If you’re picturing us wandering down a hostile street, possibly armed to the teeth keeping an eye out for hidden gunmen, whilst it may make us look tougher in your mind, it is a little bit of a ways from the truth…
Let me go back to the start as we made the ferry crossing from Caye Caulker to Belize City.
The trip itself was uneventful, the only things of note being a random stop at an island that looks as though it had been converted totally into a golf course (where I think we picked up some mail), and a drunken passenger who decided to make use of the open back of the boat to try and relieve himself, almost falling out of the boat in the process.
Before long, we were slowing down on the approach to the small harbour, the entrance narrowing before entering the city’s major river.
Our original plan was to base ourselves in the former capital for a night or two, however on arrival and after seeing the decrepit nature of the place we decided to head directly on to San Ignacio.
It looked intriguing so we had planned to explore it for a while, however our plan to leave our packs at the bus terminal failed when we discovered that there wasn’t actually any luggage storage facility.
As such, after quickly grabbing a nice cold (and delicious) orange juice, we jumped on board a soon to be departing bus towards the western edge of the country.
It wasn’t long before the weather turned, and our conductor was busying himself about the bus making sure that all of the windows were closed.
Oddly enough, the main door of the bus remained open despite the rain continuing (nor was it long before the window seal beside my arm had sprung a leak).
Depositing us in the heart of the smallish San Ignacio, it took us a little while to get our bearings and make our way to a guesthouse recommended by a couple of fellow travellers.
We eventually found it (J & R’s Guesthouse) and booked a room for the night, frustratingly finding another place closer to the square as soon as we went out to seek some food that was $15.00 BZ cheaper a night!
There was a dual purpose for our visit to San Ignacio.
First was to visit the Mayan ruins of Caracol and second was to try our hand at the adventurous exploration of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (an ancient Mayan sacrificial site), better known as the ATM caves.
We’d left Caye Caulker fresh recipients of the news that Caracol was closed indefinitely after the tragic execution style murder of a Tourist Police officer.
Our arrival in San Ignacio was met with the news that the ruins remained closed, so instead we shopped around and found a good deal for a tour to the ATM caves for the following day.
This promised to be unlike any cave experience we’d shared in the past.
No cameras are allowed (not since an American tourist dropped his camera back in 2012 smashing an ancient skull), shoes must be worn for the bulk of the swim and climbing within, whilst for the very final stage, where we would be walking amongst calcified ceramic remains and skeletons, we would be in socks.
The reason for the socks is to protect the rocks and bones from the oils in our skin.
It was about half an hour after our proposed pick-up time (we were there waiting, our driver however was not) that we found ourselves on the way, our tour group totalling eight. The two of us, plus four American/Canadian medical students (who thought that everything was awesome), and another couple who had journeyed from San Pedro who we picked up en route!
When we eventually made it to the caves, we were issued with helmets to which would be attached head lamps (to my relief, fastened much better than the lamp I was forced to wear during our Phong Nha adventures).
It was also at this point that we learned that not only were shoes required, but swimsuits would be offensive to the local Mayans, meaning no t-shirt was an option for me, and swimming in just her bikini was not an option for Sarah!
Given that we only had one change of clothing each (we’d not been advised of this fact), it meant we would likely be a damp couple on the journey back from the caves.
We did however feel better prepared than the four aspiring doctors, as they hadn’t even brought shoes for the swim!
Our tour had included some water shoes (they’d booked through a different operator so theirs did not), so we sacrificed our water booties and stuck with our sneakers meaning everybody could now complete the trip.
The trek to the cave involved wading the same stream on 3 separate occasions, the first of which felt quite cold, a little bit cooler than mere relief from the heat.
We strolled along a relatively new path, freshly hacked through the jungle in preparation for the soon to begin tourist season (which meant the path was quite loose as it had not yet settled), eventually reaching the entrance where one tributary emerged from the caves darkened depths.
It was time to light our lamps and begin our descent (and sometimes ascent) into darkness, starting with a swim across some fairly deep waters at the caves entrance.
At times it was tough going, not so much from the effort needed (although we did pass a couple of 70 something ladies on a separate tour who impressed us with their efforts), but as much from when we were forced to stand still in the frigid waters whilst our guide explained some meaningful rock formation or other detail.
It wasn’t long before Sarah was shivering or at best, covered in goose bumps, making the times when we had to immerse our whole bodies bar our head, something none of us would look forward to.
Eventually it was time to climb, and it was here we left the river behind, as well as our shoes, as we began to creep ever deeper into this spiritual.
We started to spy pottery, some of it broken, some of it surprisingly complete, and much of it glistening due to calcification.
Thinking that it may be a touch creepy, it was actually a surprise when I failed to even realise that the first human remains we passed, a skull, was actually just that, a skull.
Some of the remains were surprisingly complete, others were scattered, bones strewn in a variety of places thanks to ancient rains that have coursed through this system over the centuries.
The last remains, in fact the deepest point we are allowed to travel within the cave, is easily the highlight.
The aptly named Crystal Maiden, a fairly complete skeleton that glitters after years of slow calcification.
It was with some relief when we finally emerged into the daylight, and more importantly, the warmth!
So cold had it been within the caves waters that even the river we’d forded earlier in the day, now felt like lukewarm bath water!
We retired fairly early that evening, after indulging in one of the many happy hours on offer on San Ignacio’s small tourist strip, Burns Avenue (there are several restaurants and many tour operators along this short strip of pedestrian street).
The following morning, we dined on a breakfast of chocolate croissants from the New French Bakery, before collecting our packs and making ready to find a bus headed toward Benque, the closest town to the Guatemalan border.
When a taxi driver, after a short negotiation offered to take us the whole journey for $25.00 BZ, we didn’t argue too hard, and were now being whisked away to the very edge of the country.
As soon as we alighted our vehicle, we were accosted by a particularly pushy gentleman trying to push us into exchanging our Belizean dollars into Guatemalan Quetzals which we politely declined.
We left him behind as we went through immigration, paying our departure taxes (which we’d safely stowed away the day we entered the country), before proceeding to a final desk where our passports were stamped and we strolled into neutral territory… where the same money changer stood in wait for us!
Again declining (we eventually did change our money on the Guatemalan side) we proceeded to the Guatemalan immigration offices, where we shortly found ourselves entering our third country of the trip.
Our welcome, pouring rain…
* The local bus from Belize City to San Ignacio cost a very cheap $9.00 BZ per person from Novelo’s Bus Terminal on W Collet Canal Street.
* Our tour to the ATM caves had cost $160.00 BZ per person through Destiny Tours at 22 Burns Ave, San Ignancio. There are a variety of tour operators along this stretch, so shop around for the best price when you get there.