San Ignacio – Caracol and ATM Cave Tours

After our 2 awesome weeks in Caye Caulker, we didn’t go home – this is where the trip starts to feel like a leap and not a vacation.  Normally, we would take a 2 week vacation and return home- in this case we are diving deeper.

We took a 4 hour “chicken bus” ride from Belize City to San Ignacio, a smaller tourist-based city, to see some ruins.  The bus was 7$ for the 2 of us and drove with a flat tire for half the way.  The two sites that we choose for our 3 day stay were Caracol and Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), one site above ground and the other below.


The Sky Palace of Caracol

Caracol is an ancient Mayan city that was in its prime between 600 and 900 AD.  The Mayans built temples and palaces in the traditional Mayan architecture style that we saw on the labels of our Belikin bottles. The temples were built with markings and architecture aligning with astronomical significance.  They are similar to the Egyptian pyramids in shape, but with steps instead of slopes for easy scaling.   The Mayans of Caracol were some of the most dominant in the area, and it is hypothesized that Caracol was the political center of the Mayan territories in Central America.   There were almost no tourists at the site, and we were allowed to climb all the way up to the top of all of the temples including the Sky Palace from which you can see over all of tree tops of Belize all the way to the mountains of Guatemala.

Self timer error at the top of the Sky Palace of Caracol

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)

The ATM tour out of San Ignacio may have been the coolest touristy tour thingy I have ever done.  I always get a cheap feeling in my gut when I sign up for a guide to take me to a place and show me a site.  I’m not sure where this stems from but it feels dirty to me.  Possibly because I don’t like traditional tourist activities and much prefer the challenge and rewards of exploring and learning on my own.  However, this tour was the exception to this sentiment.

The cave entrance. Starting with a 15M swim.

The Mayans believed in 9 levels of the underworld and 13 levels of heaven/upper world. When a Mayan died, they were said to have had to battle the demons of the 9 levels of the underworld enable to approach the upper world and be reincarnated. These caves were portals into the underworld – which adds to the bad-assery of the tour. This was a physically demanding 850M spelunking tour into the heart of a flooded freshwater cave (after hiking through the jungle for 1.5 miles). We donned helmets, dry bags, and headlamps prior to swimming to the first platform beyond the cave entrance. The spelunking included climbing over, swimming under, and traversing formations within the cave to progress deeper. There were some pretty interesting artifacts excavated from the cave and they all remained as they were from 1500 years ago, un-disturbed for archeologists to interpret. The most interesting artifact of the tour was the Crystal Maiden – the full skeletal remains of a young woman that was likely sacrificed around 650 AD.

The Crystal Maiden

After San Ignacio we left for Belize city by Chicken Bus again – then a flight to Managua through El Salvador and a 3 hour shuttle to San Juan Del Sur – where we are now.

Belize was awesome. On to the next.

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