After our relaxing stay on Caye Caulker, we set out for the mainland. We took the local bus from Belize City to San Ignacio and then took a taxi to our AirBNB in Bullet Tree Falls. The Parrot Nest Lodge consisted of nine cabins, all with their own unique look and feel. If you are looking for a grand, clean hotel, this is not the place for you. However, if you are not afraid of a few bugs and dirt, and you want to experience a unique lodge with some local perspective, this place is absolutely wonderful.
Getting to the resort required a bumpy taxi ride through farmland and jungles. As soon as I started to question whether our taxi driver knew where he was going, we arrived at a secluded wooden archway with a gate. We were greeted by a happy German Shepherd who led us into the property. All of the buildings were beautifully incorporated into the surrounding trees and greenery, and it felt like you were hundreds of miles away from city life (even though San Ignacio was only 3 miles away). A shirtless, shoeless man with long blonde hair sat at the dining table and looked up to find us with confused looks on our faces. Marcus, the owner, introduced himself and happily checked us in to our cozy cabin. I emphasize cozy because it really is a small place. There was one double bed, one single bed, and just barely enough space to put our bags on the floor. However, if you are anything like us, you would have spent minimum time in the room and maximum time outdoors. The common areas of the lodge were so lovely that it did not even matter how big our rooms were. There was a river right next to the lodge, and they had tubes that you could take out on the water. They had two of the most perfect dogs I have ever met and two hilarious cats. To be honest, the pets were our favorite part of the lodge.
After we settled in and unpacked, we decided to visit Xunantunich, an ancient Mayan archaeological site. Marcus graciously drove us into town where we could catch a taxi to Xunantunich. WARNING: If you are in San Ignacio, there are two kinds of taxis there, and neither of them have meters. The public taxis are cheap and reasonable; however, there are some private taxis that charge outrageous prices. My tip is to ask the driver how much it will cost to get to your destination BEFORE you get into the car. That way, if he quotes an outrageous price, you can kindly decline and wait for the next taxi or at least bargain.
Marcus had told us that it should only be about 5-8 dollars to get to Xunantunich from town. However, we foolishly got into the first taxi that pulled up without asking about a price. After about 10 minutes of driving, we asked the driver how much he wanted for the trip, and he nonchalantly told us 60 DOLLARS. We were outraged, and we told him that Marcus said it should only be 8 dollars maximum. The driver quickly backed down and said he could only go as low as 20 dollars. We argued for quite a while then realized we had no choice but to pay his heinous fees since we could not be stranded in the middle of the countryside. When we arrived, discouraged and disgruntled about falling into a tourist trap, we handed him the money and declined his offer to give us a private tour of the local sites for a ‘cheap’ price.
We quickly moved on from the affair when we saw the hand-crank bridge that we would have to cross. It was short-lived, but also something I had never seen before. The attendant even allowed us to crank the lever on the way back (I’m pretty sure he was happy we were doing his job for him).
We meandered over to the entrance, paid our entrance fee, and explored as much of Xunantunich as we could. There was someone there filming a music video, and after asking around, we found out he was a famous politician’s son-turned-rapper. Apparently, he was not well-liked in the community, so the security guards told him off a couple times because he was disgracing the sacredness of Xunantunich by filming a vulgar music video there. It was insanely hot, and by the time we got to El Castillo, Michelle was fatigued. She waited at the bottom while Kim and I climbed up. El Castillo is the main structure in the site, and it stands at about 130 feet tall, with views of Guatemala and Belize from the top.
We struck up a conversation with Danny, one of the security guards, who told us that El Castillo was most likely the main gathering area for the ancient city, while the structure on the opposite side of the site was most likely the royal residence. We also learned about a Mayan sport where the winning team would be killed and sacrificed because it allowed them to reach the gods. It was the first Mayan ruins site I had ever visited, and it was amazing to see how intact the carvings and structures were after thousands of years.
After we got our fair share of Mayan history, we headed back to Parrot Tree. We made it back just before the sun was going to set, so we decided to go tubing down the river. We needed to walk half a mile upstream to have adequate float time. However, Marcus was not at the lodge when we got back, so we were not entirely sure where the starting point was. We decided to ask locals along the way if they could direct us to where we could start our excursion. With a strong sense of uncertainty, we struggled down to the riverbed and set off in our tubes.
Unfortunately the place we chose had absolutely no current, and the water was very murky, so were scared to fully submerge our bodies. We decided to keep our bodies above the tubes, but it made it extremely difficult to move down the river. After about 10 minutes of stagnancy, we figured out a way to lock one person’s feet to the next person’s hands, and we formed a chain of tubes. We jerked and gyrated on our tubes for another ten minutes, not unlike the way a worm propels itself forward, until we got to an area of current. Of course, as soon as we hit the current, we had no way of maneuvering and we found ourselves going over a set of tiny unanticipated waterfalls. In hindsight it was exhilarating, but during the time, I was terrified of falling off my tube and hitting my head.
To give you some perspective, from where we entered the river to the bottom of the waterfall was only about 100 feet. We had spent almost half an hour maneuvering that very short distance, and it was already getting dark. Michelle was spooked about being in the river at dusk, and she decided to get out of the river and walk back to the lodge. Kim and I decided to continue on a bit more. It was quite dark when we encountered a family of four playing in the river. We recognized them as workers from Parrot Tree, and they warned us that it would take another 30 minutes to reach Parrot Tree by tube. Worried that we would miss the turnout for the lodge and continue down the river infinitely, we decided to swim with the family for a little bit then walk back to the lodge. Remember when I said that the road to the lodge consisted of jungle and farmland? Walking through that in the dark was terrifying, and we made sure to speak extra loud to scare off any dangerous animals.
Thankfully, when we got back to the lodge, we were able to take a hot shower and eat dinner. Marcus and his assistants cook dinner for anyone that signs up (I believe it was about 12-15 dollars), and everyone eats together and socializes. Although I found it quite pricey, it was much easier than driving into town to buy dinner. Additionally, we met some great people over our meal and heard about their experiences with the ATM cave. We were still unsure about what we wanted to do the next day, but after hearing their stories, we knew we had to visit that cave.
We set up a tour for the next day, and I have to say it was one of the most amazing caves I have ever visited. It came at a steep price (100 dollars), but it was completely worth it. ATM Cave is an ancient Mayan sacrificial cave, and it is believed that the Mayan people would bring sacrifices (that includes human sacrifices) and offerings to this cave to pay respects to the gods. I will warn you that I do not have any pictures of the cave for reasons I will explain in a few paragraphs.
After a long trek through the jungle and wading through a number of rivers, we found ourselves at the mouth of the cave. The first 500 meters of the cave consisted of swimming and wading through various passages and crevices until we got to some elevated land. We walked or crawled through the rest of the cave until we started to come across some ancient artifacts. There were hundreds of Mayan pots scattered throughout the cave, many a few inches away from the path. I had never been to a place where there were absolutely no barriers between you and the historical artifacts.
The artifacts kept getting better as we moved through the cave. We first came to a huge chamber where you could see dozens of pots scattered around the floor of the cave, all varying in size. The tour guide said that many of them had probably been either placed specifically in those spots by the Mayans or been swept there by flood waters. It was amazing to think that hundreds of floods had probably washed through the cave since Mayan times, and these artifacts still remained there.
Then, we came across the first bone remnants. You could literally have stepped on them if you were not paying attention. We continued on and found ourselves in a room surrounded by bones and pots. The only thing separating you and the artifacts was a thin ribbon taped to the floor to mark the path. We came across a number of skeletons, some of them complete, some with their bones scattered because the water had moved them around. Apparently there were many more skeletons found in the cave (including one of a baby), but those parts were not open to the general public. The guide told us the history of each of the skeletons and told us about some of the rituals they believe were held in the space.
It disheartens me that I do not have any pictures of the experience because it was truly one of the coolest things I have ever done. A few years ago, a tourist dropped his camera on one of the ancient skulls and broke it. Since then, cameras have been banned from the cave. Being that close to history and learning from the dwindling number of certified guides was one of the highlights of my trip, and I highly recommend this cave if you are ever in Belize.
The next day, we sadly packed our belongings and headed back to LA where we continued on with our normal lives.