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Belize : Barton Creek, Butterfly Farm

Barton Creek and Butterflies

Saturday 27th July Horse ride, Barton Creek and Butterflies

We woke up so, so early, it was barely dawn. I went to the private balcony to watch the sun come up and (because of our Peru rainforest trip) we knew most of the birdlife would be more active now than later. The mist rising over the forest as the dawn slowly broke lent an air of mystery to it and the birds, at first, were silhouettes. First up was a Keel-billed Toucan who sat in a tree eating fruit. Soon he was joined by some jays and blackbirds. When it was light enough (and late enough) we headed over the stilts and bridge for breakfast. It was far too sunny and beautiful to have it indoors (after all we can eat indoors all year) so we sat on the patio.
We had a sort of English and lots of lovely fruit (favourites were papaya and zapote).
Whilst we were eating breakfast, some pretty butterflies flitted round us. We (well, I) had pre-booked a horse ride for the morning to Barton Creek ($300 for 2), so we got ready in sensible clothes and were driven back to Teakettle. About half way down the track, we stopped for two older children who jumped into the back pick-up. Our driver said that it was the “Belize taxi” system. Basically, if you have a car/pick-up truck and someone is walking, you slow down or stop for them to hitch a ride. They just give a knock when they want to get off! We briefly rejoined a paved road to go through the somewhat larger village of Ontario (our driver’s home) before shortly after turning off onto Chiquibul Rd (unpaved). It was a long, but wide road, very bumpy and switch backed. We stopped for a moment to let a young turtle cross the road (this care for local wildlife was really apparent in Belize- they are genuinely concerned about them). We watched it safely into the ditch before leaving. On our way we saw some government workers doing some land surveying, as well as passing the Butterfly farm we would visit later.

We finally turned left, off to Mountain Equestrian Trails ranch. They welcomed us into the open-air veranda and made us coffee (and themselves breakfast) whilst they got the horses ready. We watched the beautiful hummingbirds come and use the feeders- a beautiful iridescent blue and green
one with a white breast and back (White-necked Jacobin) as well as some quick others. We had a chat to the owner and were surprised at their
Internet connection- through a satellite of course and quick but pricey. After about 20 mins our leader, Rico, came to say the horses were ready. We found some helmets and were handed water bottles to attach to the western saddles. We found them a bit odd (as usual- we’ve had “western” saddles in other rides around the Americas) compared to the English (traditional) saddles we are used to. My horse was called Fuego (Fiery) but wasn’t like that at all, except when Steve’s horse once tried to overtake. Steve’s horse was Rosie (so, obviously a lady!). So, off we set down the path and into the countryside. I asked if just two people on a ride was common, but Rico said it was generally 10-12 (peak season), so we were really lucky to effectively have a private ride. The nice thing was that he could talk to us and point out things we were interested in, rather than having to hurry a group on.
Initially we went through muddy grass, along hedges and through small streams, very much like our own landscape, but then came out from under the trees into a “field” with massively tall grasses, over our heads (that is horse + person head). This grass was clearly delicious to horses as they were very keen to eat it. Rico said to let them (as it saved food bills!). We went through these fields for some time, walk and trot, until we came to a higher, more open area littered like tumbled down ruins, but were totally with rocks (they almost looked natural). Then we joined a wider track (buggy width) and headed into the Mennonite area. Rico reminded us not to take photos of them (but I wouldn’t anyway- it’s always polite to ask permission and I knew they feel uncomfortable about photos so I don’t). As we headed along Rico signed us to stop and pointed out a bright red spot. We looked more carefully and saw it was the rare (relatively) Vermilion Flycatcher- a really striking bird.

The Mennonites are a Christian group that grew out of the German/ Dutch Anabaptists. They were inspired by the teaching of Menno Simons (1496-1561). He lived in Friesland (still part of the HRE) as a Catholic priest, but his brother had converted to Protestant Anabaptism. The Anabaptists believed in pacifism and when a group attacked and killed his brother, Menno left his priesthood to become a leader in the Anabaptist church (1536). The Anabaptists were not well tolerated in their German/Swiss/Dutch homelands and were often attacked. Some Anabaptists became violent (Munster Rebellion) but this group were ultimately replaced by those with a total belief in pacifism. Interestingly, when Countess Anne of Germany expelled all Anabaptists, she made an exception for the non-violent Menists (presumably Mennonites). When William Penn was looking for Non- Conformists to join him in the New World, a large number of his followers were Quakers and Mennonites (1683). The area they settled in Pennsylvania became known as Germantown and the settlers as Pennsylvanian Dutch (from Deutsch). The Mennonite book, Martyrs Mirror, 1660, documenting the persecution of early Mennonites/ Amish/ Anabaptists is considered, after the Bible, one of their most important texts.
In the following years more Mennonites followed to America and, inevitably, disagreements between each wave led to a fragmentation. One group, mainly from the Prussian area, wished to retain a very conservative form of Mennonism and moved out of America and down into Belize. All Mennonites believe in
- adult baptism (they feel infant baptism is inappropriate as a child cannot commit to God)
- pacifism
- the rejection of transubstantiation
- excommunication for anyone leaving
There are quite a number of different groups of Mennonites today, from the Moderates/ Brethren (who seem very similar to American Protestants), to stricter groups like Reformed/ Holdeman (limited cars/ internet allowed, children at school; but strict clothing rules and no photos), to a very strict Old Order Group. The Old Order Groups (there are several) tend to have very conservative dress codes, will not become involved in politics, school their own children and reject much of modern technology. Some speak English, but many cling to their original German, The Horse and Buggy Order, for instance, stick to the use of horses for transport/ farming, while another group will accept lifts if necessary or use plain cars for essentials. The Belizean Mennonites are particularly conservative.
In Belize there are about 10,000 Prussian Mennonites and a further 2000+ Creole and Mestizo who have converted. There are a number of different Mennonite churches in Belize (e.g. Alktkolonier Mennoniten Gemeinde with mainly German Mennonites, Caribbean Light and Truth with mainly Creoles or Iglesia Evangelica Menonita de Belice with mainly Mestizo as well as several others). The main Mennonite areas are Shipyard, Spanish Lookout, Little Belize, Blue Creek, Upper and Lower Barton Creek, Progresso. They practise agriculture and carpentry. The ladies wear long coloured dresses and aprons, with bonnets; the men wear denim overalls, suspenders and wide brimmed hats. Those in Barton Creek area use buggies (although some accepted a lift in our car), deal with their own finances and school their own children.
By now we were well into Mennonite country. We saw their farms first. They do not hold large plots and only grow reasonable amounts of anything. Any excess would be sold at market. Their knowledge of land management and natural production was unequalled. We particularly noticed brassica (especially cabbages) and fruit being grown. We could hear their animals from quite a way, calling, and were not surprised to turn a corner and see a small herd of cows, with a calf calling for its mum. Outside it, on the road, was a Mennonite buggy with a dad and his children dealing with two foals. Since they rely on horsepower, both for their buggies and wagons, as well as any “machinery” they use (ploughing, lumberyard). Rico thought their lumberyard was the only one in Belize run by horsepower alone, but it’s hard to know. Several buggies needed to get past us and we had to pull in a few times, especially when the buggies needed to do a U-turn, as the road was quite narrow. As we opened into flatter, less hilly country, the farms became slightly more adventurous, including small ponds.
Shortly after this we found ourselves at a junction of our track and a road (unpaved) by a small community called Calico Jack’s (I love the piratey idea). We passed through the neat houses, down through the wood towards the river. Passing along we came across larger farms, not owned by Mennonites according to our guide. We could well believe this judging by the curt signs on some of the gates (which had seen better days) like “No help needed, EVER”. Suddenly our guide said “STOP” very abruptly, so we stopped. There, in the middle of the road was a very large snake indeed. The horses, amazingly, were unfazed (not like England then!!). I recognised the pattern from our wildlife books- it was the infamous Fer-de-Lance; reputedly the most bellicose and poisonous snake in the area. Rico went to check and it was then obvious that someone had mostly decapitated it and left it there. When the locals come across a Fer-de-Lance they almost always kill them as a matter of course. I appreciate why they do this (for human/ livestock safety), but it might have an effect on Fer-de-Lance numbers in the end.
Fer de Lance (aka Tommy Goff) Bothrops asper (Viper family) has a fast acting haemotoxin and is not scared to attack. Generally, when attacking humans it will be because it’s been disturbed and it will usually dry-bite or only partially envenomate. Its bite is designed to start digestion, so there is plenty of time to seek help. Most of the deaths (and this is the most common snake for deaths) are because people leave the bite without seeking help.
We ended at the bottom by a small creek and crossed the river to the other side. On the lower road we now took we saw quite a few farms for sale. The “For Sale” notices were an odd choice- they would say “6 hectares or 64 hectares”. We wondered how you could offer this choice. Apparently the 6 hectares could be sold to a small farmer with a farm attached, or the whole 64 to a speculator to grow on a more industrial level (generally trees and fruit). Generally these speculators did not live in Belize but handed it over to a local farm manager- local Belizeans we spoke to were not sure if they really liked this. Anyhow, clearly the Mennonites did not, as many of them were considering moving to the less busy south of Belize (this is less busy in relative terms, since this area did not look at all busy to us!).
We then found ourselves joining a road large enough for a car, with a bridge over a large stream. The horses were much keener to go through the pool created next to the bridge and Rico said as they were hot and thirsty, to let them. It was quite deep, but very slow and safe. This led to a long, grassy, tree-lined entrance to Barton Creek itself.
We parked the horses and dismounted. We had been riding for over 3 hours, though it did not feel that long. We walked down to the area that was the Barton Creek entrance and, as usual in Belize, were greeted by some friendly managers. “Would we like lunch or to go through the cave first?”, we were asked. Well, there was no-one else around as the last group were just leaving and we decided it would be nicer to go
through when it was empty of people (for a more authentic feel). So, let’s go now, we replied.
We put on our life jackets and Carlos led us to the canoes. I believe we were lucky here, as Carlos turned out to be hugely informative about the cave and deeply interested in both the Maya’s use of it and the cave itself. He had been very involved with the recent cave archaeologists and had wanted to go underwater caving with them to the deeper levels (they had gone without him last time but agreed he could go next time as he was now qualified). He put us in the canoe at the pool entrance to the cave (technically a “wet” cave as the river ran through it). We had a torch each and Steve had a spare one in case one failed. We set off from the sunlight glinting on the water, through the fronds of trailing vines, scraping over a large rock and into the cave itself. Technically the cave had several levels, but we only accessed some, as the rest were flooded permanently.

Apparently there were Maya artefacts on ledges above us, but we could not see them from the boat. The cave was certainly used, ritually, by the Maya in their later period. There is evidence that some human sacrifice took place there. The Maya believed that to reach Xibalba (a sort of heaven or afterlife) one had to fight monsters and win to gain each new level. The only way to bypass this was to be the Lord (or “King” but this concept was not really known, so Lord is a better title) or to be sacrificed- this would ensure instant top level. Half way through a huge bridge of rock above us (natural, but slightly worked by the Maya) joined the two sides of the cave- Carlos called it the “Maya Bridge”. This then opened to a large pool area, where we turned all our torches off to admire the glistening rock. Steve and Carlos did the paddling and I did the photos- a fair division. We got right to the end of where the canoe would go (almost 2 km) before silently turning round (just before one torch failed). In the water we could see huge numbers of fish and large prawns. On our way out Carlos pointed out various natural formations, which had been given names like “Tooth” (a large crystalline rock) and “Elephant” (which did look very similar to an elephant’s trunk). There were some amazing stalactites (no stalagmites, obviously) of shining white crystal. All over were lumps of black embedded in the rock.
A note about Barton Creek Cave- the limestone cave has been surveyed to 8km with over 6,500 metres of passages. Sadly quite a lot of the cave artefacts have been looted from the 10 Maya ledges. However, what pottery and other artefacts have been left gives the date of Maya use as Early Classic (200-600 AD) and Late Classic (600-900 AD) and includes the remains of at least 28 humans.

As we paddled out we could see the entrance sunlight growing larger and larger until we were back out, blinking. I was up for a swim, but Steve was hungry, so we had lunch (wraps with dips) outside the cave instead. Then Issi met us with the 4x4 and we drove past the horses and up, up out of the creek. The road was deeply rutted and we had to take a few hairpins to get up the hill and back to the “road”. We drove back Chiquibul Road to a turn on the left, Green Hills Butterfly Farm. We parked on their green lawn and, again, it was empty. A chap came to welcome us and show us round the farm itself.
He apologised for not being one of the official guides- he was a researcher (now I thought this was better, as he was more knowledgeable). He’d actually only started at the farm when his brother (a guide) had asked him to fill in for a week- he’d enjoyed it so much he had stayed for 12 years! We had to go through one door, shut it, wait to check, then a second door to get into the enclosed butterfly area. The profusion was amazing. A section on our right contained the eggs, pupae and just emerging butterflies, and to the left a branch was covered with Glasswing butterflies (Pteronymia cotytto). The main area, next, was filled with butterflies- green Malachite Siproeta stelenes, orange striped Mechanitis polymnia, black with orange spot Catonephele numilia, black and orange stripe Catonephele Shoemakers. We had carefully washed all the DEET off ourselves so as not to damage the caterpillars or butterflies and many of them landed and sat on us. Our guide said these were “tame” butterflies and were never let out, as they were hopeless in the wild (having always had access to nectar). That was the reason for the double doors- to ensure none escaped.
The guide went to the far end of the enclosure and showed us a plant- the fishtail palm (well named- it looked exactly like a fish tail). He carefully turned it over and showed us all the eggs underneath- it was the favourite plant of the Blue Morphos. At this end we saw some colourful yellow, orange and black Heliconius hecale, blue and black Myscelia ethusa, huge winged Swallowtail Thoas along with giant Blue Morphos and the largest butterfly of all, the Giant Owl (Caligo memnon)- the reason for the name is obvious. We spent some considerable time in here as the butterflies kept landing on us and staying, which is a magical experience.
No one tried to move us on and push us out. When we finally left, a few butterflies tried to escape, but our guide gently shoed them back in. He took us to a hut to show us how they farm the butterflies. When the eggs are laid, they are collected 16 to each pot. When they hatch they are transferred to 5 caterpillars per pot, then as they grow, 3 to a pot. When they begin to pupate straight sticks are put in to ensure they are not deformed. They are then transferred to the enclosure so they can hatch straight into the air. These particular ones were Morpho Peleides (Belizean Blue), but the others were just the same. The farm also sells eggs/ pupae to farms around the world, as well as undertaking research. It has a mission to observe the interaction between butterfly species in its 2,700ft2 flight area. We sat for a while and admired their hummingbird feeders- they were especially popular with the hummingbirds- we saw Jacobins and the beautiful, smaller Green-breasted mangos (Anthracothorax prevostii). The farm had beautiful flowers too, especially orchids, bromeliads and passionflower, although there were cycads, heliconia and aristolochia (butterfly favourites).
We then drove back to Pooks Hill.
On the way back we saw a young hawk with a kill (probably a mouse). Steve asked how often cars needed changing in Belize due to the road condition and apparently the shocks went first- usually a once a year replacement needed. Luckily the shot-to-hell windscreens could be (to an extent) ignored, because there was no MOT.
We freshened up and headed to the Maya plaza to chat before going to the bar area for some cocktails and then we headed to dinner. After dinner all the lamps were lit and we played some board games before finally going to bed.

Posted by PetersF 19:00 Archived in Belize Tagged cave horse snake belize butterfly maya pooks_hill

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