Day One: Flying into Belize
After an overnight flight to Miami and a two hour flight to Belize City, we were more than ready to get off of the airplane. As we headed through customs the agent told me that I had to have a street number for where I was going and couldn’t pass through without it. Apparently the agent didn’t know San Ignacio very well. With the help of the airport folks, I got on the WiFi and managed to call our AirBnB host who, thankfully, picked up. I explained the predicament to her and she laughed and told me that there was no street number for the house. Then she told me to put down “8,” because, as she said, “that’s as good a number as any.” Laughing as I got off the phone with her, we walked back to the customs agent who then demanded a phone number for the person who lived at this address. Luckily I had it since I had just called her and she let Aaron and i into Belize, giving us the first stamps on our new passports.
Once we were through customs we knew that we would need a taxi cab to get into Belize City to the bus station, there was a cab union that was waiting and ready to help us and soon we were en route. Aaron asked our cab driver what all of the “Vote Yes” signs that we were seeing meant. The driver told us that there was a territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize and that they were voting on whether or not to send the decision to the ICJ. He said he was in favor of sending the vote to the ICJ because he felt that Belize has a strong argument in their favor, wanted to remain independent, and he really wanted the debate to be decided once and for all.
He left us at the bus station where we waited for the next bus to come in. I had done my research, so I knew that we were waiting for a bus with a final stop of “Benque” which would stop in San Ignacio after approximately two and a half hours. We would pay the guy on the bus, USD and BZD were accepted, and the busses arrived every half an house or so. We were lucky and only had to wait about ten minutes before one of the big yellow buses that I rode to school in Minnesota pulled into the station with a sign in front saying Benque.
I had read that it often could be a struggle to get on the bus because there were no rules, no lines, and everyone else wanted to get on too. Luckily for us it wasn’t rush hour and we were able to secure a seat up front. Bags squished in our laps, knees shoved into the back of the seat in front of us, we waited as everyone else boarded the bus. Then the bus pulled out of the station and we were off. The bus was so cozy warm that Aaron and I both alternated falling asleep despite the cramped conditions.
Finally the bus dropped us off in San Ignacio where we shouldered our bags and started walking to our AirBnB. It was clearly further from downtown than I had expected and we were definitely not staying where the rest of the tourists stayed, as evidenced by a traffic monitor who asked us twice if we were sure that we were headed the correct way. Belize is a majority latino/mestizo country with a strong influence from the Caribbean. They have a minority Creole population, many Belizeans we spoke to were bilingual English/Spanish (which of course might be a feature of being in the tourism industry, and not a reflection of the country as a whole). In any case, I was pinpointed immediately as a tourist wherever we went due to my light skin and hair.
Finally making it to our AirBnB, we checked in with our host. I had used the directions she provided to get us within the vicinity and then had double checked that the place we were standing in front of had the correct name for its WiFi. Once she had given us the keys to our place and shown us around, we headed back out in search of dinner and ended up at a nearby restaurant with decent food.
We stopped by a grocery store to get snacks for the next day and then retired early to give ourselves the opportunity to take a break and get some sleep.
Day Two: Caracol and Cahal Pech Ruins
The car rental place that Aaron had booked with opened at 7:00am so we woke up early and made the twenty minute trek downtown, arriving at exactly 7:00am. The owner lived across the way and came out to greet us and then opened up the office for us. He signed away the car and told us to have a good day and to call him if we needed anything. Then he walked us out to a somewhat beat up Jeep Liberty and sent us on our way.
Driving to Caracol requires two and a half hours driving south, most of which is off road on a very bumpy dirt road. Around the hour and forty five minute mark, you enter and old military base which is only partially active. Twice a day tourists and tour guides can receive a guided escort from the base the final forty-five minutes of driving to Caracol. One escort in the morning around 9:00am, the other going the reverse direction at about 2:00pm. Part of the reason we were leaving so early was so that we wouldn’t miss the caravan.
Driving down the bumpy road we were unimpressed by the squeaking and rattling of the Jeep but we nonetheless continued our trek onwards. About halfway to Caracol we passed by Rio Frio, a fantastic waterfall and river pool formation. I insisted that we jump out of the car to go look. Walking down to the parking area (the road was way too torn up by erosion for me to want to drive down) we enjoyed the vista overlooking the waterfall.
Finished with Rio Frio, we hopped back in the car and continued driving towards Caracol. It began to rain at some point during this time and the road began getting a little muddy. The car had four wheel drive so we weren’t super worried but there were some hills that Aaron was worried about coming back up. At 8:53 we rolled into the old military base where we were greeted by barking dogs and a soldier eating his breakfast. Clearly we were the first to arrive. He had Aaron put down his name on the clipboard and then conveyed to us that the caravan wouldn’t be going out for another 40 minutes, if it went out at all. They didn’t have a vehicle to do the convoy in. So then he sat back, thought for a second, as if debating with himself, and then he leaned on the car window and he said, “It’s straight down this road, you don’t stop for nobody, okay? You’ll be okay, and once you get there, there will be people and other soldiers, but until then, you don’t stop for no one.”
They’ve had trouble with Guatemalans conducting robberies on tourists heading to Caracol (we think). They started doing the caravans to protect the tourists, it was quite unfortunate, then, that we were there on a day that they wouldn’t be doing a caravan. With his ominous advice we continued on our way, promising that we wouldn’t stop for nobody.
From there the road became measurably worse, after a few particularly bumpy sections, the car started making a a very concerning rattling noise in the front. It was accompanied by a sort of rattle where it felt like something was stretching, almost to the point where it would snap, but it didn’t and then the noise would repeat. At this point we were very concerned and Aaron slowed to a crawl trying to figure out what was going on. While we were driving a white truck appeared behind us. Unsure if it was tourists or muggers we were a little on edge. Tourists we didn’t expect to catch up to us so quickly because we didn’t really expect them to be familiar with driving off-road and this wasn’t an easy dirt road to drive down. Eventually our slow speed meant that the white truck fully caught up to us and Aaron was able to distinguish that tourists were driving the truck and slowed to let them pass while we continued to baby the squealing Jeep.
Finally we saw the entrance to Caracol in front of us and both of us breathed a sigh of relief as we rolled through the gate and found a parking spot. We hopped out of the Jeep and Aaron fiddled with the front left tire, hearing a hissing noise.
Eventually he found a rock that had punctured the tire. With an air of having dealt with this a million times, Aaron pulled out the jack and the other tools needed to change the tire and then started jacking up the car. Then he realized that the jack was too short. Aaron undid the jack, pulled it out, rolled the car back onto a different section of the parking lot and then tried again. It still didn’t fit. At this point we wandered over to the soldiers who were watching us underneath the covered seating area and asked if they had a different jack. Four of them walked back to the car with Aaron, I went to use the restroom and then hung out with the soldier who stayed behind and asked him about what life was like guarding the ruins. As he told me about the two week shifts he worked there and silently expressed his boredom with sitting around the ruins all day, we heard lots of chatter from Aaron and the soldiers as they used wood to create a solid surface for the jack to rest on and add height, and then jacked up the car. The soldier asked me if we had seen any jaguars or tapirs since they are occasionally seen on the drive in. Loud banging followed as the soldiers and Aaron whacked the tire off (it was the wrong kind of wheel for the car and the thing had swollen in the heat, and ask Aaron for more specifics)[Aaron has requested that I point out that the loud banging came from swinging a tree trunk at the rim to get it off]. The solider and I sat silently contemplating the other tourists who had just sat down with their guide to eat a snack at the other end of the covered seating area. Eventually all of the soldiers dispersed and I returned to the car to find Aaron tightening the last bolts on the new tire. Once he had finished and we put everything away, I went and paid the entrance fee for the ruins. Finally we began our short hike into the ruins.
Upon entering Caracol, the first ruin you see is the Sky Palace (Caana). It’s the tallest Mayan Ruin in Belize and it’s fully excavated. With the thick rainforest around it, it was hidden from view until we rounded the corner and then the whole pyramid rose above us. We were both floored by it and immediately climbed to the top.
After exploring Caana, we walked through to see the rest of the ruins in the area.
Thoroughly impressed by Caracol, despite the unimpressive views due to the rain, we returned to the parking lot and bid our soldier friends goodbye. We hopped back in the car and slowly drove away from Caracol. We re-traced our steps and breathed a sigh of relief as we passed the military base, once again signing the paper to check out, we drove over the many bridges that we had crossed on the way in and I searched frantically for animals thinking that today might be my lucky day (it wasn’t). Finally we found ourselves back at Matus car rental where we let the person who took our keys know that we had changed the tire and that there was lots of rattles that we didn’t know about. The owners all asked us how we enjoyed Caracol and wished us a good day.
With some daylight left we decided to explore downtown San Ignacio. I wanted to visit the little market and get my Belize keychain, we both wanted food, I wanted to stop by the tour office where we were going on a tour the next day.
We successfully found my keychain and enjoyed the market, then we went to the tour office where asked us if it would be okay if we were on the eleven o’clock tour rather than the 7:00am tour. We told them we’d gladly sleep in and we’d see them at eleven. We then headed up the hill in search of dinner, which we found at a hotel restaurant with unfinished construction up top. It clearly looked like the owner had started a huge renovation project and then run out of money.
After dinner we had just enough daylight that I told Aaron I thought we could make it to Cahal Pech if we tried. Aaron was up for the challenge and we walked to half mile to Cahal Pech (the last quarter mile being straight uphill). At the top of the hill we found an all-inclusive resort attached to the Cahal Pech ruins. Despite the obvious tourist vibe attached to the ruins, we walked in and found ourselves climbing on top of the small pyramids and walking through the tunnels and doorways that connected them.
As the darkness truly began to set in, we walked out of Cahal Pech and back to our AirBnB and our beds.
Day Three: ATM Tour
I should probably note that neither MayaWalk Tours nor Merrill Shoes asked me to write this blog, nor did I gain any sort of compensation from writing it. That being said, I nonetheless highly recommend Merrill water-trekking shoes and MayaWalk Tours for those of you thinking about visiting the Actun Tunichil Mikdul cave.
Glad to have the opportunity to sleep in, we both took advantage of the extra hours of sleep. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed (before 9am so it wasn’t really that late), we ate a quick breakfast and washed our clothes, hanging them to dry before we left. We made the twenty minute trek downtown and arrived at MayaWalk with far too much time to spare so we checked in and then let them know that we were going to grab a bite to eat next door (we were concerned that they wouldn’t give us food until after the hike since we were now on the afternoon tour). We had gotten rained on for the whole walk downtown so I was glad to be able to sit and pull my jacket off and let it dry. Fully fed, we returned to MayaWalk and waited for the rest of the tourists to arrive to start our ATM Tour. Finally, everyone was present and ready and we were loaded up into a small bus and a large van and driven an hour away to the beginning of the hike. There, we were sat at lunch tables and fed the standard Belizean dish of rice and beans, chicken, and fried plantains. Having consumed our third meal of the day, Aaron and I were quite full and ready to begin the hike. Having eaten quickly, our table was claimed by the guide named Carlos who noticed we were ready and was eager to get started. We were eager to get started too so it was a good match and in no time we were outfitted with spelunking helmets equipped with headlamps and life jackets. The tour begins with a 45 minute flat-ish hike through the jungle, during which we also got rained on. As we left the camp area we passed a sign stating that all tourists must be accompanied by a guide past that point, that all guides must not exceed the ratio of 1 guide per 8 tourists, absolutely no electronics allowed past this point, and some other standard mind the trail, pack our trash, etc. (Because of this, none of the upcoming photos were taken by me). The hike begins with a swim across a deep river and there were many exclamations as we entered the cold water and pulled ourselves across the river using the provided rope. Emerging on the other side, we climbed back out and followed our guide. Along the walk we crossed the river twice more and Carlos regaled us with the history of Belize, the history of the Mayans, and the importance of these cave systems to the Mayans. He also answered our many questions, including my prodding about the territorial dispute. Carlos had introduced himself as Guatemalan by birth and Belizean at heart so I was curious about his stance on the issue. By means of a much longer conversation than we had had with our taxi driver, Carlos walked us through the history of the claims on the territory right up through to the vote to send the dispute to the ICJ. When I asked how the vote went, he told me that it had already passed so the dispute would be taken to the ICJ but that he had been against sending it to the ICJ. I waited in silence hoping he’d go on so I could hear the argument against going to the ICJ. Carlos happily continued and stopped the whole group around a sandy patch in the ground. He broke off a skinny tree limb and used it to draw the outline of Belize in the ground. Then he drew a line that was the river we were walking next to that divided Belize into a northern portion and southern portion. He then explained that he was against going to the ICJ because Guatemala had nothing to lose, but the Belizeans could potentially lose the entire southern portion that he had drawn in the sand for us. He said that while the Guatemalans framed the issue as a historical territorial dispute, if they were granted the land, they would also regain a huge stretch of coastline on the eastern side of the continent which currently they only owned a smaller sliver of. This would also give them access to that ocean space and open up more opportunities for trade and (I presume) fishing. With that history lesson done we continued our walk. Despite being the first group out we were almost the last group to actually arrive at the cave itself, though I was impatient at the rate we were traveling, I realized later that Carlos may have been doing that on purpose and that it was a genius move.
Finally we arrived at the end of the trail after many more questions (what are the growths on the trees? Termites. Ooh look leaf cutter ants!? Yes, and there’s another type of ant inside their nest that cleans each leaf they bring.). They had set up some picnic tables and what looked like a water tower. Here we took a seat for a breather and left our water bottles and my backpack in the covered area. Carlos explained to us that for the Mayans, a lot of the spiritual practices were attached to the caves. They would get drunk and high on drugs and then come into the caves to speak to the gods. Carlos postulated that the spiritual leader would go in with full knowledge that it was just a cave but would use light tricks and rely on the drugs to convince the other Mayans that the gods lived there. He promised he’d show us some of these tricks once we got into the cave. We continued on with only our life jackets, Carlos carried the only bag.
Getting to the cave required climbing down to a small pool that was a beautiful aquamarine blue and then swimming under the hanging vines into the cave. One woman in our group of eight couldn’t swim so Carlos had her lie back into her life jacket and he tugged her into the cave. Once we were all congregated on a rock just inside the cave, Carlos turned each of our headlamps on so that we’d be able to see and told us that now we’d be walking 800 meters (about half a mile) into the cave, in water. Talk about flashbacks to hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park! Aaron and I felt very well prepared for this part of the hike. And then we realized that while the flow rate of the water was much lower, the technical aspect of hiking this cave was much more complicated. We were scaling up rapids and squeezing through slots in between rocks all while the water fluctuated from being about a foot deep to being so deep we had to swim against the current. One memorable area near the beginning required all of us to navigated a slot between two rocks, with rocks overhead (clearly the result of a cave-in) while in water up to our necks, that occasionally got deep enough that we found ourselves floating along on our life jackets. At the end of the slot, the rock had a piece of it jutting out towards the rock across from it and our guide talked each person through navigating that hurdle where it was only wide enough for their neck to fit in the gap. Periodically Carlos would stop and pull out his super bright flashlight and light up the walls so we could see the gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites that were growing there. He explained to us that the white we saw was calcium deposits, the black magnesium, the brown something else, and the black with brown stains around it was guano – bat poop! He pointed out the most impressive accordion formations and at one of them, with a stern warning that he should be the only one who tried this and that it was only okay because he was using his knuckles which don’t have as much oil on them, he tapped out a tune on the stalactite, explaining that they were porous so they had good acoustics and that’s why they made that sound when tapped. At one point, as a group passed us going the other way, Carlos brought us to the side so we could accommodate them and warned us not to touch the wall on our right. Two steps later I lost my balance and felt Aaron grab my life jacket and pull my hand off the very wall he’d warned us not to touch! Dang it’s hard to go against instincts!
Occasionally Carlos would stop us in the water and tell us more of Mayan lore. At one point he explained a blood letting ritual that had to do with the transfer of power from father to son where they would come into the cave and slice their penises and/or nipples or use a sting ray tail to stab their penis to give blood. And that women might cut their nipples to give blood and then have it brought into the cave by a man. We were all cringing our way through that story.
At another point I happened to notice a crab wedged along the wall of the river. I mentioned it to Carlos and he told us that it was a freshwater crab and that other animals in the cave included sting ray, catfish, scorpions, and bats. I was a little concerned to realize that of the water animals, the crab was probably the friendliest and I was very glad of my Merrill water-trekking shoes right then.
After a ½ mile of climbing, squishing, laughing, and general amazement at the sights in the cave, Carlos stopped at a rock to wait for everyone to gather around. One person put their hand idly on the rock and Carlos requested they move it and then he climbed straight up the rock. Apparently we’d reached our exit.
Following Carlos’s lead, we scaled the rock and climbed onto a ledge ten feet up, we then climbed another ten feet up the semi-smooth rock formation. Inset were foot holds and hand holds that I suspect were not natural, but Carlos didn’t comment on them being man-made so maybe they were. Twenty feet above the river below us, Carlos had us all remove our shoes and don our socks. We were now in the preservation zone where there were many artifacts and human remains. The first area held many pots and Carlos explained that the Mayans would bring food as an offering to the ancestors and would feast in the caves, they brought the food in clay pots and they would burn things in the pots and then break them, letting the essence of the food go to the gods (since the gods can’t eat the actual food). All of the pots that we saw were spewed about the first chamber in the cave and then were broken. As we moved up, heading towards the second chamber, Carlos stopped us along the way to point out a skull that was almost fully enclosed in the limestone. He pointed out to us the flattened skull and as we all waited to hear how the Mayans did that, Carlos said “2011 (?), someone dropped a camera and dented the skull.” We were all appropriately aghast at that.
At some point I asked Carlos if the pots that were still here were only here because they were encased in limestones and the archaeologists were afraid of removing them. Carlos told me that no pots had been removed from the site, nor had any remains been removed from the site, because they were in a good state of preservation here and that any change in climate could very easily destroy the artifacts.
Moving on to the next chamber we saw more pots and then the chamber opened up in a wide, flat, “field,” except there was no grass. Just limestone and divets in the limestone. Shining his flashlight slowly across the field we watched as it illuminated ten, twenty, maybe thirty more pots; all broken, all strewn across the field. Turning us around, he shined his light on an alcove in the wall, a giant black pot was surrounded on all sides by stalactites and stalagmites that created a frame for it, it almost felt that pot was sitting in a throne of sorts, lording over all of the other pots. Carlos also showed us which stalagmite formations looking like faces if he shined the flashlight on them and he showed us which ones some archaeologist had postulated had been intentionally broken so that they more closely resembled a face. Finally, our little band was led across the field, being very careful to only walk on the ridges, and brought to a ladder that someone, somehow, had transported through the water to this spot in the cave (my guess is that it happened before the cave-in).
We all climbed up the ladder and waited for the other groups to file out so we could enjoy the area ourselves as we admired the human remains. We started with a skull surrounded by some bones, the skull had two holes in it and was very elongated so that the skull portion was much larger than would be expected for the size of the face. Carlos explained that this meant that this child (for it was likely a child’s skeleton) probably came from a different tribe in the area. Then he pointed out the two holes and said, “2012 someone dropped their camera and made the larger hole. The smaller hole was created by someone touching the wall and a rock falling on the skeleton. This is why nobody is allowed to bring anything into the cave with them.” Once we were done admiring that skeleton, we headed back to see the full human skeleton that was at the very back chamber of the cave. Carlos said that an osteo-archaeologist had taken a sample of the hip bone in 2012 and determined that the figure was male, which fit with Carlos’s understanding that women were not allowed in the cave. Before that was taken, the figure was thought to be female based on the shape of its hip bone and that stuck so the skeleton was named the crystal princess. He explained that the “crystal” part of the name came from when the skeleton had “crystals” growing on it, but then someone had touched it and the “crystals” (it was like shiny limestone or something) had died 😦 but I found a picture of when it was a crystal princess!
He also told us that an archaeologist had thought that this particular person had been sacrificed further upstream in the cave but Carlos pointed to the waterline around the rim of that section of the cave to show that the water had been stagnant here, so it was more likely that this person was sacrificed right where they were. It also seemed to me unlikely that the water would have displaced a skeleton so precisely that it kept all of the bones together.
At this point, Carlos drew our attention to the silence in the area, because we were the last group, there was no one behind us, and the groups in front of us were probably already back down in the river by now. When a hush fell over our little group of eight, we could hear the water dripping around us. And this was when I realized that maybe Carlos’s slow pace on the walk to the cave had been a stroke of genius, we sort of had the cave to ourselves now! Finished with the artifacts and human remains up above, Carlos led us back past the field of pots, the various human remains along the way, and back to our waiting shoes on the ledge overlooking the river. While the cave continued another three miles upstream, this was the end of our journey today. We all carefully climbed back down into the river and Carlos led the way at a slightly faster pace (but isn’t always a slightly faster pace when you’re going downstream?) back to the cave entrance. At one point along the way, he had all of us turn off our headlamps and hold onto each other as he lead us forward in the dark. I have no idea how he knew where he was taking us, but he did not lead us astray and twice he flashed on his flashlight to show us potential hazards before resuming the walk in total darkness. It was a pretty amazing experience to walk through the cave thus blinded and Carlos told us afterwards that often when people are in that much darkness they think they see things, and that when he closes his eyes, he can see the walls of the cave and that’s how he knows his way around. I think it probably helps that he’s been with the company since its inception and has been guiding tourists through the ATM cave for twenty years. We finally returned back to the poll at the entrance to the tunnel and once again swam back to the path that would lead us back to the vans. At this point the sun had set and darkness was descending quickly. I was slightly worried about the time but Carlos assured us that they would have left a van behind for us and that they would have moved all of our bags from the the other vehicles so we would have our changes of clothing available to us.
Here is where Carlos’s genius in going last came into play AGAIN. As we walked, he would shine his light or point out something with our headlamps and we got to have the experience of a guided night hike in Belize. Night hikes are fantastic because all sorts of creatures come out at night and you don’t really see them otherwise. And since the rain had stopped, those with good ears in the group could hear the constant yells of the howler monkeys in the distance, while those of us with bad ears in the group (aka me) only heard the howler monkeys once. Every once in awhile Carlos would shine his bright flashlight on the path, illuminating a creature for all of us to admire. Notable creatures included 3 buffalo/cane toads (absolute monstrosities, and Carlos said the ones we saw were babies); 2 tree frogs (each of them AT LEAST four times larger that the ones my dad has in the back yard); and a large wolf spider that maybe I would have been okay with not seeing. He also told us that all of the glittering that our headlamps were exposing on the sides of the path were actually spider eyes and then he illuminated one such slide so we could see the body behind the pretty eyes. He hoped to also see a snake or tarantula but those weren’t hanging out on the path that evening.
Back at camp the lead guide, Giovanni, and one van were waiting for us, along with our bags from the bus and some rum punch for those of us who like rum. As we approached Giovanni, Carlos asked him what time it was, and Giovanni replied that it was almost 6:45, I was a little shocked at how late it had gotten. We all rushed to change out of our sopping clothing, guzzle some rum punch (I took a sip and decided I still don’t like rum), and then hopped back in the van for the hour long van-ride back to San Ignacio.
We parted with a fond farewell to Carlos and then Aaron and I attempted to find the restaurants he recommended in vain before settling for a restaurant right in the downtown tourist area. They were open, had WiFi, and had food so we felt like that was enough for our aching thighs. After some good food, lots of people watching, and a bizarre shirt that said “In life is not if you nin or lose, is if you spice me,” we made the twenty minute trek back to our AirBnB where showers and still incredibly wet clothing awaited us.