Salt of the earth in San Ignacio

Published: May 3rd 2016
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Having spent the morning wandering the incredible Maya ruins at Tikal National Park and lunching at Lago de Peten Itza, we were leaving Guatemala and making our way to San Ignacio, a small town in western Belize. We left Tikal around 2:30pm and headed to the Belizean border for our first land crossing. We arrived at the border around 4pm, jumped out of the minibus into the searing heat of the afternoon sun, walked into the holding area between Guatemala and Belize, had our passports stamped, paid the 20 quetzal exit fee and walked into Belize. I was surprised how easy the crossing was.

We loaded our packs into a minibus waiting for us on the Belizean side of the border and continued our journey to San Ignacio. We arrived around 4:30pm and headed straight to the MayaWalk Tours office to book the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Tour for the following day. The tour is billed as ‘…one of the most unforgettable and adventurous tours you can make in Belize’, so we had to do it!

After a quick briefing on the tour (and the odd rum punch), we withdrew some Belizean dollars from a nearby ATM and headed to the Midas Hotel. We checked in, showered in our strangely semi-circle shaped room, sorted a day pack for the following day and walked into town for dinner at Ko-Ox Han-Nah Restaurant (translated as ‘Let’s Go Eat’ in Mayan). We both ordered the lamb burger and chips, partially based on recommendations from others and partially based on the fact that the place was thriving, with every table taken and a queue to get in. You couldn’t even reserve a table, so everyone stood outside until a table came up. If one didn’t come up, you ate on the street. Eventually one did, and our lamb burgers arrived soon after. Mine was smoky and delicious, but Ren’s was charred and dry. The luck of the draw, I suppose, especially considering the huge output from such a tiny kitchen. After a few beers and rum and pineapple juices, we walked back to the hotel, picking up some water for the following day. After a long and eventful travel day, we crashed at 10pm.

We woke early, checked email, loaded our packs into our minibus for the day and then headed into San Ignacio for breakfast at 6:30am. We sat down at Eva’s Restaurant and Bar, just across the road from the MayaWalk Tours office. After a fresh pineapple juice, I had the granola and yoghurt and Ren had the pancakes. It was a good start to a long day ahead. We spoke with an old English ex-pat at the table beside us, who had to apologise for a fairly viscous altercation between our bus driver and another tour guide on the street in front of us. Needless to say, we didn’t see our driver again – a new driver appeared within minutes! The old ex-pat spoke of the border conflict between Guatemala and Belize, and while he tried to be objective, he couldn’t help but side with his Belizean countrymen. With a population of 350,000, he felt the Belize was a minnow compared to the might of the Guatemalan army, and he felt his country was being picked on…

We left San Ignacio at 7:30am. On our way out of town, we drove past a graffiti image on the side of a building depicting a blood-letting ritual of the Maya’s. I’d taken a picture of the image while I was waiting for breakfast, and I had no idea (at the time) of its significance. As we travelled eastward, the suburban streets of Belize slowly gave way to open roads and agricultural countryside. We turned at Teakettle Village and found ourselves on a dirt track leading to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Endless plantations of teak, mahogany, Spanish cedar, palm, kapok, almonds, cashews, plantain and orange trees dotted the landscape as we jolted our way to the ranger’s post. We clambered out of the minibus, prepared our helmets and rubber shoes, walked 45 minutes through the jungle (with three river crossings) and finally arrived at the entrance to the cave – an inconspicuous gap in the side of a hill.

We fitted our helmets with headlamps, swam across a small spring-fed pool and began our journey into the dark underworld of Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre). In pitch darkness, with only the dim light of our helmets, we walked, swam, crawled, climbed, slipped and clambered through the maze of tunnels, passageways and chambers of the cave system. In the first section we were always in water, sometimes neck high, squeezing through crevices that were barely big enough for our heads to fit through. After about an hour of wading and swimming through water, we heaved ourselves out of the cave’s river system and climbed into the Maya ceremonial chamber to witness ceramic pots and crystallized skeletons which have been preserved for over 1,400 years. This sacred burial place was mesmerising, and we had managed to get ourselves in here with our guide – a long, long way underground and a long, long way from daylight. I suddenly realised how incredibly reliant we were on our headlamps!

We climbed down out of the dry ceremonial chamber and then re-traced our steps through the cave’s river system. At one stage we turned off our headlamps and walked in knee to chest deep water for a few minutes. When sight is completely withdrawn, your reliance on touch becomes paramount. We turned our headlamps back on and kept negotiating running water and narrow rock crevices until suddenly in the distance we could see the faint shimmer of daylight – we were back at the entrance! We swam out of the cave, climbed up onto dry ground, took off our helmets and set off on the 45 minute return hike through the jungle. This had been an exhilarating experience and a highlight of the trip so far.

We arrived back at the ranger’s post at 2pm, dragged off our wet clothes and sat down to a basic but welcome homemade picnic lunch of chicken, rice and slaw. The free flowing rum punch was also very welcome after such an incredible experience. We hurried through our lunch and left the nature reserve at 2.30pm. We had a two hour drive to Belize City, and once we arrived at the coastal city we had to catch a 4.30pm ferry to Caye Caulker, so time was tight – very tight.

After we finished our exploration of the ruins in Tikal National Park, we said goodbye to Guatemala (for now) and headed towards the border with Belize as we were heading to San Ignacio. The drive took about two hours. When we stopped at a petrol station for a toilet break on the Guatemalan side of the border, a money changer came right up to the bus, and his exchange rates were surprisingly pretty good.

It was probably one of the more basic and easy border crossings I’ve experienced. We simply paid our exit fee, got our passports stamped on the Guatemalan side, then crossed the border and got our passports stamped on the Belize side, and that was it. We essentially had the whole immigration building to ourselves.

While Belize isn’t a rich country by global standards, the difference between Guatemala and Belize was noticeable when we crossed the border, especially the improved buildings and cars. The drive to San Ignacio in the Cayo District took about another 30 minutes.

Belize is an English speaking country, which is rare in Central America. It was a nice change to be able to easily read signage. However, the spoken version of English wasn’t as easy to understand as I had thought it would be. Belizean Creole seemed to be the language of choice for everyday encounters, and my ears had to get used to the sing-song Caribbean intonation before I could make any sense of what people were saying. Belize is wedged snugly between Mexico and Guatemala, and it looked to be quite off the beaten track.

I had heard that the Belizeans were renowned for their relaxed and easy going lifestyle, and my first impressions certainly confirmed this. They were even more relaxed and easy going than the Guatemalans, which I guess goes hand-in-hand with the bigger Caribbean influence. Most of the travel warnings about crime in Belize centred on Belize City, and rarely mentioned the smaller towns and rural areas.

This tiny country has an abundance of tropical forests, mountains, rivers, more than 500 species of birds and the biggest reef system after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Since they have managed to keep their human population relatively small, Belize’s environment and wildlife are reportedly flourishing.

Given it is such a small country, I was amazed at how many different cultures co-exist harmoniously here. The main groups are Creole (English speakers descended from African slaves who worked in the colonial mahogany industry), Mestizos (of mixed Hispanic and indigenous origin), Maya (three distinct indigenous tribes of Yucatecan, Mopan and Kekchi Maya), and Garifuna (descended from African slaves and the indigenous inhabitants of the eastern Caribbean islands). There are also smaller ethic groups of Indians, Chinese, Arabs and German speaking Mennonites.

We were picked up at the border by the MayaWalk Adventure Tours minibus and driven to their office in San Ignacio. A few of us wanted to get a briefing on the tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. I had read about the cave as being the best adventure tour to do in the area, but I had given up hope of doing it when I also read that the opening to the cave was a 4.5m long swim across a deep pool, and that there were parts of the cave where the water would easily be above my head. Andrew was concerned about a section where we had to scramble over a boulder and then climb to a rock shelf using a tall metal rung ladder. However, at the briefing and after talking to Sophie who had walked through the cave several times, we both decided that we really wanted to do it. So we signed up for the next morning along with Hoa, Gavin, Megan, Brendan, Lisa and Lauren. While we were getting briefed at the MayaWalk office, we were given our first taste of rum punch, and I realised that rum punch and I were going to be good friends. 😊

No sooner had we checked into Hotel Midas Resort and sorted ourselves out, we headed out for dinner. The rooms at the hotel were curious round cabana type things, which meant we had a semi-circular bathroom, which was the most awkward design I’ve ever seen. The hotel was having a few electrical issues, and we couldn’t get our air conditioning working, but that paled into insignificance when the power went off completely for a little while. Luckily it came back on and none of our charging electronics were affected by it.

We headed to Ko-Ox Han-nah for dinner which was a very popular spot, and we had to wait 20 minutes for a table. We had drinks while we waited, and it turned out that rum and pineapple juice makes waiting a lot more palatable. The recommended dish was lamb, as the owners have their own farm. We both ordered the lamb burger with feta and chips and it did not disappoint, even though my burger was a bit on the charred side. We were finally in the land of Mary Sharp’s Hot Sauces, and judging from how much of the sauce we used in our meals, we’ll probably have to take a whole box of bottles home! 😊

Walking the streets of San Ignacio, I got the impression that it was a very small and quiet town with a lovely ambiance. It was surrounded by fast flowing rivers, waterfalls and Maya ruins, and was an ideal first introduction to Belize. It was a pity we couldn’t spend more time here, but it meant we had an extra day at our next destination… and therein lies the dilemma of making decisions about how to divide up time on a trip.

After sleeping very soundly, those of us doing the ATM cave tour were picked up from our hotel in the early morning at 6:20am (these early starts were starting to get a bit much). We sat down to a quick breakfast at Eva’s Cafe near the MayaWalk office. I was a little nervous about the high energy activity ahead of us, so chose a safe breakfast option of pineapple juice and pancakes.

At 7:30am we received another quick briefing from Francisco, our lead guide, who also checked we’d got the required footwear and so on for the cave tour. He reiterated that we couldn’t take any bags or cameras with us into the cave. We then drove to the northern foothills of the Maya Mountains, passing small settlements, large farms mostly farmed by the Mennonite community, orange orchards and plantations of teak, sapodilla and mahogany.

The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave translates to Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, and it contains all manner of Maya relics and human remains. The Maya referred to anything below ground as their sacred underworld - Xibalba. Archaeologists have many theories about the pottery that has been found in the cave, and the main theory is that the cave was a ceremonial site that the Maya used to conduct rituals to pray for rain. However, there are still many unexplained (and unexplainable) aspects about the findings.

We reached the ranger’s post and started a beautiful 45 minute jungle hike following the Roaring Creek River, which we eventually had to cross. The water was knee high for me and the rocks and pebbles on the river bed were slippery, so I took my time crossing it. We crossed two more creeks and then came to the entrance of the cave. We left our water bottles here and put on our helmets with headlamps. Francisco gave us a final briefing and Megan and I had to put on our life jackets, as the very first thing we had to do was across the deep pool at the mouth of the cave.

With Sophie and Andrew’s help, I made it across the pool. The water was refreshingly cold but I have to admit I was very relieved when that part of the journey had been completed. Francisco then assigned us a number and asked that we walk in single file as he led the way into the cave (which, by the way, is 4.8km long).

The cave is divided into wet and dry chambers, and for the wet part of the walk we were constantly in at least ankle deep water. On two or three occasions it was too deep for me to walk, so Andrew guided me through. Some sections were so narrow and small that we had to crouch and even slide into crevices sideways. One of my favourite bits was a small section of narrow canyon where I was too short to touch the bottom, and had to propel myself forward using only my upper body and letting the current carry me. I also loved the ‘decapitation chamber’ where the rock opening was so narrow in a certain section that if you didn’t fit you head and shoulder through at a certain angle to position your neck into the narrow opening, you couldn’t get through. It was so narrow that I had to take my life jacket off in order to squeeze through. The deeper we waded into the bowels of the earth, the darker and colder it got.

Every now and again we’d stop and admire the stunning flowstone rock formations in the cave. The stalactites and stalagmites were large and imposing, and the limestone rock walls glittered with quartz.

We eventually made it to the dry chamber of the cave, which we entered by clambering over a large boulder (which was a bit challenging for the shorter legged among us). At this point we had to take off our shoes and walk in our wet socks in order to protect the limestone cave floor. This is supposed to be the highlight of the cave exploration, as it is where all the pottery and skeletal remains are. The final chamber holds the calcite-encrusted ‘crystallised’ skeleton which they think is about 1400 years old (and after who the cave is named). I enjoyed most of what the dry chamber had to offer. However, by this stage the air was cold and we were standing around in wet clothes and wet socks which made me a bit chilled, so I couldn’t wait to get moving again.

The return trip was almost along the same path, but Francisco briefly took us along more challenging sections of the cave. The other main difference was that at a certain point Francisco asked us to stand in a very straight line, turn off our headlamps, hold hands and walk for a part of the way in complete darkness. It was a very weird sensation, and I enjoyed it until Andrew grazed his knee quite badly on a rock.

We finally reached the pool at the entrance of the cave and swam towards the light. We were all so happy that we had experienced the ATM cave, especially for me as this was my first real caving encounter and it had been seriously amazing. I can see how it can become an addictive activity.

We didn’t get out of the cave until midday and still had the 45 minute jungle hike back to the ranger’s post where our minibus was. It was really funny that the three stream and river crossings that we had so carefully crossed on the way into the cave seemed like child’s play on the way back. 😊

We were served a packed lunch of rice and chicken with slaw on our return, with the now ubiquitous Belizean rum punch. I don’t know if it was because we were ravenous, but the meal tasted fabulous. By now time was running away from us and we had to make a hurried exit in order to get to Belize City in time for our water taxi to Caye Caulker, our next destination. The drive turned into a comedy of errors, because we were assigned a new driver who not only drove very slowly but also got lost in Belize City. It was a stressful trip, but we just made it to the ferry terminal with minutes to spare. We definitely slept well that night.

Next we travel northeast to Caye Caulker off the east coast of Belize.

(All ATM cave photos courtesy of MayaWalk Tours, due to the fact that our cameras weren’t allowed in the cave)


3rd May 2016

First world thought..
I must admit that when I first saw the caption "atm cave" my first thought was "wait-there's a cash machine way back there?" Just goes to show that a first world mind-set can sneak up on you when you're not paying attention.
3rd May 2016

Re: First world thought..
For exactly that reason, I would have preferred to call it by its full name... but it was such a long and complex name :)
3rd May 2016

From underground to underwater
Very exciting adventure, and the cave and water were stunning. Rum punch as a reward for a hard slog and for crossing the border sounds properly hedonistic. Wise to choose to spend the extra day on the more exotic Caye Caulker where you'll be undoubtedly be having underwater adventures. Something new and amazing every day!
3rd May 2016

Re: From underground to underwater
It was the most exciting adventure I've had in a while! And there is no doubt that I would be much more motivated about a lot of things if rum punch was the reward :)
3rd May 2016

Good friends with the rum punch & hot sauce
Watch that punch it will sneak up on you. You might end up taking two crates of the hot sauce home if you've had too much rum punch. I have a cousin that is an avid caver. I would not like standing around chilled. I hate getting to the terminal with just a few minutes to spare. I would not have liked that.
4th May 2016

Re: Good friends with the rum punch & hot sauce
We've been experiencing such hot conditions that it didn't even occur to me that it may be cold deep inside the cave. I wish we could take two crates of hot sauce home! And two crates of rum wouldn't be bad either :)
7th May 2016

To do or not to do?
It is great when you push yourself to do something outside your comfort zone or are just a bit worried about doing and it ends up being fantastic. The ATM cave looks sensational, and we too just LOVE easy border crossings, sort makes you want to turn around and do it again.
8th May 2016

Re: To do or not to do?
I think we both enjoyed the caves just that little bit more because we weren't 100% sure about doing it :) We loved that border crossing, but the crossings got more complicated further on in the trip...
7th May 2016

Fantastic - thanks for this, a great read! I must admit I'm exhausted from just reading about your adventures, and I'm definitely the two-nights in a place type of traveller myself. But well done on managing to cover so much so quickly, a very enjoyable read indeed. I hadn't read about the ATM cave on my travel research so far, so thank you for introducing me to it - I may have to do the briefing myself too before I'd take on such a challenge! Well done both for doing it! You're right, amazing that we're doing the same trip again! As you say, great minds think alike :)
8th May 2016

Re: Fantastic
Haha yes we packed a lot into those first two weeks of the trip. We would highly recommend looking up the ATM Caves, there are only 20 or so licensed guides who can take you into the caves, so it's quite regulated. Hope you are enjoying your travel planning :)

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