After moving quickly (too quickly) from place to place in Guatemala we decided we wanted a week to relax on the beaches in Mexico before Cuba. This left us only three days in Belize. Originally we wanted to go to the Caye Caulker Islands; however, three days wasn’t quite enough and it would have been quite expensive when we worked in the ferry costs.
We decided to spend our short time in San Ignacio, Belize – famous for it’s many caves which were used extensively by the Mayans. We found an airbnb with a family just outside of the town (only a two minute walk) – and it turned out to be the best stay we have had yet! The family was incredibly welcoming, warm and helpful. Our room was massive – we even had a hammock in our room. Our hosts were very interesting to talk to and shared lots about their country. They also made us a delicious breakfast every morning of crack-jacks (basically deep-fried dough), blended black beans with garlic, fried ham and eggs – this didn’t sound appealing to me at first but I helped myself to seconds (maybe thirds) every morning. If you ever go to San Ignacio, Belize, you must stay with the Matus family.
What we didn’t know about Belize beforehand (call us naive), is that Belize is part of the Common Wealth and their national language is English. When everyone speaks English, it’s just so much easier – and enjoyable.
Other than wandering around the small town and shopping for food at the local market, there isn’t a whole lot to do in San Ignacio that doesn’t involve a tour. Unfortunately, Belize isn’t quite as cheap as the rest of Central America (other than Costa Rica!), and the tours started at around $80 USD. It basically came down to two options – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave or Cave Tubing. ATM is famous for the fact that it was used for many Mayan rituals and contains a calcite covered skeleton as well as many other archaeological artifacts. The Cave has many religious associations and as such, no cameras are allowed and socks and clothes must be worn even when swimming. Cave Tubing on the other hand, the tour operator described as more fun and included a guided walk through the jungle. We had met a kiwi-guy on the bus down from Guatemala and an American guy at the tour operator and the four of us debated the pros and cons of each cave. To us, it seemed that ATM was mostly important due to the religious aspects and that doesn’t fall in our interests so we opted for the tubing. Ryan, the American, turned out to have two go-pros and offered to lend us his older one for the day to take pictures! We were stoked with this and couldn’t wait to try it out.
The next morning we were picked up at 8 AM and drove an hour out to where the caves were located. Supposedly, Belize is covered in caves all over the country but these are set up and ideal for the tubing. Upon arrival, we cringed at how many people were there (turns out cave tubing is a popular activity for people on-board the cruise ships that dock in Belize City). While our group was small – just the four of us – there were hundreds of other people at the site.
Our tour guide was amazing! He was incredibly knowledgeable on the history of the Mayans (he is part Mayan) as well as survival skills and was constantly telling us about both history and facts. Our tour started with a walk through the jungle, as promised, and our guide was keen to stop and show us many things along the way such as:
1. Termites are edible live – picked fresh off the tree. That’s right, we ate little crawling ant-like bugs. Ew. (Supposedly they taste like peanut butter and lime – but really, they just tasted like dirt.)
2. With his machete our guide chopped us a water vine from the jungle from which we drank from.
3. There is a medicinal plant for everything. (Most modern medicine comes from a plant, berry or leaf found in the jungle.) Our guide rubbed the juice from a specific plant to relief the itchiness of the bug bites on my ankles.
Our guide explained to us that the Mayans associated caves with the underworld – therefore, we were about to enter “Mayan Hell” in our big yellow tubes. Our tubes were hooked together as they weren’t designed for being able to steer (our hands barely reached the water) and our guide led us through the cave system swimming in his small black tube.
Once we entered the caves, it was difficult to take photos – especially given we had a first generation GoPro – as there was little to no light, and our headlamps really didn’t do much.
Mid-way through our cave tubing, we pulled off to the side, ditched our tubes (and the rest of the tour groups) and hiked out to an open area (a cenote) for photos before hiking back to the side and jumping off the high rocks into the water. Due to the clearness of the water and the light entering from the cenote, we could see the bottom of the cave clearly and it took some assurance from our guide that the water was deep enough to jump. Unfortunately, the GoPro didn’t capture any of the fun as it was much too dark. On the way back, we exited the cave and free floated down the river back to the parking lot where we enjoyed a typical Belizean lunch of rice, beans, chicken, and grilled plantains.
For more photos of San Ignacio and cave tubing, check out our Flickr Album.