Horse racing’s history dates back thousands of years to the domestication of the horse by the people of Central Asia. The sport consisting of horses with rider racing round a track, was adopted throughout the world and was christened the sport of Kings when King James 1st of England made it his pastime of choice.
Horse racing was introduced to Belize in the 1920s. At that time there were 2 major horse races. The Dewars Cup, named because of its sponsor, took place on Boxing Day, December 26th. The other race took place on 1st January. Some horses were imported from Jamaica, others were the Belizean bred family pony. People gathered for a bit of fun, to race their horse and of course to drink, bet and hopefully make a bit of cash.
Today there are several stables in Belize that breed horses but horse racing hasn’t changed much. Unlike the rest of the world it is relatively small scale and Horse breeders and owners come from all walks of life. There are now 3 race courses, Castleton Race Track in Burrell Boom, The Benny Padron Race track in San Felipe Village, Orange Walk and the Peoples Stadium in Orange Walk, which also acts as a football pitch and sports stadium. The terrain is grass, the type of race for those who know their horse racing terms, flat. Race meetings take place most months throughout the year at one of these three tracks. The Belize Triple Crown Challenge which takes place in April/May consists of 3 races, The Castleton Derby at Castleton race track, the San Felipe Stakes at the Benny Padron Race track and the Old Masters Stakes at the Peoples Stadium race track. This race series is open to three year old thoroughbreds from Belize. This year the horse Padrino made history by winning all three races.
If you are here for the Christmas vacations and are interested in seeing horse racing Belizean style, Castleton Races still take place on 26th December. Its no longer called the Dewars Cup but it is still the Sport of Kings.
As we discovered in a previous blog, everything is not always as it seems. Cashew nut is in fact a fruit and chocolate comes from a seed. This month we talk a little about one of Belize’s favorite foods, Conch; where it lives, how its caught, how its cooked and how… it’s a snail!
If you are eating conch in Belize, you are most likely eating Queen Conch. Horse Conch or mai mula as it is locally known is also eaten especially in ceviche but sadly it is now rare and considered a delicacy. Queen Conch is a large sea snail that can be found close to the reef in shallow water in the sand or seagrass. Conch don’t like to stay in one place and tend to travel miles looking for food. They move about in groups or schools using their “foot” to drag them across the sandy sea bottom.
Local fishermen are skilled at knowing where to find them and only those with a commercial fishing license are allowed to catch them. They are relatively easy to catch but extracting what’s inside requires skill and precision. The fisherman makes a small hole in the spiral part of the shell preferably using another conch shell (a knife is liable to break). This hole breaks the vacuum inside the shell making the meat easy to extract. Once extracted it needs to be cleaned of all the brown skin, best done with a fillet knife. The “nail” and eyes are normally discarded or kept as bait or to chum. Experienced Conch fisherman never throw the empty shells back into the same place they have caught the conch as other conch will not return to this place. Instead they wait until their catch is complete at the end of the day and throw the shells back in, where there aren’t any conch. That is why you often see piles of shells in one place.
Freshly extracted conch meat can be eaten immediately as its sweet and tender. The tough muscle or foot can be tenderized with a mallet so that it too can be consumed. Every local fisherman and chef have their own special recipe for conch ceviche but staple ingredients include conch meat of course, lime (lots of it) cilantro, onion, tomato and habanero pepper(if desired). Conch fritters, conch soup (which is known to be good for the back) and conch steak are the most popular dishes you will come across in Belize. However, if you want to ensure that you get to try one or all of these tasty dishes you need to visit between 1st October and 30th June which is open conch season. At all other times of the year, the fishing and serving of conch is forbidden in order to maintain the conch population. Luckily that time is now.
When on your tropic flight in Belize, if you look below you are bound to spot the Mangroves that make up much of the coast and the Cayes of our country. Mangroves are amazing trees. They are important to our eco – system in so many ways. They protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surge (especially during hurricanes) and tsunamis. Their massive root system is efficient at dissipating wave action and they slow down tidal water enough that its sediment is deposited as the tide comes in, leaving all except fine particles when the tides ebbs. In this way mangroves build their own environment, increasing land mass from mangrove swamp into low laying land. They spread by emitting aerial roots which fasten in the salty mud and eventually become new stems. This intricate root system makes these “forests” particularly attractive to fish as they act as feeding and nursery grounds to approximately 74 species of fish here in Belize. They also provide feeding and habitat to many of the birds, reptiles and mammals that you may see on your vacation.
Four species of Mangrove grow here. The red mangrove is most often found along the water on the cayes and waterways and is easily identified by the long sprawling roots that support it. The black mangrove is usually found farther away from the waters edge and the white mangrove and buttonwood are generally located even further away. Mangroves have many other uses. They are melliferous meaning that a nectar can be taken from the flower by the bee to make honey. The bark can be used as a source of tannins and dyes and the wood is durable and water resistant and was used in the past to make houses and boats. The fruits and leaves can be eaten and drunk as a medicinal tea.
Unfortunately, with development of Belize, comes destruction of our mangroves and in many places swathes of these trees have been leveled to the ground to give way to new hotels and housing.
However, all is not lost, the government of Belize has recognized the importance of these trees and provides for their protection by requiring a permit for any alteration involving them. For those who want to protect their property, or just care about the environment, they can also be re-planted fairly easily, by placing a mangrove propagule inside a 1” by 12” plastic pipe and ‘planting” this in the water about 3 inches into the seabed. This protects the plant from being washed away. It does however take several years for them to grow to the sizeable trees. Whilst the mighty Mahogany is recognized for its importance in the economic development of Belize as shown by its appearance on our currency and as one of our National symbols, let us not forget that without the existence of the humble yet magnificent Mangrove the country of Belize may not exist at all.
Throwback to 2012. Tropic Air is no stranger to the majestic and unusual looking Jabiru stork. Back then, this normally rare bird stationed itself at The Admirals bar during the renovation of the Belize City municipal runway, and was using this for his daily early morning exercise!
You can follow the photo story of its rescue and relocation here.
The Jabiru (latin name jabiru Mycteria) is one of two storks found in Belize, belonging to the Ciconiidae family of birds, the other being the wood stork. It became a protected species in Belize in 1973 , which meant it was illegal to hunt it, and as a result it maintains one of the healthiest breeding populations in Central America. It is one of the largest birds in the western hemisphere at roughly five feet high. As it soars through the air with its eight-foot wingspan it almost looks like a prehistoric pterodactyl.
The jabiru possesses a huge black beak which is approximate a foot long. This beak is expertly designed to catch food which consists primarily of fish and reptiles and there is a pouch in their throat that allows them to filter the fish they catch from the water. This beak incidentally is straighter in the male of the species. The black featherless neck is topped with a white tuft on the head that looks much like a mohawk, and a bright red necklace at the base of the neck, adorns the rest of the otherwise white plumage. The legs which are extremely long are also black.
The Jabiru like other storks is mute because it doesn’t possess a syrinx which is the voice organ, instead it communicates by clattering its beak , hissing and grunting.
Jabirus are normally found in pairs or small groups and breed this way. They build their stick nests high in trees normally laying two to four whitish eggs.
The number of these birds range depending on the time of year in Belize. June’s count of this year showed 45, so as you can see it is still relatively rare here but if you want to be sure to see one or several on your vacation, be sure to visit The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary between November and June. The marshes and wetlands here are favored by these birds and they fly here from Mexico around November, migrating north at the first sign of the rainy season. You can also see them and other interesting animals native to Belize, at The Belize Zoo www.belizezoo.org. Tropic Air offers a tour combined with cave tubing. Check it out here.
The many magnificent Maya sites that scatter the landscape of Belize are testament to this incredible civilization. The Maya built amazing cities, they traded in jade and obsidian, they had their own calendar, they were arguably the inventors of chocolate in the form of a spicy drink and wait for it…. they were the inventors of chewing gum…
Chewing gum as we know it was originally a white rubbery sap known as chicle, that came from the Sapodilla tree that was common in Belize and Central America. The Maya used this chicle to help keep their breath fresh and to stop hunger and thirst.
In 1866 a certain American called Thomas Adams was introduced to Chicle in Mexico and thus began the chewing gum industry. In Belize there were four types of chicle, Female, crown gum, male and Bull. Female was considered the best and was more abundant in Northern Belize. The ‘chiclero’ was the man responsible for extracting this precious resin. It was an arduous and dangerous task, involving camping out during rainy season and climbing huge trees before cutting grooves in the bark and collecting the sap in bags. The chicle was then cooked in iron pots to the required consistency and then poured into moulds and shipped to Belize City, where companies such as Wrigleys would import it to America. The chewing gum industry reached its height in the 1930s and 40s. However over production eventually led to its demise. Each chicle producing tree needed 3- 8 years before it could be tapped again and it became unsustainable. As a result companies started looking for an alternative in artificial gum and sadly the chicle industry along with its chicleros became defunct.
May and June see the start most Belizeans favorite season, mango season. After eight months of deprivation, these sweet beauties suddenly grace every market stall and roadside vendor in Belize. The countryside and city yards overflow with mangoes of every shape and size, with colors ranging from green to red, to yellow and even blue.
In Belize, there are well over 20 varieties of mango with names just as colorful as their skin. There are Hairy mangoes, Blue mangoes, Garlic, Daddyfoot, Common, Number 11, Slippers, Julie and even Turpentine.
There are four different stages of the mango, each with a very different taste. When it is green, the mango is hard and tart, delicious with salt and local habanero pepper, and is often used to make chutney. When its full or ‘turn’, the mango is just about ripe with a firm, slightly less sweet flesh, which is easy to eat and great in salads. Ripe mangoes are juicy and ready to eat with a delectable slightly perfumey aroma and taste. Overripe fruit is extremely messy and is best used to make mango juice. Add some lime, ice and a little bit of mint to it and you have a refreshingly delicious drink. The mango is paid homage to at an annual Mango Festival, in Hopkins in the Stann Creek District, usually at the beginning of June.
Belizeans love to celebrate the bounty of nature and the cashew is another fruit feted with its own festival. The Cashew Festival is held annually in Crooked Tree Village in late April or early May. Wait! It’s a fruit? Yes, the cashew is actually a very fragrant fruit with the more familiar nut hanging below. It grows wild in North Central Belize and flourishes despite the poor sandy soil in that region. It doesn’t need much water or fertilizer so it is indeed seen as miraculous. Harvest is generally between March and June where the trees are resplendent with red, orange and yellow that is the cashew fruit. Birds love the fruit as well, much to the chegrin of the farmers. It also makes a great wine.
Here is a great video that tells you all about this fruit and nut!
Cashew SeasonStraight outa Crooked Tree and in time for cashew fest 2017.
Did you know that chocolate was a fruit as well? Strictly speaking cacao (where chocolate comes from) is the actual fruit of the Theobrama tree. These colorful pods grow straight from the trunk or branch of the tree. Inside these pods are about 20 to 30 seeds covered in a thick sweet pulp that tastes nothing like chocolate, but is delicious all the same. It’s the beans themselves that are taken from the pod, fermented in a box covered with banana leaves, dried and roasted. Once roasted they are ground in a machine to release the oil (cocoa butter) which is put back into the cocoa mass to produce a liquor which will become chocolate as we know it. The Cacao Festival a celebration of chocolate occurs annually in May in the Toledo District of Belize.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of hype surrounding the trailer for the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s classic film “It”. The scary clown has horror fans champing at the bit for its release in September of this year.
People are fascinated by scary characters, and here in Belize, we are no different. Long before television, cinema and YouTube, a cast of terrifying characters every bit as frightening as that clown, dominated Belizean legends and folklore. Their stories have been passed down from generation to generation and the different cultures have merged to produce a motley crew of characters. Here are just some of them.
Perhaps the most famous of these creepy creatures (because they certainly do not resemble anything human) is Tata Duende. Claimed to have been seen by many, this character lives in the Belizean forests. He is tiny, wears a big wide brimmed hat and his feet are on backwards! Oh and yes he doesn’t have any thumbs, so hide yours or he will steal them. Legend has it that he is a brilliant horseman, a good guitar player, a whistling guardian of the forest. He has a good side and a bad side. So we advise, you err on the side of former and treat him well.
Every folkloric tradition also has a temptress. Belize has several with Xtabai being the most well known. She is said to ensnare men with her long white dress and beautiful long straight hair. Parents would warn their children to be home before dark lest she capture them and take them into the jungle. She particularly likes drunk men, so take care not to drink too much Belizean rum. She is also a bit of a chameleon, often transforming into a snake, and a snarling monster with turkey and goat legs.
We also have our version of Bigfoot, the Sisimoto, who is a big hairy gorilla type figure that haunts the forest and caves and likes the flesh of humans.
Then there is Ole Heg. She leaves behind her skin after sucking the blood of children. There’s nothing good about this one! However, there is good news, you can protect your children by getting them to wear blue and sprinkling your doorstep with sesame seeds. So next time you see some at your local market stall, make sure to stock up.
As with all legends, a healthy dose of imagination and storytelling ability is also required.
Belize’s abundant cultural interaction makes for an incredible diversity of foods. As tourism has increased, so has the availability of international cuisine countrywide and whilst the mainstay of Belizean fare is undoubtedly stewed chicken,rice and beans served with plantain, potato salad or coleslaw, every region has at least one or two specialties based on its cultural heritage.
Corozal maintains a strong Mexican influence. Corn is a staple here and used in the making of tamale, a corn based dough called masa surrounding chicken, wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf served with a juicy tomato based sauce. Traditionally the tamale was prepared by the ancient Maya for feasts. Today they are eaten by everyone. Dukunu another delicacy is made from the ground and roasted corn kernels steamed in corn husks.
Most street corners in Belize towns, have their own taco stands and local favorites but Orange Walk arguably has the best. Tacos, a rolled corn tortilla with meat filling can be spicy or not, and make for a delicious breakfast. Orange Walk tacos are shipped countrywide by Tropic Air via our cargo department, so wherever it is likely that will be able to enjoy them or you can get them flown in specially.
The cuisine of Ambergris Caye one of the main tourist destinations of the country has absorbed influences from around the country and here you will find every kind of Belizean delicacy, as well as international cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood. With dishes ranging from Japanese sushi, to Italian pizza, to Salvadoran pupusas, your taste buds won’t be disappointed. Lobster and Conch are seasonal and the local specialty of ceviche, is usually made with either of these raw and then “cooked” with lime juice, cucumber and habanero pepper.
In the South, in Placencia and the Cayo district, similar international cuisine is abundant whilst in Hopkins, and Dangriga (Stann Creek district), the traditional flavors reflect the strong Garifuna culture. Coconut milk, banana and plantain, fish and cassava root are all popular ingredients used to make the specialities of this region, which include Sere, a coconut based fish soup, and Hudut, consisting of mashed plantain.
As well as the staple, chicken with rice and beans,in Belize City, a diversity of fried chicken restaurants, offer a variation on a theme, creole and spicy, others oriental and crispy, all served with orange Fanta infused ketchup. With nicknames such as “kick down fence”, “Nice and Nasty”, “Freetown Kentucky” and “Greasy Bag”, who can resist this artery clogging indulgence!
Healthier fare is on offer in the Toledo district, where the indigenous Maya have a mainstay diet of corn and beans and whatever else is grown on their farm. The Midday meal is often caldo a clear soup eaten with tortillas and accompanied by the Maya cacao drink Kukuh which is a mixture of ground cocoa beans, pepper, corn and water. Along with the Maya there is a strong East Indian influence here and the local spices are added to make delicious curry.
Throughout Belize you will find three countrywide staples. The “Johnny Cake” a heavy bread eaten plain or with ham/cheese or chicken, traditionally cooked over an open flame, “Fry Jacks” deep fried flour tortillas, or “Pepper”. No Belizean meal would be complete without a bottle of hot sauce made with habanero chile peppers. This stuff is addictive and once you’ve tried it you will have it on everything, just like the locals do and be sure to take a bottle home for your friends.
Throughout the world, Blue Holes have always been surrounded in mystery and superstition. Tales of bottomless pits, sea monsters and ship wrecks abound. The Great Blue Hole of Belize is no exception. In fact, a recent movie Posiedon Rex even has dinosaurs erupting from its depths.
Located in the lighthouse reef atoll approximately 62 miles from Belize City, Belize’s Blue Hole is legendary around the world and is on many a scuba divers bucket list. An almost perfect circular chasm of deep blue in an azure sea, 1000 feet in diameter and more than 400 feet deep, it is the only Blue Hole on earth that is visible from space. It is also spectacular from the air.
It was originally made famous in the 1970s when the French explorer and diver, Jacques Cousteau and his team of divers, undertook its exploration in his famous boat The Calypso. In his documentary, he embarks on the treacherous 7mile trip from Lighthouse, through uncharted territory of shallow waters resplendent with dangerous coral heads, and eventually arrives unscathed at the Blue Hole. From here he and his team undertake its exploration. See the video below:
Cousteau and his team realized the importance of the Blue Hole in providing knowledge of Earth’s history. Discovery of stalactites deep within the sinkhole provided the evidence that it was in fact a land based cavern as stalactites only form on land. One such stalactite was removed for further scientific investigation. Over many thousands of years as sea levels rose this cave was flooded at a least four stages as demonstrated by the formation of ledges. There is also evidence of earths shift as some of the stalactites are at a slight angle. Cousteau declared this one of the top diving sites in the world and he is attributed with making it popular as a tourist destination following his discoveries.
In 1990, The Blue Hole was given the name The Great Blue Hole by British diver Ned Middleton. It forms a part of the Belize barrier Reef reserve system and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Some 35 years after her grandfather’s exploration of the Blue Hole, Alexandra Cousteau , who works closely with Oceana as a senior advisor, visited Belize for the first time and was thrilled to observe that in those years, this national living monument seemed to have changed very little from what she had seen in “The Sunken Caves” documentary. Alexandra’s love affair with Belize was sparked and has continued to blossom over the years. She taught her husband to dive in our waters and her daughter got her first taste of the ocean here at age 2 months. Last year she visited Belize again as a speaker for Oceana for The Energy of Nature vs. the Nature of Energy conference and it was then that she saw The Blue Hole from the air for the very first time.
You too can experience The Blue Hole from the air with Tropic Air’s stunning Blue Hole aerial tour. Don’t forget to bring your cameras as this is a photo opportunity you don’t want to miss.
For Andy Palacio, one of Belize’s most loved and famous musicians, music was “the soundtrack of life”.
Perhaps the most beautiful demonstration of this statement can be found in the music of his people, the Garinagu, one of the many cultures that make up the melting pot that is Belize. Product of the indigenous Arawaks of South America and shipwreck prisoners destined for slavery, the Garinagu claim St. Vincent as their homeland. Forceful exodus from the Caribbean lead to Central American settlements in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.. Throughout migratory pathways, the Garinagu have continued to use music in daily life and work to retell their story from elder to younger generation, to diminish the boredom of everyday chores, to accompany sacred rituals that maintain intergenerational bonds and to recreate a sense of shared identity despite borders.
The main instrument used in Garifuna music that requires musical accompaniment is the drum. Traditionally these drums were made from a hollowed out trunk of hardwood, covered with animal skin usually a deer, peccary or sheep which was stretched over the trunk and tightened with rope and wooden pegs and they were always played solely with the hands. Today the design is very much the same, although the hollowing out is normally done with a machine rather than by hand. In the majority of everyday secular music, two drums are involved. The main and largest drum provides the bass and is known as the Segundo. Its namesake drummer provides the regular beat. The Primero drum is usually smaller and its player uses a more complicated pattern of beats and is considered the more skilled musician. In Garifuna rituals a third larger drum is used with the central instrument, the Lanigi Garawoun (the heart drum) providing the lead for the other two drummers.
For social occasions, one of the most popular music genres and dances of the Garifuna is the Punta. This was traditionally a dance performed by men and women representing a dialogue between the two sexes performed at social gatherings and wakes. The drums and rattles accompanied the narrative text written mostly by women provides comment on the many challenges of life. Traditionally families socialized together and young people would be under strict supervision. The Punta was a way through which couples communicated interest in each other without alarming the audience or creating suspicion. Today couples doing the Punta try to outdo each other with complicated movements of the feet that sway the rest of the body, producing an impression of moving hips and bottoms. Other dances such as the Chumba, Gunjei, Wanaragua, Paranda and Hüngü Hüngü are often played in social settings.
This traditional Punta music has evolved into one of the most popular and ubiquitous style of music in Belize: Punta Rock. The artist Pen Cayetano is largely regarded as the originator of this genre of music during the 1980s. It is a faster version of traditional Punta with the addition of electric instruments such as drum, bass guitar and synthesizer and the dance accompanying it is every bit as provocative as the original. Today one of the most popular Punta artists is Supa G.
Paranda is another example of how the music has evolved over the years as the Garifuna have assimilated other musical influences from their surroundings. A gentler genre of music and dance traditionally performed by the Garifuna men, Paranda songs were used as serenades in which a group of guitar-toting performers would to from house to house in their communities performing their compositions. The singing providing the narrative accompaniment is very much the call and response, leader and chorus arrangement that is typical of some music of the Garifuna and talks about what is happening in the singers’ lives. Though the musical form is known to have been around since the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 2007 when Andy Palacio elevated Paranda to international fame with his acclaimed CD, “Watina”. After his unexpected death, the Garifuna collective, the group with which Andy had toured to promote Watina, continued to build on his legacy, creating a reputation for this more soulful exploration of Garifuna music.
The Wanaragua provides yet another “soundtrack to life”. Otherwise known as the Jonkonnu or John Canoe, the traditional dance is thought to have been created or adopted on the island of St. Vincent. Similar dances created by the slaves were performed on special occasions around Christmas; however, oral history refers to Wanaragua dancers using a guise lo lure European colonizers into Garifuna communities during the wars they fought on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century. Today the dance is usually performed between Christmas Day and Día Rey, January 6th or the feast of the epiphany. Accompanied by drumming, performers dress up in pink masks as a mocking representative of Europeans and dance from house to house for a small monetary token.
Whilst the majority of Garinagu are located in the Stann Creek district around Dangriga and Hopkins and in Barranco in the Toledo district, any visitor to Belize is sure to encounter one of the above genres of music and dance particularly around November as they celebrate the uniqueness of their culture and soundtrack of their life.
Want to experience the sounds and sights of the Garifuna culture? Then book your flight with Tropic Air and take a trip this November 19th to beautiful Dangriga.