Cayo: Caves n Curry

24 06 2010

Last weekend, I decided once again to head inland, to San Ignacio, or “Cayo”.  San Ignacio is the major town in western Belize, nestled in the midst of tropical forest, not far from the Guatemalan border.  The area is an ideal getaway – carefree vibe coupled with the natural beauty of the Maya Mountains, the Macal and Mopan Rivers, as well as several ancient Mayan archaeological sites.  Not to mention the cattle, citrus and peanut farms that abound; bucolic, as my mom would say.

I arrived with no real plan, as usual.  But the town is small and I quickly found cheap accommodation. US$12.50 per night, which is UNHEARD of in Belize. Relative to its Central American neighbours, Guatemala and Honduras, Belize is obscenely expensive, from accommodation to food to transportation.  That being said, it is still fairly cheap when compared to North America.

Anyway, Saturday morning I joined a tour to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “ATM”, for an exciting day of caving.  The cave is located in the Tapir Mountain nature reserve and is actually a notable archaeological site, sacred to the Maya as a gateway to the underworld.  Getting to the entrance involves an easy 45 minute hike through dense forest, including 3 crossings of crystal clear rivers.  Note to self: work on your balance.

The cave system is about 3 miles long and includes a crazy river passage, which sometimes was as deep as our necks!  Our guide, Martin, was phenomenal.  It was truly amazing to witness his connection to the cave and surrounding jungle, I guess because I have never known that kind of intimacy with a place.  At one point, when we were far enough into the cave that no natural light remained, he got us to turn off our headlamps and grab the shoulder of the person in front of us.  Then he led us blindly through a long passage, while chanting in the Mayan language, with his echoes reverberating through the cave and sending chills up my spine.  It was an extremely powerful experience for me, one of those rare moments where everything is in its right place and the world seems to make sense…

We swam and waded through the river, weaved through rocks and squeezed our way through narrow crevices, about a half mile into the cave, to the upper passage known as the “Cathedral”.  It was spectacular, with shimmering stalactites hanging from the ceiling like icicles and stalagmites rising from the floor.

Spectacular Stalactites

The site featured pottery and stoneware left by the Maya centuries ago, as well as human remains.   All in all, 14 human sacrifices were performed in the cave, the most famous of which is known as the “Crystal Maiden”, the skeleton of a teenage girl sacrificed as an ultimate gift to the gods. Her bones have been completely calcified, giving them a crystallized appearance, which sparkled as Martin shone his spotlight on her.

The Crystal Maiden - a 16 year old human sacrifice

I can’t quite explain how very humbling it was to be in so sacred a spot and how lucky I feel to have been able to bear witness to this ancient world.  It literally is a living museum.  And a must do for any travelers to Belize!

Another highlight of the tour is that I made friends – three lovely med students from England, who are doing a placement in the hospital at Belmopan.  Yay!!! We had a perfect end to a perfect day, going out for an incredible Indian meal prepared totally from scratch.  One of the most delicious curries I have ever had! If anyone ever travels to San Ignacio, make sure to hit up the South Indian restaurant, it is truly a gem.

The next day was chilled out to the max.  After a slight sleep in (9am), I took a $2 cab to nearby Bullet Tree village.  I set up camp near a set of rapids in the river and proceeded to nap, read, swim and eat mangos all day. Needless to say, I nearly cried when it was time to head back to the city…

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