Tuesday 19 June
This morning I was finally leaving Guatemala – I definitely had mixed feelings about this but it was time to head out and explore a new place. I'm off to Belize – just a short trip across the border to San Ignacio - a pretty simple border crossing (no bribes!). The hostel in San Ignacio was a really lovely old house up on the hill which cooled down in the afternoon winds. I could already tell that Belize was going to be significantly different to Guatemala – for one thing, the people spoke English – or a weird mix of it. Secondly, the prices were a lot more expensive! Way more! But the town of San Ignacio was lovely, there was a river running through the town to cool off in and everything was really ramshackle and relaxed. I booked myself in for the must try trip from San Ignacio, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves. I then visited the market and bought some fruit and vegetables for dinner. A nice change to cook my own food!
Wednesday 20 June: ATM caves.
Picked up this morning for our tour to the ATM caves. Our guide was Emil and he drove us on the hour trip out to the caves through some beautiful countryside into the middle of nowhere. I tried some Journey “johhny” cakes. These cakes are made from flour and stuffed with beans and cheese or other fillings. They were interesting but I wouldn’t say the most delicious traditional food I’ve tried! The ATM caves are very expensive to visit but that’s because they can only take a certain number of visitors each day. They are trying to protect the site which is very good. We wore helmets with headtorches to enter the cave but before we made it there we had to walk for about 45minutes and make about 3 river crossings. I already felt like I was in the Indiana Jones movie and I hadn’t even entered the cave yet! We arrived at a picnic area and were able to drop off our water bottles and loose equipment before entering the cave proper. The entry to the cave was incredible. We had to immerse ourselves and just jump right on in and swim. The water was the purest blue colour and the temperature was quite cool. Once we had all made our initiation into the cave, Emil showed us the way through, squeezing through tiny gaps and swimming in places, climbing and observing the amazing stalactites, stalagmites and draperies – a type of formation that is formed from flowing water on an overhung surface. Emil explained everything to us as we made our way further and further into the cave. By the end of our journey we were 500m deep underground – but the caves continued for a further 8kms! The final destination was a cavern where we were required to take off our shoes in order to continue. In this dry cavern we saw our first evidence of the use that the Mayans had made of the caves around 1500 years ago. We saw clay water pots, most of them broken. Emil told us that the Mayans used to trek into the cave with fire torches to make offerings to the gods asking for water (at that time the cave was dry). They broke the water ewers as a sacrifice. But later on, after the need for water became desparate, human sacrifices became more common. We were able to see a calcified skull, bones and some finger bones which had been cut off to appease the gods. In the final chamber we saw a full intact skeleton of a man (they used to think it was a woman), crystallised in the floor of the cave. It hadn’t been moved by the people who had re-discovered the cave in the 1950s. We couldn’t take our cameras into the site because another tourist had dropped his camera and smashed a skull a few years earlier.. So no photo evidence that I had ever visited the site! Such a strange sensation in this day and age! As we walked out of the cave we discovered that it had been raining quite heavily outside which made the walk back a little bit more difficult and slippery. We ate a delicious lunch before getting back in the car and heading back to San Ignacio. It was an incredible experience and definitely the most interesting and adventurous cave I have ever visited!
Thursday 21st June: Xunatunich and Cahal Pech Mayan ruins.
Today was an early start – Australia was playing against Denmark in the world cup! We drew 1-1 which was a bit of let down but it was a good game. The remainder of the day I spent with a New-Zealand girl Laura exploring the local Mayan Sites of Cahal Pech and Xunatunich. Cahal Pech was first and only a short stroll away from our hostel. It was practically deserted apart from some archaeologists who were working on excavating part of the building. It was super interesting to watch them work and see the site evolving before our eyes. These ruins are really quiet and we were able to get photos without other people in the way and climb all over these ancient structures. It was really beautiful, although on a much smaller scale than Tikal! The second set of ruins – Xunatunich were much grander. They were located a little bit out of town and we had to catch a local bus to get there. We also had to take a hand cranked ferry across the river to access the ruins so it was quite an adventure! The ruins were beautiful and we were able to see some Mayan carving in the side of the Castillo – the detail was incredible! Also they had some round pillars which are not found in any of the structures outside of Mexico so they show that there was some outside influence in this place.
On my final day in San Ignatio – I was actually planning to leave but I got side-tracked! A couple of the girls from the hostel were heading out to find a local waterfall where we could swim and cool off from the heat. I am always a sucker for a waterfall so I tagged along. It was a local bus ride out down a rough and bumpy road and we were dropped in the middle of nowhere from where we needed to walk for about 10 minutes until we discovered the beautiful waterfall where we could swim and relax in the cool water as a thunderstorm formed above us. As we were leaving the rain started but we were super lucky to encounter a minivan back just as we reached the road (when does that ever happen?!) We got back to San Ignacio just in time for lunch (but not in time to leave for Caye Caulker!). We had some delicious papusas at a local stall for lunch while we waited for the storm to finish.