime and regretted that I hadn't gotten that as well (along with my chocolate, of course)!
Yes, this was definitely one of those trips where you come back heavier than you left -- but it was so worth it.

Stay tuned for our trip home from Placencia, the beautiful birds we saw, and bug bites in upcoming posts...
 
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Cottage gecko

In addition to the great things about Hickatee Cottages I shared in part 1 of this post, there's even more that we loved about being here.  They have this great little dipping pool.  It was cool, refreshing, and just right for lounging around in.  Even though I am bird watching in this photo, I did enjoy this pool daily after our hikes and bike rides.
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Flowers in our cottage
There are cute stone paths around the property, perfect for watching birds and butterflies from.
The paths did get a bit wet after a heavy rain one night, but they didn't take that long to drain.
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Umbrellas outside your door are a thoughtful touch
There's a pretty creek with lily pads.
And the road right outside the property is great for birdwatching too since it's the perfect wood's edge environment.  We spent many an hour here.
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Jacket bulging in front from binoculars, of course!
The office/restaurant/lounge is well equipped with a bar, sitting area, and library, in addition to outdoor dining.  We loved eating meals out on the porch.
This great library full of books on Belize could have occupied us for a couple of months!
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The bar and office
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Great place for a meal

Fantastic food

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the food here is super tasty and beautiful as well.  Kate is a wonderful cook!  Continental breakfast (hot breads, butter, jam) and an excellent French press pot of coffee is included in the daily cottage rate, and a HUGE plate of fresh fruit is just an extra $10 BZ ($5 US) and worth every penny.  We got two of these every morning.  I'm sure we could have split one, but we love fruit!  There's also a hot breakfast available for $15 BZ, but we had eaten so many eggs at Mama Noots that we skipped it.
My favorite breakfast was these hot and melt-in-your-mouth English pancakes (similar to French crepes), served with raw sugar and lime.  Ian explained that these pancakes were historically made before Lent began to use up all the eggs in the kitchen.  Sure enough, a quick glance at Wikipedia under "pancake" says the same. 
And here is the other dinner we enjoyed on our last night at Hickatee.  (Our first night's dinner is documented in a previous blog post.)  It was delicious and healthy to boot.  Dessert was more of the yummy local dark chocolate drops and a shot of "Belizean Bailey's" liqueur.  We did not leave hungry!
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Salad
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My fish cakes
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Zucchini soup
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Barry's chicken breast
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Hot rolls melted in our mouths

Delightful hosts

Ian and Kate were great -- helpful, knowledgeable British expats who positively bubble over with enthusiasm for what they do and where they live.  They seem to be doing exactly what they were born to do, and we enjoyed all they had to offer and share.  From birds, to bats, to butterflies, to howlers, to plants, to spiders, and even to salamanders, there's very little about the natural world that one or both of them don't know.  This makes Hickatee such a delight for nature lovers like ourselves, and very hard to leave!
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Ian and me
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Kate and me
Stay tuned for blog posts on our short trip to Placencia and finally back home to Ambergris Caye.
 
We already introduced you to Hickatee Cottages near Punta Gorda town in a previous post, but we wanted to share more about this gem of a place to stay in southern Belize.  There was so much to love here, from the peaceful setting with so many plants, to the resident howler monkey troop, to the lovely, comfortable cottages, to the cooling dipping pool, to the fantastic food, and last but not least, to the helpful and knowledgeable owners, Ian and Kate.  I'm sure a lot of folks who stay here spend most of their time venturing out on excursions during the day, but we really enjoyed just hanging out here, watching birds on the grounds or on the road right outside.  The natural setting can't be beat, and as you enter the gates you can actually feel your stress slipping away.

Flora and fauna

Here are some of the plants and animals we enjoyed seeing around the grounds.  There are great identifying signs for many of the plants.  Some we'd seen before in other spots but hadn't known what they were, so it was helpful to put a name with a face, so to speak.
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This little "Jesus lizard" really blends right into the ground -- look very closely or you'll miss him!
Belize has more different species of butterflies than I've ever seen in one place. and there were numerous specimens flitting around at Hickatee.  Many are brightly colored and so striking.  It is very hard to get photographs since they often don't want to alight even for a few seconds, but Barry got a couple nice shots.
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This butterfly perfectly coordinates with the "hot lips" plant it was enjoying
We're going to have a separate blog entry for most of the birds seen on this trip, but here is one that properly belongs here, as it was nesting right on outside the office/restaurant building.  Check out this adorable ochre-bellied flycatcher sitting on her sweet little nest:
The nest was a bit too high up to see inside, but Barry was able to hold his camera up above and shoot down into the nest when she took a break.  What a thrill when he uploaded the photo to see two sleeping nestlings!
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Every baby bird is like a miracle to me

Hiking Trails

There are numerous cleared trails in the jungly woods on the Hickatee Cottages property that we yearned to explore, but this being rainy season, we weren't able to check them all out.  We did hike as many of them as we could manage without being up to our ankles in water, but a return visit during dry season will be necessary to finish our exploration. 
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Trail signs
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Look for the rare bottle trees along the trails
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Very high water in the creek from heavy rain the night before
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Bridge constructed of a huge log that probably fell across the creek
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Beautiful, tiny female American Pygmy Kingfisher posed for us for a long time
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Could go no further on this trail!
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Jungle setting was magnificent

Howler monkeys right overhead!

We saw this troop of five howlers nearly every day, which was very exciting.  I mean, come on, how often do you get to live among howler monkeys, for goodness sakes?!  One afternoon they were moving from tree to tree right over the Hickatee cottages, stopping to eat leaves on occasion, and we got many great looks at them.  Barry got some great photos, so I've included quite a few below since it was so hard to choose the best ones.

They made me a little nervous when they got kind of close, but they were fascinating to watch, and didn't seem too fazed by us; or at least they didn't make any howling noises.  We did hear some very loud howling, which sounds more like the roar of a HUGE, hungry lion, late at night, but those were probably from a different troup across the road, judging from the direction they appeared to come from.  Even when they woke me up, hearing them roar was a huge thrill, since I felt perfectly safe in the cottage, yet electrified by their primal calls.
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See the baby on his Momma's back?
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This guy did all sorts of gymnastics to find the very best leaves
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Ahhhh...that's the one I wanted!
Stay tuned for Part 2 -- for more photos of lovely Hickatee Cottages, including our ever-popular FOOD photos!
 
While staying at Hickatee Cottages southwest of Punta Gorda, Belize, we decided to grab a couple of the complimentary beach cruiser bikes and explore the unpaved road westward to Boom Creek Village and the Moho River one afternoon.  
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The Hickatee "fleet"
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Ready to hit the road!
Almost zero traffic other than a couple of bikes going the other way made for a really fun ride.   
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Love these empty roads!
We stopped to check out birds many times along the way to the village, so the five-mile ride ended up taking around an hour and a half.
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Birding along the way
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Beautiful scenery along the way
The traditional Maya village of Boom Creek has no electricity and just a few Maya huts.  There are no stores, restaurants, or any other form of commercialism.  The only building we saw other than personal dwellings was a church, or at least what appeared to be one, since there were two crosses on the outside. Looks like the roof needs a bit of work, though.
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Church building
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Traditional Maya dwelling
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Traditional Maya dwelling
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I liked this pink one!
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Maya dwelling with modern metal roof!
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Outhouse!
We passed Boom Creek, at the time not sure if it was the creek or the river, since it's not marked in any way. 
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Emily by Boom Creek
The road ended at a much larger body of water that was obviously the Moho River, confirming that the previous body of water we'd passed had been Boom Creek.  There are no signs marking either.  Nor is there a bridge across the river.  The road just ends.  If you want to get across, you'd have to take a boat.
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THIS is the Moho River!
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Moho River
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Snack break by the river
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Moho River -- quiet and serene
A storm was threatening from the east, so we had to make tracks to get back.  We were pushing those beach cruisers just as fast as we possibly could.  Riding against the wind, this was no easy task!  We did get rained on just a bit, but despite dark clouds, the storm turned out to be much ado about nothing.  At least we got an excellent workout riding into the wind as fast as our legs could carry us!  
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Zipping back to Hickatee Cottages -- no time to take storm photos!
Stay tuned for much more on Hickatee Cottages and travels thereafter!
 
On Saturday and Sunday (July 28-29), we explored the town of Punta Gorda several times, riding beach bikes provided by Hickatee Cottages, where we were staying, and on foot.  Punta Gorda is very different from San Pedro, even though both towns are right on the water. Unlike San Pedro, which caters to divers, fishermen, and tourists from all over the world (including celebrities), "PG" is not touristy.  And since it's not on an island, cars and trucks roam where mostly golf carts and bicycles still travel the streets of San Pedro (though more and more motor vehicles arrive monthly, it seems).  Traffic was lighter than in San Pedro overall, even on a Saturday. There's a great Saturday market we got to check out, and I bought a Maya bag from a local man that probably would have cost me double in San Pedro.
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The PG town clock is stuck at 1:05 forever, but at least it has a toucan!
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Wheeeeeeeee!
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Buying Benedryl at the local pharmacy -- only $2.50 US for 24 tablets, way cheaper than in San Pedro!
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The local chocolatier was closed while we were in town, unfortunately. Heavy sigh!
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Part of the Saturday market
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My new Maya bag from this shop with colorful wares -- only $15 US!
We found this row of distinctively painted Blue Bird buses one street off Main.  There seems to be a bus for each nearby village.  Most Belizeans do not own cars, so this network of local buses provides a hugely valuable service all over the country.
Saturday (and Wednesday) are "cook's night off" at Hickatee, so we knew we'd have to find a place to grab some dinner in town.  We chose to ride bikes back in and use our headlamp to find our way back to the cottage after dark.  There are many fewer restaurants in PG than in San Pedro, and a few of the restaurants with signs were closed, so we didn't have a lot to choose from, but we landed in a little Italian place that had great pizza and a very friendly Belizean staff (not an Italian in sight!)  Unfortunately, the flies chased us in from our table outside, and they didn't have an alcohol license (it's hard to eat pizza without a beer!), but we were glad to get dinner somewhere!
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Our view before the flies forced us inside the restaurant
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Our large veggie pizza -- we ate every bite!
On Sunday, town was absolutely dead.  Most shops and restaurants were closed, and there was no traffic whatsoever.  That's another big difference between PG and San Pedro, which is just as bustling on Sunday as any other day of the week. 
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Loved the colors of this tourist information center -- closed on Sunday
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Cute pink public library, all closed up on Sunday
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Another library with colorful murals
We had planned on eating lunch in town but were striking out on finding anything open.  Just when we were about to give up, we found the Driftwood Cafe, which felt like an oasis in the desert for these two hungry walkers.  It was a real hippy cafe, run by a woman from Ohio (like Barry!) with dreads (a contradiction in terms, you'd think!).  She served coffee, fresh-baked goods, and vegetarian food.  

She was almost out of lunch food, but we split the last plate of vegetarian tamales, veggie chili, and black beans.  Delish!  I had an iced coffee to drink, and Barry had a tropical smoothie.  As if that weren't enough, we also indulged in milkshakes for dessert (Barry got coffee, and I got chocolate), and two peanut butter and jelly muffins.  Barry ate his on the spot, but I saved mine for the next day's bus ride.  
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We started eating before remembering a photo...
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The proprietor's husband is a Garifuna drummer, so the interior of the cafe was filled with drums
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I loved this islandy painted slate and might have bought it, but had no room in my backpack at all
Stay tuned for more from Hickatee Cottages, a great bike ride to the river, and Placencia as our trip continues....
 
We were thankful to wake up this morning with only the backside of Hurricane (now tropical storm again) Ernesto to contend with.  Although Ernesto did strengthen to a category 1 hurricane before he made landfall, he did end up tracking north of us and made landfall along Mexico's Yucatan peninsula last night at around 11pm.  We never even felt tropical storm force winds here on Ambergris Caye until this morning, when the south winds from his back side started roaring along with sideways torrential rain.  The town gauge reports a high wind gust of 40.1 mph this morning.  I am getting conflicting reports on the total rainfall but will try to get an update from Cowboy Doug's rain gauge here at Grand Caribe. 
As I mentioned in my pre-Ernesto post, we really didn't have much prep work to do here since our building is well-equipped for storms.  Yesterday we took the screens off our windows and brought our veranda furniture inside, and that's about it.  We'd stocked up with plenty of groceries the day before and have been doing plenty of cooking, so we would not go hungry.  Not that that's ever a problem around here anyway!
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Fresh bean/veggie burritos with guacamole and a Painkiller to drink for last night's dinner
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Outdoor furniture inside for now
As Ernesto approached the coast yesterday, we had a heavy downpour in the morning, and then the rain was only light and sporadic for the rest of the day.  The wind was coming from the northwest, so we hardly felt it on the beach.  The major storm impact yesterday was high waves over the reef and small waves along the beach, which we almost never see.  High tide was very high, at times splashing up through the little Chico Caribe dock and higher on the beach in front of our condo than we have ever seen it.  But the water never even made it up to the bottom stair on our veranda. 

The pictures below are from yesterday as Ernesto approached.
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Debris washing up
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Heavy rain band yesterday morning
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This man's boat motor stopped working -- fortunately he was able to get a tow soon afterwards
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Small waves making it across the reef (very rare)
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Huge waves crashing on the reef
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High water under our dock and up on our beach at high tide yesterday
When we woke up this morning, Ernesto had been downgraded to a tropical storm again and was already over land in Mexico.  However, after an initial calm period around 7 am (which fooled us into thinking that the storm was almost over), we finally experienced tropical storm force winds from the southeast and torrential rains peaking an hour or two later.  Looks like Ernesto was determined to go out like a lion.

The photo on the left was taken when I first got up; the one on the right two hours later after the heavy rain began.  
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Torrential downpour causing white-out conditions
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This poor bicyclist was riding in all that rain and right into the wind!
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Aftermath -- a messy beach that could have been much worse
As I write this now, it's raining only lightly, and the wind has calmed down some as well.  Looks like all of us on Ambergris Caye can be very thankful that Ernesto spared us a direct hit.  We didn't even lose power or internet!  
 
Well, here it is, the first tropical system of the 2012 hurricane season to threaten Belize.  Seems that Tropical Storm Ernesto, likely soon to be Hurricane Ernesto, has his sights set on either northern Belize, where we live, or southern Mexico.  The track seems to change every few hours, sometimes looking better for us, sometimes worse.  The more north he goes, the better, as the strongest winds and heaviest rains will be north of the eye.  So, with apologies to our neighbor Mexico, we are hoping he heads up that way and not to Belize City south of where we live on the island of Ambergris Caye!

Since our condo is right on the ocean, and on the first floor to boot (about 7' above sea level), we obviously have to take storms like this seriously.  However, Belize's offshore reef means that the wave action here is virtually nil, and storm surge extremely tempered.  I wouldn't feel comfortable owning a first-floor, ocean-front condo on the Atlantic Ocean, but it's definitely a bit different here in Belize because of the reef.  
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Our building, right on the Caribbean Sea
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Waves break over the barrier reef, not on the shoreline
We are also fortunate because our building ("Chico Caribe") is built for hurricanes.  It's new and all-concrete, and we have hurricane-strength sliding doors facing the ocean.  Even luckier, the five owners in the building all pitched in and bought a high-capacity generator for the building during construction.  It comes on automatically during all power outages and runs all our appliances.  So, if there is a power outage, we lose only cable TV and internet, and everything else keeps right on cranking along as if nothing happened.  It's kind of eerie looking out our windows and seeing the rest of Grand Caribe dark, aside from a few emergency lights, while our building is still lit up brightly.  The generator wasn't cheap, but every time the power goes out, we feel very lucky indeed.

We also don't have to worry too much about our water supply as Grand Caribe's water plant, which our building shares with them, is on a back-up generator, so at least as long as the generator has fuel, we'll have water for drinking and flushing.

So, our hurricane prep is not nearly as involved as others on the island without a generator, who might lose power and water for an extended period of time in a significant storm and thus need to stock up on water, flashlights, batteries, and food that doesn't require any cooking.  

We have been talking to some of the workers here at the resort, and tomorrow morning they plan to take all the pool furniture to a safe place.  We'll be doing the same with our veranda table and chairs, and we'll take the screens off our windows as they are lightweight and might be subject to blowing around.  That's about all the preparations we really plan to do so long as this storm remains a Category 1 hurricane or lower.  Yes, we are getting off pretty easy.
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This furniture from our pool, and a lot more from Grand Caribe's three pools, will be secured inside tomorrow
Although we did have a brief shower earlier, right now it's gorgeous out and very calm -- the proverbial calm before the storm.  Hard to imagine a huge tropical storm is lurking out there.
Since we may be without internet access for awhile, I can't promise when I'll be able to do an "after" post on the storm, but I'll try to update the blog just as soon as possible after the storm hits and we're back online.  Current projections have it hitting land at 2 am on Wednesday morning.  Stay tuned!
 
After three great days at Mama Noots Eco Resort in Mayflower Bocawina National Park in the Stann Creek District of Belize, Friday morning, July 27, it was time to head even farther south to Punta Gorda (called "PG" by those in the know) in the Toledo District.  This would be our first visit to this district, and we were excited to see it.  From what we'd read, this is the wettest part of Belize, receiving about 160" of rain per year.  As a result, it is lush and green -- a true tropical rainforest.  

We were lucky to catch a ride to the bus terminal in Dangriga with Shacka (sorry if I butchered that spelling!), Mama Noots' manager Liz's spouse, so we avoided a repeat of the 4+ mile hike to the road, plus any risk that the bus would not stop for us along the Southern Highway.  It was a hot and sunny morning, so we were very thankful for the lift.
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Our bus to "PG"
Our bus ride was three and a half hours, and that is plenty of time to spend in an uncomfortable school bus seat in a crowded bus.  We were very glad to arrive in PG, which is situated right along the Caribbean Sea, much like San Pedro.  Unlike San Pedro, however, PG is not a "tourist town".  This meant less traffic, which is always a good thing. 
We had reservations for three nights at Hickatee Cottages southwest of town, but we weren't sure exactly how to get there.  As it turns out, Kate, one of the proprietors, had sent me a lovely map via email, but since I didn't have my laptop with me a couple of days earlier, I hadn't gotten it.  I called and spoke to Ian, her husband, and he gave me directions over the phone.  It was only a couple of miles, so even though he suggested we could catch a cab, we decided to walk it.  We'd been sitting most of the day, so walking felt good, and it wasn't nearly so far as our 4.2-mile hike into Mama Noots.
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Walking the streets of Punta Gorda town
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Town graveyard to my right and Caribbean Sea in the background
After about 2.5 miles of walking, approximately two miles of which was on dirt roads outside of town, we arrived at Hickatee Cottages.
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Entry to Hickatee Cottages
This place is a real gem in the jungle!  Since it was not rented, Kate gave us an upgrade from the small "Hickatee Den" we'd booked for $75 US/night to the Wilby Cottage (normally $100 US/night), giving us more space and privacy.  From their website, I learned that this cottage was recently completed, and it was absolutely perfect and quite upscale, with wood floors; and soothing turquoise, white, and wood decor inside.  There was plenty of space for us, two closet areas, a large and comfortable bathroom, ceiling fans, and a desk and futon.  This accommodation exceeded our expectations in every way!  There was no air-conditioning, but it was cool enough under the trees and with the ceiling fans that we never missed it.
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Wilby Cottage
When Kate's husband Ian got back from town, he called us out to the garden to see a troup of five howler monkeys who were right above us in the trees.  How exciting!  Although it looks like one of the monkeys in the photo is howling, he actually didn't make a sound.
The food (breakfasts and dinners) at Hickatee is all made by Kate, and she is a brilliant cook.  Ian takes orders and serves the food, and offers up interesting and intelligent conversation at the same time.  We thoroughly enjoyed our meals there.  The only slight drawback (for us) is that dinner is served at a set time, 7:30 pm, which is late by our standards.  Barry tends to get heartburn if he eats too late and then goes to bed not long after, so we would have preferred an earlier dinner time, but it was worth a little inconvenience to eat such wonderful food, and so nice being right on the beautiful and serene premises rather than having to take another trip to and from town.

Meals were served on the porch of this attractive office/bar building.
Here are photos of our first dinner, which we inhaled after our busy day of travel.
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One of the best salads we've had in Belize -- with feta and roasted tomatoes. Barry got my olives!
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Fresh-baked whole grain focaccia
There are two choices of entree on the dinner menu each night.  We both chose the shrimp with mashed potatoes and green beans. It was delicious as well as beautifully presented.  No wonder I gained weight on this trip!
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Ian's potent rum punch - delish!
Dessert was organic chocolate drops made right in the Toledo district, and complimentary chocolate liqueur.  Now that's my kinda dessert!
Stay tuned in future days for more on Hickatee Cottages, Punta Gorda, and the Toledo District...