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Belize : Macal River

Rivers, giant iguanas

Tuesday 30th July morning Canoeing on the Macal

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We left Pooks after breakfast to head back down to San Ignacio. This time we did not take the lower bridge but instead went to the left side and parked on the riverbank. Issi had arranged with a local to have a canoe ready, so we got in, pushed off and were off down the Macal River. Steve was in his element here, paddling away from the town and very quickly into the forest with inaccessible banks. The sun shone beautifully, creating almost perfect reflections of banks, trees and small caves onto the still water. The quietness of the river (no one else was on it) and our silent paddling meant we saw loads of different birds, including herons, Social Flycatcher, cormorants flying, Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, Trogons and Kingfishers. An Anhinga (Snake bird) was sat on a branch in the water unbothered by us. In the trees were Oropendola birds and their basket-like nets. A swirl under us was a surprise, until Issi said it was definitely a crocodile and probably a big one (which is why he never swam in the river even though we saw loads of children later).
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It was almost time to turn round and we felt a bit disappointed not to have seen the Giant Iguana. We were almost back to the start when suddenly Issi pointed into the trees overhanging the river and finally we saw three huge Giant Iguana. Apparently the locals will catch and eat them, even though it is illegal, so they have become a little nervous of people. However, these three must have felt safe as they just lay there sunning themselves and posing (well, probably not the posing, but they might have well been.)
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We left the canoe and Issi picked up his dinner (our canoe man was fishing), before loading us back into the minivan and driving towards Hidden Valley.
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History of Belize Part 1 (prehistory- Maya)
The area was originally settled by hunter-gatherers (6000-2500 BC), who began to develop small villages and farm newly domesticated crops (corn/ maize, beans, chilli, squashes). They used slash and burn techniques, giving way to artificial irrigation and terraces. Between 2500-1500BC proto Maya and early Maya culture was developing in the area (see Maya history). The farm crops were increasingly used to support a non-productive group of artisans, merchants, warriors and priests. As the Maya civilisation spread from the Yucatan/ Guatemala area (1500BC-200AD) some important sites in Belize were established (Cahal Pech, Caracol, Xunantunich, Lamanai, Altun Ha). Around this early time the priestly caste (also skilled astronomers) established a complex calendar taking account of the movement of various celestial bodies and co-ordinated both agriculture and ceremonies. It was used to date events on stelae, giving us accurate dates for many events. The Caracol polity dominated the area and its stelae are an excellent source of information (written in the aristocratic Classic Ch’olt’ian, unlike northern Lamanai’s use of Yucatecan). The Maya never invented metalworking, so became expert in stonework (especially the highly prized jade and flint). Equally they never discovered the potter’s wheel, producing surprisingly fine pottery by hand alone. Their architecture is pyramidal temples and large sprawling palaces around central plazas. The stone buildings were decorated with carved stuccoed designs and painted in bright colours (red and white predominating). The central/ southern Maya disappeared earlier (Caracol’s last inscription is Stela 10, 859AD) than the northern Yucatec Maya (Lamanai). In the 10th century, in all areas the population declined dramatically. The 40,000+ population, may have quartered! Public buildings were no longer constructed, the central administrative structures were lost and social/ economic coherence failed. Xunantunich was reoccupied briefly before, it too, decayed. It’s probable that it was no one single event that caused the Maya decline in the area but a combination of effects- certainly Maya power was still going strong in the north Belize/ Mexico area when the Spanish arrived, even though it had long ceased in southern Belize. Although the Maya as a civilisation in Belize had finished, the Maya as a people were still very much alive and continue to this day.
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History of Belize Part 2 (Europeans arrive)
Europeans arrived in the New World in the 16th century. In his fourth voyage in 1502 Columbus investigated the Gulf of Honduras (of which Belize is part). The Spanish were quick to send expeditions to the New World and by the 1520s were already in Guatemala and Honduras. They began their Mexico/ Yucatan campaign in 1527 (the Maya city of Mayapan was still very active). Several factors led to the downfall of the local Maya-
• The Spanish had modern weapons- guns, cannons, metal swords etc: the Maya had stone lances, spears and bows and arrows.
• The Spanish brought devastating diseases to which the Maya had no resistance
• The Spanish church had missionaries fired with zeal to convert or kill
The first recorded settlers in what is now Belize were some shipwrecked English mariners (1638), followed by other English settlements. One of these was led by a British buccaneer, Peter Wallace (called Ballis by the Spanish) who gave his name to the river near his new settlement- Belize River- in 1638. The British (under the Tudors) were keen to benefit from the new lands and pirates/ state-sponsored privateers were common. Spain attempted to hold on to its trade and colonies in the New World, but it was a fading power and the new powerhouses were the northern European economies (England, Holland, France). They looked at the old Spanish possessions with jealous eyes. Privateers form Britain began by attacking Spanish ships, but soon moved into the wood trade. Logging the wood Haematoxylum campechianum, a useful hardwood with many properties (including dye) became a trade as these privateers turned merchants and during the 1660s and 70s settlements grew up to exploit this trade. A treaty in 1667 encouraged the move from piracy to merchant. Between 1642-48 pirate attacks on (mainly) Spanish ships and towns led to the Spanish abandoning Salamanca de Bacalar, their capital in Yucatan. The Spanish in 1696 captured the Maya city of Tipu (province of Dzuluinicob) and conquered the Itza, forcibly moving the Maya to Lago Peten Itza (Guatemala) in 1707. This gave the British an opportunity to settle the old Maya area.

Posted by PetersF 19:23 Archived in Belize Tagged animals birds river waterfall iguana belize reptiles hidden_valley macal

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