Caye Caulker

Today was moving day and we were picked up at 7.30 am by the mini-bus transport for the long journey from Tulum in Mexico to Caye Caulker in Belize. The trip to the border was an uneventful 3½ hours across the flat limestone plain of Yucatan, through several small villages that broke up the low coastal jungle. To wile the time away, our guide Aquilino gave us a potted history of this region from the early pre-history of Meso-America to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the eventual independence of the Central American nations.

The border crossing was equally smooth and, on the Belize side a second bus waited to pick us up. Soon, we were heading south again deeper into the country, past cane field and banana plantation, and the occasional herd of cattle. Belize is a melting pot of humanity, with Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifa, European, Chinese and Indian peoples making up its relatively small population. Most Belizeans are bi- or trilingual, they speak English to tourists, creole to each other and their mother tongues at home. We were finally dropped off at the ferry terminal on Belize harbour, for the 50 minute boat ride from Belize City to Caye Caulker, a narrow sandy islet off the coast.

We set out in hot steaming sunshine on an aqua sea, but as we progressed, the wind began to generate small white-caps, the sky became grey and thick and, only minutes out from Caye Caulker, the heavens opened and the rain sheeted down. We were caught in the midst of a tropical downpour.

It's a hard life

The fifty or so metres from boat to shelter were all that it took to get soaked. Eventually though, the rain eased and we all headed up the puddle-spotted white sand road to check in to our hotel at the caye. We had arrived at the second longest barrier reef in the world.

Sandy streets of Caye Caulker

Colourful houses in Caye Caulker

Caribbean paradise

Sunset over Caye Caulker

The following day was to be one of the trip highlights – snorkelling on the barrier reef. The weather was greatly improved with the rain band well past, leaving a partially cloudy sky in its wake.  We lathered ourselves with sunscreen and wandered down to Mario’s Tours to get fitted with facemasks and flippers.

Snorkelling the barrier reef

Soon we were thumping our way for 30 minutes across the big swell in Mario’s fast dive-boat, as we crossed the channel between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye – to the east a line of breakers delineated the reef. Our first stop was above a meadow of sea-grass, where manatees often graze, though not today. Then it was on to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. It was impossible not to pick the good snorkelling spots – small clusters of boats bobbing at their moorings with groups of snorkels moving slowly through the clear, clear water.

Snorkelling here is guided and Captain Jack Sparrow (he told us that was his name and who were we to contradict, several kilometres from the nearest shore) and his fellow guide, Zac, took us in two groups over the shallower and more colourful coral formations out to the channel through the reef, from where we could peer out into the deep blue beyond. There was a bit of a chop and a bit of current, but nothing to stop the pleasure of our first snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef’s smaller cousin.

From the channel, we started heading backwards, with several more snorkelling stops – two to swim with manta and sting rays and 2m long nurse sharks, one to explore a sunken wreck that had  become home to coral and tropical fish and one to explore a coral garden filled with colourful fish.

Wreck of a sunken coastal freighter

A selection of photos from Hoi Chan Marine Reserve

Snorkelling on the wreck

It was a brilliant day, replete with a large serve of Belizean chicken and rice for lunch and finished with a rum punch (or two). It was a tired but happy group who landed back at Caye Caulker. Thanks Captain Jack and Zac. The images here speak better than words in describing the reef and its fauna.

San Ignacio

Today was moving day. After snorkelling we had had a day off to soak up the mellow Caribbean ambience of Cay Caulker, but now it was time to head on to our next stop, San Ignacio, in the hinterland of Belize. Our group caught the water-taxi back to Belize City, where Aquilino arranged for some taxis to take us through the chaotic streets to the central bus station. Here a local bus (i.e. old American school bus that retired to the tropics) took us on the three-hour journey to San Ignacio. It was an interesting trip, passing through the run-down suburbia of Belize to cross the swampy flatlands of the coastal region, with their scrubby stunted palms.

After some time, we reached Belmopan, a new city built specifically to be the capital of Belize. The government moved in in 1970 and, with a population of only 16,000, it is one of the smallest capitals in the world - an interesting comparison with our own city, Canberra, which was also planned and built to be the national capital (but now with a population of 400,00).

After Belmopan, the landscape became noticeably richer, with taller forest and farmlands, until finally we arrived at San Ignacio, set pleasantly in the foothills of the Mayan Mountains. It was good to stretch our legs again – three hours in a bus whose seats are designed for American school-children was a bit cramping.

Main street of San Ignacio

View towards the Blue Hills

Our hotel in San Igacio

After lunch, Aquilino led us on a walk through town up into the surrounding hills to visit the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech. This small city thrived for 2000 years from around 1200BC to around 800AD. Today, ruins of temple and palace, with stone structures surrounding a number  of different sized plazas, give an idea of the past glory of this site.

Climbing the steps of the pyramid

In the palace plaza of Cahal Pech

We wandered through the tranquil and shady setting before heading back down to the centre of San Ignacio. This small town seemed peaceful after the bustle of the tourist hubs we had visited to date. It was good to be here.

Typical Mayan architecture

The main plaza and surrounding ruins

View of Plaza A and the stepped pyramid

The next day we set off in a mini-van, driving for an hour through the rich landscape of inland Belize, traversing Mayan and Mennonite villages, before bouncing along a rough dirt road past citrus plantations and corn crops, as we followed a valley deep into the limestone hills. Our destination was the Cave of Aktun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave), deep in the rain forest.  As well as being a large and superb cave system, it is also a living museum, with Mayan relics and the skeletons of human sacrifices dating from 600-900AD. It was only re-discovered in 1986.

A pair of fearless cavers

We had three river crossings (one requiring swimming) to get from the car-park to the cave, following a track along the fast-flowing Roaring Creek, as it wound its way through the lush rain forest.

Crossing a deep section of Roaring Creek

View from a shallow crossing of Roaring Creek

When we reached the large cave entrance, water from an underground stream was rushing out and a clear blue pool barred the entrance. It was the only way in, so, following our guide, Jam-Jam, we swam into the demi-light, switched on our headlamps and entered the underworld of Aktun Tunichil Muknal.

Belizean rain forest near the cave entrance

Aquatic entrance to Aktun Tunichil Muknal Cave

A narrow squeeze just after the entrance

Shawl formation in ATM

Thus began a long series of wading, climbing over boulders and squeezing through narrow pinches, as we penetrated deeper into this cave.  The ceiling lay high above us in the narrow passage, as tiny fruit bats flitted about the stalactites, shawls and flowstone formations.

Wading up stream beneath cave formations

Rock scramble to the next level

Eventually we arrived at a point where we climbed up a steep flowstone slope to reach a dry chamber. Here, scattered on the cave floor and in niches in the walls, lay the remnants of broken pots and tools, left by the Mayan priests who visited the cave for rituals and ceremonies over 1200 years ago.  The first skeletons appeared – human sacrifices to obtain favour from the gods. Jam-Jam explained the Mayan beliefs and practices as we went. It was a fascinating place, as every artefact is exactly as it was found – a living museum.

The immense and spectacular main chamber of ATM

Passing through an enormous chamber, replete with beautiful formations, we made one last scramble up a rock-fall, before a ladder leading up into the darkness brought us to a small chamber and the prize of the relics, the intact skeleton of a young person crystallised by calcium rich water over the years. We were now 900m into the depths of Aktun Tunichil Muknal and it was time to return. This was one place, where the return trip was as good as the one coming in, as we headed down through the ceremonial chambers to wind our way back out through the pools and fast-flowing shallows of the river. No matter what else we do on this trip, the visit to this site will be a highlight.

Some of the superb formations in ATM

Broken pots from Mayan rituals

Climbing up to the last chamber of ATM

Inspecting the relics of the cave

Cameras have not been allowed in the cave since 2012, when one visitor dropped a lens on a skull and broke it. The photos shown here are pre-2012 ones provided by the tour company. In fact, I found it strangely liberating to wander through the cave and appreciate its beauty without fretting about where and when to take the next photo.

Crystallised skeleton of a Mayan human sacrifice