It had been a while since I rode on a Central American chicken bus, but the sensations all came flooding back right away. Hot, sweaty, B.O. filled air, noisy, constantly stopping to drop people off or pick people up...yup, just as I remember it. The good thing is that it was a short ride, only 2.5 hrs, and once we were on the highway with the school bus latch windows wide open the breeze was pretty good.
We pulled into San Ignacio and made our way to Casa Blanca where we had a reservation that night. We had a few tasks for that afternoon: arrange a tour for the next day to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (henceforth referred to as: A.T.M.), find a room for the next night (Casa Blanca only had one night free), and then to head up to check out the Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, that are right out of town.
Task 1 and 2 were taking care of quickly. The only hiccup was when the ATM at Belize Bank could not process our withdrawal request. We tried one more time before moving up the street to another ATM where we did get cash. Come to find out that even though no money was dispensed at Belize Bank, the transactions had actually gone through. So, yes, this means that there is $450 under dispute between Charles Schwab and Belize Bank. Fingers crossed on that one!!
We headed out of town towards the ruins which are up a steep hill and out of town about 2 miles. Along the way we picked up a little friend. She was a good looking, little Black Lab mutt-mix and we named her Janet as in: "Damn it Janet", long lost cousin of my brother's old dog: "Damn it Dale".
Anyway, Janet rolled with us for about an hour and a half, and I mean everywhere. We went into the Office to buy our tickets for the Ruins and Janet came inside. The Park Ranger asked me if that was my dog...uhh, no, dude. We walked around the Ruins for 45 minutes, climbed to the top of a few of them...Janet was never more then a few feet away.
The Ruins were impressive as they all tend to be. The only thing is that without a tour guide to give you the background and tell the story, it's really just a bunch of really old looking structures. Still the sign said they were in use from 1000 B.C. to 650 A.D. so they are pretty damn old and some of these buildings are pretty damn big, so it was impressive nonetheless.
After the Ruins tour, we headed into the grocery store to pick a few things up and Janet came inside too. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelash at a stray dog wandering the aisles. We paid and walked out and Janet followed us out, but then abruptly stopped. She stood watching us walk away, acting like she wanted to come with us, but I think the idea that she could somehow scam some food out of that supermarket was just too much and overcame her love for us. We saw her momentarily a few days later, but she barely even noticed us. Heart breaking.
The next morning we got ourselves to the Mayawalk Tour office for a 7am departure. We had a few cups of coffee while everyone showed up and then piled into the "truck". What is was really was a huge Dodge Diesel Truck with the bed removed and an 8 seat section of an old US school bus welded onto the back. Pretty awesome.
The ride out to A.T.M. was about an hour...the last 25 minutes on an awful dirt road. We really had no idea what to expect, but we'd heard (and read) RAVE reviews about the place which is what got us to shell out the US$75/person for the tour; (that's a lot of money in this region!)
The trip starts out with a 45 minute hike through the jungle where you cross a little river 3 times. Eventually you get to a clearing where you drop your stuff and are given a helmet and head lamp.
We broke into 2 groups; G and I were 2 of 6 paired up with our guide, Hector. The next thing thing we knew we were jumping into a deep pool in the river and swimming into a large cave mouth, where we eventually pulled ourselves out onto a rock. We're fully soaked and it's pitch black, except for 7 head lamp beams and we had 600 meters of swimming, scrambling, river walking, boulder climbing, ladder climbing and the like ahead of us. I turned to G and said two words: "Bad Ass" as I knew that this was gonna be a fun day.
We spent the next hour or so working our way deeper into the cave. Hector gave us expert directions on how to squeeze through this crack or that crack, when to watch out for submerged boulders or hidden holes in the path. From time to time he'd stop to point out a feature of the cave as the whole place is filled with one awesome stalagmite after another huge stalactite and even a few massive columns which is where a stalagmite and stalactite have grown together. Eventually his little talks became less about the cave features and more of the story of the cave. A few key things: the Ancient Mayans used it as a place of worship and sacrifice and there are artifacts and bones dating back to before 700 A.D. More recently, National Geographic ranked it #1 on it's Top 10 list of "Worlds Most Sacred Caves". Yeah, this place is crazy!!
Finally, we got to a huge boulder and Hector stopped to tell us about the upper chamber which we were about to climb up to. We made a few legit bouldering moves as we climbed on top of the huge ledge where we had to remove our shoes and go on with only socks on our feet as a means of preserving the cave floor.
The upper cavern is absolutely massive. The walls are covered in mineral deposits and other features which shimmered in the beams of the headlamps. All along the floor there are piles of pots that were left as sacrifice to the Mayan Rain God, Chaac. Next to the first pile of pots is a human skull surrounded by different bones. The skull has a flat forehead which is from having the forehead binded to a board as an infant which is a form of body mutilation that was common back in those days. Hector said this was a Male between 30-35 who was probably sacrificed here in the cave as an offering to the Chaac, probably a prisoner of war from another tribe. In total they have found remains of a few dozen people throughout the whole cave system, mostly males although there are some female skeletons. Most were older when they died, but Hector said there are some adolescents and even a handful of infants. Savage.
We moved further into the main cavern and saw more and more piles of pots. They are all broken or have holes drilled into them which is how the Mayans believed they could release the spirit from the pots since everything, including inanimate objects, had a spirit that needed to be released in order to be sacrificed.
Finally we climbed a long and precariously placed metal extension ladder up to the final chamber where the tour comes to its apex. Lying in the dirt, perfectly preserved is a Female adolescent skeleton. The skeleton has been calcified from centuries of mineralized water running over it and now shimmers in the headlamp beams. A few meters away is another skull with a few holes in it.
The holes in this skull are the reason that we have no photos from this awesome trip. About a week before we went, some idiot stepped over the neon orange tape which VERY clearly marks where you can and cannot go and in the process of taking a photo managed to drop his digital camera onto the skull. There is a rectangular hole in the skull that is the exact size of a digital camera. The second hole is from a few years back when somebody else leaned over the tape to take a photo and inadvertently pulled a rock from the wall which fell and left a hole the size of a Silver Dollar in the skull. Per always, it only takes a few dumbasses to ruin it for everyone else. (You can get a good idea of what it looks like in there by typing "Actun Tunichil Muknal" into Google Images.)
That upper chamber is the end of the road for the tour, but we still had plenty to see on the way back. Hector was a wealth of information and never ceased to have an interesting story or fact to drop on us. We worked our way back down to our shoes and then climbed down to the river and headed out. Hector led us down some 'alternative routes' which entailed even more crazy spelunking and climbing moves.
When at last we reached the cave mouth everyone on the tour was grinning ear to ear. We made our way out and climbed back up to the picnic area where we all tore into our lunches before heading back out to the truck for our ride back to San Ignacio.
G and I agreed immediately that the A.T.M. tour was one of the coolest things we've done in our year of doing cool things; the perfect combo of adventure, education and fun. A must do if you find yourself in Belize.
Back in town we switched hostels and laid in the fan cooled room (aka: sweltering heat) for a while before heading out to get dinner at a good looking local spot we'd spied call Ko-Ox Han-Nah, meaning "Let's Eat" in Mayan. $US4.50 for a big plate of rice and beans, chicken, coleslaw, and plantains. All good in my book! That night we watched Silence of the Lambs on TV...man, that movie is still messed up.
We had considered leaving for Guatemala the next day, but decided to have a lazy day kicking around town instead. We had heard about a few cool sounding spots by the river, not far from town, where you could swim and lounge around. Considering it was ridiculously hot, this sounded like a great idea...so after an icy coffee concoction from The Belize Coffee Co. we grabbed a cab and had him drop us off at Mahogany Hall, a nice looking Hotel a few miles out of town, and arranged for him to come back to pick us up a few hours later.
The Hotel lets people use the river front area so long as you don't use their hammocks or lounge chairs since in Belize "nobody owns dee river, mon". We spent several enjoyable hours swimming, reading, and lounging.
Our Taxi man came back to get us true to his word: "between 3 and 3:30." He was there at literally 3:29 which meant we'd been out of the water and shade for over 30 minutes when he finally arrived. Back in town, we tried to stay cool by bouncing from one shady place to the next. We ended up in our room in front of the fan, it's too damn hot to be outside...the streets were pretty empty so I think the locals would agree with me there.
When the sun had finally set and it had cooled off a bit we ventured out for some dinner. Another night in town, another fat plate of rice, beans, chicken, coleslaw and plantains from the same place as the night before. Good, cheap, plentiful...the 3 key words to dining travelers.
We woke up early and before it got too hot headed out to the town park to do a little exercise. Just as we finished running and were considering some push-up and sit-up nonsense, the first rain of the wet season came falling out of the sky. It was as if some higher power had looked down upon us trying to work out in the Belizean heat and said: "You idiots! Get your asses back to your room before you die out there."
Thank God! I don't know what we were thinking, it was awful out there.
We ran back as the rain started to really fall and had a quick shower, breakfast and packing session. We were seriously not stoked about shlepping our backpacks through a downpour to wait in the rain at the bus terminal (which in San Ignacio is just a dirt parking lot). Then, about 15 minutes before we had to leave, rain stops, sun out and all that water starts to evaporate into the air. This equals extreme humidity which equals me sweating like a fool.
Thankfully the 9 am chicken bus headed West towards the Guatemalan border arrived right on time and we were on our way out of town.
There is plenty of great stuff to do in Belize that we had to miss (most notably for us was diving "The Blue Hole", but after a month living it up in Aus, a week in Huatulco living la vida 'todo incluido', and a massive 10 days vacationing with the Leste's including a ridiculous night in El Presidente, it's time for us to get real with ourselves and get back to the budget that will keep the dream alive a little longer.
Step 1; get out of Belize and into Guatemala where things are, once again, blissfully cheap...
And so we did...