Week 12 – San Ignacio, Belize, and Flores, Guatemala
Hi everyone! We’ve had an absolutely incredible week this week filled with amazing highlights. We’ve been learning a lot about Mayan history and visited three more Mayan sites.
Today was my favourite day so far this holiday. We had booked onto a tour to go to see Belize’s famous ATM caves. Actun Tunichil Muknal (you can see why they abbreviate it) means ‘cave of the crystal sepulchre’ in Mayan, and is one of the multiple caves in Belize where they have found Mayan artefacts.
The Mayans believed that the world was divided into the heavens, the earth and the underworld, connected by the branches, trunk and roots of the huge Ceiba tree – the national tree of Guatemala. They believed that Gods inhabited both the heavens and the underworld. Belize has an extensive cave system, due to the limestone bedrock of the Maya Mountains. The Mayans believed that the caves served as entrances to the underworld. They would therefore enter the caves with gifts and sacrifices to the Gods who they believed lived inside.
We chose to go on the tour with a man called ‘Carlos the Caveman‘, who was really friendly and kept making a lot of jokes. He called me ‘Doctor’ and Ben ‘England’, and kept telling us to “take it easy, Doctor! Take a break England!” He deliberately timed our visit so that we’d be the last group to arrive at the caves, meaning they’d be less crowded as everybody else would be leaving. This meant that he picked us up and then drove around the town randomly for about an hour killing time!
When we arrived at the site, we had to walk for about 45 minutes to get to the caves. This involved swimming through a river to get to the trail. The water was quite ‘refreshing’, as Carlos put it, and I was glad that there was a rope to hold as you swam across because I could definitely feel the current.
As we walked along the trail, Carlos kept stopping to pick different leaves off of trees for us to try. He grew up in a village nearby and was really knowledgeable about the different plants and their uses. My favourite was a plant stem that tasted a bit like liquorice. At one point, he cut a hole in the side of a termite mound and picked up a few termites for us to eat! I politely declined (by that, read ‘said no very emphatically and walked about ten metres away from the crazy man and his termites’), but Ben was braver than me and ate one live. He said it tasted like carrots. To be honest, I’d rather eat a carrot!
You aren’t allowed to take photos in the ATM cave because years ago a tourist dropped their camera on an ancient skull and smashed it. It was a shame, but in a way it was also good because it meant I didn’t think at all about getting good photos and instead just focused on what we were seeing. The photos that I’ve included below are from Google to give you some idea as to what we saw.
To get into the caves you had to swim. A river runs through the cave, so for the whole journey we were wading through water that varied between ankle and chest height. As we swam into the cave the water was really clear and we could see loads of fish. We all had head torches on, so as the light from the entrance disappeared we were picking up the details of the cave with these.
Most of the cave was very wide and tall, so it was easy to walk through. At one point we scrambled up to a ledge where Carlos showed us some ancient Mayan pottery, thought to date back to between 250-900 A.D (mostly 700-900 A.D). It was really cool. The walls had lots of shiny calcite crystals, and there were loads of stalagmites and stalactites. At some points the cave narrowed and we had to squeeze through gaps sideways. One in particular was a narrow tunnel with water up to our chests. It was a bit scary, but thankfully it was only a short distance, and then we were out into another wide cave.
At one point, our light fell on a plant! We couldn’t believe it, as we were in the pitch black. Carlos explained that the seeds had been brought in via bat droppings. It wouldn’t survive much longer, but when we saw it it had a number of healthy looking green leaves. Nature is incredible. We also saw cave crickets, a centipede and a spider. I don’t know how they have anything to eat down there.
Carlos had timed it perfectly, and as we were walking through the cave we saw a lot of other groups leaving, but nobody heading into the caves. We arrived at the main cavern, which required scrambling up some rocks to a platform level, and we were totally alone in there which was great.
The main cavern was absolutely HUGE! The very definition of cavernous. The floor was all smooth flowstone – huge sheets of calcite or calcium carbonate deposits, formed when water flows through a cave. There were loads of stalagmites and stalactites, including some huge pillars where the two had connected.
The cavern was also full of Mayan artefacts. There were loads of pieces of pottery. Some of them had been calcified to the floor, partially covered by the flowstone. Others were still free. Carlos said that they had been analysed and contained various substances including incense, which indicates they were used for religious rituals. The barriers between us and the artefacts were just ropes on the floor, so we could lean right over to examine them, as long as we didn’t touch anything. One of the pots even had a small monkey carved onto it.
There were also skeletal remains of a number of different people. At the very back of the cave was the ‘crystal maiden’, the full skeleton of a teenage girl. This skeleton lies in the path of the floodwaters that fill the cave every year, and as a result the skeleton is becoming calcified like the floor around her. Carlos explained that there was evidence that the Mayans left sacrifices and offerings to the Gods deeper into the cave as time went on. As I wrote in my last post, in around 900 A.D the Mayans abandoned their cities. Recent evidence suggests that there was a long period of drought around this time. Carlos explained that the current hypothesis is that the Mayans were getting more and more desperate, and so were venturing deeper and deeper into the caves to ask for the intervention of the Gods. We also learnt that around the same time the Mayans abandoned their cities, there was also a change in the social structure of their community. Rulers, who had previously been given God-like status, lost their influence and the hierarchical structure declined. The Mayans believed that their rulers could control the sun and bring the rain, and therefore it’s likely that as the drought continued, they lost confidence in their rulers’ divinity.
Once we got to the very back of the main cavern, Carlos asked us all to turn our lights off so we were in absolute darkness. We sat quietly and could hear water dripping, but no other sounds. My eyes kept playing tricks on me, and I thought there was light out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned that way it was still pitch black. It was really strange.
We had an absolutely incredible day. On the way back out of the cave, we had to pass through one narrow gap that you could only fit through if you put your shoulders in the water, and squeezed your neck and head through sideways! We all survived so it was all good!
Today we decided to immerse ourselves in more Mayan history by visiting the archaeological site of Xunantunich (pronounced shoe-man-tu-nitch). Rafael, the man who owns the hostel we’re staying in, kindly drove us to the site. He’s so friendly! To get there we had to cross a river on a hand-winch powered ferry. It was such a small river we wondered why they didn’t just build a bridge, but Rafael said that this way they could control access to the site. It was quite fun too.
Xunantunich means ‘sculpture of lady’, after the ‘stone woman’ or ghost who apparently inhabits the site. It’s a larger and more excavated site than Cahal Pech, which we visited last week. Its most impressive building is the ‘El Castillo’ temple (apparently also used as dwelling and an administrative centre), which you can climb right to the top of. Xunantunich has a number of buildings, including temples and palaces where important people used to live. It’s amazing to think that even with all that there is on display, so much of the site still hasn’t been uncovered or excavated. There are a number of mounds that look like hills, but are actually buried buildings. Because the limestone buildings start to erode when exposed to the rain, they are better protected when left alone.
We were instantly awed by the main temple, and couldn’t wait to climb it. The steps were quite steep! We were glad it wasn’t raining as I think they’d have been really slippery. We passed a number of tour groups, but because we headed directly for the top we got there without any large crowds. The view was stunning! As well as an overview of the site, you could see all of the surrounding countryside. A guide pointed out the Guatemalan border to us – we were only about a mile away from it. It was cool to stand there and look out over two countries at once.
The rest of the site was also really interesting. We saw some friezes which were replicas, but which showed the decorative carvings that the archaeologists had found on the sides of the temples. We also climbed up another building directly opposite the temple, meaning we could appreciate it in all its glory. It was amazing.
On the way back out of the site we passed a group of howler monkeys. They were so loud! They sound quite haunting and a bit scary when you hear them from far away and can’t see them! The video below should show you just how loud they were. It’s crazy.
To make up for an adrenaline filled weekend of adventure, we used today as an admin day and sat down to book the next couple of weeks of our travels in Guatemala. We met another couple from England who were really friendly, and it was nice to exchange travel stories with them.
Today was our last full day in Belize, and we decided to visit the Blue Hole National Park. Belize rather confusingly has two blue holes – the amazing one out in the ocean that looks incredible from the air, and a much smaller one in the middle of the jungle! We went to the latter.
The Blue Hole park was divided into two parts. The first was St Herman’s cave, and the second was the Blue Hole itself. We were allowed to enter the cave ourselves up to 200 yards, but after that you needed a guide. We forgot our flashlights, but turned down the offer to hire one and decided to use our phone torches instead. (Note to self – phone torches are NOT the equivalent of a head torch!)
The cave was massive, and we quickly felt like we were swallowed up by the earth. It wasn’t very deep, but once we rounded a corner away from the entrance it was really dark. We couldn’t really see very much detail with our phones, but the impression that we got was that it was a very tall, deep cave. As we left we saw some people coming in on a cave tubing adventure, so I think that this cave also has a river running through it. We liked the view looking back towards the entrance -truly the light at the end of the tunnel, it was really craggy and beautiful.
We had to walk through the jungle for about 45 minutes to get to the Blue Hole site. We were following the path when suddenly we came across a snake! From looking at images on Google now we’re pretty sure it was a harmless ring-necked snake, however at the time we had no idea how worried we should be. We ended up carefully stepping around it, and then spent the rest of the hike with our eyes glued to the ground. It’s not easy when there are so many fallen branches and tree roots. At one point a leaf dropped to the ground right in front of me, and I was so on edge that I screamed and nearly gave Ben a heart attack. Thankfully we didn’t see any others and made it to the Blue Hole without being eaten.
The Blue Hole was formed by the collapse of an underground cave. The underground river that runs through the cave system has formed a deep pool that is a beautiful turquoise colour. Apparently it’s around 25 feet deep. I went for a swim there and it was really nice and refreshing. I wish I’d brought goggles to see down to the bottom!
Today we bid farewell to Belize. We were driven to the border by the super kind Rafael. It was a bit of a shock to pass through immigration and immediately be faced with a group of taxi drivers all asking us where we wanted to go in Spanish. My Spanish brain was a bit rusty after Costa Rica (very touristy) and Belize (official language English), so it took me a few minutes to get back into it!
Flores is a small town on an island in a lake, connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is very touristy, as it is the jumping off point for tours to Tikal, the famous Mayan city. The lake feels like it’s held back from the island only by a wall running around the shoreline – indeed on one side of the island there’s a flooded street that looks like it’s been that way for some time and had fish swimming in it!
It was raining when we arrived in Flores, so we took shelter in a bar with a lake view to have some lunch. It was really cool to see the mist clear and the view expand as the rain stopped. We checked into our hostel, and found that we could arrange our transport to Tikal and also our transport on to our next destination in Guatemala through the hostel. It was very convenient!
Today we had a relatively quiet day. When we’d been researching Tikal, we’d read that if we bought a day ticket to the site after 3pm, it would be valid for the following day as well, so we’d chosen to stay in a hostel right next to the ruins to take advantage of this. Unfortunately when we arrived we found out that this was no longer the case! Rather than paying for two days entry, we decided to spend the first day relaxing. We caught the bus from Flores to Tikal and checked into our hostel. We went for a wander around the grounds of the hostel and saw some parrots and some spider monkeys, which was really cool. We had to get an early night because we’d booked onto a sunrise tour the following day, and needed to be up at 4am!
Today was awesome! We woke up at 3:45am ready for our sunrise tour. The electricity had been turned off in the night, so we had to get dressed by torchlight. When I opened the door, there was a scorpion on the pavement! I shut it quickly and told Ben that there was a ‘huge thing with antlers’ outside. He was expecting some sort of deer – I’m so good at descriptions!
After also successfully evading a killer spider, we met our tour guide and got ready to leave. There were only four of us on the tour, hardly surprising seeing as it was pouring with rain. The guide said he was impressed that we were actually going despite the weather – although as this was our only day to see Tikal, we didn’t have a lot of choice!
We set off on our hike, with head torches, raincoats and our bag stuffed into a dry bag. The guide explained some of the history of Tikal to us as we walked. I had my third dramatic wildlife encounter of the morning when I almost trod on a snake that the guide said was a highly venemous ‘fer de lance’ viper. Oh dear! Thank goodness for thick walking boots.
Tikal’s first settlers arrived in around 300 B.C, and it became an important Mayan city, particularly between 300 and 850 A.D. It’s built in the rainforest, and apparently became such an influential city because of its natural resources (particularly flint), its fertile land and its position on the Mayan trade route.
The site is massive (16 square kilometres), and apparently has around 3000 buildings, although many of them are still covered by soil and plants. It was really fun to discover the site by torchlight. We’d be walking along a path, and then our guide would direct his light to one side and we’d see a massive temple or pyramid looming out of the dark that we hadn’t noticed.
Our guide showed us some original stone carvings. They had drawings of people, and glyphs that the guide explained was an example of Mayan writing. Apparently they had one of the most sophisticated written languages of their time. Amazingly, people have managed to translate most of these hieroglyphs, no mean feat considering that during the Spanish conquest a number of Mayan texts were destroyed. The guide told us that the glyphs we were seeing described the date of the carving, and the name of the ruler who was represented. It was really cool.
We arrived at the base of Temple 4 while it was still dark. Temple 4 is the highest temple in Tikal, at 70m. We climbed up to the top of it, and along with around 30 other tourists from different groups, sat in the rain to wait for the sun to rise. The weird things that tourists do!
Because of the weather we didn’t get the fantastic view of the sun coming up that we’d been hoping for, but it was still incredible. The sky slowly got lighter, and as it did the silhouettes of other buildings became apparent. The howler monkeys and birds woke up, so we got to enjoy the sounds of the jungle. As the light got brighter we got a great view of Temples 1, 2 and 3 breaking through the canopy. It was incredible.
We returned to ground level at around 6:45am, and continued with our tour. Unfortunately the rain didn’t let up much. We climbed up the pyramid in the ‘lost world’ plaza, and got another incredible view, this time including Temple 4. It was gorgeous.
Once our tour ended, we continued to explore on our own. We saw the ball courts, where they used to play a game that sounds a bit like volleyball (keeping the ball in the air), only instead of passing the ball over a net, you had to score goals by getting it through a hoop attached to one of the side walls (in the opposite orientation of a basketball net – you had to pass the ball through horizontally). We also explored the ruins of what was believed to be a residential area for some of the important members of Tikal’s society.
My favourite place was the main plaza. It had two large temples (temple 1 and 2) facing each other, as well as buildings off to either side. We climbed up temple 2 and enjoyed the view. It was amazing.
We finished in the park at around 11am, and returned to our hostel to dry off and check out, before catching the bus back to Flores. The hostel we had stayed at in Flores the previous night kindly let us store our bags there and hang out. We had booked onto a night bus to take us to our next destination, Lake Atitlán, so we spent the rest of our afternoon hanging around in the hostel’s common area and writing this blog!
My next post will be of our final week in Guatemala, before we bid farewell to Central America and fly on to Brazil! This week we’re going to visit a gorgeous lake, a UNESCO heritage town, and hopefully climb a volcano, so there’ll be loads to update you on!