A breeze in Belize – Part 3
By Rupert Parker
Mayan Cave Adventure
I left Belize City on a “chicken bus” bound for the highlands. On the radio, the President was giving his Independence Day address and his theme was peace and love. He was pleading with Belizeans to stop killing each other and, more important, to leave tourists alone. And he had a point. With nothing to export, the country’s main income is tourism and the government has set up a vast network of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and archeological reserves stretching from the Caribbean coast to the Guatemalan border. Surf and turf adventure holidays are big business here and San Ignacio is the Eco-centre.
The town nestles in the foothills of the Mayan Mountains, surrounded by streams, archeological sites, caves, forest and several reserves. It’s an excellent base for day-trips and also the jumping off point for longer stays in the numerous countryside lodges and ranches. These are mainly for up-market tourists, often passengers from the many cruise ships that anchor off Belize, and definitely not for me.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
What I’d come to see was Actun Tunichil Muknal or “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”. Known locally as ATM for short, the cave was only discovered in 1986 and contains astonishingly well-preserved skeletons of Mayan human sacrifices. Since it’s a registered archeological site, the only way to get to it is on a day trip from San Ignacio and, although I scoured every travel agency in town to get the cheapest price, it still cost a whopping $75.
Organized tours stand or fall on the quality of the guide and we seemed to have drawn the short straw. Our glorious leader was a hungover Geordie ex-soldier, reeking of alcohol. and completely incomprehensible to anyone except for those from that part of world. All my fellow cavers struggled to understand him except for a Japanese couple whose knowledge of English was so basic, it didn’t matter anyway.
So Many Rivers to Cross
We set off through the jungle, taking care to steer clear of the snakes and after crossing three rivers, reached the cave’s entrance. Earlier we’d been asked if we could swim and told that we’d be wading chest deep in water and sure enough, we started as we meant to continue. The guide stowed our cameras and valuables in a waterproof sack, and then it was a swim across the lake guarding the entrance, before we could access the cave.
I’ve never been tempted by caving in Britain, but there’s every difference when the water is warm and there are Mayan sacrifices to see. We made our way along the underground river, navigating slippery and sharp rocks, by turn wading and swimming, squeezing through gaps hardly wide enough for a person, for about an hour.
Remains of Mayan Human Sacrifice
Eventually we emerged into a spectacular cavernous space, its roof and sides coated in multi-coloured stalactites and stalagmites. Then it was a tricky climb up the cave wall to the main chamber to come face-to-face with the last vestiges of the Maya. Here, we were confronted by the remains of 14 individual skeletons, including 6 babies and a child of 7, surrounded by large ceramic pots, which probably contained food offerings. On a shelf nearby was a huge slate blade, obviously used for human sacrifice.
The Crystal Maiden
Further on the cave narrowed and a ladder led up to another ledge. This ended in an enclosed shrine-like chamber and the most remarkable sight in the cave – the “Crystal Maiden”. A near-complete skeleton of a young woman lay calcified below a small rock alter and next to her was the stone axe which may have killed her 1200 years ago. To the ancient Maya, caves were entrances to Xibalba, the “Place of Fright”, and the abode of the Lords of Death.
There was no place to linger, and the way out was the same as the way in. After another hour, I think there was a collective sigh of relief as we emerged into the sunlight. Back in San Ignacio, the town was in hangover mode, a result of the weekend Independence Day celebrations, but the locals still had the energy for one last fling in a massive open-air disco on the banks of the river. And, after a hard day’s speleology, it was time to rock the cavemen.
Mayawalk Adventures (824-3070), operates all the usual tours including Actun Tunichil Muknal as well as many other caving and rock climbing expeditions.
There’s no shortage of accommodation in the town and it’s just a matter of walking round the centre looking for hotels that appeal. You can bargain here, but be aware that some are noisy as they’re close to the main road.
Casa Blanca Guest House ( 824-2080), Great value, with immaculate rooms.
Martha’s Guest House (804-3647) Comfortable well furnished rooms with balconies.
Venus Hotel (824-320) Modern rooms with clean, tiled bathrooms.
In the market are several cheap cafes and, in the evening, fast-food stalls spring up along Burns Avenue. Don’t miss the spicy Taco stand.
Elvira’s, 6 Far West St. One of the best deals in town, serving tasty food all day.
Hannah’s, 5 Burns Ave. Belizean specialties to Burmese curry, all served with freshly prepared salads
Serendib Restaurant, 27 Burns Ave. A Sri Lankan restaurant a long way from home but none the worse for that.