San Ignacio itself is a small town in western Belize in the Cayo District. It’s surrounded by quite a few Maya ruin sites which makes it a popular tourist destination. Once we made it to the town, we took a cab over to our hotel, Maya Mountain Lodge. It is a small, jungle lodge owned by a gentleman named Bart. It has rustic little cottages that evoke a feeling of being deep in the jungle and away from civilization. The rooms are extremely spacious and have no TVs! Needless to say, they lived up to being an eco-friendly lodge. They also provide freshly cooked meals at their outdoor patio dining area, albeit for an overpriced 20USD. That night, it was a Lebanese themed dinner, apparently in honor of the large Lebanese population in the area! While at dinner, we also asked the other guests as well as Bart himself, about some of the attractions and what we should not miss out on. Unfortunately, even though I had been looking forward to visiting Tikal, the largest Mayan Ruins, located across the border in Guatemala, I was informed that with my Indian passport, it would cost me an extra 100USD for a visa. I was disappointed because I had read up a lot about it and had been excited about visiting the ruins. However, Bart said that there were pretty of other options to take advantage of, including ATM, Actun Tunichil Muknal. We finally decided on the all-day trip at a steep 99USD.
The next morning we woke up around 7:30a to get ready for our adventure. We had been warned that it was quite the unique adventure, so we had to be prepared. Moreover, I was told there might be snakes in the jungle that we were going to hike through- something I wasn’t looking forward to. However, being as I was in Belize for some unique experiences, I psyched myself up for the potential snake encounters. The trip starts with an hour drive to the jungle in a van. Once we are there, you hike about 45 minutes into the jungle. The hike is pretty easy, no steep climbs, but we walk through quite a few rivers, so you have to get used to wet shoes and socks (eek). Finally, we make it to the mouth of the infamous cave, Actun Tunichil Muknal.
A few words on the cave…it’s home to ancient Mayan sacrifices. Not only have pots and other artifacts been excavated in this cave, so have skeletal remains of humans that were sacrificed by the Mayans! The way to enter the cave is by wading through 12 ft of water. For non-swimmers like me, not to worry, there is an alternate route that involved some rock climbing and adrenaline. Once we get through the initial pond, the rest of the two-plus hour hike in the cave is full of slippery rock, beautiful limestone crystallizations, and other geological sites, some tricky maneuvers through small openings in between rocks and lots more ponds to wade through. It was definitely quite the unique experience! We wore flashlights on our helmets to guide us, and thank god for the helmets because I definitely hit my head when crawling through tiny rock openings multiple times. Along the way, the tour guide gave us a little background on the Mayan religion and rituals. The Mayans believed in heaven, earth and the underworld, which was essentially the caves. They believed in the tree of life, which had its roots in the underworld. When someone died, their spirit rises through the roots and into the tree and gets released into heaven. The ceramics that we came across in the cave were used by the Mayans to perform ceremonies. Interestingly, they also had a deliberately drilled hole in them. The tour guide explained that the Mayans believed that even pots had spirit in them. When they completed their rituals using the pots, they would make a hole in them to release the spirit.
Approximately fourteen skeletal remains have been found in the cave including those of babies that were sacrificed. The tour guide pointed out some features that were common to the skeletons that could be attributed to the Mayans’ view of beauty. To them, a flat forehead, teeth chiseled to points and being cross-eyed was beautiful. The cave itself is named after the full skeletal remains of a teenage girl who was sacrificed. Actun Tunichil Muchnal was her name. Looking at the remains, I couldn’t help but shiver and be awestruck at the thought that this person had existed in a civilization so ancient. I started to imagine the world that she would have lived in, and scenes of Apocalypto flashed through my head. It’s humbling to think of our life and our time as part of a large quilt of civilizations that have been existed and will exist in the future, long after ours ends. After I spent some time being existenialist, I continued along the two-hour hike back to the mouth of the cave. We definitely got our fill of adventure as we slid through rock openings, waded through chest deep water and climbed over limestone walls. Finally, we ate at the picnic tables where we had left our belongings before we entered the cave, and then hiked back to the entrance of the jungle. Excited to get out of our wet shoes, and exhausted from our day-long adventure into the ancient Mayan world, we passed out on our van ride back to our lodge.
We decided that instead of eating another overpriced meal at the lodge, we would venture out into the town to try some authentic Belizean food. We called the cab driver who had driven us to the lodge from the town and asked him to take us to the best restaurant in town. He took us to Hannas, clearly a popular destination for tourists. It was owned by a South African gentleman and had food to die for! The menu was an eclectic mix of Asian and local Belizean food. My veggie quesadilla was enormous and absolutely delicious. After dinner, we wandered into the town, where some locals were playing drums and tourists were reveling in the festive atmosphere. I was a little taken aback to see some Indian women walk by, in traditional clothes…were they locals or tourists? While in town, we stopped by a couple of tour companies to compare rates and figure out our plans for the next day. A little side note, we discovered that our ATM should have actually cost about 75USD, rather than the amount we paid. So my suggestion for tours would be to book directly with the tour companies rather than take the word of the hotel you stay at.
After comparing some prices and getting recommendations, we decided on our plans for the next day; we had only till about 3pm before we had to head back to Belize City since we were flying out the next day. We decided to use our cab driver, Manuel, and go to the Mayan ruins- Xunantunich, drive out into the mountains to a beautiful waterfall and then have him drive us back to Belize City. The total cost was about 275USD which was much more economical than any other option. That day we left at around 9am and stopped by at Hanna’s again for an equally delicious and filling breakfast. After about a 30-minute ride, we reached the Mopan river, where there was a pull ferry that would take us and our car to the other side where the ruins where. We found a great guide on the other side for about 60 Belizean dollars. He was a history teacher and a scuba instructor apart from being a freelance guide and we loved him! He even talked to me about a book he read on body language and how you can interpret body movement to understand a person’s psychology. It made me wonder if, with my master’s degree, I would ever be as well rounded as this guy. He (of course, I forgot his name) gave us a comprehensive history of the Mayan occupation in Xunantunich (pronounced Shoo-nan-tho-nich). Apparently, the caste system was well and alive in those days and the higher up you were in terms of status, the higher up you physically lived in the city. So the royals lived up at the top of the hill and the lower caste was never allowed there except in the public areas where they gathered to view certain auspicious celestial events.
One of the structures is a pyramid called El Castillo, which is the second tallest structure in Belize. The facade of the pyramid has intricate carvings. This site is one of the few where you can walk up the structures. We climbed up El Castillo to breathtaking views of Belize and El Benque, in Guatemala. We could see exactly where Belize and Guatemala were bordered. Belize has an interesting political history with Guatemala who refused to honor the border between them until recently. It seems, according to our drive Manuel, that lots of people left Guatemala to come to Belize to escape crime-ridden areas. That didn’t surprise me, as Belizeans seemed extremely laid back and easy going. In fact, I have to say I have never come across people as nice as the locals in Belize. Our tour guide talked about how much diversity there was in this small country. The Mestizos make up about 44% of the population and the Creoles about 29%. The rest are a mix of ethnicities. In fact, there is a huge Taiwanese population in Belize, and it’s not rare to see signs such as Amore Taiwan adorn houses when driving through the countryside.
After saying goodbye to our guide and new friend, we started our drive along uncomfortable dirt roads to Big Rock, where the waterfall was. Along the way, we were informed by Manuel that the Coppollas had a house in the mountains in Belize, and we saw a helipad where private helicopters could land. After a ride that rocked our bones, we made it to the waterfalls which were beautiful. But beware of the slippery rocks! It was definitely the perfect and most relaxing way to end our adventures in San Ignacio.
We spent the last night in Belize City in the relatively sketchy Bachelor Inn owned by an excitable Taiwanese lady. As it turns out, not much of Belize City is “non-sketchy” and in fact, we heard the thumpings of a party going on the floor above us, till all hours into the night. If you go to Belize, I would advise against spending any time at all in Belize City, as there is so much else to do in the country. While I feel like I got a great mix of different experiences in Belize, from snorkeling in Hol Chan and experiencing the laidback island culture, the simplicity of the town of San Ignacio, to the exciting and eerie Mayan sacrificial remains, to the grandeur of the ancient Mayan site, what I loved most about Belize was the absolute genuineness of the people of Belize. Truly some of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Moreover, Belize is still relatively less of a tourist hub, compared to say Costa Rica, so you are more likely to mingle with locals if you make the effort. A+ for Belize, lots to do and you will definitely get your fill of adventure and culture!