07-Jan-2005 -- Our journey to 16N 89W, a confluence of confluences, began in outer space. In planning a trip to Belize we noticed that there were two unvisited confluences in this tiny English speaking Caribbean country stuck on to the eastern edge of the Yucatan peninsula. A Terraserver.com image taken in 1999 shows a beautiful day with fluffy white clouds covering about 30% of the terrain (image).
Unfortunately, the exact site of the southernmost confluence is obscured by a cloud but it appears to be near the intersection of two waterways. In fact, very near. We hoped within 100 meters.
The confluence is only miles from the border with Guatemala. It is in the middle of the Temash and Sarstoon Delta Wildlife Sanctuary, “41,000 acres of habitat for a variety of wildlife - including wari, tapirs, ocelots, and jaguars. Rarely seen birds and animals such as the scarlet macaw and the white-faced capuchin monkey have been spotted here.” What is a wari, we wondered? It sounded like just the kind of place we would like to see.
Belize is an anomaly. Although it is surrounded by Latin America, it has strong historical ties to England not in the least due to its being a favorite refuge for pirates of many flags. It is a member of the Commonwealth, and has a population of only 260,000 who speak English, Spanish, two Mayan languages, Creole, and an indigenous language of African origin known as Garifuna. With mountains, waterfalls and miles of atolls and coral reefs, it is an ecotourism paradise of butterfly farms, zoos, caves and rivers. It seems as if every farm is an ecolodge and every forest is being managed sustainably. One can explore a barely excavated Mayan city in the mountains such as Caracol which receives fewer visitors in a month than Tikal, just across the border in Guatemala, gets in a day. The food is simple and wonderful. Anything they can add coconut milk to, they do, including refried beans and boiled rice. Mmmmmmm.
A quick web search showed the 16N 89W confluence to be in a low-lying mangrove forest fed by two large rivers that flow down from the Maya mountains to the Gulf of Honduras. No roads, on the map at least. The closest village, Barranco is 5 miles to the east through untrammeled lowland forest.
We thought that if we could make it up the river we might be able to hike to the confluence through the woodland. However, a recent Rapid Ecologic Assessment gave us pause. The banks of the Temash River, besides being home to a lot of wonderful birds and other wildlife, also harbor crocodiles. And the forested area is a succession of mangroves for dozens of miles inland.
Anyone who has seen a mangrove forest will immediately know the difficulty this raised in our plan to hike in from the river bank. There is no hiking through mangroves. Even the smallest red mangrove faces you with a nearly impenetrable wall of aerial roots. They reach from the water’s surface up to 10 feet, spaced no further than a foot apart. Arched and curving, they block any passage. The succeeding white and black mangroves are only taller and with thicker roots allow less room for movement. Oh well.
We sent out a few emails to guides in the area. Our first response was from Dave Vernon an intrepid guide and marine biologist, who lives about 50 miles up the coast in Placencia. He was very helpful though he admitted he had never been that far upriver. He explained that although it was 50 miles by water it would be more that twice that by partially dirt and rutted road.
We then had a stroke of good luck, an email from Pablo Ack of the Toledo Ecotourism Association. Although our email contacts were sketchy and sporadic, he definitely seemed to suggest that if we made it to Punta Gorda he would help us from there. That was as far as our planning got prior to our departure. Our idea was to drive to Punta Gorda and go by sea ten miles to the river mouth.
On the day we drove down from the mountains in the north along the Hummingbird Highway we began to understand what Dave Vernon meant. The last thirty miles to Placencia are some of the most rutted and rocky washboard imaginable and slippery when wet! We understood why many tourists fly from Belize City. After a relaxing couple of days, eating seafood, snorkeling and drinking coconuts picked right off the palms, we decided to fly the fifty mile to PG. It is only 15 minutes by air and in-country flights in Belize are very reasonable.
Winging in to Punta Gorda with Amanda in the copilot’s seat we see the entire town of 5000 clinging to the water’s edge, bordered for endless miles around by the encroaching jungle. Having had no contact with Mr. Ack for almost a month, we think we will make our way down to the ocean front and try to hire a boat. Stepping out of the plane onto the grass runway, we hear a pleasant female voice inquire, “Are you Mr. William Meller?”. In total surprise we met Sonya who was sent by Mr. Ack to meet us. “But how did you know we were coming… a day late… and by plane instead of driving?” She just laughed and said, “Oh Mr. Ack knew.”
Smiling Sonya whisked us the few blocks from the airport to the center of town. Punta Gorda is the highest point of land from here to the Honduran border a bustling burg of about 5000 that has produced several of Belize’s most famous writers, scientists and educators. The office of Toledo Ecotourism Association is in a small Victorian house on the main market street. There we met the soft spoken Pablo Ack who had conjured up this magical meeting. After telling us a little about his organization which arranges home stays and adventuresome tours in the Mayan villages of Toledo province, he said we would soon be met by Pablo Bouchub who would take us on the next leg.
This Pablo, owner of the Roots and Herbs Taxi service, had been a “log” farmer, until a hurricane wiped him out. He then took up guiding and had recently achieved a lifelong dream of moving into a home by the ocean. “It is important to have goals,” he would say every few miles.
South of us along the coast under a mostly sunny sky are two large rivers, the Temash, our immediate goal, and the Sarstoon, cutting across low-lying forest of dense tropical growth. Small villages which are connected by a few dirt roads extend about twenty miles inland. Beyond, there are sparsely populated mountains all the way to Guatemala.
In a few miles the road turns to dirt and we pass only a few isolated thatched houses and farms. It is hot so there really is no reason why the women washing the families laundry in the creek should be wearing much clothing, is there?
Our GPS shows that we are getting ever closer, that is until we are about 5 miles away from the confluence and we veer southeast and head for the coast. Forty-five bouncy and bumpy minutes later we pull slowly into a quiet village where the narrow streets linking the few dozen houses are covered with grass. And why not when most of the traffic on them is by foot and the most frequent pedestrians are poultry?
We are looking for Alvin Loredo?. The village of Barranco is home to a few hundred Garifuna, the descendents of Afro-Caribbean people who maintain their own language and rock steady drum based music. We have to walk around the village to find him, peeking into the local church which vies for adherents with the spirit hall where the voodoo like dugu religion is practiced. The few people we encounter are all helpful, but each has a different idea of which direction we might look. We split up and walked around the village, finding him in a few minutes.
No, it seems he did not get any message that we were coming as there is only one telephone in town. “No problem, mon,” he says with a Rasta lilt. We are going to be hooked up with a small boat and a young but experienced helmsman. We make our arrangements over Cokes on the small porch of the only store; a well stocked tiendita that serves as meeting place, bank and provisioner for all. While we are waiting a young man, Egbert who is one of only 4 rangers for the entire Temash-Sarstoon Delta Wildlife Sanctuary spends some time with us. He knows the area we are going to, and even that the 16th parallel passes right through his front yard. He gives us the names of several of the creeks that we are going to pass and warns us that the area we are going to is swamp with only islands above water at times. He tells of one recent traveler who spent a whole day in the area we are going and could talk of nothing but all the innumerable and varying shades of green
By 12:30 we are wending our way down to the beach loaded up with gas tanks, a motor, and paddles carved out of solid mahogany… just in case. Rolling the small dory out of its thatched shelter on logs cut from coconut palm we push off. The paddles are necessary to push the boat out the first hundred meters through the sandy shallows. Finally we are able to lower the outboard and turn south. The wind has picked up and we get dashed with salty spray as we putt along. The coast is all mangroves; a wall of black and red roots topped by a canopy of impenetrable green. The GPS seems stuck at around five miles to our goal, but a quick glance at the map shows that we are on a constant tangent to the confluence.
Our pilot, Derrick, points out the opening of the river when we are still several miles away. It looks all the same to us until we approach and see waves of reddish brown mixing with the blue of the ocean in a shallow and turbulent delta. There is some breeze behind us and we are warm and excited. The mouth of the river has silted up to less than a foot of depth so it is back to poling along with the paddles. Soon we pass into the channel and it is suddenly smooth, almost glassy. After a few turns of the river we are well away from the wind and with only the current against us we make quick progress. Pablo and Derrick take turns pointing out trees and telling us of their medicinal and practical uses. Now the GPS is doing its world-circling best. 6 or 7 strong bars of signal are plotting every twist and turn; the track it is laying down closely mimics the path on the map. 4 miles… 3… 2… 1. We are closing in but the big question is still there.
Will the confluence be within reach or buried off so deep in the forest so deep that only the toucans and howler monkeys can enjoy it? We pass Conejo creek and suddenly we are in the swamp. The only change is that the surrounding canopy is not so high and there are many more channels of water to choose from. We are heading due north almost dead on the 89th meridian and I suggest we slow down. Up ahead is a fork in the river. The opening to Sunday Wood creek pours in from the north as the Temash takes a sharp bend to the west.
Suddenly, in the swirl of water from the meeting rivers, transfixed on the screen, I can’t help but shout, “Stop!” - As if we could, in a fast boat on a moving river.
But Derrick circles slowly as Amanda and I look in wonder at our electronic guide. Drifting in and out on its sun drenched screen are strings of zeros. We are there. Not only have we arrived at the confluence of degrees, but it is anchored in the middle of the confluence of these two rivers. We share the screen with Pablo and Derrick who seem proud that this small point within the vast territory of their homeland has yet another distinction. As we circle, trying to get the best light on the screen to take a picture and orient ourselves for the encircling shots, they each share stories of their experiences with this unique place. Derrick tells of paddling a kayak as a child 3 hours from Barranco to this point.
After only a few minutes of savoring the spot, Pablo points to his watch and reminds us that if we are going to catch our plane out at 4:00 we had better turn back. It is much faster going down the river as it always seems when returning from someplace for the first time. When we hit the river’s mouth we have a surprise in store for us. The wind has whipped up to a good 25 knots and we are heading right into it with white caps and a 2 foot swell.
We are drenched as we pound our way back to Barranco. After a quick goodbye, we make a mad dash for PG and the airport. As we pull into the parking lot on the minute of 4 o’clock we see our Maya Island Air plane lifting off. Luckily, there is a Tropic Air flight also, and a few minutes later we are heading home to Placencia with the promise of a cold Belikan Stout and a mess of Creole shrimp at Wendy’s. And don’t forget the world’s greatest mashed potatoes… made with coconut milk of course.
Oh yes, the wari. It is the White-lipped Peccary, and a cuter peccary is hard to find.