26 July 2014

Flora

"I'd rather be ashes than dust.
I'd rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze, than be stifled by dry rot.
I'd rather be a meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy & permanent planet.
Man's chief purpose is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time"

--  Jack London


After my shortcomings visiting Actun Tunichil Muknal and acquiring a parking ticket, I was beyond ready to leave the peddlers & dirty streets of San Ignacio. Not that it was a bad city, it just held bad experiences.

I hadn't planned on a rainy day filled with down time so I stopped in Belize's capital, Belmopan, to check into my hotel.  Belmopan looked more safe and proper, with its sprawling lawns and stately buildings. A short drive on the Hummingbird Highway brought me to Saint Herman's National Park.  This park housed one of the few caves in Belize able to be explored without a guide.

Saint Herman's National Park encompasses a large area of jungle and has several entrances + hikes.  I set off on a muddy jungle path.  It was obvious the way had been manicured for visitors since leaves had been trimmed back and fallen trees cut to avoid a blockage.  Along the way were beautiful plants I've never seen anywhere else!
 
Orchids were ubiquitous around Belize in an array of colors.   From black (like the ones at Lamanai Mayan ruins) to sunshine yellow bunches, to plain white ones. Most seemed to possess shades of purple or pink (in Orange Walk).  In my opinion, the prettiest was a bright yellow orchid with droplets of fuscia that resembled blood.  This flower looked like it could have been plucked straight from a crime scene.
There were fuzzy Annitos which sealed their seeds within, large Hibiscus flowers that reminded me of Hawaii, an explosion of petals from a Red Torch Ginger, a Pink Cone Ginger shaped like a pastel pine cone, and a funky Heliconia plant a.k.a. Parrot Beak with water collected in its individual, firecracker red compartments.  My favorite flower was colorless though: the diaphanous Cat's Whiskers whose stamen fanned out like beautiful eyelashes.
I also passed plenty of edible flora such as Pineapple (in its various, prickly stages), unripe Bananas -- some with long, wiry vines extending like robot arms, Orange groves, and Cohune Palm.
Per Israel, the worker at the entrance gate, I walked along the smooth lowland trail to Saint Herman's cave.  Through tunnels of trees, tucked behind a hill, it patiently waited like a crocodile with its mouth wide open. I stood at the threshold & tried to make sense of anything inside la cueva  a.k.a. the cave, but it was impossible.Down the wet, stone steps, my headlamp was only capable of illuminating what was directly in front of me.Having descended to cueva's floor, I saw the river that had been slowly carving its path, undercutting the soft limestone to create balconies, and dripping to form a rock that resembled a loaf of  pound cake.

I glanced back at the only other source of light, which was shrinking behind me & casting an alien, green tint onto what little of the river I could see.  Deeper into Saint Herman's cave, the toothy silohuette behind me disappeared, the darkness was imploding. I felt like I was crammed into a coffin -- rather than waltzing through an underground cave system -- because a wall of darkness surrounded me.  My mind knew my eyes were open but it was the same sensation as having a blindfold on.  I followed the only beacons in the impenetrable night of la cueva: the reflectors. My rods never fully adjusted to the absence of light, but further along the trail I spotted gold dusting the ceiling & rock faces.  On nearby rocks, Chalcopyrite a.k.a. Fool's Gold twinkled like stars.
In my opinion, the grand finale of Saint Herman's was at the end of the 200 yard a.k.a. 180 meter path. The trail actually continued on through the cave system to Crystal Cave, but required a guide & advanced booking, so I stopped here to turn around.La cueva opened up to a flat beach by the river with a tall ceiling, but in the middle of the open auditorium, a single, thick stalactite stabbed the earth.  The column wasn't smooth like everything I had seen thus far.  It was bulbous, misshapen & looked like it may be filled with puss. Yet, this pillar was the result of trillions -- perhaps more? -- of individualglobules of water cosseting! It was evolving & would never exactly be the same as it was now. 
I exited la cueva & took the slippery highland route back to the parking lot because it offered a change of scenery. A swarm of -- honestly -- 400 mosquitoes joined me in overlooking the Hummingbird Highway & Orange groves from earlier. From the unpaved lot, I drove to another entrance into Saint Herman's
 National Park.
Along this short trail I bumped into all sorts of living things! The Mimosa plant, with its pretty lavender flower, shriveled to a slit of paper with touch. It was such a cool feature, to see a static plant instantly cower, that I touched every Mimosa I saw! I almost stepped on a wide, unknown spider and [possibly] a baby Jaguar's paw print by a stream. I don't know how, but one of the guides -- Marvin -- found a particular hole then coaxed a Red Rump Tarantula out of its dwelling. The furious spider emerged, fat, hairy & truly with a red butt. I cringed at the sight of the arachnids flexing its fuzzy, segmented arms, but -- like a bad car accident -- I couldn't look away either, because I was intrigued. 

Down the few, sodden flights of stairs a river with a slow current ran under fallen tree branches into the darkness of another cueva. Remember Saint Herman's cave just north on the highway? This was part of the same cave system! I waded to la cueva's overhang & heard bats flapping in the nothingess but without a torch, I could only imagine the features and size of this cueva... and I definitely was not swimming into the pitch black to find out.
I was concerned this trek to Saint Herman's Blue Hole would be a bust due to the same deluge that cancelled my excursion to Actun Tunichil Muknal a few hours ago. The guidebooks all warned a heavy rain made it a murky bathtub. As I turned the corner to the Blue Hole's entrance I was crest-fallen to see brown, muddy water before me. I caught my breath though as I followed the same river's path to my left, where the pavonine Blue Hole laid.
Conditions were auspicious for a swim: I was sweaty from hiking, there were no other visitors and the water was crystal clear! In addition to being transparent, the water was startlingly cold. I suppose from the new rain and underground river; never letting the water sit long enough to heat up. I shivered as I submerged myself to my bellybutton.

On level with the river, Saint Herman's Blue Hole had the same blue eye as its more famous counterpart in the sea. However, instead of a teeming reef surrounding it, this sinkhole was enclosed by sheer walls of earth. The green of the jungle complemented the natural blues and browns.
I swam to the tiny cove furthest from the entrance & subsequently the deepest point of the cenote. In fact, I had to hold onto the single fixed object (a rock) at the far end of the Blue Hole because there was actually no floor. Large rock slabs overlapped but there was an opening wide enough for a person below me, where the river continued underground. I observed a few fish enter the bottomless hole, never to emerge again. Unnerved, I was sure I would either be sucked down this hole at any moment or – more probable – thought if fish could swim one way through the hole, that meant any animal could come out of it & snap at my dangling legs. I didn't dare sink my entire body, so I kept my head above water at all times, scanning the ever-changing river. It was time to swim back to the safety of the see-through shallows.

Since I did not need to rent a headlamp, the entire day only cost me a nominal fee of $8 BZ a.k.a. $4 USD.  I would have much rather spent the $55 USD and spelunked Actun Tunichil Muknal, but I was pleased the hours did not go to waste. The morning that started off on the wrong foot ameliorated into a laid back day of exploration.