First of all, an apology for my lackadaisical approach to blogging of late. The posts have become a bit thin on the ground recently – I was back home for a month in June and July, I’ve been busy doing other things, and I’ve now done most of the activities to do in Belize and seen most of the sights here, so there’s not so much new stuff to write about (and I’m not the kind of blogger who tells the world every thing they do and every meal they eat and every place they visit – I doubt you want to hear about my weekly trips to illegally use the Belize City Radisson Hotel’s swimming pool). And also because I’ve been lazy.
But I still (occasionally) get out and about to places that I’ve not visited before, and some of those places are good/interesting enough to warrant writing about; and Mayflower Bocawina and Mama Noots are two of them.
Mayflower Bocawina is one of Belize’s smallest national parks, and compared to its larger and more famous kin, such as Cockscomb Basin, it’s lightly touristed – most people whizz by the sign on the Southern Highway on their way to Hopkins or Placencia and never get off the bus. I myself had no real plans to visit, but then my friends and fellow foreigners-working-in-Belize Holger and Kerstin went along and had a great time, our friend Viv then decided to go, and I (having nothing better to do that weekend and not being able to come up with a compelling reason not to go) tagged along.
And I’m glad I did. It’s a beautiful place, full of mountains, waterfalls, swimming holes, and Maya ruins, covered in jungle, and criss-crossed by nature trails and rivers.
The turnoff to the park is on the Southern Highway, which is well served by buses, but you then have to get to the park entrance, which is another seven or eight kilometres away. So, if you’re staying somewhere nearby (like Dangriga or Hopkins), and have transport, you could come for the day. And if you don’t have transport, there’s a lodge and a tour company based in the park that can pick you up.
The park has three small Maya sites, one of which is next to the visitors centre. None of the sites have been excavated, and they’re mostly just grass-covered mounds (although the ruins inside them are over 1000 years old). Of much more interest to most people will be the activities, including three waterfalls that you can visit. The largest of these, Antelope Falls, is a good half-day trip, taking at least an hour to get to. The trail is so steep and slippery at points that I found myself glad for the rope provided by the thoughtful rangers. Although my sense of achievement at having climbed the difficult trail in my hiking boots was dampened somewhat after meeting several groups of locals coming back down, all of whom seemed to have strolled up while wearing flip-flops.
The upper part of the trail runs alongside the falls, and there are views across the park and all the way to Hopkins and the sea. And at the top of the waterfall (and the end of the trail) is a clear pool, which is the perfect spot to cool down, have a swim, and wipe off the sweat and dirt from the hike.
Based in the park is a company called Bocawina Adventures, and one of the activities that they offer is rappelling (abseiling) down the waterfall – as we were going up and down the trail anyway, we didn’t do this. But we did do one of their other activities, zip-lining. There are several places in Belize to do zip-lining, but Bocawina Adventures has the biggest course – 10 separate lines, and their longest line is also the longest in the country at 700 metres. Whether you’re flying through the jungle canopy with your heart racing, hoping that you don’t get hit in the face by any overhanging leaves and branches, or sailing gently along, relaxing and enjoying the scenery, or free-fall abseiling off one of the platforms, praying that the guy controlling your speed slows you down in time, their zip-line is one of the most fun activities to do in Belize.
Although you could do most of the activities in one day, I recommend staying overnight – not only do you get to spend the night inside a national park (one of the few instances in Belize where you can do that), but more importantly, because the lodge is in the park (and the park is in the jungle), you’re surrounded by nature, rather than surrounded by other buildings in a town or village; you’re inside the jungle, rather than on the outskirts of it.
As a result, the views all around aren’t of concrete buildings and roads and cars, just grass, trees, and mountains (and at night, if the sky is clear, hundreds of stars). And the sounds aren’t dogs barking and car stereos and your neighbour’s TV, they’re birds in the day and insects at night.
The lodge is called Mama Noots, and it’s one of the best-located places that I’ve stayed in. The new owners seem keen to do whatever they can to make the place a popular and profitable business, all the staff are friendly and helpful, the accommodation is comfortable, and the food excellent.
We were there in September, at the depth of the low tourist season (which runs from June to November), and the owners were taking advantage of the lack of customers by renovating the rooms. So on the down side there was some work going on, and the rooms weren’t as well-appointed as they will be when the work is finished. But on the plus side we were the only customers, we got a very good deal, and we even got upgraded to one of the suites :-).
The lodge and the tour company are owned and run by the same people, and operated by the same team, which makes it easy to combine accommodation, food, and activities. It also explains why the guys installing the toilet in the bungalow next to us were the same chaps who took us zip-lining.
The ‘off-the-grid’ lodge is run on renewable energy, with solar panels and a hydroelectric generator. There are no electricity wires or telephone poles, mobile phone reception is limited, and the whole place has a remote, natural feel to it. Yet you still have all the creature comforts, including some of the best food I’ve had in Belize, served in some of the biggest portions – one lunch consisted of a serving of nachos the size of a church bell, and a dinner which comprised several enormous pork chops and a mountain of mashed potato akin to the one Richard Dreyfuss sculpts in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. It very nearly defeated me, and it’s not often that happens.
But if there’s one downside to being right in the jungle, it’s the bugs. On the morning of the last day, we went on a hike to Bocawina Falls, a short-but-pleasant walk to a small-but-pretty waterfall (on the way there, our plan to go swimming in a wide, deep part of the river was scuppered by the presence of an large crocodile sunning itself on the opposite bank; it shot into the water before either of us could snap a photo, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, it was big). It was finally dry after a night of rain, and the jungle was alive with sandflies, mosquitoes, ants, spiders, and all the flying, crawling, buzzing, biting, stinging, annoying creatures of nature. Liz at the lodge had already warned us that it was botfly season, which is never good news (the botfly lands on the skin of the host animal and deposits its egg, which then hatches, and the larva burrows its way into the flesh; as the growing larva breathes air, it can be seen occasionally poking its mouthparts out of the host’s skin to breathe; to remove the larva, you have to cover the bite mark / breathing hole with Vaseline or nail varnish, causing it to asphyxiate, wait for a day, then pull out the dead, suffocated maggot!). So I was already on high alert for creepy-crawlies. And sure enough, the sandflies had a field day on my legs, and I was still scratching a week later. So if you do come here (and I recommend it), bring plenty of insect repellent and a pair of long trousers (and a hearty appetite!)