Belize & Guatemala
Belize is often thought of as a country of luxury resorts and beaches, but there is much more to it than that. It has a rich culture, diverse wildlife, and a slow-paced lifestyle that makes it a unique and fascinating destination.
After touching down at Belize International Airport, we traveled two hours across the country to San Iglesias. Starving, we went straight to the town to find a restaurant. We settled on Kan-Ox-Han-Ah and sat down for a meal. I wolfed down a delicious, hot burrito.
The next day, we went on the renowned ATM cave exploration trip, which goes through the caves built by the ancient Mayan civilization. It was an hour-long hike to even reach the entrance to the cave. Once there, we had to jump into the water to navigate and climb through endless rocks in the dark. The only light source was our helmet lights, which I wished were stronger as they only illuminated four feet in front of us. There were many surprises, such as rocks jutting out of the water, massive drops, and steep steps. At one point, the cave was so tight that we had to extend and turn our necks to fit through, and could feel the rocks against our throats.
Exhausted, we reached the end of the cave desperate for a break. Once we recovered, we regained our excitement for what the cave had to offer. There were many ancient artifacts scattered around us, and an old skeleton was within arm's reach. It was an overwhelming realization. Our guide told us a funny story about a tourist who accidentally dropped a camera on a skull and a tooth fell out. Because of that, cameras are no longer allowed in the caves, which is unfortunate because there is so much to see and share with the world.
The guide explained that the caves were used for the sacrifice of children. The Mayans would put boards on the children so that their skulls would become deformed. The tour was full of adventure and excitement, and offered a lot of historical insight into the ancient Mayan civilization.
While driving through the remote parts of Belize, I was struck by how isolated many of the villages were. Our guide told us that few had access to running water or electricity. Solar panels were used to collect electricity which was used to charge phones and watch television — beyond this, they have no use for electricity. It was eye-opening to see how some of the technological advancements influence these smaller communities and drastically change their life.
Our first activity of the day was our canoe trip through the Bartin Creek caves. It was dark inside the caves, but the ominous crystal formations hanging from the ceiling were hard to miss. We were lucky to have the caves to ourselves, which allowed us to turn off our lights and experience true darkness. Our guide warned us not to let our eyes try to adjust for too long, as it wouldn't be able to and thus could damage them.
On the way to Xunantunich, we passed an Amish community which became an intermediate stop. A friendly man told us about their basic way of life, a stark contrast to the high-paced lifestyle I grew up in. The community was selling baked goods, which were laid out on a table by the road. There was no seller as they worked off an honor system. An Amish man then came by, and I asked to take a picture of him, to which he agreed. Our guide was surprised and told us that typically they would say no, due to the belief that photos take out their soul.
At Xunantunich, we were able to explore the incredible Mayan ruins. We learned that during excavations, archeologists had found a tablet with writing on it. However, in the 1930s, careless archeologists accidentally destroyed much of the site by using detonation as the excavation method, making much of it unrecoverable. Climbing to the top of the ruins provided us with a stunning view that included the forests of Guatemala.
Our hotel was sponsoring an iguana conservation program called the Iguana Project. One of the iguanas, Ziggy, had a bone disorder caused by a lack of vitamin D and being raised in a cage that was too small. The project focused on breeding endangered green iguanas like Ziggy.
We took a day trip to Tikkal in Guatemala, an ancient Mayan site used for religious purposes. As we drove there, the difference in infrastructure between the two countries was clear. When we reached Tikkal, we climbed temples 4 and 3 and were rewarded with stunning views of the Guatemalan forest. At our lunch site, there was a scaled 3D model of a reconstructed Mayan village, which gave us a sense of how expansive and advanced the civilization was. It's difficult to imagine how they built such tall structures without wheels.
Our last day was more laid-back, as we went cave tubing and zip lining. The cave tubing was enjoyable at first, but after about twenty minutes of floating through the caves, it started to feel monotonous. The caves themselves weren't as impressive as the ones we saw at Bartin Creek. After the cave tubing, we went zip lining, but there were only six short lines and it started to rain during the middle of our time there. The only highlight was the last line, which was much longer and crossed over a river. Going over that one and looking down was an incredible thrill.
Playa del Carmen
For the rest of the trip, we met up with family in Playa del Carmen, where we spent our days at the beach and explored the city.