We had a beautiful Harvest Moon last night over the Caribbean Sea.  As the moon rose, the eastern sky glowed pink and lavender from the sunset.  We could see the moon from inside our condo, but the view was even nicer out on the veranda.

The Harvest Moon is the full moon that falls nearest towards the autumnal equinox.  According to Wikipedia, the Harvest Moon is also known as the Wine Moon, the Singing Moon, the Blue Corn Moon, and the Elk Call Moon.  I had a glass of wine in its honor without even knowing this fact.  
The photo below is now my laptop backdrop.  The boat came zipping by at the perfect moment, and its rosy color complimented the sky.
Happy Autumn Equinox!
 
We were surprised to look over at the Grand Caribe dock today and see the unmistakable Optimist dinghies of the San Pedro Sailing Club moored on the water.  Stepping further out onto our veranda, I saw another moored boat with a bright jib, and a Hobie Cat with its brightly striped, tall mainsail up on the beach.  Of course I had to head out immediately with my camera to snap a few shots.
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Optimist Dinghies on a mooring ball
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Optimist Dinghies off Grand Caribe dock
Cowboy Doug saw me taking photos and came out to ask me if I would post them on his Facebook page.  I wasn't sure how they would even turn out because I couldn't even see my viewfinder in the bright sun, but I got pretty lucky.  He said the sailors had brought their own hot dogs to put on the grill, and some of their parents had met them there for some food and beverages.  I am sure they enjoyed a dip in the Grand Caribe pool as well since the day was plenty warm.

After lunch, they headed back to their home base at Caribbean Villas, I'm guessing.  What a perfect day for sail they had, with moderate easterly breezes.  We would have enjoyed sailing south with them on a comfortable beam reach.
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Off they go!
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Need any crew, guys?
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These folks had a bit more work to get going
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The lagging boat heading out now -- wonder if they could catch the Optimists?
Paisley enjoyed some sandy fun on the beach while I was snapping photos!
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Paisley with a sand beard
 
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It takes time to get used to the fact that Belize doesn't have the same concept of the four seasons we are used to in the United States.  In North Carolina, where I grew up and spent most of my life, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are distinct seasons and provide an easy way to refer to times of year.  "Last winter we went to Florida," or "Sure has been an early spring," or "The leaves are especially pretty this fall."  

Here in Belize, the year is not structured exactly the same.  Instead of the four seasons I'm used to, there are only two:  dry season and rainy season.  The latter is the longest, stretching from June through December in most cases, though this year it seemed to last through January and start up again in May, leaving but a short three-month dry season.  Even during rainy season, it certainly doesn't rain all the time.  It rains more at night than during the day, but storms are more frequent and can be heavy, even if short-lived.  Occasionally it stays gray and rains off and on all day long, but that is rare.  And it rains on occasion even during dry season, but much less frequently.

This year -- this "summer" -- just when we thought rainy season was here to stay, Mother Nature's waterworks turned off.  Although I don't have official rainfall statistics to quote, on Ambergris Caye July was dryer than June, August seemed dryer still (with the exception of our brief brush with Hurricane Ernesto in the early part of the month), and September was downright desert-like.  Even the locals were complaining about the heat and dry weather, and passing motor vehicles kicked dusty dirt in our eyes when they passed us on the unpaved roads.  It was 83 or 84F every morning by the time I got up (6:30 to 7 am). Almost every day without fail, the skies were brilliant blue, the sun was shining brightly, and it was a perfect time for visitors to enjoy a tropical island vacation.  But for residents, the lack of clouds and cooling rain can get a bit stifling over time.

And then it changed.

Over the past few days, we've started getting some brief daytime showers and brilliant lightning and thunder shows at night.  And clouds, yes cooling clouds!  Although the high temperature most days is still hitting the 88 through 90F range in the mid-morning to early afternoon timeframe, we've been having great breezes in the later afternoons and evenings; and at times, there is the slightest "edge" to the breeze that almost feels...dare I say, cool.

The birds are in high gear as fall migration time has arrived as well.  Almost overnight we started noticing wood warblers in the heavy tropical foliage out our windows, along with the plaintive call of the Great Kiskadee that had been silent all summer long.  Even year-round residents like orioles seem more active and plentiful.  The Roseate Spoonbills are back at Grand Belizean Estates, along with the flock of Blacked-Necked Stilts wading in the mangrove pools, and many more birds flying overhead.  But again, I used the the US seasons "fall" and "summer" to describe these differences -- because they are important and distinct times for birders -- even though both are part of the rainy season in Belize.

I suppose no matter where one lives, there are certain constructs that will never die, and for me, one of those is the concept of the four seasons.  It's different here in Belize in spring, summer, fall, and winter, no matter how those "seasons" are described.  So now, I'm going to say it, even though the leaves won't be changing:  Fall is here!
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Black-Necked Stilts
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Roseate Spoonbill
 
Not too long ago we were excited to hear that Carib beer, brewed in St. Kitts & Nevis in the Caribbean, was coming to Belize.  Since only a small variety of beers are sold in the country due to the Bowen & Bowen Belikin brand being a virtual monopoly, it is always nice to have a new option.  We first tasted this beer, served with the customary slice of lime, years ago in the British Virgin Islands, where it was as ubiquitous as Belikin is in Belize.
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Barry pouring a Carib in Virgin Gorda, BVI, December 2003
We bought a few of new Carib Lagers recently to see if they were as tasty as we remembered.  Interestingly, the bottles available in Belize are small, just like Belikin.  This little guy is just 275 ml, which is approximately 9.3 oz, rather than the typical 12 oz bottle size in the United States.  I don't know if that's done to hold prices down or in an attempt to get people to drink less.  Or maybe it's just the opposite -- these go down so quickly on a hot day, it's likely you'll want another!
The label looks very similar to the 2003 label, and the taste was just as I remembered.  This is no insipid beer -- it has a robust flavor that pairs well with a slice of lime.  And the alcohol content is 5.2% -- maybe that's why the bottles are small!

We bought our Carib at the Liquor Box on Middle Street.  They frequently run specials of three bottles for $10 BZ ($5 US).  That's $10 US for a six-pack of the small bottles -- not cheap.  But then again, not much is very cheap on an island, and Belikin is only slightly less ($3 BZ per bottle at grocery stores in town).  One bonus is that the store is heavily air-conditioned, and to score your Caribs, you get to dip your hand down into their ICE cold water cooler.  It's pure bliss on a hot day.  I wanted to jump right in with the beer!
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"Real Beer served here"
 
If you are a regular reader of our blog, you know how much we've enjoyed traveling around Belize.  And some of the highlights have been our visits to the tropical rainforest in Stann Creek and Toledo Districts for hiking and birding.  There's just something about the jungle; it's quintessentially tropical -- moist and green.  It smells and feels so earthy, as if all the massive trees forming a canopy above your head are shielding you from all things wrong in the world.  Even with its inherent dangers, the jungle feels safe, almost womb-like.

There's no arguing that Ambergris Caye is beautiful, but it tends towards a sandy, beachy environment.  So, we were awfully surprised (but delighted) to find a little jungle oasis right in southern Ambergris last weekend.

As we mentioned in a previous blog post, we took a long bike ride south on Sunday, and after going as far as we could, we turned around and headed back just a short ways to the Marco Gonzalez Archaeological Reserve/Maya Site, which we'd never checked out because we don't get down that far south very often, and when we do, we don't always have bug spray with us.  Today we did, so we decided to venture in and have a look around.  As we learned from the sign below, this is a very ancient site.  And it became the first Maya Site National Park on Ambergris Caye in 2011.
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The attendant booth is closed on Sundays, but you can still walk in and have a look at the site.
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Our bike parking
Although we slathered ourselves with bug spray, we really didn't notice any mosquitoes -- a lucky break.
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Applying bug spray
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Entering the site
To get to the site, you first must traverse a quarter-mile boardwalk over a swampy mangrove area.  According to the link above, this marshland was created after 2000 years of ocean rise and the resulting mangrove encroachment.  The boardwalk was only built in 2010, allowing public access to the site.  Just traversing it is an adventure in itself, as it was built with various sizes of lumber, probably mostly salvaged or donated, along with some newer parts.  You definitely have to watch your step, but I enjoyed walking it.
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A newer section
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Gotta watch your step here!
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Still kinda low, scrubby growth here, but just wait!
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Getting into some taller foliage
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Entering the site
The site, once we got inside, was much bigger than we expected.  However, there was enough standing water in parts of it that  we couldn't access the entire site.
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Map of Marco Gonzalez site
There were some nice fans made from palmetto (?) leaves near the entrance we borrowed for our walk in case of spider webs blocking the trail or to whack bugs away, though we didn't notice any webs or bugs.
The signage in the park is very educational.  We learned all about the Gumbo Limbo tree, the bark of which can be used to as an antidote if you are unfortunate enough to get too close to a Poisonwood tree.  Sounds like the Gumbo Limbo bark has other uses as well -- for burns, insect bites, and even for gout, among other things.  It's an attractive tree and a good one to know about, just in case!
Here's a better shot of the Gumbo Limbo, also called the "Tourist Tree" since its bark peels like a sunburned tourist!
The site is also home to a bevy of Poisonwood trees -- fortunately marked.  It would have been just my luck to grab onto one and end up burned and miserable.  This blog post gives an excellent description of the dangers posed by the Poisonwood tree.  The warnings on this sign should not be taken lightly.  DO NOT TOUCH!
As we got a little farther into the site, it really started to feel like being in the jungle.  Sure, the trees weren't quite as tall as the rainforests of southern Belize, but for Ambergris Caye, it was a welcome haven.  The temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler in here than out in the open.
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Poisonwood (note the black sap) on the left, Gumbo Limbo right beside it. Mother Nature is wise, no?
The Maya structures in this site are un-excavated and not very large, so it's no Lamanai, but it's still an interesting site if you enjoy history.  There are forty-nine structures total on the site.  Here are examples of a few:
This limestone and conch shell mound was quite impressive.  I've certainly never seen so many conch shells in one place.
Here are some nice collections of Maya pottery shards we came upon:
The going got a bit wet in places!  We ultimately had to turn around when we encountered a larger wet area that we didn't feel like slogging through (not this one). 
From our photos, it appears that we didn't see another soul on the site, but that wasn't quite true.  We did run into a small group of tourists with a guide, much to our surprise.  We thought we were alone in there!  

We also enjoyed watching birds as we trekked through.  There were a lot of them!  But we didn't have our binoculars, so birding was a little frustrating since we weren't able to identify too many of them other than just general categories ("flycatcher").  We also saw quite a few hermit crabs crawling about.  I've seen more hermit crabs in Belize than anywhere else in my life!
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Black Catbird
We finally finished our tour and emerged from the jungle into the light once again.  
It was an interesting visit and definitely worth checking out if you're on Ambergris Caye.  For further information, click here.
 
Today we had to ride our bikes into town twice because we bought so much produce we couldn't carry it all on the first trip!  We also spent all our cash on the first trip, but the very nice fruit-stand proprietor said that we were welcome to take all the fruit and veggies that we wanted and bring him the money later.  Wow!  Even though we are regular customers there, I was still surprised and honored that he would be so trusting.  It reminded me that we are in Belize, where small-town courtesies have not gone by the wayside, not yet.

We couldn't carry any more on our bikes anyway, so we rode back to our condo to unload and headed right back out for the second trip to get the rest.   Here's our haul:  
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Oranges, mangoes, papayas, limes, avocados, onions, bananas, tomatoes, green beans, and bell peppers
 
Although we knew that September 10th is a holiday in Belize, St. George's Caye Day, we hadn't actually planned on attending the parade.  I knew there was going to be a parade, because, well, Belizeans have parades for just about every occasion!  They need absolutely no excuse to gather and celebrate, and I remembered finding out that there was a September 10th parade last year after we'd already missed it.  But we had no idea what time it started.  

Turns out it started right as we were finishing up our shopping at Greenhouse.  We were literally trapped, as the police and fire truck were coming right along Middle Street as I exited the store with my purchases.  No problem -- the parade was colorful, festive, and fun, though ear-splittingly loud (sirens, drums, and pounding music).  It was a much shorter, smaller parade than the mama of them all, the Independence Day parade on September 21, which we blogged about last year.  

Thank goodness we were trapped on the shady side of Middle Street as it was another very hot and sunny day.  The poor kids marching, playing instruments, and dancing with their school groups were dripping and swabbing their faces with hand towels, and I felt for them in their polyester uniforms.  Hot!

But I'll let the pictures tell the story...
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Here comes the parade -- there's no escaping now!
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Miss San Pedro
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All the kids were so cute!
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The kids did a great job with the drums, but they were LOUD!
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And speaking of loud, the music blaring from these speakers was ear-splitting...I felt bad for the kids marching right behind this truck!
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My poor ears! The noise didn't seem to bother any of the locals -- perhaps they are already half deaf from past celebrations!
Here is where we got trapped -- I'm the one in the ball cap between two young men in the middle of the photo.
Between today and September 21st, everyone in Belize will be in a festive spirit as the "September celebrations" are a really big deal here.  As they should be -- this is a young country that is very proud of its independence.  
 
This morning we decided to point our bikes southward.  We usually ride north simply because it means avoiding all the bumpy cobblestone streets in town that make me wish I had never sold my full-suspension mountain bike in the US, but it gets boring always going the same way.  And going south proved to be an excellent choice.  

We were up early and got on the road around 7:30 am, if not a bit earlier (I always forget to look at my watch since I'm on island time!)  This may be the earliest we've ever ridden through town, and it was dead.  I mean, there is never this little traffic!  Most businesses open as usual on Sunday, but not until 8 am or later.  And September is the slowest month of the year for tourism, so some businesses are taking the month off to spruce up and to give employees some time off.  We loved it.

When is Middle Street ever this quiet?  (By the way, I had no idea Barry was snapping all these photos during our ride, although it did cross my mind to wonder why he was staying behind me the entire time!)
And this usually bustling intersection around the Tropic Air terminal -- dead, dead, dead!
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Epic win!
Once you get south of town, it's always quiet, and today was no exception.  The unpaved road was in the best shape we've ever seen it as the low spots had been recently filled, just as they have north of the bridge for a couple of miles.  Hopefully they can stand up to the October rain.  It does rain buckets every October, right?  (I keep hoping last year was a rare exception.)
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Unpaved road ahead
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Field of egrets
Once we got as far south as we could go (finally stopped by puddles across the road that hadn't been filled), we turned around and headed back.  For the first time, we finally stopped in and explored the Marco Gonzalez Maya site, which I'll cover in the future, since it is deserving of a full post.  

After quite a long detour at the site (which we loved), we continued riding back north into a stiff northeastern breeze.  We had only a homemade oatmeal bar to sustain us to this point, and we were starved, so a breakfast in town was in our plans.  Much to our surprise, even the perennially popular Estel's was closed (remember, it's slow season), and as a result, the Cuban place on Front Street I'd wanted to try was packed.  So, we continued north, running on fumes, and stopped in at Ak'Bol, just down the beach from our condo.  It's always one of our favorites.
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Ak'Bol yoga palapa over the sea (right)
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Deciding on our reward
Barry got his usual breakfast burrito, and although the coconut pancakes (the BEST!) tempted me, I saved some dinero and got the less pricey veggie-egg stuffed fry jack.  I figure they're equally fattening, but this was definitely brunch as it was 11 am by this point, so at least I wouldn't be eating another meal before dinner time.
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Barry's breakfast burrito with fresh salsa
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My stuffed fry jack with fresh salsa
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Whatta view!
By the time we finished eating and hopped back on our trusty steeds for the short ride up the beach to our condo, the wind had kicked up even more, and there was actually the slightest bit of a chill in it (I kid you not!)  It looked like it was about to pour.  Although we did get a few drops of rain just after arriving home, the vast majority of the storm stayed out to sea.  September has been quite dry and sunny so far, considering it is the rainy season.  Not that we're complaining, but it was lovely to have a slight cool-off, as it's been very hot since we got back from our trip to the US on August 30.
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Threatening sky when we got home
Stay tuned for our Marco Gonzalez tour, coming soon!
 
Today I had the opportunity to meet a fellow expat and blogger who lives on Caye Caulker for lunch in San Pedro.  I'm not saying her name or including any photos of her as her employer doesn't know she lives in Belize.  As long as she is still able to do her job effectively, I can't imagine they'd even care, but I completely respect her desire to keep her identity private.  So mum's the word from me!

She'd come to town to have her hair done at one of my favorite funky, dual-identity spots on the island, the Aquarius book shop and hair salon.  I've exchanged books at Aquarius several times and always enjoy going in to see what I can find.  I had several books to exchange, so while my friend sat in the stylist's chair, I had time to check all the shelves for juicy murder mysteries, one of my favorite genres and one of the easiest to find wherever I go.  
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Books, books, book (aka heaven!)
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My haul
We decided to eat at Hemingway's on Middle Street, in keeping with the bookish theme.  I don't know how this restaurant got its name, because it seems a bit unlikely for a locally owned spot.  But local it is, and during slow season, I know how hard it can be for businesses to keep their doors open, so I like to give my business to places less frequented by tourists.  I'd never eaten here before, but our friends Debra and Bill liked it, so I was looking forward to checking it out.  
Our waiter was good.  And the food was tasty as well.  I only regret that I didn't ask for or receive any salsa with my chicken huaraches, as specified on the menu.  They were very mild, so a bit of spicy red salsa would have been the perfect touch.  Still, I enjoyed them, and the buttery avocado on top was the perfect touch.  They were undoubtedly the best sandals I ever ate!  ;-)
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Note that all prices are in Belize dollars (divide by 2 for USD)
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The best sandals I ever ate!
My friend and I had an excellent conversation about our respective islands -- things we liked, things that concerned us, and the many changes we'd seen over just the past year.  All in all, a great time, and well worth a trip to town on this very hot day.  I hope we can do it again one of these days!
 
Since arriving in Belize, we've gotten our share of insect bites:  mosquitoes, sand flies, and various biting ants are fairly ubiquitous, at least when there is no wind or it's blowing from the right direction.  We've been lucky enough not to be stung by any yellow jackets or hornets to date.  However, on our recent trip to the mainland, we experienced a biting insect we knew nothing about.  We're now properly educated!

There we were, innocently walking from our cabana over to breakfast through the grass at Mama Noots Eco-Resort in Mayflower Bocawina National Park in the Stann Creek District of Belize.  We hadn't bothered to put on any insect repellent for such a short walk, though of course we'd planned on slathering ourselves with it before our hike in the jungle after breakfast.  All of a sudden, we noticed that we were attracting little black, gnat-like bugs, especially on our lower legs.  It felt like they were biting us, though their bites didn't hurt or sting badly like a fire ant bite; it was just a passing annoyance, kind of like a no-see-um bite.  After slapping at them awhile, we realized that where each one bit us, there was a small drop of blood.

As we arrived at the dining room, we ran into Liz, the proprietor, with one of the zip-line workers.  We asked them about the bites, and they immediately recognized that they were made by some sort of fly.  I could never understand exactly what they were saying; it sounded like "bottle fly", but maybe they'd called it "blood fly"?  The latter was certainly fitting! 

Here's how the bites looked the day I got bit.  Not too bad yet.
We didn't give the bites much more thought until that night, when I realized that not only were my calves and shins itching like crazy, they were swelling up, especially the right one, where I'd gotten many more bites, for some reason.  The bites were redder and more inflamed, and the skin on my lower right leg felt tight and hot to the touch.  I've had bites that itched this bad before (fire ants -- ugh), but never accompanied by this amount of generalized swelling.  Plus, as time went on, I could see how many bites I'd gotten, since each one was marked with a blood drop that began red but soon turned to black.  NOT a pretty sight.  And we were not very close to medical care, being in an off-grid jungle resort, so I hoped they wouldn't be even worse in the morning and require medical care.  I counted 87 bites on my right leg alone!
Fortunately, although the bites continued to look really bad for the next couple of days, and my right lower leg remained swollen and inflamed, I didn't seem to be getting much worse after that first night, so I didn't seek any medical care.  I'd brought plenty of Benedryl (an essential in Belize), which I lived on for the next few days to try to help with the itching and swelling.  I guess I am quite allergic to these strange bites, since Barry didn't swell up nor have nearly the itching that I did.  Liz also confirmed that she barely noticed them.  Somehow I managed to hike even with the swollen leg, and with plenty of insect repellent, don't think I got too many more bites after that first morning.

By the time we got home from our late July trip, my legs were feeling a lot better.  The swelling was gone and the itching was much less, but they still looked bad.  It took a couple of weeks for all the little scabs to fall off.  

As soon as we unpacked, we googled to find out more about these mystery flies, and although information was sparse, we did find a few things.

They are not bottle nor blood flies, nor are they (thank the gods) bot flies, the awful creatures whose larvae burrow under the skin of humans.  They are sometimes referred to as bot-less flies because of this fact; but the correct name is BOTLASS Fly (Diptera: Simuliidae; blackflies, bloodsucking insects).  They are a local type of blackfly and are apparently found primarily in the Silk Grass Creek area of Belize [ref: http://biological-diversity.info/Downloads/Mayflower_REA_s.pdf, search for botlass], which is very close to Mayflower Bocawina Park and Mama Noots.  We found several mentions of them in blogs and forums solely in this area, but no mention of them elsewhere in Belize, nor have we encountered them anywhere else in the country where we have traveled fairly extensively.  
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Tiny Botlass Fly packs a mean punch
Fortunately, the referenced report states that botlass flies are not known to spread any diseases.  Actually, even a month earlier (June) when we were in the same park, we didn't get a single bite, so they must be seasonal as well.

This photo was taken on the last night of our trip, and you can see bites on my lower right leg. 
And you can see them here, the day we arrived home.
I'm pleased to say that within a couple of weeks of arriving home, all the bites had healed, and I don't even believe I have any scarring, thankfully.  I hope this is the worst the jungle ever has to throw at me!