Belize is chockerblock full of some really awesome adventures: diving, snorkeling, hiking, ATVing, repelling, coffee plantation and chocolate tours, and more. However, as one of the more expensive Central American countries, taking tour after tour can certainly add up and wreak havoc on a tight backpacker budget, especially after experiencing Belize’s cheaper, backpacker friendly neighbors. Therefore, with great travel-savvy discernment, if I was to suggest just one delightful (though frightfully expensive) tour to take while traveling through Belize, I highly recommend touring through the ATM Caves near San Ignacio. I guarantee the full day tour will be an unforgettable trip, and it will rank high among your experiences in Central America – it certainly has for me thus far. Along with the ATM caves, I’ve included a few additional activities that added to my ten splendid days in Belize.
1) Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Trip – I’ve explored caves in South America, South East Asia, the South Pacific Islands, and the Central United States, and the ATM cave is not only one of the most geologically stunning that I’ve seen, but it offers profound cultural insight as well.
The Actun Tunichil Munal Cave trip challenges participants to swim through rivers, clamber up waterfalls, climb jagged walls, and travel far into the underworld of the ancient Maya. The cave is approximately three miles long and lies at the foothills of the Maya Mountains in the Cayo district of Belize. Having crossed from the Guatemalan border, where I recently explored the Tikal ruins, I used the city of nearby San Ignacio as my base for exploring the countryside. And, as there wasn’t much else to do – besides eating at the market – to keep me busy in San Ignacio, I quickly booked my tour and rose bright and early for a 7 a.m. start the following day.
After driving to the national park, we began with a forty-five minute hike along a thick jungle path. Our guide, Martin, pointed out various medicinal plants used for curing hangovers, headaches, insomnia, upset stomachs, and other ailments. We chewed on a few of the leaves; none were too tasty or immediately effective. But…then again, I wasn’t feeling ill at the time.
Finally, outfitted with headlamps and helmets, we began our spelunking expedition by swimming across a deep pool from the cave’s entrance to a very thin ledge that guided us further into the cave. Then we hiked, climbed, twisted, ducked, turned, swam, and ahem…tumbled down waterfalls through the ATM’s enchanting, pitch-black wonderland. Aaron and Martin, our incredibly informative guides, pointed out giant flow stone rock formations, calcium rich stalactites, and burgeoning stalagmites. They were also careful to explain the history (and mystery) behind why and how the Mayas entered the cave systems.
The Mayas believed that there were thirteen layers of heaven and nine layers of the underworld. In order to become pure enough to reach the heavens following their death, they thought that they must first endure the nine layers of the underworld. Caves thus functioned as the sacred realms of the underworld where the Mayas brought their offerings, conducted ceremonies and sacrifices, and attempted to communicate and please their gods.
We encountered this first hand when we climbed from the watery cave into a dry upper passage scattered with over 1400 Maya artifacts. These included pottery pieces, vessels used in sacrifices, offerings, and rituals to their gods, and calcite-encrusted skeletal remains. In addition, human remains of fourteen individuals lay in the great chamber, including a full human skeleton.
Yes, indeed – get to the ATM caves if you can.
2) Get in touch with your zen side in Caye Caulker – Gorgeous palm tree-laden Caye Caulker offers a perfect spot to recharge tired batteries and weary travelers. Home to sun-drenched dirt paths, balmy breezes, Bob Marley infused vibes, and crimson sunsets, Caye Caulker is a cubicle dweller’s dream come true. There are no cars and no real hurry to do much of anything, except finish your beer before it gets too warm.
Sun-kissed Caye Caulker sits patiently off the tip of Belize City. Visitors spend their days snorkeling, SCUBA diving, hanging out at the “Split,” swaying in hammocks, or waiting for another beautiful sunset. Ferries whip back and forth multiple times a day from Belize City, and there are many affordable hotels, hostels, and guesthouses to fit any budget.I spent a day snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley with BlackHawk Sailing. Harry, Steve, and Deena took us out for a lovely day on the water, complete with rum punch, a picnic lunch, and plenty of tropical fruit. We ended the day with a sunset sail back to Caye Caulker.
3) Drink all the free Rum Punch you can – From the rum punch following our Actun Tunichil Muknal cave hike and the seafaring cocktails offered by Black Hawk Sailing to the unlimited free punch at Dirty McNasty’s hostel and complimentary drinks accompanying our moonlit beach side meals, there is no shortage of Rum Punch in Belize. Orange juice, pineapple juice, apple juice, mixed juice, fruit cocktail juice, and any other sugary liquid mixed (not) proportionately with local rum + hot sunny days = quite often a recipe for a good time. Relish the free alcohol while you can!
4) Chill out in laid back Hopkins – To round out my Belizian adventure, I traveled along the coast to stay in Hopkins for two nights. My bus from Belize City took me along the stunning southern Hummingbird Highway to the Funky Dodo hostel where the second-story bar offered cold beer, refreshing breezes, and a fluffy, nap-nuzzling dog. Hopkins lies smack dab in the middle of open savanna and citrus-filled farmlands and is home to a large Garifuna population. Drums play a huge part of Garifuna music and culture, and we could hear drum beats pounding through the streets during the evenings. There were also plenty of tasty Garifuna dishes to try! Though recent rainwater from the mountains had created rather dirty conditions along the local beaches, I made great use of some palm trees, a few good books, and nap-inducing hammocks.
5) Try a water border crossing … and manage to stay dry! – After leaving Hopkins, I ended up in Punta Gorda (or PG as it is called by the locals). Here, I tentatively boarded a boat for my first ever water-taxi border crossing. From Punta Gordo, speed boats zip back and forth to Livingston and Puerto Barrios, two ports on the eastern shores of Guatemala.
The captain of Memo’s boat service assured us that all passengers, and luggage, would stay completely dry during the crossing. But, I arrived in Livingston soaking wet….literally sopping, not-an-inch-of-dry-space left wet…and a bit sea-sick. The crossing was rough and waves were constantly crashing over the bow and bouncing us around. Luckily, our luggage was stored in a dry compartment and my laptop and camera made it through just fine.
I quickly found a hotel downtown that resembled an 1800’s ramshackle old western boarding house. Come to think of it, it may have actually been a boarding house! While I sipped a beer on my second story balcony that night, my neighbor, obviously a local, walked by carrying a rather large machete and a weed wacker over his shoulder. Oh – the interesting times we have while traveling!