Xunantunich & ATM Cave

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).

Hand Crank Bridge

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.

Before we realized we would be stuck

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.

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Snorkeling Paradise in Caye Caulker

On our second day in Belize, we decided to take a tour with Stressless Tours.  I highly recommend this tour company, as they were some of the friendliest people I have ever met and so knowledgeable about the surrounding ocean.  Captain Keith was our skipper, and he had the perfect balance of playfulness and seriousness.  He made sure all of us had a great time, but still ensured that we followed all the rules to avoid any injuries.  He even had a booklet about the types of marine life in the area, and he quizzed us after a few of the stops.

Our Tour Group!

Our tour consisted of five stops: the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Coral Gardens, Shark and Ray Alley, the Sunken Barge, and the Tarpon Pool.  We saw everything from nurse sharks, to rays, to sea turtles, and of course fish.  The rays were especially beautiful as they flapped their enormous wings, and the sea turtles were captivating as they flapped around and ate sea grass.   The Coral Gardens had an abundance of gorgeous coral.  Thankfully, most of it was still alive and colorful since Captain Keith took us a lesser-known coral spot.

Captain Keith had a great eye and directed us straight to the animals.  However, I was happy that he made us stay a respectable distance from the animals as there were a few tour guides who were touching and holding the animals.  Although it is a unique experience to touch wild sea animals, I believe that we should leave the animals alone in their natural habitat.

The sunken barge had become a new space for coral and animals to grow, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what used to be inside.  We ended the tour by visiting the tarpon pool.  Tarpon are enormous game fish, and it was strange seeing so many near the island.  We drifted by them and watched them glisten in all of their glory.

It was an amazing experience (besides the sunburn), and a complete 180 from our encounter with death the day before. After the tour, we explored the rest of the island.  We ate at one of the outdoor barbecues, checked out the Split, meandered into residential areas, and lounged on the beach.  The Split literally got its name because the island was split into two after a hurricane.  There is a passage of water between the two sections of the island, and there is a trendy bar where people can hang out.

After two short days in Caye Caulker, we were off to the mainland the following day.  Kim and I awoke bright and early the next day (mostly because the heat became unbearable) to take in as much as we could before we left the island. After strolling around the shoreline, we headed to breakfast.  We had heard about a cheap, local breakfast food called the Fry Jack, and we were dying to try it.  It consisted of a light fluffy fried bread stuffed with anything you could ever want in breakfast.  We got to Errolyn’s House of Fry Jack’s (undoubtedly the best place for fry jacks on the island) expecting a long line, but found the restaurant had just opened.  We had lucked out.  The fry jack was delicious, although definitely not healthy.  After that, we packed up and headed out for the mainland.

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Near Death in Tropical Paradise: Caye Caulker

As any travel-addicted student would do, I procrastinated from studying during exam week by looking for cheap airfares to just about anywhere.  As an insider tip, I highly recommend following Secret Flying on Facebook or subscribing to their email list.  They post error fares/cheap airfares regularly, and I have been able to find some very cheap flights through them.

It was the last week of class, and I was itching to travel somewhere after finals were done.  Thanks to Secret Flying, I found a cheap flight to Belize that fit with my schedule, and I wasted no time planning the trip.  I hardly knew anything about Belize, but I was up for an adventure.

For the first part of the trip, I debated between a number of the Belize islands until I finally settled on Caye Caulker (pronounced Kee-Cah-ker).  I chose it because it was smaller than the other Cayes.  If you like local, intimate types of destinations, I highly recommend Caye Caulker.  The larger islands had more activities and nightlife.  However, I felt like I got a taste of the local culture, and we were able to avoid touristy crowds.  Since the island was so small, it was easy to bump in to acquaintances multiple times.  We made friends throughout our stay, and we saw them multiple times in passing.  You can walk the length of the island in an hour (that’s how small it is), so you can really dig deep into the local cuisine and culture, even with a short amount of time.  If you only have a few days in Belize, I would recommend visiting this little slice of paradise as 3 days is the perfect amount of time to see the surrounding sites, but also feel (somewhat) like a local.

To get to Caye Caulker, we took a taxi from the Belize City airport to the ferry station.  From there, our boat ride was about an hour, but the time flew by.  It is extremely easy to get around Belize as the national language is English, and most places take US dollars (although they might give you change in Belize dollars).  We stayed at Yuma’s House, a great hostel located steps from the ferry loading station.  The decor, the cleanliness, the location, everything was great, and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.  The only complaint was the heat. Thankfully there were fans in the room, as I don’t think A/C was a commodity on the island.  Suzanne, who owns the hostel, was extremely helpful, and I loved hearing her stories.  She was a native European who moved to Belize on a whim after she heard that the hostel was for sale.  She has run it ever since, and I must say that it is one of the best accommodations on the island.

 

We spent the first few hours exploring the island and recuperating from our long flight.  It was the off-season, so it felt like we had the whole island to ourselves.  It was wonderfully empty, and it was just what we needed after the long school year and endless work hours.

After exploring the island, we decided to rent some paddle-boards and explore the mangroves around the island.  It had been very windy all day, but we did not think much of it.  The rental shop owners warned us to stay close to the island to stay protected from the strong winds, and we brushed them off not realizing the danger in their statement.

The first 15 minutes of our paddle-board session was great.  The water was crystal clear, and you could see schools of fish underneath you.  One of my cousins, Michelle, had been struggling with her board, but I figured that she would eventually get the hang of it.  My other cousin, Kim, and I were more experienced paddle boarders, and we were able to move around quickly.   We spotted a manta ray and followed it unwittingly towards the open ocean.

When we turned around, we realized how far from the island we were, and the wind was pushing us out even further.  Worse, Michelle was extremely far from us, and she was audibly frustrated about her board’s maneuverability.  We tried to paddle back towards her, but for every paddle forward, the wind would push us farther out towards sea.  With no form of cellular communication, we had no choice but to try to paddle back to land.

Kim and I decided to split up. I would try and paddle back to land to get help, while Kim would try to paddle to Michelle to calm her down.  The wind had gotten so strong that I knew I would never reach land in time.  The next best options were the yachts docked off shore.  They were still quite a ways away, but it was my best option.   After what seemed like an hour, I made it to the closest yacht hoping to find people on board to help us.  Nothing.  The boat was empty.  By that time, I couldn’t even see Michelle.  Did I mention that she was not a great swimmer? If I knew how to drive a boat, I would have stolen borrowed the yacht to search for her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to do that, so I simply jumped and flailed around for 15 minutes, trying to get the attention of anyone nearby.

Finally, someone on a nearby yacht realized I needed help.  He rode out on his little rubber dinghy and picked me up.  I briefed him about our situation and told him to drive out towards the ocean until we found Michelle.  After about five minutes of driving 50 miles an hour, I could finally see a little black speck on the horizon.  The speck grew until I could make out four people on a small speedboat.  A local fisherman and his son had picked up my cousins, and they were on their way back to land.  Relieved, my savior turned our dinghy around and headed for sweet, sweet land.

It felt like we were out there for hours, but when we got back to land, we realized that our hour-long rental had only just expired.  At the time, the gravity of our situation did not cross my mind.  However, looking back, I realized that we could have died that day if anything had gone differently.   Thankfully, we stayed safe for the rest of the trip.

And that is the story of the one and only time I’ve been on a yacht.  Not bad for our first day in Belize.

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