The From Ridges to Reef in Belize Program offers students a once-in-a-lifetime experience where students will have the opportunity to live on one of Belize’s most pristine offshore cayes; have access to an archaeological cave system; explore the Sibun river; and form lasting friendships with the people they meet on their adventure. Students will explore special places where only few travelers go, such as the Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred Mayan sacrificial site, and the infamous Blue Hole that Jacques-Yves Cousteau made famous in 1972. Students will have the opportunity to snorkel the protected reefs within the Blue Hole and those surrounding Half Moon Caye National Monument; go sea kayaking and snorkeling around the offshore caye; and engage in community service projects.
Environmental Science and Policy (EVPP) 490: Special Topics in Environmental Science and Policy
Integrative Studies (INTS) 399: Study Abroad
This program is open to all undergraduate and graduate students including students who do not attend George Mason University.
Dormitory-style housing in field stations; some camping in tents, jungle lodges, and inns.
Program Cost (Winter 2018): $4870
Tuition (3 credits)
Park fees and archaeological access permits
Almost all meals
Group excursions and activities, including transportation
International Emergency Insurance
Snorkeling equipment (mask, fins, snorkel)
Arrive at the Belize International Airport and transfer overland, heading west to the Cayo District. In the evening we sit down to enjoy our Welcome Dinner and afterwards our guide provides a short trip orientation meeting and an introductory talk on Belize.
This morning we drive to San Ignacio Town. We head uphill to enjoy the vistas overlooking the San Ignacio Valley from the ruins of Cahal Pech. We spend the morning exploring the two acres of 3000 year old Maya ruins, including temples, royal residences, and artifacts. From here we will head down to San Ignacio market and have lunch. In the afternoon we head to the ancient ruins of Xunantunich located on the banks of the Mopan River. After exploring and learning about the temples, plazas, and ball courts of this ancient city we drive to Chaa Creek.
This is our day to enjoy everything Chaa Creek has to offer. We will explore the Butterfly Farm, the Natural History Centre, and hike the various trails meandering throughout the property. In the afternoon, students experience the Riparian habitat as we tube and/or canoe sections of the Macal River.
We pack, load our van, and after an early breakfast, we head overland towards the Hidden Valley escarpment. When the roads end, we hike along an established trail through the rainforest, fording Roaring Creek, to the archaeological caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher). Following an underground river we climb into a massive crystalline chamber, which was once believed to be a major ceremonial center for the ancient Maya. Within the chamber there are over 80 Mayan pots, stone tools, and the skeletons of what were believed to be sacrificial victims. We then swim and hike back out the way we came to our waiting vehicle and continue east to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) and Belize Zoo.
After an early breakfast we drive 45 minutes east to the coast and connect with our water taxi that takes us to the outer edge of the Belize Reef system. We travel through a seascape of small coral cayes and mangrove ranges before reaching the Belize Barrier Reef, crossing the reef at one of the numerous ‘cuts’. A stop at Turneffe Atoll with a huge mangrove lined inner lagoon is possible, and then on to Lighthouse Reef, the most remote and pristine of Belize’s coral atolls located 55 miles offshore of the Belize mainland. Our marine Basecamp is located within the protected Half Moon Caye Marine Reserve, perched on a beautiful white sand beach overlooking the eastern reef wall, in the midst of what is considered one of the richest coral reef habitats in the entire Caribbean.
After breakfast we begin a thorough kayak orientation. We will begin with familiarizing ourselves with the equipment, boats, rudders, foot pegs, spray skirts and paddles, bailers/pumps, and then move into wet exits. Each participant will perform a wet exit supervised by one of the guides. After the wet exits we break before moving into kayak strokes, techniques, and group travel on the water. For this section we’ll organize the group into boats and get on the water for a couple of hours of paddling primarily within the protected waters close to the reef crest on the eastern wall of the atoll. After lunch we do an introduction to snorkelling which includes checking students’ gear and instruction on the proper use and care of the gear, along with demonstration of snorkelling techniques and safety in the water. Then we head out to a nearby reef for our first snorkel.
We will spend the remainder of our days out on the reef exploring Half Moon Caye and the surrounding marine environment. Lighthouse Reef is a remote 45 acre island with stands of coconut palm and littoral hardwood forest. The island is also home to a profusion of wildlife, including a 4,000 strong red-footed booby colony. Because of its biological diversity Half Moon Caye was first protected in 1928 and has the distinction as the first protected marine area in the entire Caribbean. We have over 50 square miles of pristine coral reefs and remote islands as our natural classroom, using sea kayaks and motorboats to access our study locations that are found in different areas around the atoll. We are active each day exploring a wide range of marine habitats including patch reefs, rubble zones, and sea grass beds within the sheltered lagoon - we will also access the reef crest and deeper waters of the fore reef on the seaward side of the atoll. Highlights include learning about and interacting with the Garifuna and Creole people of Belize who live on the cayes of Belize, snorkelling the famous Blue Hole (an underwater cave filled with marine life), paddling a shipwreck that looms just north of the caye, and exploration of the mangrove range and protected waters of Southern Long Caye.
This is the day we make our way by boat charter back to the mainland. On the way back from Lighthouse Atoll we have the potential to stop at Turneffe, Blackbird Caye and visit the Oceanic Research station.
Drop off at the airport for return to the US.
*Instructor reserves the right to modify the course schedule as needed
** Indicates rolling admission application process. Applicants will be immediately notified of acceptance into this program and be able to complete post-decision materials prior to the term's application deadline.