After arriving in Belize City by water taxi from Ambergris Caye, we were quickly brought back to our elementary school days as we boarded an old US school bus at the terminal. We found open seats and looked around in disbelief as we noticed our bus was a spitting image of those we spent years riding to and from grade school in Ohio!
We soon came to find out old US school buses are everywhere here in Central America and are generally referred to as “chicken buses” presumably for the locals’ habit in using them to transport feathered creatures (although we haven’t seen a chicken on them yet). The Belizians certainly add their own flare by covering the exterior of the buses with vibrant bright colors in addition to adding big loud speakers and a luggage rack above the seats. Despite these slight changes, a few things remained tried and true like the annoyingly stubborn windows that you have to push in plastic hinges to move up and down, back emergency door producing that loud and frightening buzzing sound when someone exits the bus from the rear, and the occasional “wheel seats” where your knees and head end up at the same level. Talk about a blast from the past!
We would be lying if we didn’t admit that another excuse to jump on a school bus excited us a little bit! So upon our arrival in San Ignacio, the jungle and cultural hub of Belize, we tried to find some exploration options easily accessible by another old yellow friend of ours.
Xunantunich: Ancient Mayan Ruins
Are you a history fanatic and crazy about ruins? If so, you could easily spend a week checking out all the Mayan ruins surrounding San Ignacio. We settled on Xunantunich, a Mayan city that reached its heyday in the 8th century but boasts a history dating back over 3,000 years!
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
This caving experience was one for the ages, a great mix of adventure and culture that made us feel like Indiana Jones exploring long lost treasures. The ATM cave was used by the Mayans as late as 1,500 years ago to sacrifice humans to appease the underworld gods. Much to our disappointment, we weren’t able to bring a camera into the ATM cave. Unfortunately, one tourist ruined all the fun for everyone a few years ago when he or she dropped their camera smack dab in the middle of one of the skulls and left a gapping hole several itches long. Even though we have none of our own pictures to show for our cave adventure, Brian and I both agreed that it was one of the neatest things we’ve done during our travels! The company we went with, Mayawalk Tours, did send us a few pictures that they took before cameras were banned so we’ve included those below to give you some sort of visual. It was a very different experience than the Konglor Cave we visited in Laos.
The cave itself is enormous. We spent 4 hours exploring the cave which just goes to show how big it is! We swam, crawled and climbed in the cave with only our headlamps to lead our way!
It’s thought that the Mayans did not live in the caves for an extended period of time but instead they lived there for a few days while they were making their human sacrificial offerings to the gods (the rain god in particular). Apparently, the Mayans went into this cave once every twenty years.
The Mayans would get high on drugs or hallucinogens while sacrificing in order to have an “out of body” experience. The methods they were thought to use to kill those being sacrificed are pretty brutal so no need to go into any more detail. Fourteen bodies have been found in the cave and six of them are infant remains, two of them are adolescents and the rest are adults. Our guide explained that the Mayans believed that the gods preferred children which is a bit disturbing from an outsider’s perspective. On a lighter note, we also saw a bunch of pottery that they used to cook and make food while they were occupying the cave.
Between learning all this fascinating and eerie information about the Mayan beliefs as well as their traditions along with all the adventure that comes with swimming and climbing through a cave (and in all likelihood probably taking a similar path that the Mayans took over a thousand years ago), we were so happy that we made the decision to go to the ATM cave because this is NOT your average cave experience! What’s even crazier to think about is that this is just one of dozens of cave systems in the area once used by the Mayans (the others are for archaeologists only!). We had an incredible time and we highly recommend it to anyone visiting Belize!