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Two Caves and a Mayan Temple

Xunantunich and Barton Creek Cave

Friday was "play day," our reward for a hard week's work.  We ate another delicious and filling breakfast at Log Cab-Inn in the morning, courtesy of the excellent chef, Ina.  Then around 9 a.m. we all piled into a couple of vans -- a routine that had become old hat by now -- and headed west towards Succotz. 

 

Our first adventure of the day was exploring the impressive Mayan ruins at Xunantunich (pronounced "shoe-NAN-too-nitch").  I had visited Xunantunich the year before, during my first trip to Belize, and I described the site, and the Mayan culture, in detail in my entry from last February.  But to summarize, the Mayans had lived in this area from about 2000 B.C. until about 1200 A.D. and their civilization peaked around 500 A.D.  During their reign, they build dozens of cities and temples that extended from southern Mexico to Honduras, including here in Belize, most of which have yet to be discovered.

 

One of their more impressive sites is in Belize just inside the Guatemalan border at a place which today we call Xunantunich, located just a few miles from the village of Succotz, where I had worked on Tuesday.  The actual Mayan name for this site is unknown, as are the reasons they abandoned it around 1200 A.D.  But the site was re-discovered by British explorers in the late 1800s -- Belize was a British colony until 1981 -- and it was excavated more thoroughly beginning in 1938, a task which continues through today.

 

Above:  Crossing the Mopan River on the way to Xunantunich courtesy of a hand-cranked ferry.

The day after our group had arrived in Belize, on Sunday, we had briefly explored the more modest Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, near San Ignacio, a site that I described in my entry from last year.  But Cahal Pech is small potatoes (or maybe "small mangoes" considering the locale) compared to Xunantunich, which is not only much harder to pronounce but is much more extensive, as well.  The Xunantunich ruins include a lofty Mayan pyramid-like structure which is known today as "El Castillo.  At 130 feet in elevation, it's the second-tallest structure in Belize; only the ancient Mayan ruins at Caracol are higher.

 

We spent about three hours at Xunantunich, led by a knowledgeable guide, and everyone had a great time learning more about the Mayan culture.  Our group also enjoyed crossing the Mopan River as we traveled to the site, via an old-fashioned hand-cranked ferry.  Everyone got a chance to crank us across the lazy Mopan -- and then back again after we'd finished our tour of the Mayan ruins.  Along with seeing the ruins, the creaky, old hand-powered ferry is something I'm sure they'll never forget.

 

Above:  Marlynn enjoyed cranking the ferry more than the ferry operator.  Maybe a new career?

After our tour, we headed back to Log Cab-Inn and ate a delicious lunch, again thanks to wonderful chef Ina.  Afterwards, about a dozen of us more adventurous folks got ready for a trip to Barton Creek Cave.  This, again, was something I had done the previous year but was something I wanted to do again.  In fact, after describing the cave/canoe trip to the group a few days earlier -- I explained to them that it was something like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland, only with real canoes that you paddle through a darkened river cave -- several folks in our group decided to join me, so I suppose you could say I was the instigator for this whole expedition.

 

Around 1 p.m., a large pickup truck, with three bench seats in the bed, pulled up to Log Cab-Inn and the dozen of us piled in, eight in the back and four sitting up front in the cab.  We had a blast, with the wind in our hair, as we rode down the highway.  After a half-hour, we turned off onto a dirt road heading towards the cave.  It probably wasn't the safest thing I've ever done, riding in the back of an open truck while bouncing down the road with no seatbelts on  -- especially when we started racing another truck that was trying to pass us on the narrow, rutted dirt road.

 

I was totally dumbstruck.  This truck, which all of us in the back watched with curiousity, had come up behind us as we were traveling about 30 miles an hour on the narrow dirt road, and then it pulled over on the left to pass us.  The only problem was there was no lane or road there -- just a dirt hillside.  That apparently didn't faze the driver of the other truck, though, and he floored it and somehow passed us, then swerved back onto the dirt road in front of us.  I was totally speechless and so were the other seven of us who were sitting in the back, laughing at something we couldn't quite believe.  But then you see a lot of crazy things like that in Belize.

 

The Barton Creek cave tour was a lot of fun.  We got into canoes, three or four folks to each canoe with the person sitting in front holding a hefty spotlight powered by a car battery, then we paddled into the cave, led by a guide.  The cave had been used for religious ceremonies over a thousand years ago by the Mayans and there are still ancient artifacts scattered throughout the cave.  You can paddle in the still waters for about a half-mile back into the dark cave, while dodging numerous stalactites that drop down from the ceiling, before you have to turn around at a point where the ceiling descends almost to the water level.  It was a truly amazing and unforgettable experience. 

 

       

Above left:  Friday was our play day.  Our first stop was at the impressive Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, where we spent most of the morning learning about Mayan culture from our knowledgeable tour guide.

Above center:  An iguana lazing in a tree.  The locals tell me that iguanas taste like chicken -- or thinking about it another way, chickens taste like iguana.  Hey, maybe a new fast food chain:  KFI.

Above right:  Walking under a reconstructed frieze on El Castillo, the second-highest structure in Belize.

 

       

Above left:  Hiking up through the ruins at Xunantunich.

Above center:  New best friends, Alyssa and Kelsey.

Above right:  I bought that slate etching of El Castillo from this cheerful fellow.  Only $10 US.

 

    

Above left:  Touring Mayan ruins sure builds up an appetite.  This is back at Log Cab-Inn where chef Ina worked her magic and served up a delicious lunch.

Above right:  After lunch, we hopped in a truck for a ride to Barton Creek cave.  The exhilarating ride to the cave was even more fun than the cave tour.

 

       

Above left:  Riding through downtown San Ignacio.

Above center:  Having fun in the back, on the way to Barton Creek.

Above right:  Our driver stopped at a fruit orchard and picked star fruit.  Chris (right) looks skeptical.

 

       

Above left:  David loves puppies.  And they love him.

Above center:  Judy enjoyed the scenery at Barton Creek -- and enjoyed the hammock even more.

Above right:  Alyssa also loves puppies.  And they love her.

 

     

Above left:  We hopped into canoes and paddled into the cave, spotlights at the ready.

Above right:  Captain Spencer paddling his boat through Barton Creek cave.  Over a thousand years ago the cave was used by Mayans for religious ceremonies and there are still skulls in the cave, from victims of the sacrifices.

 

     

Above left:  Back at Log Cab-Inn that evening, Jonny said goodbye and thanked us for doing a great job that week.

Above center:  "And as a parting gift, each of our contestants will receive... a ProBelize shirt!"  Susan and Don enjoyed theirs, but I think Susan's shirt is a tad too large for her.

Above right:  Nicole, a ProBelize staffer, with her family.

The ATM Cave Revisited

Saturday was our group's last day together and in the misty morning we all said goodbye before scattering in different directions.  Our group of 16 "mature" (i.e., old) folks, plus the youngsters Kelsey and Alyssa, had worked together all week on various projects in several villages and many of us had formed bonds which I'm sure will last a lifetime.  Several people headed down to the airport in Belize City to fly back to Portland, others went out to the keys in the Caribbean, while a small group of us more adventurous folks -- Barbara, Judy, Kelsey and myself -- decided to tour the ATM Cave, hidden deep in the jungles east of San Antonio. 

 

Above:  Judy and David saying a heartfelt goodbye on Saturday morning.

I had explored the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave last year and described it, and my incredible experience there, in an update from last February.  As I described in that entry, the ATM is a river cave that had been used by the ancient Mayan Indians for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years, up until about 1200 A.D., when the Mayan civilization collapsed.  The cave was re-discovered only recently, in 1989, and for nine years afterwards, only archaeologists were permitted inside.  Then in 1998, the Belizean government began allowing limited public tours of the cave. 

 

The ATM Cave is quite extensive, extending for at least a half-mile back into the hillside, and there are dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of ancient Mayan artifacts scattered throughout, in the exact same location and same pristine condition (well, mostly) as when they were last used by the Mayans over a thousand years ago.  The Mayans used the cave for sacrifices, among other things, and 14 skeletons (mostly of young women) have been found in the cave so far.  Exploring the ATM Cave is an unforgettable experience.  Indeed, I'll never forget my first visit there a year earlier -- nor my visit on this trip, I'm sure. 

 

Above:  Fording a stream as we hiked to the ATM Cave.

The four of us were picked up on Saturday morning at Log Cab-Inn and boarded a minibus with about a dozen other folks, then we rode for about an hour, down the highway and then on a dirt road through the jungle, until we reached the trailhead.  From there, we hiked about a mile through the jungle while wading across several streams. 

 

We finally reached the cave entrance and, after stripping down to our swimming gear, we each donned a plastic helmet with a headlamp.  Then our small group of five, including our Belizean guide, swam into the cave -- yes, that's right, we swam into it -- and then sloshed and splashed our way back into the dark cavern for about a half-hour, totally mesmerized by the fascinating reddish limestone stalactites that drooped from the ceiling.  The warmish water was ankle deep in some places, up to our waists in others, and in still others, it was over our heads, requiring us to creep along a ledge while grasping it with our fingers while trying to stay afloat.

 

Above:  Swimming into the ATM Cave. 

After a half-hour of wading, swimming, sloshing, and scrambling over boulders, we reached a dry trail above the creek that eventually led to an assortment of Mayan pottery that had been left in place on the floor untouched for hundreds of years and well-preserved by the cave environment.  From there we scaled a ladder and entered an upper chamber.  Sprawled on the cave floor was the musty skeleton of a 14-year old Mayan girl who had been sacrificed in the cave over a thousand years ago.  We spent a somber moment in the chamber viewing the skeleton, then turned around and splashed our way back to the cave entrance, finally emerging into the blinding daylight.

 

Visiting the ATM Cave is a singularly unique experience, but unfortunately it's becoming so popular and crowded that the government is considering closing it to the public.  I had visited the cave the year before so I knew what to expect, but my companions, Kelsey, Judy and Barbara, were totally blown away.

 

       

Above left:  Barbara, Judy and Kelsey preparing to enter the ATM Cave, with our tour guide.

Above center:  Admiring the limestone formations on the ceiling.

Above right:  Del is having fun.

 

       

Above left:  Kelsey and our guide at a water-covered rock.  Water percolates through the soil hundreds of feet above and drips down from the cave walls into the stream.

Above center:  After a half-hour of wading through the stream, and deep in the cave, we hiked on a dry trail and admired the pottery that was left here over a thousand years ago by the ancient Mayans.

Above right:  Kelsey is having fun, too.

 

       

Above left:  The happy crew somewhere deep in the cave.

Above center:   My legs took a beating that week.  The splotches are chigger bites from working in the villages.  And the night before, Jonny ran over my foot with his SUV because I had to jump out of it while it was still moving (it's a long story).  And then on Saturday I got a bloody gash in the ATM Cave while stumbling over a rock.

Above right:  Saying goodbye to mi tres amigas, Kelsey, Judy and Barbara, before I headed down to the keys.

 


 

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