If you search images of Belize, you will find pictures of beaches and resorts. But beyond this luxurious facade, Belize is a country full of rich culture, diverse wildlife, and slow-paced lifestyle.
After touching down at the 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, where I wolfed down a delicious, hot burrito.
The next day we went on the renowned ATM exploration trip, which took us through the caves built by the ancient Mayan civilization. It was an hour hike through the entrance to even reach the entrance point to the cave. As if that wasn’t enough, 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 wish were stronger. There were many surprises – rocks jutting out of the water, massive drops in the water , and deceptively steep steps. There was one point which was so tight, we had to extend and turn our necks so that we could fit through.
Exhausted, we reached the end of the cave desperate for a break. After we recovered, we regained our excitement for what it had to offer. There were many ancient artifacts scattered right in front of us. An old skeleton was within an arm’s reach of me, which was an overwhelming realization. One funny story that our guide told us is when a tourist accidentally dropped a camera on a skull, and a tooth fell out. Now, cameras aren’t allowed in the caves anymore, which is rather unfortunate considering how much there is inside to share with the world.
The guide explained to us that the caves were actually used for the sacrifices of children. The Mayans would put boards on the children so that their skulls would become deformed. There was a lot of history in the tour, but it definitely did not lack any sense of adventure or excitement.
While driving through remote parts of the country, I noticed how isolated the villages are. Our guide told us that few had access to running water and electricity. Solar panels collect electricity used to charge their phones and watch TV – other than that, they have no use for electricity. It was eye-opening to see how some of the technological advancements trickle down into these smaller communities to drastically change their life.
Our first stop of the day Bartin Creek, where we went canoeing under the caves. It was dark, but the ominous crystal structures hanging from the ceilings were hard to miss. We went at a lucky time where we were the only one in the caves. This allowed us to turn off our lights, which made the cave so dark that our eyes weren’t able to adjust. Letting your eyes try to adjust for too long could damage them.
The next stop Xunantunich. On the way, 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 – 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.
Finally reaching Xunantunich, we experienced the amazing Mayan ruins. We learned how archeologists found a tablet with writing on it when excavating. But in the 1930's careless archeologists blew up the site, rendering a lot of it unrecoverable. Climbing to the top gave us an incredible view, which included some of the forests in Guatemala.
Our hotel was sponsoring an iguana conservation program called the Iguana Project. One of the iguanas, Ziggy, had a bone disorder from lack of vitamin D and growing up in a cage too small. The project itself focused on breeding the endangered green iguanas such as Ziggy.
We took a day trip to Tikkal in Guatemala, an ancient Mayan site used for religious purposes. Driving there, the difference in infrastructure was clear. When we reached Tikkal, we climbed temples 4 and 3 and saw the amazing views of the forest in Guatemala. At our lunch site, there was a scaled 3D map of a reconstructed Mayan village back when it was still inhabited. It visualized how expansive and advanced it was. It's difficult to fathom how they built such tall structures without wheels.
This was a more relaxing day, where we went cave tubing and zip lining. Cave tubing was very nonchalant but got boring – after twenty minutes of floating under the caves, it got monotonous. It was a glorified lazy river that continued for two hours. The caves also weren’t as extravagant as the ones under Bartin Creek. After, we went zip lining. There were only six short lines, and it started to rain in the middle. The only upside was that the last line was very long over a river.
For the rest of this trip, we met family in Playa del Carmen, where we took beach days and explored the city.