We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this magestic, mighty and possibly magical tree.
This stately example of a ceiba tree greets visitors to the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.
A mature ceiba tree.
A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.
All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.
The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.
The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.
A young ceiba tree--it loses these spikes as it matures.
These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.
Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.
Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.
Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree.
Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200' or more.
This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.
The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestial realm in which we live and the underworld (Xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.
A small observation platform suspended 100' up a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp lodge (operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions) provides one of the best bird watching and rainforest observation points in all of Belize.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.
This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica's Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.
A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.
A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.
Cotton Tree Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize borrows another common name for the ceiba which produces pods that are full of a cotton-like fluff.