Belize: Animal Conservation
August 6 – 17, 2018
Table of Contents
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* Click to jump to each section *
“You cannot change the world, but you can start to change it.” -Alejandro Jodorowsky
We’re in Bolivia, a few hours outside of La Paz where the Andes meet the Amazon. The jungly mountains are a stunning backdrop for our partner visit. We are taking a tour of the private mine that operates inside the mountain below our very feet. The tour is just about over, and the owner is answering our questions about the process of extracting tin and tungsten from the ground.
We’re all familiar with the common uses of tin in our daily lives, but then someone asks, “What is tungsten used for?”
The owner replies that it is an incredibly strong metal that has a variety of uses, but is predominantly used for military equipment. She tells us that she doesn’t support war, but, ironically, war supports her extraction business. “When there is planned military action, anywhere in the world, the demand for tungsten rises, so we produce more.” She pauses to let that sink in before continuing, speaking clearly so we all fully understand what she is saying. “That means, here at this mine, we know when governments are planning to engage in warfare long before you all hear about it in the news back home.”
We are all stunned. I go to sleep that night with my mind reeling from the overwhelming interconnectedness of the world. As the program leader who designed this very program, even I had no idea that was coming.
But that is inherently what an OG program strives to accomplish. We want to shake up your view of the world, so that when you return back home you have a new understanding of how your day-to-day actions impact people and places thousands of miles away. Whether you are on a program in Bolivia, Tanzania, Cambodia, or Belize, your worldview will be challenged, and you will find yourself looking at familiar things in a brand new way.
You chose Belize, a beautiful place with a lifetime’s worth of stories to explore. You might leave with a new appreciation for how climate change is impacting our oceans, or a new understanding of the lasting impacts of colonization. Whatever you take home with you, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.
You will certainly not change the world, especially not after a few short weeks here in Belize, but I suspect Belize will change you. And then, little by little, with enough awareness, maybe you can start to change the world.
Nos vemos pronto,
The trip of your life is about to begin and these are just a few of the amazing things you can expect!
*Click on each day to get the full details on the day’s excursions*
Orientation in Belize City and La Democracia
After picking everyone up at Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, we’ll make our way inland to La Democracia. The Tropical Education Centre here sits on 29 acres of beautiful savanna and is the perfect place to get settled and start our orientation!
We’ll walk the nearby trails and learn about Belize’s history, culture, and conservation just a stone’s throw away from the Belize Zoo. Don’t be fooled – this isn’t just any zoo! The Belize Zoo is an incredible grassroots project that has spent over 30 years on the frontlines of conservation and environmental education in the country. Prepare to share space with over 170 different animals while learning about culture and ecology from its founder Sharon, who’s affectionately known as the “Zoo Lady”.
Caribbean Vibes in Dangriga
Leaving the inland savannas, we’ll head to Stann Creek and Belize’s iconic Caribbean coast. Dangriga is the biggest town in the southern half of the country and is the spiritual capital of the Garifuna. We’ll continue our conversation about all things culture and ecology while immersing ourselves in the laid-back vibe of these coastal communities. We’ll take drum lessons with local youth or experience the unique art of this area as we visit local galleries and museums.
It doesn’t stop there! We’ll also have the chance to dip our feet in the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, learn to fish at sunset, and listen to the distinctive sounds of punta rock music back in town. Dangriga is also the perfect trailhead for us to hike into the famous Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary or visit the incredible Tobacco Caye Marine station located just a short boat ride away – because no trip to Belize would be complete without snorkeling and seeing some of the amazing organisms that call the barrier reef home. Get ready to really take in Caribbean culture!
Conserving Culture in Punta Gorda, Toledo District
From the Garifuna communities of Stann Creek, we’ll head even further south to the Toledo District. Here at the south-western tip of the country, the vibe changes yet again! Even after thousands of years, indigenous Mayan culture continues to live on strongly in Toledo. We’ll be teaming up with some of its leading indigenous organizations to explore Mopan and Q’eqchi culture, as well as how it expresses itself through environmentalism.
We’ll live and work alongside local families while exploring the local biosphere. We’ll build relationships, learn to cook delicious local dishes, visit community associations, and turn fresh cacao into tasty chocolate. We’ll also take a trip and tour some of the nearby Mayan ruins, which serve as beautiful reminders that our failure to live sustainably can have catastrophic consequences.
Disorientation & Departures
After a fond farewell to our hosts in Toledo, we’ll circle back north to Belize City, but not before we stop for disorientation. A staple of every OG program, we’ll take two days to kick back, relax, and reflect. In the foothills of the Maya Mountains, we’ll stay with biologists at Toucan Ridge Ecology & Education Society where we’ll assess our impact and inspire each other to promote environmental justice at home. We’ll test our learning on the nearby trails, heal our bodies in the local swimming hole, and share stories over home-cooked meals. Bring your swimsuit and prepare to dive right into culture and ecology in Belize for one last time! Then it’s back to Belize City for hug-filled goodbyes.
In the age of Google, we decided that an interactive map is the only way to roll. Feel free to play around with it, make it your browser’s homepage, and share it with your friends and family. Soon enough we’ll be on the ground doing that route for real.
On our Animal Conservation program, we’ll be exploring complex issues that will widen your perspective on the world, international development, and what it really means to usher change.
Operation Groundswell’s Belize: Animal Conservation program dives beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea and hikes deep into the jungles of the Yucatan to explore how culture and ecologies have shaped each other and how people in Belize are mobilizing to confront the challenges of a changing climate. So, we’ll go from the turquoise waters of Belize’s iconic coast to the tropical savannas and dense jungles of its interior and see first-hand how these unique plant, animal and human communities work together. Belize also sits at the intersection between Caribbean, Latino and indigenous cultures so, we’ll immerse ourselves in traditional Garifuna, mestizo and Mayan communities while working with local fishermen, farmers, activists, and ecologists to explore the diversity of people and perspectives that pour from this unique corner of the world.
Be prepared to walk, hike, swim, and snorkel around one of the most abundant biospheres in the world while learning how culture and ecology connect and how we as ethical travellers can make a positive impact here and at home.
Capital City: Belmopan
Major Languages: English (official), Spanish, Belizean Creole, Garifuna, Mayan language
Major Religions: Catholic, protestant
Monetary Unit: Belize dollar (BZD)
Time Zone: CST (UTC−6)
Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is the lone English-speaking member of the central American community. About the size of Vermont, modern day Belize sits on the southern side of the Yucatan peninsula and is home to about 380,000 people, making it one of the smaller nations in the western hemisphere. Belize is also one of its youngest nations having only gained its independence from Britain in 1981 but its origins go back much further to the ascension of the Mayan civilization beginning in 2500 BC. The Maya remain a strong presence, particularly in the country’s south, but waves of migration, both voluntary and forced, from Britain, West Africa, Asia, North America, and other parts of Caribbean have left an indelible mark on modern day Belize.
Bordered to the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea, Belize has strong ties to both Central America and the Caribbean. A majority of the population is multilingual and identifies as mixed or Mestizo, embracing Kriol, Spanish, Garifuna and/or indigenous identities.
Belize is also brimming with flora and fauna. From the swampy coastal plains to dry savannahs and (semi)tropical jungles, the Belizean interior is prime real state for a variety of species including Jaguars, Howler Monkeys and Tapirs. Perhaps even more famous is Belize’s coast and cays. The second largest of its kind in the world, Belize’s barrier reef is teeming with marine life including 70 species of coral, 500 types of fish and, literally hundreds of different invertebrates. Together, Belize’s territories are home to one of the world’s most diverse and abundant biospheres. No wonder, there is such a concerted effort to protect it.
In general, Belize is fairly easy to navigate from a health and hygiene perspective, but we’ll be wandering jungle trails and swimming in the cays so there are a few health-related things to have on your radar.
1) The sun – Days are hot, and the sun is strong, so dehydration and sunburns are common. Luckily, these are easily dealt with by wearing appropriate clothing and sunscreen as well as drinking lots of fluids.
2) Belize belly – The water is pretty good in Belize, but we still wouldn’t recommend drinking it straight from the tap! The street food is also surprisingly safe, but the local microbes are different and travelers’ diarrhea or what expats affectionately call “Belize belly” can still strike even the toughest stomach. So keep that in mind, and go easy.
3) Biting insects! – Although Malaria, Zika, and other mosquito-born illnesses are NOT super prevalent, there’s always a risk when visiting the tropics. Talk with your physician (or a travel clinic), bring insect repellent, and wear long sleeves. Also, beware of sand flies!
As a well-established and experienced international travel operator, Operation Groundswell takes active precautions to help keep you safe and secure while overseas on your program. We take travel safety very seriously. To learn more about our Risk Management System, click here.
Once we confirm program enrolment numbers, we’ll e-mail you with the go ahead to book those flights (if we haven’t already!) We’ve provided a bit of information on booking flights below so that you can start checking things out, but don’t book anything until you get the go ahead.
Arrivals & Departures
When it’s time to book those flights, be sure to choose one that arrives into Belize City, Belize, Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport on August 6th 2018 anytime between 8am-5pm. You will depart from Belize City, Belize, Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport on August 17th 2018 anytime between 12-8pm.
We suggest checking Kayak, Orbitz, Cheapoair, Google Flights, and other flight sites to get the cheapest rate.
If you want to arrive in the country early or leave for home later, this is your call and you can book flights that meet your needs. However, if you arrive before the program begins, you will not be under the auspices of Operation Groundswell. We cannot guarantee that anyone will meet you at the airport or arrange your accommodations. You will be entirely responsible for yourself until the first day of the program.
You will receive an email (if you haven’t already) with a link to fill out your flight information. You can fill this out once you’ve booked your flight closer to the program date. This information is crucial for us to arrange your airport pick-ups and drop-offs so be sure to fill it out once it’s time!
Entry requirements vary depending on the passport you use for travel, but Canadian and American passport holders do not generally require a visa for entry.
Visitors to Belize are sometimes required to present a return or onward ticket and proof of sufficient funds (considered to be about US$60 a day) with at least half of the total in cash (the remaining portion may be covered by credit cards).
Note: Border officials sometimes charge foreigners excessive entry or exit fees so, double check entry requirements before your departures and, if you are overcharged, just ask to see a senior official.
Remember, you are personally responsible for obtaining a visa and confirming your visa requirements. Resources such as www.visahq.com may be helpful, but it is always best to consult your destination’s embassy directly.
While your program fee does not cover visa costs, we are here to answer any questions you might have if a pre-trip application is necessary. If there are any special documents required to receive a visa for your destination, let us know! While we can’t guarantee your approval, we will help out in any way we can. The sooner you let us know what you need from us, the sooner we can get back to you.
This is NOT a five-star jetsetter’s cruise nor is it a true vagabond’s adventure. We will be sleeping and eating as a team in research stations, locally run hostels, and community guesthouses. Ethical travel and homestays will allow us to immerse in the local culture but life on the road can mean living without some of the comforts to which we’re accustomed. Comfy beds can’t always be guaranteed, creepy crawlies do sometimes like to visit, we embrace cozy conditions, take cold showers, and use the occasional outhouse!
Because we’re not wheelie-baggers, we’re backpackers! We recommend going to an outdoor adventure store and getting a pack fitted to you.
If you buy new shoes, be sure to break them in before the program.
Clothes are overrated. Seriously. You’ll end up wearing the same thing almost every day, so give your back a break and make your load lighter! Plus, good quality, used clothes are available in many of the Belize markets or store and it’s always nice to support local markets. Just keep in mind that temperatures in Belize fluctuate depending on elevation and time of day, so layers are your friend!
All program leaders are equipped with first aid kits, so though it is useful to have basics like Advil or Tylenol, you don’t need to pack a pharmacy. There will be a medical form sent out closer to the program start date so you can outline any specific mental or physical health issues we should be aware of before the program. This completed medical history form signed by a physician is mandatory for participation in all OG programs. Click here to learn more.
No need for a computer, iPhone, iPad, or anything similar as we will have access to a computer when we have access to the internet!
We recommend that you bring $50 – 100 USD, which you can change into regional currency at an in-country currency exchange. While one of the easiest options tends to be withdrawing local currency from an ATM using your debit card, it’s always good to have some exchangeable cash on hand in case of emergencies.
At Operation Groundswell, we forge partnerships with local NGOs and charities to work with them on community-requested projects. This means that the communities we work with decide what kind of partnership they are looking for, how we as volunteers can be best put to use, and how our community contribution can most effectively help them achieve their goals. It also means we don’t always know in advance what will be needed in our partner communities or how we can best serve. Seasonal weather patterns, a changing political climate, and organizational needs may change so get ready to adapt like a true backpacktivist!
Though we spend solid days on the ground getting our hands dirty and volunteering, a larger chunk of our time is spent learning from our partners to better understand the underlying issues and challenges that they face. We’re not going to “save Belize” in our short time together, but we will be making deep connections with and learning immensely from the real change makers on the ground!
The Belize Zoo was started in 1983 as a last-ditch effort to provide a home for a collection of wild animals which had been used in making documentary films about tropical forests. Shortly after the backyard “zoo” began, they realized that visitors were often unfamiliar with the different species of wildlife with whom they shared their country. So, the wildlife education center was born.
Today, the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center are situated on 29 acres of tropical savanna and hosts over 170 animals, representing over 45 species, all native to Belize. Rather than keeping animals for exhibition, the Zoo works tirelessly to rehabilitate and release animals which were orphaned, rescued, donated or born at the zoo. They conduct research, promote education and support local initiatives all with the goal of protecting Belize’s amazing flora and fauna. Learn more.
The Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (T.R.E.E.S) is a small grassroots ecological conservation organization that has established a great little research and education center, the T.R.E.E.S Hosting Center, nestled in the foothills of one of the prestigious Belize Maya Mountains. They are a small biologist-managed facility, with a focus on wildlife ecology research and post-secondary education. However, they believe strongly that ecological conservation can only happen with community involvement, and thus provide a wide range of community programs and involve local stakeholders in all aspects of their research and education initiatives. Learn more.
Reef Keeper is a super small NGO dedicated to environmental education and the good stewardship of the Belize Barrier Reef. They offer classroom lessons and hands-on learning for both visitors and Belizean students in marine environmental science and marine ecology. Learn more.
The Toledo Ecotourism Association or TEA is one of the first and most successful Community-led tourism initiatives in the region. This small alliance for nine communities in the district of Toledo want visitors to see, taste and live the Mayan culture by staying in local guesthouses and participating in a variety of traditional and not-so traditional activities like jungle hikes and farm tours, arts and crafts, cooking, dancing and even music lessons. Learn more.
Buenos dias (bwe-nos dee-as) or buenas (bwe-nas)
Qué tal (keh tull) or qué pasa (keh pass-a)
How are you?
¿Cómo está? (ko-mo eh-stah)
Muy bien (mooh-y bee-en)
Por favor or porfa for short
Disculpe (dees-kool-pe) or lo siento (low see-en-toe)
How much (does this cost?)
¿Cuánto cuesta? (kwan-to kwes-ta)
Nice to meet you
Mucho gusto (moo-cho- goose-tow)
I don’t understand
No entiendo (no en-tee-en-doh)
Weh gaan ahn? or Weh di go ahn?
What time is it?
Da weh time?
My name is …
Mi naym da …
See you later:
Si yoo lata
Ah tayad/mi tayad
Get the hell out of here!
Haul your rass!
Our main phone line is 1-888-422-0164. Our office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.
In case of emergency while you’re on program, please ask your family or next of kin to call OG’s main line at 1-888-422-0164 and follow the prompt. On-call coordinators are available 24 hours a day for emergencies related to current programs or participants.
To reach us via email for all matters, contact [email protected].
If you have any financial inquiries, contact our financial support team at [email protected].
As you prepare for your journey, OG will periodically contact you with important information about logistics, payments, safety, and more. Please check your spam folder regularly! Consider adding [email protected] and [email protected] to your contacts or approved sender list to make sure that our emails are delivered.
For more information on passports, visas, travel insurance, and other general travel logistics, don’t forget to consult your handy dandy Welcome Package!