Belize Part 1: Welcome to the Jungle

I'm always inspired when I travel. To explore new cultures, countries, sights, food, and be surrounded by those who share the same feelings activates my heart and soul, my body and brain to its fullest.  Not to mention, spending quality time with my husband to dream, to re-connect, to re-focus, and kick back without daily distractions.  That right there is a vacation.

So, why Belize, you might ask? The beaches, right?  I know. I saw those pictures too, before we booked our trip.  The ones that depict silky white sand gently rolling about, pushed by the turquoise ocean that calmly ebbs and flows.  The bright sun shining down on a handsome couple that romantically sips cocktails with a backdrop of a few dozen swaying palm trees.  Yep, I totally wanted that.  I'll admit.  But I knew Belize had a wild card.  Something up its sleeve to offer us, a couple that likes to adventure and explore, but also laze on the beach and sip tropical drinks.

We learned the country had a lot to offer but didn't realize the myriad of activities until we started digging online.  Initially I learned that Belize, a relatively small country (the size of New Hampshire), offered a unique inland experience.  Lush dense jungle, mixed with cave systems, river tubing, and Mayan ruins.  Sign us up, please!  After more research we narrowed down our list of locations to three: San Ignacio (jungle), Placencia (beach), and Ambergris Caye (island).  
We arrived in San Ignacio at night, so everything felt very foreign, as it should.  We read that Belize was pretty touristy and the least "Central American feeling" of all the countries. It is relatively safe, it's the only country in Central America that speaks English, you can use American dollars anytime (or Belizean, whichever you choose), and so we assumed San Ignacio would feel a little more on-the-grid, so to speak.  With the town being only 30 minutes from the Guatemalan border it definitely felt like we were more so in Guatemala than Belize.  Everyone spoke Spanish, the town itself was dusty, had several unfinished buildings and the main part of town appeared tired. It was loud with cars, honking taxis and buses cruising through the main intersection of town at all times of the day.  Even the #1 tour operating company in the area (which gets incredible reviews) had a gentlemen sitting behind the desk in a faded company t-shirt, smoking a cigarette with the cough to go with it, missing a front tooth. He was friendly, don't get me wrong, but the initial first impression of the town was not a favorable one. Fortunately, we came to this location having no real expectations of the town but rather to enjoy the activities that surrounded San Ignacio.  And I'm glad we did because this region had more to offer that meets the eye.

There are five Mayan ruins to choose from in this area alone, Tikal being the most renowned.  The next day we hopped out of bed early and hightailed it to one of the tour companies to see if we could squeeze on a tour to Tikal.  And you'll never believe which tour company we used?  Yep, the man with the missing tooth.  We were joined by a German couple and a Californian bro/sister duo.  After a half-hour van ride we arrived at the Belize-Guatemala border where we exited the car, got our passport stamped, paid an entrance fee, climbed into a different van with a new driver, started driving, handed our passports to our guide who got out, did who-knows-what for five minutes, and then were off. We were suspicious of the whole scene.  We thought about doing it on our own but even the most savvy travelers warned that it was a bit sketchy. I felt safe sitting alongside our little Guatemalan tour guide, Sergio.  After swapping travel stories with our new pals, we finally pulled into the "parking lot" of the ancient city of Tikal, which was nestled deep in the Guatemalan jungle.  We were all pretty excited to start the tour (and climb the towering ruins, of course)! 

Up close and personal with Tikal's ruins

Temple V - Second highest structure in Tikal

Jump shot over Temple I in the Grand Plaza

Sergio explained, here's the mini-version, that Tikal dates as far back as 1,300 years ago with its population varying from 10,000 to 90,000 inhabitants and over 3,000 structures built.  Now you can envision the magnitude of this place, right?  The residential area of Tikal covers an estimated 23 square miles.  There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work.  The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 230 feet high, large royal palaces, smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments.  We saw many of these structures, climbed several of them, but barely scratched the surface of this ginormous place.

Halfway through the tour we stood overlooking the Great Plaza when Sergio released us to explore on our own. We headed towards Temple II straight across from Temple I, one of the largest of the temples built.  Just as we are about to climb the stairs to Temple II I notice two people whose faces are vaguely familiar.  I looked the couple straight in the eye and continued up the stairs. I swear I knew them!  I rack my brain, quickly going through sections of my life where I might have known them from before.  It hits me. I mention to Chip that I think the two I just saw had gone to college with me in Wisconsin, over ten years ago ("When in doubt, go to Stout").  The rest of the day I continued to look for them.  More on that later.

Back to the tour.  This whole scene was all very impressive, but the highlight was climbing the 200+ rickety steps to the top of Temple IV for a "Star Wars" view of Tikal.  It's nicknamed "Star Wars" because George Lucas filmed a scene from the '77 movie right here, with this exact perspective.  And I will tell you, this is one iconic view.  It felt like a time warp to perch high above the jungle at the very top of this pyramid and take in this panoramic perspective.  To think this was a thriving city back in the day is unbelievable.

What happened to Tikal?  I kept coming back to that question throughout the tour thinking Sergio would provide me with a concrete answer. Unfortunately, no one knows for certain what happened to the Mayans of Tikal, some think drought could have been the culprit that brought down this thriving civilization.  Dependent on rainfall and with a growing population, Tikal was vulnerable to climate change and extinction.  Once the tour came to a close, we finished up with lunch at a nearby town.  Just as we rounded the corner to the restaurant I spot the two people I went to college with.  I immediately ran over to them and we did the whole "hope you don't think I'm weird but I KNOW YOU" conversation.  It turns out I was right.  We swapped names which I had guessed were Amy and Adam, then agreed to meet up over dinner and drinks the following night.  I still can't believe we ran into them after all this time.

Temple IV's "Star Wars" view

Our third and final full day in San Ignacio was here.  The one thing we really wanted to do, and the only activity we actually booked prior to leaving, was the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (or ATM cave for short).  We fell in love with caving while living in New Zealand.  So when we heard about this sacred cave in particular, we were more excited than a pimple popping tween who just found out they won tickets to a Justin Beiber concert.  Recently deemed the #1 sacred cave in the world by National Geographic and after touring it, I can see why.  Our group descended into the cave opening after a 45 minute hike and the gaping hole appeared ready to engulf our group whole.  Into the refreshing water we plunged, single file, swimming towards the dry section of the cave.  Each second that passed we got deeper into the cave and within a minute there was no more natural light remaining.  For the first hour we shimmied and squeezed through the cave, clambered up and over boulders, swam and waded through cave water, and made our way deeper into the abyss of the cave.  After a mile we reached the most fascinating section, setting this cave apart from all other caves.  We free climbed up until we reached the completely dry section, then were instructed to take off our shoes, and led to where ancient artifacts remain. 

Our guide explained that we have reached the natural museum of ancient Mayan artifacts, as well as a sacred burial place. The mood shifts and our group silences.  A short walk and we arrive at the ceremonial chamber which houses stoneware, ceramics, and skeletal remains.  No one in our group realizes they are surrounding our feet until our guide begins shining his light in all directions pointing them out.  It was all very captivating. The end however was the ultimate climax.  Before our feet laid the famed crystallized skeleton of the “Crystal Maiden."  For more than 1,000 years, the calcite-encrusted skeleton of this supposed 20-year-old Maya woman called the Crystal Maiden has lain where she fell in a chamber deep within the cave. Archaeologists believe she was sacrificed to appease Maya deities as populations plummeted.  What a rush this whole caving experience was!

ATM Cave entrance - Source

Crystal Maiden - Source

I recall lying our heads down on our pillow that last night in San Ignacio, eager to reach the beach portion of our trip, but also grateful we made the decision to come inland.  We were only three days in and had already experienced one of the world's best cave and ancient city.  While one might think Belize is all about the beaches, as you can see here, it definitely is not. 

But next up is the beach, Placenia!!