In October 1997, we were invited on what promised to be a once-in-a- lifetime trip to look for orchids in Belize. A friend had a fabulous yacht, complete with helicopter and 18' skiffs. He was in the mood for an expedition and decided that Belize would be a close convenient  place to go. There we could do some fishing and hopefully see some orchids in bloom. I certainly do not qualify as an "orchid expert", but Kathy and I were invited along because of our familiarity with Meso-American species. This would be a cataloging trip, we would note and photograph orchids we found. What follows is the journal I kept during the trip. I have used images that were shot in the field then, as well as images of some species which have been photographed from cultivated plants. Links in the text will show photos in pop-up windows, please close each window after viewing.

Day Four
Orchid hunting so far has been good, not spectacular. Brassavola nodosa, Schomburgkia tibicinis and Epidendrum nocturnum have been seen in quantities enough to supply every man, woman and child at least one plant of each. Seeing the rugged conditions under which these plants grow in the wild makes you realize that they are anything but fragile. Other interesting discoveries have been Encyclia alata, Epidendrum paniculatum, Epidendrum rigidum, Oncidium ensatum, Galeandra baueri, Trigonidium egertonianum, and unidentified species of Notylia, Maxillaria, Pleurothallis, Oncidium. The food and accommodations are first class and the crew is wonderful. We are in good hands.

Brassavola nodosa was the local weed and grew just about everywhere. Here is a flowering plant growing on mangrove roots a foot or so above brackish water. Seeing orchids grow in such difficult situations quickly dispels the notion that they are fragile plants.


Day one and two were cut short by travel and weather. The morning of day two the pilot was able to land the chopper on a river bed in the mountains. Although there may have been orchids in the jungle, at this higher elevation the canopy was so dense as to limit the light severely. The undergrowth was thick and travel was difficult. The others went up the rivers in the skiffs and spotted mostly the common orchids. Yesterday (day three) was our first full day of orchid hunting. Two of us went up in the chopper in the morning. We spotted an ancient road, translate: path through the jungle. The pilot squeezed the helicopter into a place where the road crossed a river but the grass was so tall and thick that it was very slow going. Upon leaving that spot we noticed that the road was easier to travel further up but we decided not to take the time to try. We tried setting down in a swampy clearing that was ringed with low scrub that appeared loaded with epiphytes…many encyclias but it was way too wet for the chopper. Finally we set down in a burned out area where we were able to work the perimeter and into the forest. Three new discoveries were Sobralia decora, Galeandra baueri and Oncidium cebolleta. The others went up Golden Stream and found some large Epidendrums. In the afternoon we went up the Middle River but found mostly common orchids. 


The rivers of Belize are especially beautiful.

Lunch Break on Day Four
The Captain has decided to move the boat down toward the Guatemala border and work some of the rivers there. This will be about a three hour trip.This morning two boats went about five miles up the Rio Grande. This was a very wide and beautiful river however after a quarter mile upriver beyond the mangroves all orchid spottings ceased; except for one tree that our boat found that supported a large orchid colony that included a large Sobralia decora in full bloom, Epidendrum paniculatum & nocturnum, a Maxillaria, and an Oncidium. This particular Sobralia had beautiful pale, almost white flowers, with a lavender and yellow lip and was growing epiphytically on a limb of the tree that reached out over the river. On this particular river you knew you were in the the jungle. At one point we stopped to observe some beautiful black birds with yellow tails and the sounds were jungle sounds - it was exhilarating. We are nearing Guatemala now. 


We have been growing this concolor lavender Sobralia decora for about 15 years. It flowers reliably through- out the summer. The flowers last only a day.


 


After Lunch 
We went up the Sarstoon River which separates Belize from Guatemala. The river was wide and navigable and had a fairly large island at the mouth and we chose the north side for our upriver journey. As with other rivers the orchids ended abruptly at a certain point. Up to that point our big discovery was a tree that featured four or five different maxillarias including alba, Max. variabilis and Max. ringens. On the way back to the boat we went up a smaller stream that reportedly led to a lake. We must have taken a wrong turn because we never found the lake. We did find a beautiful grotto at the edge of a low, rocky but forested, mountain. The water was deeper than a fifteen foot boat pole. As we were leaving a native and his son paddled by in a canoe. We struck a conversation with Mario Flores Fontin and he told us that a path up the mountain led to his home and that the crest was level and open. He also mentioned a large green orchid that could be found there and showed us the size by making a doughnut with his hands. We gave him and his son drinks and arrangements were made to return the following afternoon at which time the young boy would guide us up the mountain and show us the orchids. One could only imagine what this “large green orchid” could be…Cycnoches, Rhyncolaelia digbyana


There were numerous shacks and shanties along the Sarstoon River. 
At this outpost, a curious group of children watched us motor upstream.



Day Five 3AM
We are under sail northward. The Captain feels the seas are too rough and he will not be able to launch the boats. We will only be able to guess what Mario’s large green orchid is. 

 

 

Despite having a GPS device, there was always that flush of anxiety as the chopper left us up country. Would he really be able to find us?

 

 



Day Five 8AM
This morning a team headed about thirty miles west in the helicopter to search for a landing spot in the mountains. It was amazing to see extremely isolated plots of land planted with corn and having only a thatch hut nestled in the mountains. You can read about the destruction of the rainforest but when you see the rugged terrain and dense forests of central Belize you can realize that these orchids and forests are safe for a long time to come. We finally found an abandoned farm along side a cascading mountain stream that the helicopter could set down in. Our estimated elevation was 1500 meters. In one fell swoop we raised our level of orchid sightings. We were able to observe Gongora unicolor, Brassia caudata and Lycaste cochleata growing in their natural habitat as well as Encyclia cochleata and assorted Pleurothallids and Maxillarias. I was surprised to see the low level of light that these orchids were growing under, considerably lower than we culture them at home.


Upstream, rapids make rivers impossible to navigate so our only access would
be by helicopter. It was amazing to see people living in such remote areas. 
In the lower right corner of this photo is a clearing with a thatch hut and 
field of maize.



Day Six
This morning three of us went up the Rio Grande and stopped at an old ferry landing. We worked our way along a road to where we arrived at an orange orchard and turned back. The only orchids we were able to see were all on one tree close to the river which had several huge Oncidium Sphacelatum and Isochilus linearis. The Isocilus is a beautiful plant on its own but is even more attractive in the fall when the apex of the new growths push forth brilliant fuchsia flowers.The afternoon was way too hot to go out in the boats. 

Day Seven 
Two people went back to the Rio Grande and saw Oncidium sphacelatum, Encyclia cochleata and an unidentified orchid with plicate leaves and ridged pseudobulbs which we later determined to be Coryanthes speciosa, the nest of ants in the root ball was a strong clue. The Captain took us out to a previous location where we were able to photograph Encyclia bractescens and alata, Isochilus linearis, Maxillaria tenuifolia and of course, Schomburgkia tibicinis and Brassavola nodosa. The afternoon was way too hot to go out in the boats. Tomorrow we hope to get back to the mountains. 

Day Eight
This morning a few of us took off in the helicopter for the archaeological sight Lubaantun. The precision of the Mayan architecture is incredible. Oddly enough there was a guide at this isolated sight and he was able to enrich our experience. There also were many Catasetum integerrimum growing on and around the ruins. He also sold us some reproduction artifacts he had made. In the afternoon we set sail for the reef for a couple days of fishing.



Day Nine
Fishing was mediocre at the reef yielding only a few yellowtail and a grouper plus the seas were quite choppy making handling the skiffs difficult. We have set sail for a return to the coast where we will continue visiting the rivers. 

Settling in at Sapodilla Lagoon we are more or less limited to explore only two rivers however the location is sheltered from the prevailing wind off the ocean. 

In the afternoon three of us went up in the chopper and the pilot was able to set us down in an old orange grove that bordered a beautiful river, the upper reaches of the Sittee. From the air we could see rock ledges bordering the river and it appeared to be a prime orchid location. It was a steep descent from the grove to the river and the undergrowth was thick but we forged ahead hoping to get a look at Cattleya bowringiana growing in the wild. The river was extremely beautiful but we were disappointed to find no orchids whatsoever on the river edge or the surrounding forest. We did see bass in the river and wished we had some fishing tackle. We made our way back up to the orange grove and discovered that the orange trees were loaded with Ionopsis utriculoides (photo at right).

Day Ten
This morning two members set out in the helicopter for St. Ignacio to rendezvous with an old friend of in the hopes of locating some Cattleya bowringiana and any other showy species in the Mountain Pine Ridge area. The others went fishing with but other than a jack and barracuda there was not much activity. At lunch the decision was made to continue our journey north as we get ever closer to Belize City and the end of this extraordinary adventure.


Day Eleven
Yesterday’s rendezvous at St. Ignacio turned out to be a friendly reunion but a disaster as far as orchids. The old friend had injured his thumb that morning and the better part of the day was spent at the hospital. So today we did a little fishing this morning with the intent of sending a team back up to Mountain Pine Ridge in the afternoon. The weather was beautiful and promised a bounty of fish. Unfortunately the fishing has been very poor this trip and all I caught was a barracuda despite working hard at finding something better. Three people left for the mountains around two in the afternoon and after a long search for a landing spot finally set down on a large rock in a river. What awaited them was a bounty of Cattleya bowringiana just finishing blooming as well as  Encyclia belizensis plus a beautiful Sobralia macrantha. Seeing these last orchids put the finishing touch on what has been an incredible adventure. We have seen about thirty five different species growing in their natural habitats. Click here to see the list.

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