Guatemala/Belize '09 

Although it is not a biology department offering, Drs. David Brown and Dave McShaffrey led (along with Dr. Rob McManus of the McDonough Leadership Program) a 3 week trip to Guatemala and Belize in July and August, 2009.  The focus of the trip was leadership in ecology and conservation in Central America.  



The 2009 trip ran from July 22nd to August 12.  The text below was entered "live" during the trip.  Eventually these images and others from the trip will find their way into the Biomes of the World web site.


Scroll Down for pictures and text of past stories.


 Continental Flight 1650 from Belize City to Houston; departs Belize City 11:20 AM arrives Houston 2:53PM.  Continental Flight 644 leaving Houston at 6:55 PM arrives Cleveland 10:43 PM.   

Note:  This is probably the last pictoral update.  We are having problems communicating with the server at Marietta College; our thanks to Dr. Steve Spilatro for uploading photos we are emailing to him.  We have one more full day here before we head back on Wednesday.  Internet permitting, we will confirm flight info on this page sometime on August 11th; we travel home on the 12th.

August 10th, 2009

Today we met with the education director for the Hol Chan preserve to learn more about it and how the education program helps to get the local community involved and how it educates guides and tourists on how to visit the reef with less impact.  For most of the day, the students went to adjoining Ambergris Caye and the town of San Pedro; later in the day we finished the mural.

August 9th, 2009.

At 10AM we headed down to E-Z Boy to hear Briony talk about how she viewed marine conservation as a small business operator.  Next we headed out to three areas in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve  to snorkel.  We started at the North Channel between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye.  The big attraction here was a manatee that was resting in the channel where everyone could get a good look at it.  We then moved to Shark Ray Alley, where local fishermen have long discarded fish entrails and the like, attracting a large population of Nurse Sharks and various rays.  Almost immediately some bait fish placed in the water attracted about a dozen sharks.  After most of the sharks dispersed, we got into the water, where we were able to get a good look at the sharks, a sea turtle, and some rays - as well as a number of other fish and some pretty healthy coral.

A school of grunts on the reef.


Manatee at North Channel - sorry for the fuzzy picture, but in order to avoid stressing the animal I tried to keep a good distance away.


A green moray eel (right) faces down a grouper among coral heads in Hol Chan marine Preserve.


Green Moray - they look fierce, but are not particularly agressive.


Above:  Snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Preserve



Snorkeling with a sea turtle. 



After snorkeling (some of the group had already returned to the hotel).  Miss Bonnie is to the far left, guide Ida is wearing the green shirt, and captain Harry is second from the right.


August 8th, 2009

Our first full day on the island was mostly occupied with getting settled and relaxing a bit after a long, hectic day of travel and caving the previous day.  We met with Sarah, a local woman who teaches at the Ocean Academy, a local non-profit high school and helps to run the local conservation club for kids. The third service project involves helping these kids paint a conservation themed mural on two walls at the Ocean Academy.  Some of the students went down to E-Z Boy  Tours where Briony (also known as Bonnie) fitted out some of the novice snorkelers with gear so they could practice in the shallow waters at the end of a dock before the big trip tomorrow.  Later in the day, a group of students went down to the Ocean Academy to put the background paint on the mural (they had primed it the night before).   Dinner was burgers and hot dogs cooked on a charcoal grill on the roof of Pancho's Villas, our hotel.  Since most of the rooms have refrigerators and kitchenettes, we are also eating breakfast at the hotel.

Lauren, who is leading this service project, helps a local boy paint a turtle on the mural.


The street side of the mural will have fish, a manatee and a turtle.



August 7th, 2009

We were up early for a unique experience - tubing through a cave.  Near Belmopan there is a river that enters a cave system; most of the time there is plenty of room to ride innertubes through the caves.  This was more of a fun activity than anything else, although it did illustrate one ecotourism activity that is relatively low impact.

After the cave it was off to Belize City and a water taxi to Caye Caulker, where we are now.  The van was a bit crowded as there was no roof rack for the luggage, but part of conservation leadership is setting a good example by carpooling.

August 6th, 2009

We drove from Guatemala to Belmopan, the capital of Belize.  The trip was fairly uneventful, and at dinner we met with a marine biologist, Dwight Neal, who gave us background on the protection of marine resources in Belize.  It is a bit of an adjustment to order things in English again, and to calculate prices in Belizian dollars as opposed to Quetzals.

August 5th, 2009

We had two key meetings today.  The first was with Fr. Bill Mullen, a Maryknoll priest who has been in Guatemala and Central America for about 40 years.  Bill was able to share with the class some accounts of what problems the indigenous people of Guatemala (primarily the Maya) had faced in the recent past, including oppression by the government.  It was a very moving presentation which covered the simple but happy lives many of the rural people live, as well as terrifying accounts of brutality and hopeful signs where education is allowing some of the Maya to assume leadership roles in the country.

Lauren Presents Bill Mullen with a small gift as a token of our appreciation for taking the time to speak with us.

Bill Mullen's talk set the stage for a meeting with Roan McNab of the Wildlife Conservation Society.  Roan is WCS's point person in the Petén, the northern swath of Guatemala bordering Mexico.  The society tries to achieve conservation goals by focusing on "charismatic" species such as the Scarlet Macaw and the Jaguar.  These species appeal to the public and require large swaths of uninterrupted forest; saving them will save many other species as well. Roan described the challenges  in ptotecting this area, the Mayan Biopreserve, one of the largest tracks of forest in Central America.  Strong pressures from agrobusiness, wealthy landowners looking to increase their holdings with pastureland, smugglers of people and drugs exploiting the unguarded border with Mexico, and poor people simply looking for a piece of land on which to raise food to feed their families are all having an impact.  Petroleum development in the region has provided roads to allow these people access to the forest; drug smugglers even clear runways and abandon planes in the deep forest. Despite protection as a national park, western parts of the preserve have been cleared by burning. Roan described ongoing monitoring projects and an attempt to hold the line and preserve the eastern portions of the preserve, including the area around Tikal and other Mayan ruins which are even more extensive than Tikal and which have yet to be explored.

Speaking with Roan McNab at the Wildlife Conservation Society office in Flores.


The balance of the day included exploring the island town of Flores.  One of the stops was an artisans' cooperative where a number of Mayan craftspeople were displaying their handiwork.  This was pretty much the last opportunity to buy any souvenirs in Guatemala, and many of us took advantage of the opportunity.


Carving of a Mayan mask at the Coopertiva Los Unidos R.L.  The mask was carved by Martina Ramirez' husband Maximillian;  he works from their workshop in the country and she spends the week in Flores to sell the goods.   The cooperative tries to improve both the lives of the craftspeople and to preserve the forest by harvesting the wood and other materials in a sustainable way.

Above: Martina Ramirez at the cooperative.


August 4th, 2009 - Tikal

This was a big day; we toured the Mayan ruins at Tikal, a hour's drive from Flores.  Some of the ruins are over 2,000 years old; the city was abandoned about 1,200 years ago and has largely been covered by jungle.  Some of the ruins have been excavated and we were able to see these.

The group on top of Temple IV, one of the partially excavated temples that sits 64m (210 feet) high - the tallest building at Tikal.

Lunch on Temple IV.  This probably would not have gone over well when the Mayans were running the city.  

Recognize this view?  Turns out that some scenes from the first Star Wars movie were filmed from the top of Temple IV.


The 58m/190ft tall Temple V.

Climbing the stairs to the top of  Temple V.

View from the top of Temple V.

Temple V

Temple V

Temple I.

August 3, 2009

Another long day of travel as what we were told was a 4 hour ride turned into a 6+ hour ride.  Rain, landslides, and the Central American concept of time in general were responsible for the discrepancy.  The ride was interesting, however, and ended in the beautiful town of Flores, which sits on an island in Lago de Petén Itzá. The rooms have A/C - a good thing since we are now in the lowlands and it is quite warm.

Since we got in late, had a long ride, and hadn't had lunch, Dr. McManus took the group to Burger King for American comfort food.

This river did not have a bridge, so we had to load the van on a ferry.  We are next in line to cross over.

The lake at sunset from our hotel.


August 2, 2009

A group of us went to Mass at 9 AM in the Coban Cathedral, hoping to experience some of the local culture.  We succeeded in this as a parade was passing by and all we could hear through the entire mass was the sound of marching bands and sound trucks passing by.  We caught the tail end of the parade, including a group performing the dance of the conquistadors.

Conquistadors threaten the crowd during the ritual dance, before they are vanquished by the animals.

In the afternoon, we went back to the festival, this time to watch the rodeo.  We were the focus of attention as everyone was looking at the large group of Americans - something the announcer, DJ and comedian also noted and worked into their routines.

At the rodeo.

August 1, 2009 

Coban sits high up, and the surrounding habitat is mostly cloud forest.  So, it shouldn't be surprising that most of the time the town is shrouded in fog and a light drizzle most of the time, with an occasional heavy downpour.  We set off this morning in anticipation of seeing some of the special fiesta going on in town this week in celebration of the patron Saint, St. Santo Domingo de Guzman.   There is also a lot of native folklore on display at the time; Drs. Brown and McManus saw the dance of the conquistadors last year.  We got to the town square in a light drizzle and were able to see a small part of that morning's parade; then the rain began to pick up.  The class spilt into two parts, with one part returning to the hotel to wait for drier weather and the rest of us proceeding to the fairgrounds for the more secular part of the fiesta.  When we asked a woman where the fiesta was, she offered to guide us, and, accompanied by her young toddler walked us the mile or so out to the site (in high heels), then told us she was glad to be of service and returned to town!

The festival itself was interesting.  Picture a county fair without the animals or the demolition derby, kicking soccer balls at weighted cans instead of throwing a baseball at weighted milk bottles, and corn cobs on a stick instead of corn dogs, and you get the general picture.

Corn dog, Cobán  style.

After the festival, we went to the mall to check out what movies were showing.  All three were dubbed in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, so we returned to the hotel.  For dinner we ordered pizza and watched a movie the other team had bought while we were at the hotel.  The rooms here are big enough that we could get all 17 people in one room.

July 31, 2009

Our first day in Cobán was a busy one.  We went up the hill to the town square and caught a bit of a parade - children from the various schools marching through town in their uniforms, along with school bands.  We got a quick orientation to the town, then went to a coffee plantation on the edge of town, where we had a tour of the coffee plans and the processing operation.

Coffee Plants


Coffee plant in flower, with coffee beans in the background.


The class examining dried coffee beans held by our guide, Carmen.


The class in the coffee tasting room.


After the coffee plantation, we hiked up a hill to the Iglesia Calvario (Calvary Church) which is an interesting combination of Mayan and Catholic symbols - and which has a fantastic view of the city:

Views from the Calvario.

Next, the students were turned loose on the town with a mission:  Buy lunch and an assortment of items with 100Q (100 quetzals, about $12).  For each of the items, they had to get both the Spanish and Q'eqchi' names for each of the items (Q'eqchi' is the local Mayan dialect).  The market itself is a large, crowded building filled will all sorts of foods and other items; as large as the market in Sololá, though not as crowded because most everyone was outside for the start of the Fiesta.

Drs. McManus and Brown with three Mayan women at the market; they had met these women last summer when previewing the trip.

Some of the items for sale in the market.

More wares, mostly spices in the market.

The winning team's items:  They had to get a pencil, rose, a sweet mango, mazanos (apple bananas), soap, and a blank CD.

The atrium of our hotel in Cobán

July 30th, 2009

Today we left Panajachel and took a 9 hour drive through Guatemala to Cobán, a town 1,300m up in the highlands.  The drive was long but quite picturesque as we went up and down mountains.  In one valley, shaded from moisture from either coast by high mountains, the air was very dry and the land desert-like, with cactus replacing the oaks and pines we had been seeing in the highlands.  Just a little ways further, we climbed up into cloud forest where tree ferns replaced the cacti.  It is certainly unusual to see tree ferns, bananas and pines all growing next to one another.


Above:  a last picture of Lake Atitlán at sunset.  


July 29th, 2009

This was a service day.  We took a boat 25km across the lake to St. Lucas Tolimán, a town about the size of Marietta.  We worked there with the local parish, which is headed by Father Greg, a priest from Minnesota.  The parish is the hub for volunteers from Minnesota and elsewhere in the US to do work in Guatemala.  One of the students, Cecelia, had been here earlier in the summer and organized our work there.  We went to the reforestation project.  There is a nursery where seedlings are prepared to be placed on the slopes where forests have been cut down.  In addition, coffee and shade plants to protect the coffee are raised here to be given to local farmers (the parish also coordinates sale of the coffee in the US).

Above:  the town of San Lucas Tolimán.  The church, which dates from the 1500's; is in the center of the picture, with the slopes of Volcán Tolimán rising in the background.  The town continues a good ways beyond the church.

Our job was to prepare plastic bags to receive the seeds, and plant large acorns in some seed bags that has already been prepared.  The oaks have deep roots to hold the soil; the acorns are important wildlife food, and the wood of the trees is an important fuel for cooking.  We planted over 640 seeds and prepared over 1,000 seed bags in a morning's work.

Above:  Seed bags being prepared with soil.  Next, the seed bags are moved to the nursery and stacked in rows to receive the seeds.


Above:  Seeds are being planted in the seed bags.  One student pokes a hole in the soil with a stick, the others plant the seeds, which will later be covered over.

The class standing next to the 640 seed bags they prepared and stacked,


July 28th, 2009

We rode one of Guatemala's famous "Chicken Buses" up the mountain behind Panajachel to Sololá to see a market.  This town is predominantly Mayan, and we just about the only tourists there.  It is nearly impossible to describe the wide array of fabrics, foodstuffs and other things for sale there, let alone the crush of humanity in the crowded stalls or the colorful Mayan clothing worn by just about everyone except for us.  Out of respect for the Mayans, many of whom object to having their pictures taken, no pictures of the actual market are shown here, just some of the wares.

Above:  a fruit stall.


Land crabs wrapped in banana leaves and shrimp.  A surprising amount of seafood (as well as fish from the lake) was in abundance in this town 2110 meters above sea level.



July 27th, 2009

This was a travel day.  We drove from Antigua back through Guatemala City to Panajachel, which is 1560 meters up in the mountains.  The town sits on the edge of Lake Atitlán.  The lake was formed when a volcanic caldera collapsed to form a huge crater that filled with water.  Later, 3 new, smaller volcanoes arose that form a backdrop for the lake as seen from Panajachel:  Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro.  There is no outlet for the lake, which is about 1,000 feet deep.

Above:  The class on the way to Panajachel with Volcan Tolimán and Atitlán in the backround across Lake Atitlán.  The town of San Lucas Tolimán is at the far side of the inlet above Josh's head (Josh is 3rd from the right in the back row).


 July 26th, 2009

This was the day of the big hike.  We left Antigua in the morning, and went to San Francisco to begin our hike up the active volcano, Pacaya.


Halfway up the mountain; the arrow indicates our final goal, a vent on the side of the volcano where lava is flowing out.


Lecture and lunch on the volcano.  Dr. McManus leads a discussion on leadership styles while the group ate lunch, which included lava-toasted marshmallows.


Fresh lava flowing from the side of the volcano.

Roasting marshmallows over hot lava.



Dinner at Don Martin restaurant.

Tomorrow we drive further into the highlands to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan.


July 25th, 2009

Today we were up early to take a boat trip through the mangrove forest.


The class on the beach in front of Johnny's place, our hotel in Monterrico.


We returned to Antigua early in the afternoon; the town is getting ready for a fiesta.

July 24th, 2009


We drove down from Antigua to the Pacific Ocean at Monterrico - the surf was very high because of a new moon.


We went for a two-hour night hike on the beach and saw a turtle that was on shore to lay its eggs.

July 23rd, 2009

In Antigua we went to an art museum where the first service project was launched - students will translate folklore accompanying works of art from Spanish into English.


Antigua was the colonial capital of Guatemala.



July 22, 2009

We made it!  We are in Guatemala City.  We got in about 1:30 and it's already been a busy day.  We met with John Beavers of the Nature Conservancy and learned about conservation issues in Guatemala and Belize, as well as the rest of Central America.  We then went to dinner and did a little sightseeing.  We'll be off to the museum in the morning, followed by a drive to Antigua.


Class meeting in the Hotel Casa Grande


Hotel Dining Room




John Beavers of the Nature Conservancy - This was our first meeting with a local conservation leader; we would have many more such meetings.  We met with John less than 2 hours after we got off the plane.


Field Trips

Faculty web pages:  McShaffrey  Spilatro
Utah Dinosaur Dig/Desert Ecology 2006



Updated 10/16/09 by DMC