Belize (Part 3) – Exploring the Mayan Underworld
Day 9 (continued):
When we got to Dangriga there was a queue of cars offering lifts to the bus station. They originally wanted $5pp for the short trip, but we negotiated with them and we packed five people into one car and only cost $10 for all of us.
We got to the bus station in Dangriga at 4.00pm but had to wait till 5.30pm for a bus heading to Belize City in the north via Belmopan. Several buses arrived during this time heading south, so if you are heading to the popular destinations of Placencia or Hopkins you won’t have to wait as long.
There are two buses at 5.30pm, the express and the normal. We went for the express one and it got us to Belmopan in 90 minutes and only cost $7, $2 more than the normal bus, trust me it’s 100% worth it. It’s a nice scenic journey to Belmopan and the roads are surprisingly good.
Luckily when we arrived in Belmopan the bus to my next destination of Benque via San Ignacio was waiting in the station so we quickly swapped buses and were on our way to San Ignacio. This leg of the journey was relatively quick, only cost $3 and took 40 minutes or so.
Once we arrived in San Ignacio we made our way to our hostels to drop our bags off and freshen up as we had been travelling for most of the day. I stayed at Bella’s Backpackers for the duration of my stay in San Ignacio. It cost $12.50USD a night in the dorms. The others stayed in the Old House Hostel as it was slightly cheaper.
We all freshened up and went for food in Tai San Chinese restaurant. It was an average meal for about $15, but we didn’t have too many options because of the time so it had to do. There are definitely better places to eat in San Ignacio, just don’t wait too late to eat as places close relatively early. After dinner we decided to go for a few drinks and called it a night then.
There’s so much to see and do in San Ignacio such as horse riding, tubing, canoeing, waterfalls and Mayan sites, but it’s most famous for the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) caves.
We booked our ATM trip with the Old House Hostel which I highly recommend. They use a guy called Emil who’s a freelance tour guide for the ATM caves. He’s super knowledgeable as he’s been doing tours for about 16 years and is actually President of the cave association. The tour costs $85USD which was slightly cheaper than other companies we checked.
Please note that you can only visit the ATM caves with a registered tour guide so be prepared to splash out between $85-95USD for this tour. This is the main tourist attraction in the area so make sure you put the money aside as it’s such an exclusive experience.
That morning I ended up going to Mickey’s Snack Shop for breakfast. It was $4 for a tasty breakfast burrito, enough said.
We were picked up at 8.00am from Old House Hostel and made our way to the ATM caves. It took about an hour to reach the caves, where we were actually the second group to arrive so it was perfect when we were exploring. To get to the entrance of the cave you have to trek about 30 minutes into the jungle crossing through a river three times.
To access the cave, we swam across a small spring-fed pool and crossed into the dark underworld of the cave that allows us access to the extensive underground.
(Photo taken by Maya Walk Tours)
You spend about three hours in the cave meandering the maze of tunnels, passageways and chambers. About 2-3 km’s into the cave you reach the ceremonial chamber housing stoneware, ceramics and the famed crystallized skeleton of the “Crystal Maiden”. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take cameras into the cave anymore as serious damage has been done to ancient artefacts by previous visitors.
We had a pretty active group so Emil took us through some tougher routes in the caves. He told us the history behind the caves, talked about the many different rock formations and spoke about the Mayan rituals.
This tour is a must if you’re in San Ignacio. It’s a very unique tour and it gives you a better understanding of the Mayan people while allowing you to explore these magnificent caves.
(Photo taken by Maya Walk Tours)
After exiting the cave and trekking back to the car park, we were given a Belizean lunch, consisting of the usual, chicken, rice, potato salad, with chips and salsa and a homemade cake, oh and also some rum. Once we finished up lunch we were on our way back to San Ignacio.
**Tip** bring old runners that you don’t mind leaving behind and bring a rash vest or long sleeve t-shirt as it can get cold being in the water and cave for some time.
There was still a few hours of daylight left so we made the short walk to Cahal Pech Maya ruins. It only takes about 15 minutes from the centre of town and is very easy to find. After handling a few steep hills we arrived and paid the $10 entry fee. There is an information centre where you can read up on some history of the ruins and then you get to explore the grounds and ruins by yourself. The ruins are very small compared to other sites close by, but they were still very impressive to see.
After descending back to the town centre we went back to our hostels and showered quickly before heading back out to meet people from our ATM tour. We got food and drinks from Tandooron the main pedestrian street. It was cheap and cheerful and they had a happy hour on rum and beers so it did the job. There wasn’t much nightlife in San Ignacio so we just sat at Tandoor till they closed.
After a hectic few days and with my Raggamuffin friends now gone onto Guatemala I decided to have a chilled morning, so I got breakfast from Mickey’s Snack Shop again and just relaxed around the hostel.
For the afternoon I self explored the Xunantunich ruins. These are the second tallest ruins in Belize and are very accessible to get to by yourself. All you have to do is jump on the local bus heading towards Benque and tell the bus driver where you are going, it roughly takes about 15-20 minutes and only costs a total of $4 for a return trip.
Once you get off the bus there is a hand-cranked ferry which takes you across the river. The ferry is free but it’s nice to give the workers a small tip for their service.
Once off the ferry there is a pretty tough walk to the ruins so make sure you have good footwear on. There’s a pretty big hill to walk up and it takes about 15-20 minutes to get there. There’s a $10 admission fee to see the ruins, but it was without a doubt the best money I spent. The ruins are amazing and you could spend hours in awe just staring at the ancient structures.
The site itself is very impressive, with lots of information available about the ruins and the Mayan culture and also the physical structures which have been standing for thousands of years. You can climb to the top of “El Castillo” where you have spectacular 360 panoramic views of the surrounding area, including several miles into Guatemala. I sat at the top for a good 45 minutes taking it all in, it was breathtaking. I explored the site for a little longer before making my way back to San Ignacio.
After visiting several Mayan ruins on my trip I would definitely say Xunantunich was my favourite. For me it was visually the most impressive and without a doubt had the best views.
**Tip** The best advice I got about pronouncing Xunantunich is saying, “tuna-sandwich”.
When I got back to San Ignacio I was feeling peckish so I got a burrito from Mincho’s, which is beside Mickey’s Snack Shop. It cost me $3 and was good quality. I highly recommend stopping by these two places at least once while in San Ignacio as you can get great meals for half nothing. There are always queues for both, and the locals eat here too so you know they are good spots. The rest of the day consisted of me chilling at the hostel reading and relaxing in the seats upstairs and in the hammocks.
After a good days rest I was ready for another adventure. This time I booked a day trip to see the Caracol Ruins with Maya Walk Tours. On the trip we visited the Rio Frio cave, Caracol Maya Ruins and the Rio on Pools waterfall.
Caracol is still the highest man-made building in Belize to this day. Standing at nearly 135 feet you will get impressive panoramic views of Belize and neighbouring Guatemala.
Following a 1.5 hour drive from San Ignacio through bumpy dirt roads (it was the bumpiest journey I’ve ever experienced, be prepared), passing through small Mayan villages and scenic countryside we arrived at the archaeological site of Caracol. Our guide talked to us about the anthropology, archaeology, flora and fauna of the area. We were even lucky to spot some howler monkeys, a toucan and a snake.
After touring the ruins, we revitalized ourselves with some afternoon rum and a Belizean lunch. We then continued back through the Pine Ridge area where we stopped at the Rio On Pools, a series of natural swimming holes and waterfall and we also visited the Rio Frio Cave, which apparently has the largest entrance of any cave in Belize.
The trip costs $95USD which includes all transport, park entrance fees and lunch. The trip leaves at around 7.00am and usually arrives back at around 5.00pm. After going on this trip and experiencing other ruins I wouldn’t recommend doing this tour.
Yes, it was great to see Caracol as it’s the tallest ruins in Belize but I thought (1) it isn’t worth the money (2) the journey there is long and bumpy and (3) I thought Xunantunich was far more impressive, and what makes it better is it only costs $14 to see versus $190. It’s a no brainer really. Had I known this before going I would have spent my money doing something else.
Once I’d got back to the hostel I relaxed for a bit and had a quick shower before meeting a couple of friends from the Raggamuffin trip who just arrived in San Ignacio.
We went to Ko-Ox-Han Nah for some food as it came highly recommended, plus it’s also number 1 on Tripadvisor so we had to check it out. The food here was so good, the portions are massive and the prices are pretty reasonable too (food ranged from $8-$18). We got the burritos and quesadillas and all were delicious. Trust me when I say, you won’t need to order any sides with these dishes they are so filling by themselves.
After catching up over a few beers and reminiscing about our trip, we parted ways as we were all travelling the next day and wanted easy nights.
Today was a travel day back to Belize City for me, so I had a chilled morning getting breakfast and having some coffee in the hostel. I got a bus at around 11.00am to bring me back to Belize City. I learnt that there isn’t any real timetable but buses usually come every 30 minutes at the main square. I had intended on getting the express bus but I eagerly jumped on the regular bus as it arrived before. This was a rookie mistake as the bus stopped every few minutes to drop and pick people up and it got quite packed. The cost was $9 but I definitely would have paid a few more dollars for a quicker bus.
Three hours later I finally arrived into Belize City where I jumped into a taxi outside the bus station to bring me to my hotel.
For my last night in Belize I chose to stay at the Ramada Hotel. This was an unnecessary expense but one I enjoyed after spending the previous 4 nights in a hostel, having no warm showers or privacy. I also wanted to have a good night sleep and a place where I could chill before heading to the airport the next day as I faced a daunting trip home to Ireland. Three flights and 20 hours of travel to be precise.
There’s lots of great amenities in the Ramada, including an outdoor pool, a gym, casino, cinema and two in-house restaurants. However, I had several issues with my room which I wasn’t happy with and it definitely didn’t justify the money I spent on it.
I ended up staying in the hotel for the whole day using the facilities, and then got dinner and watched TV in my room.
Time to say goodbye to Belize.
I woke up late enough, enjoyed a complimentary buffet breakfast and relaxed before I had to leave for the airport.
I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up from the hotel and drop me to the airport. It cost me $50, which is a standard flat rate fare that is not negotiable. Belize Airport is pretty small so you can fly through check-in and security so don’t arrive too early like you would for most International flights. Although the airport is small there are actually a lot of duty free shops so you can waste a bit of time picking up some last minute souvenirs and some of Belize’s finest hot sauce.
So there you have it, a very detailed itinerary for spending two weeks in the magnificent Belize. As planned, I got to experience two very different types of Belize.
In my first week I got to experience the incredible Caye’s, reefs and beaches, the amazing BBQ’s and the chilled lifestyle and in the second week I got to explore the caves, jungles and ancient Maya ruins.
I never in my wildest dreams thought Belize would be as good as it was. It really blew my expectations right out of the water. I will always remember my incredible trip to Belize, as I met so many great people, saw and did things people only dream of and especially as it was my first time travelling solo.
The things I did, saw and experienced were simply out of this world and I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be as good. Although Belize is an expensive country compared to other South/Central American countries, my advice would be, don’t skip Belize. It’s incredibly beautiful and the people are so friendly.
Several of my friends who have backpacked South/Central America sped through Belize due to the prices and definitely didn’t get to enjoy the beauty of the country. And I can tell you, after they saw my videos and pictures they realised they missed a real gem.