After checking out all the gorgeous plant specimens in the Orquideas Moxviquil botanical garden, it was time to take a woodland hike.  There's a 2.5 km loop trail (though it felt longer!) beginning right behind the garden and leading up to a wonderful view of San Cristobal.  We had read about this hike in Tripadvisor and were looking forward to locating the trail.

But first, a few photos of our initial attempt to locate the orchid garden, which I mentioned in the previous post.  When we saw the first sign for the preserve, we thought we needed to hike on the trail by the sign to get to the garden.  So, we enjoyed a short hike into the forest before we realized that we needed to turn back to the road and continue along a bit farther to find the garden.  
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Perhaps the orchid garden is hidden up this trail?
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But alas, all we found was a private home
Now, onto the trail from the back of the orchid garden.  We had it completely to ourselves and did not encounter another hiker.  Perfect!
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The trailhead behind the "artsy outhouses" featured in our last post
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Great view of San Cristobal as we climbed the trail
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There were signs like this all along the trail
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Getting higher up!
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Plenty of climbing!
We came upon this limestone sinkhole/cave near the top of the trail.
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Looking down into it -- during rainy season I am betting there's water in here
Naturally Barry had to climb down for a closer look!
The trail leveled out at the top and opened to a grassy meadow area, where I took a brief rest.  The foliage and scenery reminded me a bit of some of our North Carolina and Virginia mountain hikes.
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Time to head back down
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A beautiful forest
Please stay tuned for bird photos from the orchid garden and much more from San Cristobal, as we continue exploring this beautiful city.
 
Wednesday, July 25th was our first full day in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, and we spent most of it hiking.  In the morning, we hiked the Bird Trail, which was an easy, mostly flat trail, but longer than we expected.  Most of the birds were actually out in the open area where some un-excavated Maya ruin mounds were located, not along the jungly, dense trail, but it was a fun walk anyway.  As usual, we had the trail entirely to ourselves.  (Stay tuned for a separate post with bird photos coming later; we'll just show the hiking photos here to keep this post from getting too long.)
Besides birds, we saw some cool flora and fauna along the way, like these interesting mushrooms, and a couple of huge owl butterflies, who seemed to be posing just for us, as Barry was able to snap a lot of shots of them.
Some parts of the trail were semi-blocked where trees had fallen, so we had to do a bit of trail blazing.
After lunch we attacked the Antelope Falls Trail, which we'd not been able to make it to the top of on our last attempt due to not enough time and severe fatigue.  This time around, we had no time limit and were feeling fresher, and it didn't seem nearly so difficult.  However, it is still some of the toughest hiking we've ever done; more like rock climbing in parts.  There were many, many stairs, and many places where using a rope was required to climb up steep and sometimes slippery rocks.  You can see the Antelope Trail on the map at the top of this post.  Note that it says "steep in places".  Uh, yes.  Here are some of those places:
We knew there was a pool at the top of the climb where we could cool off, so we were excited when we saw this sign:





Only 75 meters more to go, and we were rewarded with this beautiful sight....
I wasted no time in changing into my swimsuit and taking the plunge.  The water was cool and refreshing -- just perfect!
Barry didn't think he was going to go in, but I talked him into it; some things are just too good to miss.
Of course, getting back down the steep trail was a challenge as well.  It's easier to turn around and back down while holding the rope.
Half-way down (or up) the trail is the best view of the falls.  Unfortunately, the sun was in a bad place for a photo.
So yes, this time we did manage to summit Antelope Falls, although we later heard from Miss Marci, the cook at Mama Noot's, that we could actually have climbed a bit higher, above the pool area, and gotten a panoramic view of the entire area, even out to the Caribbean Sea.  Oh well, perhaps we'll just have to visit again one day -- third time's a charm?!

Stay tuned...tomorrow we'll have more photos from around the grounds at Mama Noot's Eco Resort as well as more photos of the great food Miss Marci served us during our stay! 
 
Since failing to reach the top of Antelope Falls in June due to a tight time schedule, we were determined to get back to Mayflower Bocawina National Park, near the villages of Silk Grass and Hopkins in the Stann Creek District, as soon as possible to finish the hike.  We also wanted to visit the town of Punta Gorda in the Toledo District of southern Belize for the first time.  So we decided to combine both goals into a week-long adventure.

On our first trip to the park, which we got to via taxi from Hopkins, we'd discovered an eco-resort right within the confines of the park, Mama Noot's.  We hadn't read about it in any of our resources prior to visiting the park, but once we found it, we knew it would be a much more convenient place to stay to hike the falls as well as indulge in our passion for birding.  So, we booked three nights to allow plenty of time for hiking, birding, exploring, and relaxing.  There is also a new zip-line onsite, but we didn't take advantage of it.  It looked like fun, but would have been an additional expense, and we really preferred the hiking and birdwatching.

We took off from Ambergris Caye on Tuesday, July 24.  We caught an early-morning water taxi into San Pedro, dropped Paisley off at Pampered Paws to board for the week, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Lily's Treasure Chest, since we had some time before the ferry to Belize City departed.  

We've learned while traveling this summer that while the summer months are slow season in Belize for tourists from the US, Canada, and Europe; this is the time when Belizeans as well as other Central Americans travel, since the children are out of school and bargains are plentiful.  As a result, the transportation options most-used by locals, ferries and buses, are packed.  Today was no exception.  Both the ferry and buses were very crowded, and our final leg, a bus from the town of Dangriga to the park turnoff was standing room only.  We were not able to sit together, and Barry was forced to stand way in the back.  Practically the entire aisle was filled with standing passengers.  

When we approached a police checkpoint along the highway, all those passengers standing in the aisle had to be seated, as apparently standing passengers are not allowed (even though it happens all the time).  So these additional passengers had to scrunch onto the very edges of the tiny seats originally intended for two children (the buses in Belize are former US school buses) but now occupied by two adults, in most cases.  Barry ended up perching on the edge of one of these seats as a third person.  There was also a third person squeezed onto the edge of the seat I was in, and many crouched in the aisle so they wouldn't be seen standing.  Apparently it's pretty routine here for the buses to exceed their designated maximum passenger capacity -- and to hide that fact when they pass through checkpoints.  

The park is not a usual bus stop, though local buses will stop pretty much anywhere a passenger requests, so I had to let the conductor know that we needed to get off there.  The Belizean man I was seated next to was chatting me up the entire time (only about half of which I could understand) as I tried to watch for the stop.  Since the park is only six miles south on the Southern Highway outside of Dangriga, we would be the first stop, so the conductor had to make his way down the crowded aisle to let Barry know to start working his way to the front of the bus to be ready for the stop.  Fortunately, the driver did stop, and we got off at the appropriate place.  It was really nice to be out of that crowded bus and enjoy the fresh air again.
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Mile 6 of Belize's Southern Highway
As you can see on the sign for Mama Noot's, it is 4.2 miles in on the unpaved road, and the bus doesn't go in.  We could have hired a taxi in Dangriga, but we figured the hike in wouldn't kill us after so much time seated in ferries and buses, and we're trying to keep our travel as frugal as possible.  Times like these are why we travel with backpacks rather than rolling suitcases in Belize!  It was a beautiful hike with no houses at all along the road, just green as far as the eyes could see.
Our shoulders got a little tired, but it was mostly flat and not a difficult hike.
As we walked down the road, we met the manager of Mama Noot's, Liz, as she was heading the other way into town in an SUV.  She offered us a ride, but we were within a mile at that point, so decided to forge onwards.  Before reaching Mama Noot's, we entered park land.
As we neared Mama Noot's, one of the workers met us on the road and walked us the rest of the way in to the resort, and Ms. Marci, who does all the cooking in the restaurant there, showed us our cabana.  We had requested a regular "Longhouse" room since the summer rate was only $39US, but since those rooms were currently under renovation, we were lucky enough to be upgraded to a larger cabana.  Since it is low season for tourism, we were the only guests at the resort for the three nights we were here, although there were zip-line workers staying in the larger cabana close to ours.
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Can't beat this gorgeous setting
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Our authentic Belizean cabana
The cabana was very Belizean with tiled floors, a thatch roof, and screened windows all around.  It was definitely more rustic than most places we've stayed, but charming.  Inside there were two sleeping areas, each with a queen bed, a large entry area, and a bathroom with tiled shower.  The sleeping area had a screened porch feel; there were curtains for the windows but not all had slats to close.  The heavy overhanging thatch roof kept rain from coming in, however.
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Side view of our cabana
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Sleeping area we used - note mosquito netting over the bed, a first for us!
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Second sleeping area we didn't use
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Entry area between sleeping areas
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Tile shower
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Interior of thatched roof, as seen from our bed
Meals were served in a large dining hall (photos later).  Before our first dinner, we chatted with Liz, who brought us a beer, salad, and some of Ms. Marci's delicious home-baked bread.  We were starved by this time, since we'd had only snacks for lunch, so it sure went down easy.  
We had Belizean pork chops, rice, and veggies for dinner, followed by a slice of key lime pie.  Yum!  We definitely did not leave hungry, and the food made the long hike (and day of sometimes uncomfortable travel) all worthwhile.
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Barry's favorite -- no meringue!
Stay tuned to future days' blog posts for hike reports and photos (see whether we made it to the top of Antelope Falls this time!) and more on Mama Noot's.  Also coming up:  Visiting Punta Gorda and the Toledo District, Hickatee Cottages, and a brief return to Placencia....
 
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We traveled to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve today from where we were staying in False Sittee Point
Thursday morning dawned warm and sunny yet again.  This morning we had arranged with Kaleem to pick us up again to take us to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary for some more hiking and birding.  We had read that the trails here were easier than we'd encountered in our previous day's hiking an Mayflower Bocawina National Park, so we were looking forward to that.  We knew we had another sweaty day ahead, but hoped the hiking and birding would make it all worth while.

When the taxi arrived, it turned out to be another driver, Julian, instead of Kaleem.  He told us that the Rav4 was actually his and that the previous day had been his day off, so Kaleem was using his vehicle.  He took us on a different route since he needed to fuel up at the Sittee River Marina.  So, he drove us from False Sittee Point along the Sittee River, through Sittee Village, and out to the Southern Highway.  It was a really scenic drive, but the rocky road (until we reached the paved portion at Sittee Village) was pretty slow-going.  Julian said it can be impassable at times during rainy season.
After a seven-mile access road into the park (again, unpaved, bumpy, and slow-going), Julian dropped us at the park at 9:30 am, and we agreed for him to pick us up at 3:30 pm.  We wanted to allow an hour longer than the day before since we basically ran out of time then.  We hoped it would be enough time. 
First we checked out the visitor center.  We knew these would be the only jaguars we'd be seeing today as they are seldom seen by humans and are mainly nocturnal. 





Here's some information about how the preserve was developed.  Interesting to see that it is the first jaguar preserve established in the world -- and it's here in little Belize!
We started our hike on the easy Green Knowledge Trail.  It was quite muddy, not my favorite hiking condition, but it was beautiful, and as usual, we had it all to ourselves, as we did all the trails today.  There were frequent creeks alongside the trails as well as creek/stream crossings.  
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The leaves on the trail were hiding some very sticky mud
We saw many of these giant grasshoppers hopping and flying around.  They grow 'em big in the tropics!  Interestingly, the inside of their wings are bright fuschia, so they look really pretty, and almost like birds, when they fly.  But it was impossible to get a photo of them in flight.
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Belizean grasshopper -- at least 5" long
There were informational signs along the way on this trail.  We found this one interesting and joked that we'd have a water source should we get lost in the jungle.  Of course, there were all those creeks too.
Here's the "water bottle" vine.  We had plenty of water with us so didn't try it this time.
Here's another sign about the roots on the kaway tree -- these were massive and so interesting.
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Kaway "Tarantula" tree
There were lots and lots of leafcutter ants on the trails here.  We tried very hard to look out for them (as we were already watching the ground for snakes).  I find these little creatures fascinating.  They work so hard!
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Leafcutters
I thought these blueberry-like fruits in the center of the red wildflowers were interesting and beautiful.
In addition to many exotic birds (which we'll save for a special post), there were many different butterflies flitting about.  They rarely posed for photos, though!
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Note the giant grasshopper on this sign
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Time for a little snack break before continuing on
After completing the Green Knowledge Trail, leading to the Gibnut Loop, which we also hiked, our intention was to hike the 5K Antelope Trail.  However, it wasn't obvious that we were supposed to cross a creek to get to the Antelope Trail so ended up on the Tinnamou Trail instead.  We didn't know this until we got all the way out to the access road to the sanctuary and saw the sign at the other end.  We ended up having to double back to figure out our mistake.  However, it was actually worth it as towards the end of the Tinnamou, we encountered large animal tracks in the mud.  We found out from a park employee later that these three-toed prints were made by the tapir.  Cool!
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See the teeny-tiny hand-scratched arrow on the sign? That was the only clue to cross the creek to take the Antelope Trail. Continuing straight was the Tinnamou Trail.
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This is where we should have crossed. Oops!
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Hiking the Antelope...er...Tinnamou Trail
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Crossing one of many creeks
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Tapir tracks -- one of the few good things about mud
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This guy has some large feet!
When we got to the access road and saw this sign, we realized that we were on the wrong trail.  Time to backtrack!
After backtracking about half a mile, we crossed the creek we were supposed to cross.  This is probably much dryer during dry season, but it was one of the few creek crossings without a bridge, so very easy to miss.  We had to take our shoes off and wade.  The cool water felt great on such a hot day!


On the Antelope Trail, we didn't see any antelopes, but we did come across this fascinating leaf-cutter village.  Looked like they had built temples and apartment houses!
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I loved the gothic-style entry on this one. Who knew leaf-cutters were such brilliant architects?
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An obstacle along the way
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And a pretty little waterfall
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I was determined to make it across this creek without taking off my shoes. The rocks were slick, but I did it.
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Huge hornet nest up in a tree -- fortunately we did not see any of its inhabitants
Sadly, even allowing an extra hour, once again we just barely made it back to the visitor's center at the designated time to meet our taxi. There was just so much to see, and we did stop many times to photograph and watch birds as we were hiking.  

The very end of the Antelope Trail hooked up with a more open, grassy path back to the visitor's center, where there were a whole different variety of birds than what we'd seen in the jungle -- and so many of them.  We wish we'd had more time to spend in this area, but we had to keep moving.

Julian arrived right at the designated time.  On the way back down the access road, he stopped the car to let us check out a small plane wreck.  I looked from afar since another stream crossing was involved, but Barry just walked on through -- leather hiking boots and all.  He was able to get some good close-up shots of the wreck, as well as of the sign explaining it.  Fortunately the pilot of the plane sustained only minor injuries.
I've already blogged about the great private dinner that Tony and Angela served us that night (Thursday), but here are a few other photos from the lovely evening once we got back to the inn and cleaned up after some very sweaty hiking.
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Barry before dinner
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Afterglow
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Enjoying some well-earned relaxation in the palapa after dinner
We had decided the day before that we were going to need another day in Hopkins.  We had originally planned to leave Friday morning.  But we had only seen the village while riding the bus into town on Tuesday, then briefly when visiting the grocery store on Wednesday, so we wanted to explore more and try a couple of different restaurants.  We needed a slower-paced day to rest up after all the hiking as well.  We had already confirmed with Angela that we could stay Friday night, so after a couple of phone calls back home to extend Paisley's stay at the Pampered Paws and cancel our housekeepers for Saturday (since we wouldn't get home in time to let them in), we were all set for one more day in this lovely paradise!  

[To be continued...]
 
When we arose to bright sunshine the next morning, we were able to see Beaches and Dreams, where we had arrived in darkness the night before, in a whole new light.  It is a perfectly charming place on the beach, set far enough from neighboring homes and resorts to be private, and with tropical foliage all around, including a large mango tree we could see out our bathroom window.  
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Our room on the right
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Mango tree
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Beaches & Dreams rooms (left) and restaurant with Tony & Angela's home above (right)
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The palapa at end of the dock was one of our favorite places to hang out in the evenings
Angela made us a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, English muffins, and a huge plate of fruit.  The big breakfasts here were a really nice treat and stoked us for long days of hiking and other activities.
Our plan was to go to Mayflower Bocawina National Park today for hiking and birdwatching, so Tony called us a taxi.  I have to give credit to Sharon Hiebing's Wealthships blog for alerting me to the existence of this park; I'd never even heard of it until this month, but after reading her description of hiking the super strenuous Antelope Falls, I knew it was a place Barry and I simply couldn't miss, and our entire trip to Hopkins evolved from the desire to visit this park.  Yes, you could say we are a bit masochistic to even think about doing such a hike in the summer in the tropics, but hey, that's just how we roll!

Our driver, Kaleem, would drop us at the park in the morning and pick us up in the afternoon for a cost of $70 US.  Traveling by taxi in Belize is not inexpensive, but the rates are understandable as gas prices are high, and once you get off the paved highway, side roads are typically unpaved, rocky, steep in places, and slow-going. The roads really do a number on the suspensions of the vehicles -- mostly older vehicles -- in Belize.  Kaleem would have to travel from our inn, about two miles south of Hopkins Village (unpaved), then the bad four-mile road to and from Hopkins, then the Southern Highway for four more miles, followed by a 4.5-mile unpaved access road to and from the park. Twice.  Definitely not a job I would want.

The views along the access road to the park were gorgeous, as was the day.  What rainy season?!
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Access road to Mayflower Bocawina National Park
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Our taxi, an older Rav 4
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Barry ready to hike
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Park map
We decided to start out by doing an easier hike to Bocawina Falls to warm up before we attacked the strenuous Antelope Falls trail.  Most of this hike was along an unpaved road and was quite sunny, so we were soon dripping wet with sweat.  We saw no other people after passing the zip-line area along the way.  I'd love to try zip-lining one day, but today was all about hiking and birding.  

We saved money by not hiring a guide to take us through the park -- we prefer to hike and bird-watch independently anyway, so we don't feel like we're holding anyone up when we stop numerous times to check out and photograph various birds.  Entry fee to the park was only $10 BZD ($5 US) each.
Barry happened to look down and notice this tiny thumb-sized turtle along the path.  How cute is he?
Finally we got to the end of the "road" and continued on a more typical trail through the jungle and up to the falls.  It was absolutely gorgeous and nice to have some more shade, though the humidity was intense.

"But what about the birds?", perhaps you are asking.  As we often do, we took so many photos we'll save the bird photos from our trip for a bonus blog post at the end to avoid making the daily entries even longer than they already are.  I will say that we did indeed see some great new and exotic birds for our life lists in the park, so stay tuned.
The falls themselves were really pretty, and the temperature may have even gone down a degree or two right by them.  It was nice having them all to ourselves.
From the falls, the trail continued up, up, up to the upper falls area.  We couldn't resist going just a bit higher through the lush jungle.
There wasn't too much of a view from the "upper falls", but there were additional trails that branched off to the Peck Falls and Big Drop Falls.  These trails didn't look like they'd seen much use lately, and we knew we'd run out of time to see Antelope Falls if we continued on, so we backtracked down the way we'd come.  
    
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Exotic flora along the trail back
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Bananas growing wild
When we got back to our starting point, we realized that we probably had not left enough time to complete the Antelope Falls hike.  We had asked Kaleem to pick us up at 2 pm, giving us five hours in the park, but time really flies when we're birding as we stop often to peer through our binoculars and take multiple photos, so our bird-watching hikes are not nearly as quick as regular hiking.  It was 12:20 already, so we needed to turn around after about 50 minutes of hiking to be able to get back at 2 pm.  We took off at a quick clip, unsure if we'd make it to the top of the falls or not.  It was only two miles to the top, but we knew that it would be very steep and slow-going.

First we crossed the Mayflower Bridge.
I guess the trail used to be called "Tind's Trail", per this sign.
The trail was absolutely gorgeous.  It started out easy to moderate, but didn't waste much time in getting fairly strenuous.  Still, we had no idea what was soon to come.
First we got to the stairs. There were ropes along the banks to assist, but we didn't use the ropes on the stairs.  We thought we were in good enough shape that we wouldn't need ropes at all.  Haha!  No, we may not have needed them on the stairs, but once we hit the roots and rocks and even steeper terrain on the upper half of the falls, we definitely needed the ropes.  Some of the rocks were slippery, and it was difficult enough even with ropes.  We were just hoping they wouldn't break.
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Stairs with ropes to right
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Okay, I give in -- time to use the rope!
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View of falls mid-way up
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Time for a brief rest!
Since we haven't been able to do much hill training on the flat island of Ambergris Caye, our hearts were really pounding, and I started feeling a little woozy from all this climbing in the heat and humidity.  We've done some really tough things over the years, like century bike rides (100 miles) and hiking rim to the river and back in a day at the Grand Canyon, but this was actually a more strenuous effort, probably in part because we were just not well-trained for it.  And they don't seem to understand the concept of switchbacks when building trails in Belize; they pretty much go straight up the mountain.  I'm sure it couldn't have anything to do with the fact that we're a few years older now!
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I wish you could see how soaking wet with sweat I was here!
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I think I know how Tarzan must have felt!
Finally, we realized we weren't going to be able to make it all the way to the top.  It was a combination of not having enough time and being absolutely wiped out from the heat, humidity, and climbing.  We could look up and see the top about 10 minutes away, but we just didn't have the energy to go for it at that moment.  What a disappointment!  We will definitely have to return and try again, perhaps on a slightly cooler day, and we'll do this trail FIRST next time, while we're still fresh.  Sharon's blog says there's a lovely pool to swim in at the top, so I'll pack my swimsuit next time too!

As it turned out, going down was faster than going up, though my progressive glasses were making it a little weird since I kept looking through the reading part at the bottom and slightly misjudging distance, but we made it with no mishaps.
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Coming back down
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Whew -- back on flat land
Since the trail down went faster than anticipated, we made it back to the visitor's center before Kaleem arrived to pick us up, so we got to look around a bit.  There were some ornamental peppers growing and some unexcavated Maya mounds nearby.  There was also a sign to a so-called "Bird Trail" we would have loved to have checked out.  Wish we'd had a few more minutes to walk around more, but Kaleem arrived right on time.
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Hate that we missed this!
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Maya Temple mound (unexcavated)
After we arrived back at the inn, Barry decided to head out in one of the kayaks (complimentary).  I was too worn out from our day, so I just watched and took photos after a quick dip in the ocean to cool off.  
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This was more my speed at this point
After cooling off, we realized we needed to find a grocery store for a few small items, so we grabbed a couple of the complimentary bikes to ride into the village.  After my little dip in the ocean, I had more energy than I expected.
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Bikes at Beaches & Dreams
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Weeeeeeeee!
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Riding past resorts
We stopped at this little store for a few things, which we had to stuff in our pockets on the way home after the bag broke.
When we got back to the inn, it was finally time to relax.  I sat out in the palapa over the water and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset to the west.  
The lovely Tapas dinner we enjoyed at the Barracuda Bar and Grill onsite as a fundraiser for the Hopkins Humane Society will have to wait for a later blog post.  It deserves a bit of space as Tony's food was lovely, and we took plenty of photos.
 
We decided to start the day with breakfast at Mr. Greedy's, where we'd eaten pizza the night before, as we noticed that the prices were a bit less than at Ko-Ox Han-Nah.  We had delicious breakfast burritos, orange juice, and excellent coffee.  The burrito was only $8.75 BZD (approximately $4.36 US), which included one large mug of coffee, a great deal.
Our plan for today was to rent mountain bikes in Bullet Tree Falls, just a few miles from San Ignacio, and to ride up to El Pilar, an Archaeological Reserve and partially excavated Maya site, which we'd read had many hiking trails, excellent birding, and few tourists.  Perfect!  Our Lonely Planet guide suggested that mountain bikes could be rented at Cohune Palms River Cabanas to navigate the eight-mile gravel road to the site, and we thought that sounded like a perfect way to burn off some of the restaurant meals we'd been eating.

It was too early to catch a bus to Bullet Tree Falls according to the schedule we'd seen, so we hopped into one of the many waiting taxis on Burns Avenue and asked the driver, Mike, to take us to Cohune Palms.  Unfortunately, upon arriving there and talking to a worker, we found out they did not have any mountain bikes to rent.  Perhaps they had in the past, but no longer.  Kinda reminded us of the Mexican restaurant being closed the day before -- was this trip doomed to be one of many disappointments?  (Answer:  no.)

So, we moved onto Plan B and asked Mike if he could take us up to El Pilar.  At first he seemed a bit unsure, as his taxi was a small Geo that did not have 4WD, but I guess he figured he better give it a try as the fare would certainly be much better than he'd make in a day hanging out in San Ignacio with many other cabs competing for not many tourists.  He quoted us a price of $50 US to drive us there, wait for us to hike and bird-watch, and drive us back to San Ignacio, so we decided to go for it.  This ended up being a great decision as it was a very difficult slog up a messy, rocky road, and even on mountain bikes would have been a challenge.  Had Plan A worked out, we might not have had any energy left for hiking after biking the mostly uphill, messy road, as it turned out.  This photo does NOT do the road justice.  Many portions were steeper, with deeper ruts and larger rocks.   Mike really had to take it slowly and carefully in his little car, and he bottomed out on some of the worst parts.  Fortunately for us, he made it to the top!
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The rocky road to El Pilar
We got to the check-in point and paid our $10 BZD entry fees.  We found out later that we were the first visitors to the site in three days!  And we were the only ones here this day as well.  Our own private 100-acre park -- what could be better for a couple of tourist-weary island residents?!
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El Pilar entry building and Mike's taxi
We bid Mike goodbye and took off into the jungle.  This place was amazing!  Trails, stairs, overlooks, ruins, huge shade trees, and birds galore.  You'll notice in the photos that I am wearing my biking clothes since we'd thought we'd be getting here on two wheels instead of four.
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Looking for birds
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Maya Ball Court (unexcavated)
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Stairs and railings crafted of wood and sapling trees keep things natural at El Pilar
It actually took awhile to start having bird sightings.  In fact, the first wildlife Barry spotted up in the trees was a couple of Howler Monkeys!  They weren't howling or calling (just making a racket by climbing in the branches), but did come closer to get a good look at us from up there.  I had heard that they could be mean, so I didn't hang around for too long, worried that they might come closer.  
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Howler Monkey
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This guy was checking us out very thoroughly
Barry got some great shots with his 12x zoom lens, but the monkeys weren't as close as they look in the photos (good thing!) since these have been cropped.

I hadn't even thought of seeing monkeys here, so I was very excited that we had this opportunity.  Soon thereafter, we started seeing birds, and plenty of them, including this exotic Black-Headed Trogan, another new bird for our life lists. 

As I mentioned in yesterday's entry, we'll do a blog posting showing many more bird pictures at the end of this trip report, since there are already tons of photos for each day without including them here.  

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Black-Headed Trogan
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There were signs like this scattered around El Pilar giving details on different portions of the site. They were right about how nice and cool it was under the tree canopy.
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We got quite a workout climbing and descending many sets of stairs over unexcavated mounds
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Stair detail
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Barry watching birds at the lookout
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There were a couple of excellent lookouts
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We finally found a trail map -- we'd been flying blind before this point
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There were a lot of trails -- we hiked all of the ones that didn't go off to never-never land, since we had Mike waiting for us with the taxi!
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Though most of the trails were pretty short, like this one, it took awhile for us to hike them as we had to stop to look at birds many, many times
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And sometimes we had to stop to look down -- like at this interesting jungle bug
We saw a cave up in this unexcavated mound and thought it deserved a closer look.
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Cave near top of mound
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Back of cave
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Barry went into the cave on the front side to scout it out...
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...but found this bees' nest inside, so decided he'd seen enough!
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Part of the ruins that had been excavated
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Excavated ruin
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Another overlook ahead
This overlook had an amazing view of Guatemala to the west.  Barry took these photos panorama-style.
We came upon a rest area with picnic tables and decided to sit for a few minutes and eat the snacks we'd brought -- peanuts and fiber wafers.  It felt good to sit down after all the walking.
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Lunchtime for our weary hikers
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These wasps were hanging on the roof of the shelter -- eeek! Fortunately, they didn't bother us, nor we them.
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There were pit toilets and even a nice sink with soap for hand-washing
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Termite nest -- you see these often in Belize. They eat the deadwood from trees so are actually considered beneficial!
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This natural jungle garden was very pretty
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See? Really lush...
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We came upon this sign near the end of our hike. I guess we did it in reverse of what a lot of people do.
Our last trail went way down low to a creek, then way up high a zillion stairs to a 360-degree overlook.  I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest after climbing all those stairs straight up!
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This is the lower part of the trail
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Lovely views from up high
Near the very end of our hike, Barry spied this feather on the trail.  Since we'd just seen and identified our first-ever Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot the day before at Cahal Pech, we knew it was a tail feather from this wonderful bird.  I felt sad because I doubt the bird could fly or live without this beautiful feather, so assume it had met its maker. 
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Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot tail feather
After nearly five hours of hiking and birding, we returned to Mike and the taxi.  Fortunately, he was taking a little snooze, so I didn't feel quite as bad for making him wait so long.  I am sure it had to have been pretty boring, but probably still decent money for his time, considering the typical taxi trip and fare.  And going back down the rocky road was not as difficult as coming up for his little Geo.

We did, however, run into a bit of road traffic on our way back to San Ignacio...
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Baaaa....
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We had to wait until they'd all safely crossed before we could get going. So cute!
After our big day of hiking, we were pretty lazy for what was left of the day.  We walked up the under construction section of Burns Ave. for dinner at "Flayva's".  Barry got the jerk chicken, and I had grilled fish.  We both chose rice and stewed beans and sauteed veggies for our sides, so we ate healthfully, since our entrees also came with veggies atop.  It was absolutely delicious!  After dinner we stopped for a little gelato at a stand along the road.  It wasn't nearly as good as at Tutti Frutti's in Placencia, but it was nice to have a little taste of something sweet after dinner.
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Burns Avenue in San Ignacio
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My grilled fish
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Barry's jerk chicken
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I'm enjoying the "flay-vas"