San Ignacio is a little Belizean town, just near the border of Guatemala. The town is a base to explore the many Mayan sites, caves and nature reserves in the area.
The town itself has a certain character about it. Set on the Macal River, it is crazy hot and humid. Coming from the busyness of Guatemala, San Ignacio’s laid back pace and relaxed people was a nice change.
On the afternoon I arrived, once the heat became bearable, I walked to the Cahal Bech ruins which is just 2km out of town. The ruins were small compared to Tikal, but I thought still impressive.
The area was made up of lots of plazas with surrounding buildings. This was fun to walk through and imagine living all those years ago. Unlike the recovered structures in Tikal, Cahal Bech had corridors to explore between the buildings. I had the site to myself except one other couple that came through briefly. This added to the experience and also made it a little eerie.
The main reason for my stop in San Ignacio was to check out the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves. This was a fantastic experience!
Of course this cave was known to Mayan people for thousands of years, but it was first explored by Europeans very recently and only opened to tourism in 1998. The cave was a major archeological find and since has been declared the most culturally significant cave in the world (by National Geographic).
You must go with an organised tour to see the cave. I was in a group of ten, which later got split into two groups of five.
To start the tour, we got a helmet each then left everything except water behind in the bus. We walked about 2km down an easy path to the entrance of the cave, and crossed two rivers on the way.
The guide told us a bit about the history of the cave, from a tourism point of view. How they started being explored and documented by archaeologists then visited by tourists. He explained the reason they don’t allow cameras inside anymore: people get distracted, bump their heads, trip over things. They also get too close to the cultural remains, with one person dropping their camera on a skull, making a big hole!
The cave entrance itself is a spectacular site. A huge round opening in the earth, with absolute pristine clear water. We waded and swam in and through the cave system. I don’t have words to describe the cave or the intricate formations within. Pictures cannot portray its majesty, it is simply a place you must experience first hand.
The secondary limestone glittered in the torch light. Stalactites creeped down from the cave ceiling in an almost skeletal way. The water, the clearest I’ve ever seen. The rocks are made up of magnesium, limstone, iron, nitrate which created intricate colours and patterns. Spectacular.
Along the way, the guide talked about the geological features of the cave. He was very informative and I could tell he really enjoyed it too! He talked a bit about the cultural aspects of the cave. He asked us to imagine how the Mayans might have felt coming into the cave, with their flickering flames, possibly after consuming mind altering substances (mushrooms, cacao), and considering their beliefs that gods and spirits dwelled in the underworld.
Further into the cave, through narrow crevices, in and out of water and on top of a giant boulder to get to the main chamber, we came across broken pottery. Large pieces, red and grey of all shapes and sizes.
We started to see animal and human remains, including baby bones. It was a strange experience. The biggest chamber, the Cathedral, is a huge space with incredible formations. Some tape marked out the narrow area we cold walk. Outside this area we’d risk stepping on pottery or bones.
Perhaps the most incredible and famous part of the cave (and the furthest we could go) was where the remains of a female skeleton lay. Named the Crystal Princess (although they’re not 100% it’s actually a female), the skull has a white crystallised mark from where the water coming in and out of the cave over time did not cover.
It tells us that the water level didn’t get above that point since the remains were there (over 1000 years). Geologists can tell from the rocks which periods of time had little or a lot of rain fall. It seems that at the time the people died here, there was a big drought which may have lasted ten years. One theory is that the Mayans started offering the gods sacrifices in the caves as they became more desperate for water to survive. They believe religious activity increased dramatically during the time of the drought. I guess no one will even know for sure, but it’s very cool trying to piece everything together and think about all the possibilities!
After seeing the cultural remains, we made our way back through to the cave entrance. We did the hike and river crossing back to the parking lot, put some dry clothes on then had lunch.
The caves are one of Mother Nature’s finest creations. This was an absolute highlight for my trip and one of the best travel experiences I’ve had to date!
I’m now heading to the south of Belize to Placencia. See you at the beach!
*The photos of inside the ATM cave and the hike to the cave were provided to me by Maya Walk, the company I took the tour with. I had a wonderful experience with them and can highly recommend!