Adventures in San Ignacio, Belize

Once we arrived back in Belize City from our rainy and overcast few days on Caye Caulker we set off straight back to the bus station to continue our travels inland to San Ignacio. All we really knew about San Ignacio was that it was near a few archaeological sites and had some adventure style tourism available. With prices what they were in Belize we would have to evaluate what we could afford to do. The bus departed without much of a wait and we were soon on our way. It was an OK quality school style bus that flew along the road to the soundtrack of Caribbean dance and pop music pumping out the speakers.

San Ignacio turned out to be getting much the same sort of weather as what we had experienced in Caye Caulker: grey, overcast and threatening to rain. Stepping off the bus and collecting our bags we had no idea where in town we were and no great ideas about accommodation options. Our research had told us that it probably wasn’t going to be cheap here but as we wandered we were approached by a friendly guy affiliated with a tour company (after advising us on accommodation we were given a tour brochure). His advice was good and we set off to locate and check out a few guest house style places he had recommended to us. One was perfect; a few streets back from the shops, cheap, clean and run by a sweet older woman who spoke Spanish. We accepted a room and Tom started chatting away (in Spanish of course) getting to know our host.

On our way out to find somewhere for dinner we stopped at some of the tour agencies, of which there are heaps, to figure out what we would like to do while in San Ignacio. Over our dinner (delicious stew beef with rice and beans for me and a lamb burger for Tom) we discussed our tour options and afterwards went to make some reservations. We booked the ATM caves for the following day and a day trip to Caracol the day after. Both of these were with MayaWalk Tours which ended up being a fantastic agency with great guides. But they weren’t cheap so we would be eating street food for a while. With our blown budget in mind we picked up some food for breakfast and snacks to take with us while doing the tours over the next few days; this ended up being a loaf of fresh fluffy white bread and peanut butter. Not hugely nutritious but full of energy and only cost us a few bucks.

Before heading out the next day we scoffed some peanut butter sandwiches, mmm yum! Then we dashed down to town getting distracted by a bakery along the way for some more carbs. The drive out to the cave was fun with us all making friends with each other as well as the guides telling us all about the area. It wasn’t long until we reached the start of the trail we would hike to get to our cave adventure. Eating some more peanut butter sammies for energy we changed into our caving gear which for me consisted of leggings and singlet over my bikini and a t-shirt and boardies for Tom, hard-hats with head lamps completed our looks. The tour company also supplied us with rubber shoes which we were more than happy to accept so our own didn’t get soaked. So we all set off through the forest. Again the guides were great and stopped us frequently to tell us about the leaf cutter ants, ceiba trees, strangler figs and other flora and fauna. Crossing the rivers was fun and luckily no one fell in but it wouldn’t have mattered as we would all soon be soaked in the cave anyway.

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Jungle walk on the way to ATM Cave. Photo courtsey of MayaWalk Tours

Once we arrived at the cave we split into two groups with a guide each; we stuck with two other couples (Aussies and Brits) and formed ‘Jaguar team!’. We were told that there was no chance for bathroom breaks in the cave so if we needed to go then we should use the ‘facila-trees’ (a good, memorable pun). Entrance to the cave was via the river and there was no time to stand around squealing about the cold water so I had to suck it up and jump in. With everyone in the water we swum into the cave with our headlamps on. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take our cameras into the cave as some silly past tourist dropped one onto a ancient skeleton head cracking it, so instead of closing the cave they decided to ban cameras, fair enough. Because of this the photos you see from the tour have been emailed to me from the tour company.

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Entrance to ATM cave. Photo courtesy of MayaWalk Tours

The name ATM cave is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal and inside the cave system the environment varied from a river, gravelly stones, large rocks we had to clamber over as well as tunnel style passages that needed squeezed through at just the right angle. All of this was accomplished by the light of our headlamps, sometimes on a red glow and occasionally with the lights off, holding hands in the dark. In the dark we had plenty of giggles especially when our guide started making jaguar sounds. After a while of adventuring through the tunnels we reached the cave area where the Mayan people who lived in the area ventured in order to make sacrifices and offering to the gods. For them it must have felt like they were entering Xibalba, or the Mayan underworld. After climbing up into another part of the cave we walked carefully over the calcified pools staying inside a roped walkway. The fascinating part of the area was that it still has all the artefacts remaining in situ and they have all been calcified into shimmering sculptural additions to the cave. The main event is the intact human skeleton that they know little about but speculate was that of a teenage boy who was potentially a sacrifice. It was creepy but beautiful at the same time. On our way out we spent more time with our headlamps turned off. Memorably a passage which was pitch black and narrow with chest high water (on me at least). Our only way to proceed was to hold the shoulder of the person in front with one hand and feel around with our other hand and feet.

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Calcified Mayan skeleton in ATM Caves. Photo courtesy of MayaWalk Tours

Although the tour was pricey, at around $85 USD, we still had a great time and no regret about the cost. We were all tired as we straggled back through forest path to the van. But when we arrived we were all quick to dry off and get changed before shovelling down our late lunch, we were starving! The lunch was a tasty local meal of stew chicken, rice and beans and salad and we had two large bottles of rum punch to polish off as well.

Tired from our adventure we were all pretty quiet in the van on our return trip but we organised to meet our new friends for some drinks later. We also discovered that one of the other couples would be accompanying us the next day to Caracol.

Again the next morning started with peanut butter sandwiches before we met up with our guide, our friends Tash and Nick and took off in a 4wd on route to Caracol. Caracol is another Mayan archaeological site (yes we were visiting another) which was a 3 hour off road journey south into the jungle. The trip was beautiful and exciting, although the weather was a little glum and threatening to rain. The reason for taking a tour to this site other than the distance, and the dirt track, and knowing the way was that we needed to pass through an army checkpoint where we would be escorted to the entrance.

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Off-roading on our trip to Caracol, about to cross a dodgy looking bridge

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and first took us through the site museum before moving on to the main attractions. Caracol is a relatively large city very close to the Guatemalan border. This makes it in a slightly dangerous location for tourism. Only a year before we visited one of the tourist police was shot by illegal loggers. As a result the site is now home to an army base for security. We entered though some of the smaller areas but were soon in the main plaza where we could climb the main event: the pyramid Caana. This remains one of the largest man-made structures in Belize, which is impressive when you think that it was constructed in late 600 AD. Tom had to show off and run up the pyramid leaving the rest of us to slowly join him at the top where we found him sweaty and puffing. This pyramid was structured such that on the climb you couldn’t see the top which made his run a bit harder than he expected. Luckily it was a cool day and still threatening rain. Our guide showed us the tombs which had been uncovered around the pyramid some of which we could hop down into. The moss on the stones was slippery and there was occasionally bats in the cave-like tombs. The bats didn’t like the torchlight so most of us didn’t venture in because they kept flitting around the small space.

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On top of Caana, the largest pyramid at Caracol. Tom looks tired from running up the stairs

It was starting to drizzle as we explored the rest of the site but we persevered and hoped it didn’t turn into a full-blown thunderstorm as we had experienced before many times. Other things we saw were old Mayan quarries, some cool temples and many yet to be uncovered mounds of tumble-down temple. Caracol also has many stelae and alters which document ancient wars and kings from the area so there was no shortage of things to see here.

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Caana, the tallest pyramid at Caracol and still one of the tallest structures in Belize

Before we departed we sat down for lunch which again was the stew chicken, rice and beans and salad. This time however we had a whole huge bottle of rum punch for the four of us. Tash and I only had one cup each so as we drove back towards San Ignacio the boys polished off the remainder and got a little tipsy.

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Grey Hawk seen on the was back from our Caracol day-trip, somewhere in the vicinity of Pine Ridge Forest

We had two stops on the way back. The first was at Rio On pools, it was starting to rain so we only took a few photos and looked around for 5 minutes before heading back to the van. The next stop was Big Rock Falls and we climbed down a steep track to the river where we all slid over the rocks and climbed into the water. This was easier said than done as the rocks were unbelievably slippery to the point that I was almost crawling over them to make sure I didn’t fall. The weather wasn’t great and it was lightly raining as we went for a brief swim. The boys, who were fuelled with rum punch found a ledge to jump off into the pool. We soon got a little cold and sick of the swift current coming from the waterfall so we started the climb back up the hill to the van and onwards back to San Ignacio.

That night we dined on street food which was much the same as our lunch, but stew chicken and rice and beans is the standard fare in Belize. Our dinner however came with potato salad and sweet onion relish. The sweet onion relish was a dangerous mix of onions and habanero chilli and typically Tom loved it. After his rum punch on our tour and some further rum he was very vocal about his love of our dinner, especially the relish.

So that was our final night in Belize and the next day we were up and out early with a border to cross and a new destination to get to. We would be heading back into Guatemala and I was looking forward to seeing some more of that lovely country.

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One thought on “Adventures in San Ignacio, Belize

  1. Pingback: Flores and Tikal, Guatemala | Two Stray Kiwi

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