We’d been told, by numerous well-travelled friends, to essentially bypass most of the main/capital cities in Central America, due to a combination of low interest levels and high sketch factors. Belize City was no exception to that advice, but as I have a friend I’d met on exchange in university who lives there, we needed to pay the city a visit.
We took the San Pedro Express water taxi from Caye Caulker to Belize City, where Renee picked us up. We got a brief tour of the sort-of-nice tourist village and some of the poorly paved, convoluted streets of the city before turning up at her lovely home. Renee and her partner live in his family home, with their recent addition – Benny, a wide-eyed 10-month-old. We were treated to an amazing lunch of freshly caught fish (spear-fished that weekend), beans cooked with pork, fried plantains, rice, and salad. It was one of the most varied, delicious, and healthy meals we’d had for quite some time. After enjoying catching up with Renee and meeting her family, we accepted a lift to the bus station, said our goodbyes, and were introduced to our first experience on Central American public transport.
Depending who you speak to, this is the place that old, American school buses go to (a) be reincarnated, or (b) die. A plethora of huge American school buses are auctioned off every year after 8 or 10 years in service in the States, driven down through Mexico to end up in Belize, Guatemala, or the rest of Central America, given paint jobs, and introduced to a long life in the public service. Tim and I clambered upon one such bus headed west to the town of San Ignacio, known locally as Cayo. We bumped and bounced for a couple of hours along Belize’s particularly unruly roads before arriving in quaint Cayo.
The town itself is nice, but small, and is primarily used (from a tourist’s point of view) as a jumping off point for tours to the area. A mix of terrible roads, safety concerns, and governmental regulations basically make visits to all of the major attractions around San Ignacio only possible with a guided tour. With enough digging, I’m sure you could find a guide and a pickup truck for local prices to visit wherever you so choose, but this requires admin and planning that we were not nearly motivated or organised enough to complete. Two of the most popular destinations are Caracol, dramatic Mayan ruins that are said to rival the famous Tikal in Guatemala. Tours to Caracol cost around 110 USD per person. In theory, it is possible to visit solo, but that roads down to the site are atrocious and there have been reports of armed muggings.
The other major attraction, and the one we chose to splurge on, is a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave. Every tour operator in San Ignacio operates trips to ATM, and they all charge 95 USD per person for the day trip. ATM cannot be visited without a local, licensed guide (of which there are 22 operating in the area). These guides can be hired independently, though how and for how much I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
ATM draws such a consistent crowd due to the unique archeology of the site. It is a magnificent cave, with towering stalagmites, amazing flowstone formations, and incredible caverns. On top of that (which really wouldn’t be enough to justify a $95 tour), there are still an astounding amount of Mayan artefacts remaining in the cave, including pottery, skulls, and an entire skeleton. These artefacts are, for the most part, left exactly as they have been found, and minimal barriers (tape guiding you along the pathway) allow you to view, up close, spectacularly preserved pieces of Mayan life. Needless to say, this is a rare experience, probably entirely unique for the average tourist, and would be impossible to find elsewhere in the world. With that in mind, we bit the bullet and shelled out for the ATM tour.
The tour starts early in San Ignacio. Most people met at the shop of our tour company; a couple of the outliers got picked up along the way. We also made stops in town for the guide’s breakfast, gas, what appeared to be entrance tickets, and a couple other things. Now we saw why we needed to have a 7 a.m. start. We made our way along the highway, back towards the centre of Belize. At the turnoff from the main road, we stopped again, where I refreshed the snack pile. After approximately 30 minutes, we finally all got back in the van. We learned that we’d been waiting to pick up more people who were, in fact, waiting at the entrance to park. Let’s just say efficiency isn’t the tour’s strong point.
We arrived at the entrance to ATM and separated into groups for the trip. Guides must be licensed in order to conduct tours, and there is a maximum of 8 guests per trip. The only gear that is provided for the trip is a helmet and a head torch (along with lunch). It’s about an hour walk from the car park to the entrance of the cave, and it includes three river crossings (really more like streams,) so you’re going to be wet from the onset. Wear running shoes or good walking sandals. You also need to wear or bring a pair of socks. At the entrance to the cave, we stopped for a bite to eat, and then went for it: it’s a short swim to get inside, and the water is cold. You’re going to spend the vast majority of the trip wet, so clothes can be a tricky one. You’re also asked to not wear only a swimsuit in the caves, to show respect. I wore shorts and a tank top, and Tim brought along his dry bag with a few layers of merino wool. I tend to get very cold (particularly in dark, damp caves) so layered up with the wool as we went. It will keep you warmer, even if it’s soaking wet. A wetsuit would be ideal, in my opinion, but don’t expect any extra gear.
As we made our way through the cave, at times neck deep in water, we admired the formations and learnt about Mayan history. The cave was used as an important area for ceremonies and sacrifices, including human sacrifice, and the remains of some of these humans can still be seen. Photos are not allowed in the cave, due to several instances of careless tourists dropping cameras or lenses on the ancient artefacts, and breaking them. (Including directly onto a skull – in the teeth and the forehead – creating irreparable damage.) After clambering out of the water, over almost natural ladders formed in the rock, you get the opportunity to come up close and personal with these artefacts. The cave remains outstanding as you tuck in and under the stone, following a bright tape line along the ground. At one stage, you are asked to remove your shoes, so as to literally tread more lightly on the important site. Eventually, the cave opens up into a spectacular chamber, the ground a lovely and uneven flow stone. Water, dripping slowly from the ceiling, enhanced the feeling of the isolated cave while illustrating how the beauty inside was formed. Seeing the skulls, the bones, and then finally the full skeleton trapped inside the cave, while listening to chilling stories of animal and human sacrifice was certainly an experience. It finally came time to leave the cave, so we scaled down the sketchy ladders, trotted across the stone floors, jumped back into the icy waters, and emerged into the light on the outside. We finished off the rest of our lunch and headed home, the 45-minute walk followed by about an hour-long drive before we were back in San Ignacio. Though the price tag is high, Actun Munichil Muknal is definitely a unique experience, and something that is worth doing if you find yourself in that corner of Belize.