I cannot BELIZE it!!! As highly requested on my Instagram story survey a few weeks ago, many of y’all wanted to hear my experiences studying abroad. I have been lucky enough to study abroad in 3 different cities in 3 different countries: Sansepolcro, Italy (a small town in Tuscany), London, England, United Kingdom, and San Ignacio, Belize (a town in the rainforest region of Belize). Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing my experiences studying abroad in each country, along with some advice that is specific to each place. It is important to note that each of these study abroad programs were done through my school – Meredith College. Today, I will be sharing my study abroad experiences in the town of San Ignacio, Belize located in the rainforest region of Cayo not far from Guatemala.
My Home: The Cahal Pech Resort
When thinking about a study abroad experience, you may be thinking that a resort will provide anything but an authentic Belizean experience. On the contrary, I found my experience staying at the Canal Pech Resort to be exactly the opposite. The Canal Pech Resort is located on a hilltop right by the town of San Ignacio. It is conveniently less than a half a mile away from one of Belize’s notable Mayan ruins sites known as Cahal Pech. The major reason why my group and I stayed there was due to safety, since Belize is still a developing nation. Personally, I found my experiences staying at the Canal Pech Resort to be extremely rewarding to the entirety of my study abroad experience.
The Canal Pech Resort’s staff is mostly filled with people who are local to the country of Belize. Everyone in my group and I truly got to know and bond with the resort’s staff over the course of our three weeks staying there. I found this to be an extremely special part of my study abroad experience, as it made it so intimate and ten thousand times more meaningful than simply staying at a resort.
Each night, my group and I would have dinner at the resort, where we got to know the staff and talk about our days and/or excursions/trips. The same went for our times before and after dinner at two of the resort’s pools to cool down. My professor Dr. Roberts who came with us truly took on a mom role for us all while we were studying abroad. She has taken students to study abroad in Belize on multiple occasions, so it was real special to get to know her as well as some of my classmates. One of my favorite parts about going to the pool was getting to see and know a bunch of local’s as well as tourists in the area. The Canal Pech Resort’s pools were open to locals who had a pass to come in along with guests. I have ALWAYS been one to love to get to know others, and to be able to do it on a global front was such a cool and rewarding experience.
The Benefit of San Ignacio
When most people picture Belize, they picture beaches for never-ending miles. Besides, its beaches, Belize has a TON to offer. San Ignacio is located at anywhere but the beaches in the rural rainforest region of Cayo. Cayo’s location also borders Guatemala, which I could see a few times on some of my excursions. Staying in San Ignacio allowed me to truly learn more about the authenticity of Belizean life and culture beyond its beaches.
The Canal Pech Resort is located on a hilltop overlooking the town of San Ignacio. The resort’s convenient location to the downtown meant that there was a ton to do outside of it. On many occasions, my group and I would check out the local restaurants to get milkshakes or chicken and rice (a Belizean delicacy). Unlike many United States cities and towns, San Ignacio’s downtown was super bright and vibrant with so many colors painted on buildings and walls. San Ignacio definitely made for a sweet second home while in Belize!
Courses I Took
One of the most important things about studying abroad is that you are there to STUDY. Meredith’s Office of International Programs staff member Liz ALWAYS emphasizes how study abroad is NOT a trip or vacation as you are there to study. Liz’s emphasis on study abroad as a time to study and learn and grow as an individual in a brand-new culture is extremely important to myself as well. Study abroad is a time for nothing other than self growth while having an educational experience in a brand-new country and culture. Personally, I find this very important to remember. While study abroad is exciting and may feel like a trip/vacation, it is anything BUT that.
I took two courses in Belize with the first of the two being my Belizean Service and Life & Culture course. In this course, my group and I volunteer at a local school in San Ignacio. While there, we read books to the children and simply hang out with them. My professor Dr. Roberts has had ties with this school for a number of years now and it has become a special part of her and her family’s (who she takes with her on her study abroad adventures) lives too. Dr. Roberts’ openness of how extraordinary the school is that we volunteer at and its community truly made me feel at home and welcome there too. The school that we volunteered at definitely became a vital part of my experience and outlook in life as well – it’s the pure joy that brings the most to us all in the long run! If I had not volunteered at that local school, then I never would have learned how valuable some of the simplest things are in life.
The second of those two courses was my independent research project. I collaborated with three different Meredith professors including Dr. Roberts to conduct a qualitative research study on special education in the region of Cayo. While conducting research, I interviewed seven different teachers at three different schools in San Ignacio and the nearby town of Santa Elena. Through doing my independent research, I learned two things: one that Belize unfortunately does not have nearly as many special education resources as the United States which most definitely needs to change and two that conducting special education research was not my true life’s calling for my career. Although I really enjoyed making a positive impact on teachers in Belize, I knew that I did not want to do it forever like I had considered using my Math major for beforehand. Moreover, I realized that my true passions are in data, fashion, and marketing. Getting to conduct independent research in Belize that made an impact on others was such a rewarding experience for myself, and I know that I would LOVE to do something else with data analytics that helps others in the future. My independent research made me realize that I have a passion for speaking up for and helping others – something that I strive to do each and everyday.
Life in San Ignacio
Life in San Ignacio varied each day, however, on most days it remained somewhat consistent. On a day-to-day basis, my group and I would have breakfast at the resort which was an AMAZING Belizean style breakfast, go to the school to volunteer, have lunch typically in the town of San Ignacio, and then go back to the resort to do the remainder of our coursework. After a full day of coursework, we would spend our evenings at the pool before having a group dinner. If it was not an ordinary day in San Ignacio, then my group and I were probably on one of our many excursions in Belize which were some of my favorite parts of my experience!
While studying abroad in Belize, I was very fortunate to be able to explore many parts of this tiny yet extraordinary country! In the three weeks that I was there, I went to the Canal Pech Mayan Ruins Site, the Lamanai Mayan Ruins Site, the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins Site, the Belize Iguana Project, the Barton Creek Cave, and a Butterfly Sanctuary. Each of these excursions were super cool yet unique in their own way. In fact, I truly gained a passion for touring Mayan Ruin Sites while in Belize, and I cannot wait to tour many more across Central America once it’s safe to do so!
The Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins Site is located less than a mile from the Canal Pech Resort that I stayed at. It was even walking distance from there! Cahal Pech was my first-ever Mayan Ruins Site that I had ever been to, and it was a really awesome experience! There, my group and I had climbed several of the temples (which is allowed for tourists to do!) and explored all that the site has to offer. In fact, Cahal Pech is a site that is known to have great significance in Mayan history which made it even more of an awesome experience to be able to visit it!
Lamanai was by far my favorite of the Mayan Ruins Sites that I visited! Upon arrival, my group and I had to board a motor boat that was about an hour long ride away to the actual site. Since it is SO hot and humid in Belize, causing on a motor boat was one of the best feelings in the world. Not to mention, I LOVE riding on boats in general, so it was definitely a highlight of the experience for me. Fortunately for us all, we had arrived before many of the tourists did which meant that we got to explore Lamanai without many others there. Before leaving, our tour guide and his super sweet mother had prepared us a lunch of Belizean chicken and rice which was AMAZING! The lunch was definitely the icing on an extraordinary cake called my experience at the Lamanai Mayan Ruins site!
The final of the three Mayan Ruins sites that we visited was Xunantunich. When Belize was a British territory, Queen Elizabeth went to visit Xunantunich and more recently Prince Harry had visited it. As a British Royals fanatic, I got really excited about visiting Xunantunich just knowing that some of my favorite British Royals had also been there too! Xunantunich is home to the second-largest Mayan temple in Belize, which we got to climb while there. I had been nervous about climbing to the top of a temple, but decided to simply go for it, and it was SO WORTH IT!!! Most definitely a rewarding experience overlooking the hill country off Belize and Guatemala – that actually looks a bit like the Tuscany hill country!
As an animal lover, I most definitely HAD to visit both the Belize Iguana Project and a nearby Butterfly Garden! The Belize Iguana Project is actually located right by the Cahal Pech Resort just like the Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins site. During my time at the Belize Iguana Project, I got to hold and play with several iguanas. Before going, I was literally TERRIFIED of reptiles, so this was a huge breakthrough for me. At the same time, the Butterfly Garden allowed me and my group to learn about and see butterflies that are native to Belize. Although there sadly were not that many butterflies out and about, it was still a super cool time. Being the animal lover that I am, getting to visit two animal sanctuaries was a highlight for me!
Unlike Cahal Pech, Lamanai, and Xunantunich, the Barton Creek Cave is a Mayan Ruins Site that is in the form of a cave. Knowing this, the Barton Creek Cave was used as place to make sacrifices in the Mayan culture over the years. My tour guide was a Belizean local who emphasized the value of the Mayan life and culture, which is still existent to this day. Unfortunately, the Mayan people are a small minority in Belize today; Belize is in fact a melting pot of ethnicities and races. That being said, while their culture still persists as it has for centuries, the Mayan people are under-looked in their own society. Through visiting the Barton Creek Cave, it almost felt magical on the outside while in the inside it taught me about a really special culture still alive today in our beautiful world.
Most Meredith College study abroad programs allow for independent travel breaks. On these independent travel breaks, students can travel to different cities and even countries (depending on the program) on their own. Personally, I saw independent travel breaks as a way for me to become more strong and independent as I navigate a brand-new place. While in San Ignacio, I got to visit Caye Caulker and the Belize Zoo on my first travel break and Placencia on my second travel break. While I will not get into my travel breaks very much in this post (I feel that they are each better served in their own post as I have SO much to say about each), I will say that each of these experiences was extremely neat, fun, and rewarding!
Having the ability to study abroad in Belize on such a unique program that allowed me to serve others while exploring a brand-new country and culture was a remarkably rewarding, eye-opening experience. While I am extremely lucky that I have been able to even go to Belize, I know that so many have not and may never even get to. That being said, I want to utilize my study abroad experiences in Belize and beyond to share with and empower others to go out and see the world while also learning about it. Wherever this world may take us, being able to learn about the various cultures and history that different places have to offer is extremely valuable. Not only does getting to travel somewhere brand-new help us to expand our minds, but it also helps us to grow into the strong and independent people that we are meant to be.