|Know Belize - The Land|
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In the west, the Cayo District contains the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. At one time a magnificent pine forest, it was destroyed in the lower plains by fires and lumber removal over the decades, and only a few straggler pine trees remain in the arid foothills. However, the upper regions of Mountain Pine Ridge provide spectacular scenery, and thick forest encompasses the Macal River as it tumbles over huge granite boulders. Hidden Valley Falls plunges 1,000 feet to the valley below. The Río Frio cave system offers massive stalactites and stalagmites to the avid spelunker. The diverse landscape includes limestone-fringed granite boulders.
Over thousands of years, what was once a sea in the northern half of Belize has become a combination of scrub vegetation and rich tropical hardwood forest. Near the Mexican border, much of the land has been cleared, and it's here that the majority of sugar crops are raised, along with family plots of corn and beans. Most of the northern coast is swampy, with a variety of grasses and mangroves that attract hundreds of species of waterfowl. Rainfall in the north averages 60 inches annually, though it's generally dry November-May.
Significant rainfall in the mountains washes silt and nutrients into the lower valleys to the south and west, forming rich agricultural areas. In southern Belize, it rains most of the year, averaging 150 inches or more. The coastal belt attracts large farms that raise an ever-expanding variety of crops. A dense rainforest thrives in this wet, humid condition with thick ferns, lianas, tropical cedars, and palms.
The amount of rainfall varies widely from north to south. Corozal in the north receives 40-60 inches while Punta Gorda in the south averages 160-190 inches with an average humidity of 85 percent. Occasionally during the winter, "northers" sweep down from North America across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing rainfall, strong winds, and cooling temperatures. Usually lasting only a couple of days, they often interrupt fishing and influence the activity of lobster and other fish. Fishermen invariably report increases in their catches several days before a norther.
The "mauger" season, when the air is still and the sea is calm, generally comes in August; it can last for a week or more. All activity halts while locals stay indoors as much as possible to avoid the onslaught of ferocious mosquitoes and other insects.
The next devastation came with Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Winds reached a velocity of 150 mph, with gusts of 200 mph; 262 people drowned. It was after Hurricane Hattie that the capital of the country was moved from Belize City (just 18 inches above sea level) to Belmopan. Then, in 1978, Hurricane Greta took a heavy toll in dollar damage, though no lives were lost. The three most recent hurricanes were Mitch in 1998, Keith in 2000, and Iris in 2001. The Belizeans are survivors-they pick up the pieces of their lives and homes, and build again. What else can they do?
HABITATS OF INLAND BELIZE
Marshy Havens Belize is dotted with rivers, lagoons, and swamps. Low forests grow up around these wetlands and provide an environment for insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Bamboo, logwood, red mangrove, and white mangrove are among the species that find footholds in the soggy soil and grow into thickets. Numerous insects, agouti, basilisk lizards, iguanas, paca, and waterfowl are among the many creatures that inhabit these fringe forests. The wetlands themselves play host to many creatures: crocodiles, fish, turtles, and hundreds of bird species. A boat ride into one of the wetlands will give you an opportunity to see a great variety of waterfowl. The lakes of Belize (such as those at Crooked Tree) are wintering spots for many flocks of North American duck species. Among others, you might see the blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and lesser scaup, along with a variety of wading birds feeding in the shallow waters, including numerous types of heron, snowy egret, and (in the summer) white ibis.
We once watched a peregrine falcon hunt at Crooked Tree. First, the wary bird slowly circled high above the lake watching its prey, and then it plummeted to attack a flock of American coots. Seconds before the falcon reached the ducks, the flock spotted it and began squawking loudly-warning the whole family-and diving into the water (where the falcon will not follow). After watching the falcon dive for the ducks over and over again, we moved on in our canoe, feeling more secure about the destiny of these American coots.
Broadleaf Jungle and Cohune Forests
Broadleaf forests thrive in clay soils enriched by alluvial runoff from streams and rivers. In places, cohune palms, which are typically scattered throughout the forest, grow in thick concentrations. This cohune forest forms a dense cover or canopy. Even so, many of the jungle giants will penetrate it as they reach upward into the sunlight. Many of the same epiphytes, vines, and animals frequent these areas.
Pine Forests and Savanna
Cenotes are created when the constant ebb and flow of underground rivers and lakes erodes the underside of limestone containers. In certain places, the surface crust eventually wears so thin that it caves in, exposing the water below, and at the same time creating steep-walled caverns-natural wells. Around these water sources, Maya villages grew. Some of the wells are shallow-seven meters below the jungle floor; some are treacherously deep at 90 meters underground. In times of drought, the Maya fetched water by carving stairs into slick limestone walls or by hanging long ladders into abysmal hollows that led to the underground lakes. The cave systems of Belize are some of the most extensive in the world and have only begun to be explored. Modern-day mapping and research only began in the 1960s. Since then, more than 300 caves have been explored and probably 150 miles of passages have been mapped, including the Cebada and Petroglyph Caves, two of the largest underground chambers in the world. Caves are found all over the country, but most are centered in the southern and western areas of Belize.
Belize's neighbor, Mexico, is renowned for its cave and cenote diving, but so far this is not an option for the visitor to Belize. Researchers have done very little study of cenote diving, in part due to the remote and difficult locations of the cave entrances (but that is slowly changing).
The Toledo District has two major cave systems, one near Blue Creek Village and the other north of Blue Creek, Little Quartz Ridge. Located in pristine surroundings, the Blue Creek Cave System includes a large walk-through cave with some passages that force you to crawl through on hands and knees.
In the Cayo District, north of the Maya Mountains, Caves Branch offers tourists easy access to incredible sights. Many hotels and tour operators run trips that include floating on inner tubes in and out of black passageways. Caves Branch is close to the highway, allowing easy access and logistical planning. St. Herman's Cave, Petroglyph Cave, and the (inland) Blue Hole are part of this system, all part of a nature reserve. Many lodges are situated literally on top of these caves and offer outings and various modes of transport through the caves.
Vaca Plateau is partly in the Mountain Pine Ridge area and includes the Río Frio Cave, undoubtedly the most popular cave (due to its easy access) in the Cayo District. Ask at any hotel or at Eva's Cafe in San Ignacio to visit this small cave.
Mining of aggregates from rivers and streams has negative impacts on local watersheds and the coastal zones into which they empty, where sedimentation can be destructive to reef and other marine systems. Unchecked, unplanned development, especially in sensitive areas like barrier beaches, mangroves, islands, and riverbanks, where changes to the landscape often have wide and unanticipated effects, is another problem. For more information on Belize's environmental challenges, visit the websites of some of the organizations listed in the Internet Resources later in this section.
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