After three days in the rainforest at La Milpa, we packed up the van and headed for Hillbank Field Station. Roads are few and far between here, and the “short cut road” was too sandy for a car to pass through, so we took the round about way to Hillbank, which was about three hours down a bumpy road through Mennonite farmland. Hillbank was about as different from La Milpa as it could possibly be and still be contained within the same reserve. Instead of the dense, humid jungle, we found a dry, dusty field, freshwater mangrove forests along a creek, a savannah, and a huge lagoon (glorified term for a lake, I found out, to much disappointment). Hillbank was still almost as nerve wracking as La Milpa though. Immediately after lunch on the first day, we grabbed our bathing suits and some old tire tubes and headed to the creek to raft down the mangroves. It was indescribably beautiful, and the only comparable experience would be taking the lazy river in a water park, and surrounding it by a canopy of mangrove trees with their roots cascading downwards into the water in all directions. In the shallow creek we found snail shells, crab shells, small fish and luckily no crocodiles.
Hillbank Field Station
For those unfamiliar with mangroves, they consist of several species of tree that grow mainly in tropical locations alongside sources of water. Typically they are found in salt water on the edge of the beach, but there are also fresh water adapted mangroves. They are absolutely critical to ecosystems and for this reason are known as a keystone species, meaning that they are important for the survival of other organisms in the same habitat. For example, they provide a space for birds to nest in their trees, fish lay their eggs in the natural “nurseries” that protect young fish from large predators, crustaceans feed off of the nutrients and detritus surrounding them. They also protect beaches from sand erosion by creating roots anchored into the soil, and they act as a buffer between the ocean and the mainland during hurricanes. Basically, tropical coastal and aquatic ecosystems can’t sustain themselves without mangrove trees. More on mangroves later!
If rafting wasn’t enough excitement, the group went searching for crocodiles in the big boat in the lagoon at night. Our guide, Marcos, who accompanied Melvis, shined a huge spotlight across the lagoon, scanning for crocodile eyes. Whenever we saw a tiny red reflection in the water, we knew a croc was hiding just below the surface. We boated around from croc to croc trying to catch glimpses of these stealthy creatures. In the end we probably found about 20+ sets of eyes, and got close up views of about five crocodiles! I really thought one was going to jump onto the boat and join us, but luckily we averted yet another crisis.
Rafting down the mangrove creek towards the crocs
The second day we got up early to go birding, which became customary before our field work. After another early start, we loaded up the boat to travel down the lagoon to another Mayan ruin site called Lamanai. There were some gigantic, towering temples, that must have taken years to build. Melvis loves archeology, and was beyond thrilled to tell the story of the Mayans at Lamanai in great detail to us. It was interesting to see thousands of years of history unveiled, but it was also fairly boring after a crocodile hunt. The best part came in the last minute when we were packing up to leave and found a family of howler monkeys above our heads. It was obvious that we were all science teachers and instead of social studies teachers because all of a sudden it was as if we woke up from a nap. We jumped up, cameras in hand, and started climbing the Mayan temple to get a closer look at the tiniest baby monkey. Thank goodness none of us have to teach ancient civilizations.