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San Ignacio, Belize

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at the entrance to ATMATM stone princessskull in ATM

We are now in San Ignacio, just 9 miles from the Guatemala border. From Caye Caulker we took the water taxi back to Belize City, then took a two hour “chicken bus” to San Ignacio in western Belize. San Ignacio is a pleasant hill town and is a great base for exploring attractions in the Belizean countryside.

Yesterday we did an unforgettably adventurous tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) or “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher.” It started with an hour-long van ride through some very bumpy and remote roads that headed out into the jungle. It reminded me of the roads into the Gobi in Mongolia. After traveling through a lush valley, the road ended and the van stopped in front of a dirt path leading into the jungle. From there we hiked for another hour or so and had to wade across a river 3 times before arriving at a huge limestone wall. There was a small creek leading up to it, where the wall parted like two stone curtains, revealing an hourglass-shaped cave entrance.

From the entrance we adorned hard hats with spelunking lights, and swam through a deep, blue-green pool of water into the mouth of the cave. We followed our guide as he lead us ever deeper into the chilling dark caverns of the cave. We were in water most of the time that reached anywhere from up to our ankles to over our heads. Oftentimes we were forced to squeeze through tiny openings that revealed larger caverns beyond.

The adventure climaxed when we entered a huge cavern known as “the cathedral.” It was a giant cavern nearly a half-mile into the caves that was used by the Mayans for religious ceremonies and sacrifice. A giant stalactite chandelier hung in the middle, giving the cave the feel of an ancient ball room.

The ground to the stalactite-riddled cave was littered with ancient Mayan pottery, sitting undisturbed in its original place, since about 800 AD. Farther, in the back of the cave, the entire skeleton of a Mayan teenage girl, sacrificed in a ritual, revealed itself. She is known as the “Stone Princess.” The experience of the cave and seeing her there brought back reminiscences of Indiana Jones, and the scene from Goonies when they find Chester Copperpot. It was truly unbelievable to walk through this archaeological site that was only recently discovered in 1989.

National Geographic has done several documentaries on the cave and, all said, it was one of the most impressive tours I’ve ever done. ATM is only accessible with a tour guide and, after visiting it, I can see why. The Mayans believed that the cave was the entrance to Xibalba, an underworld that all must pass through in the after life. Only a few Mayans were allowed into the cave, and it was seen as a religious experience. The human remains were sacrifices to the sun god.

The cave tour took up most of the day. After we arrived back in San Ignacio, we noticed that a traveling circus had been set up on the outskirts of town and was giving a show tonight for half price. I hadn’t seen a circus since Moscow back in 2002, where I saw a bear that could smoke and ride a motorcycle. This turned out to be a more rag-tag affair, a type of circus/carnival that you can no longer find in America. Most of the acts were second-rate and included, juggling, animal acts, and my favorite, “the wall of death,” where two motorcycles raced around, inside a metal sphere.

The girl that rode the elephant in the animal segment seemed to take a certain liking to Eric, but he maintained his composure. The whole thing had a Something Wicked this Way Comes feel to it. More than once I entertained the idea of hanging out with the performers afterward, as I found the idea of a Central American traveling circus to be an intriguing one. It was Friday 13th, and we had just spent the day cave-diving in an ancient Mayan cave, and now we were seeing some great local acts by a vagabond circus. It was a very memorable day.

We’re staying in the nicest place we’ve stayed at so far. It’s called the Casa Blanca, and for $15 each we have a nice room with hot water, private bath, two fans and clean sheets. It was voted “Best Small Hotel in Belize.”

Today (the day following the cave tour and circus) we took a local bus to see the ruins of the Mayan city Xunantunich. After taking a small, hand-cranked ferry across a tiny river, we hiked a mile to the site. It was very cool and was a great preview of other sites we plan to visit, like the famous Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala and maybe the Inca city of Machu Pichu in Peru.

Tomorrow we’re off to Flores in northern Guatemala where we plan to take a day trip to the ruins of Tikal.

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