San Ignacio Things to Do Tips by Bwana_Brown Top 5 Page for this destination
San Ignacio Things to Do: 61 reviews and 109 photos
End of the road - Sue with our Mayan guides
One of our two prime objectives of staying in the San Ignacio area was to explore a Mayan cave. The particular one that we wanted to see was Actun Tunichil Muknal (known as ATM or 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden') because of the skeletal remains of Mayan human sacrifices still there as they have been for the last 1100 years. Accordingly, the evening of our Xunantunich and Mopan River tubing adventures, we asked the Trek Stop owner if he could arrange a morning tour for us. It was no problem, and he set things up for us to start the next morning, at US$60 each for the all-day excursion.
However, in talking to him in the morning, I detected that maybe we were not talking about the same cave. Further discussion revealed that he had booked us into Crystal Cave south of Belmopan in Blue Hole National Park, whereas we really wanted the 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden'! John called his tour guys and they said that it was no problem to switch locations on the spur of the moment, since we were the only two people on their tour that day!
It was not long before our Mayan guides, Eduard and Gliss turned up in their van and away we went at about 8:30 AM on a foggy morning that soon burned off into a typical 31 C day. A few miles short of the Hummingbird Highway near Belmopan, we turned right onto a dirt road and headed east toward the Maya Mountains. We were soon driving through vast fields of vegetables that had been carved out of the jungle along Roaring Creek. It was so well organized that I mentioned to the guys that it must be a government experimental farm - no they said, this is all Mennonite land! In fact it was a couple of young Mennonites who discovered the cave in 1989, through a jungle covered hole in the mountain side.
It took us about 45 minutes to make the drive, including a few fords (second photo) of a relatively placid Roaring Creek, now that the rainy season had abatted. Continued next tip.
Directions: Southwest of Belmopan on Roaring Creek
Phone: 501-600-9192 or 501-601-5673
Mopan River view as it leaves San Jose Succotz
It was then into the water as we began our 'jungle cruise' adventure! We wore T-shirts with our bathing suits to protect us from the hot sun as we alternately were drenched in the rapids and then dried off in the calm sections, where we would splash a bit of water on ourselves. This was a really fun trip as just the two of us floated down about 5 miles of the winding Mopan for more than two hours, traversing a series of eight Class II and III rapids, interspersed with quiet stretches of water. These sections were very peaceful as the thickly forested banks drifted by and colourful Amazon Kingfishers flew past. Of course this was after the first set of rapids tipped us both out of our tubes, but that was the only time that happened. We had also worn our coral reef watershoes and these came in handy on the underwater limestone ridges as we climbed back into the tubes! Each set of rapids was fun as you could hear the roar of the water as you floated closer. Usually there was a small island in the middle of the river at each of these, and it was difficult to guess which way was the safest to avoid the deepest drop into a back-swirling pool (Sue got caught in a couple of those but my 'inertia' carried me through!). Also had to remember to bring your butt up out of the water and lay straight as a board on the tubes to avoid scraping on the rocks as we went over these ledges! The force of the water was very strong - when I tried to wait for Sue I could not hold my own against the waist high water without grabbing a jungle vine for an anchor! There was no way to be going upstream for a rescue!! We had a fantastic time, at last reaching the hotel beside the final Class III rapids at Clarissa Falls. There, we paddled to shore and called the Trek Stop from the bar area - the truck soon arrived to pick us up. I don't have any good photos of this because we did not take any glasses, watches, cameras or anything for this one!
Directions: A 5-mile stretch of the Mopan north of San Jose Succotz on the Guatemalan border
Entering the grounds of Xunantunich
A major attraction that just happened to be within easy walking distance for us was the Mayan temple ruins at Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-too-nich). This was the first of the Mayan temples in Belize to be opened to the public (1954), with a hand-cranked ferry over the Mopan River providing access. We spent our first morning there while in the San Ignacio area, exploring what was left of this site - first settled between 200-500 AD (depending on who you believe). The peak years of this small settlement were between 700-900 AD. As with the rest of the Mayan cities in Central America, civilization seems to have crashed by 1000 AD when the building of great temples and written records ceased.
Xunantunich was re-discovered by Europeans in 1894 but serious exploration of the site was not carried out until thirty years later. This is a relatively small site as Mayan ones go, so it makes for a good half-day trip, one that we thoroughly enjoyed! We were out and about early (8:30 AM), so it was quite a peaceful stroll up the 2-km road from the ferry as we came upon the entrance to the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve (US$5 pp entry).
After looking at several interesting relics of stone stella and a historical overview of Xunantunich located in buildings to protect them from the elements, we continued out onto the flat open space of the site (2nd photo). This is quite a small Mayan site compared to others we have visited - Tikal the largest, then Chichen Itza and Tulum all being larger.
Located at the opposite end of Xunantunich from the main temple of El Castillo, is a smaller structure (3rd photo) with several levels and stairways. The information on site indicated that this was where the ruling class and/or high priests ended up living. There is evidence of earthquake damage to the structures in Xunantunich and it is believed that, toward the end of the habitation of this site, the working class lost faith in the protective powers of their rulers, and that at least one of them may have been sacrificed to the Gods.
Address: 8 miles west of San Ignacio, at San Jose Succotz
Directions: Local bus from San Ignacio, ask to be let off at Xunantunich. From there take the free, hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River then walk 2kms uphill to the ruins.
With my gear on, close to the Cave mouth
After the van reached the end of the road, Sue and I left our set of dry clothes in it and then set out on foot with Gliss. Because this 40-45 minute walk involved three fords of Raging Creek, Gliss put our cameras in his waterproof backpack. The first ford was up to our thighs and you had to be careful about your footing on the smooth boulders littering the bottom. It was a pleasant walk through the jungle with Gliss pointing out various things as we zig-zagged twice more across the Creek before reaching the Base camp used by all tour groups (3rd photo). This consists of a bunch of thatched shelters in case of rain and a rough toilet off to the side in the jungle, as well as some wooden benches to sit on. We had a short stop here for a snack from the lunch provided as part of the tour, as well as a toilet stop before entering the cave.
Once Gliss got our miners helmets out of his bag and showed us how to adjust the intensity of its headlamp, I wandered the short distance over to the mouth of the cave itself. This is shaped like an hour glass (2nd photo), and there was not a large amount of water coming out from the underground stream that created the cave. However, once you are standing on the bottom lip at the cave mouth, you then have to plunge into a 16 ft (5 m) deep pool and swim for about 35 ft (10 m) in your clothes and sneakers before reaching solid ground that you can climb onto. Because of the climbing required on the 600-m trip into the depths of the cave, sometimes over rough rock surfaces, it is recommended to wear sneakers and long trousers. It was about 11 AM when we took the plunge! Continued next tip.
The Crystal Lady lays as she fell 1100 years ago
It was close to 1:30 PM by the time Gliss was ready to show us the most famous human sacrifice of the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave. He asked us to turn our headlamps off and then turn around. When we did, he then illuminated this skeleton with his large handheld lamp - and what a sight it was there deep inside the cave!
This lady is believed to have been about 20 years old when she was sacrifced, likely by a blow to the head which left her spread-eagled on the ground just the way she fell, sometime around the year 900 AD. Due to natural processes within the cave, the skeleton is now calcified such that it forms a part of the cave floor. Young girls, especially virgins, were believed by the Mayans to be the most powerful sacrifices they could make. All fourteen of the human remains sacrificed to the rain gods were in this deep area of ATM, indicating that things must have been getting progressively worse for the Mayans. This is supported by recent research on lake sediments in the Yucatan Peninsula, which has revealed that a severe and prolonged drought struck the area at around this time, the worst drought in the preceding 7000 years.
Our return trip to the mouth of the cave did not seem to take long and by 2:30 PM, we were back at Base camp enjoying the rest of our packed lunch before we once again headed off on foot along Roaring Creek. The van was there waiting for us, where we got out of our wet clothes and sat back for the drive 'home' - arriving at about 5 PM. It had been a fantastic day!!
This cave complex actually extends much further underground than we covered, and is much more challenging. That night, as we all sat in the Common Area of the Trek Stop, an expert group of American cavers staying at the Trek Stop was discussing this with our two guides, since the Americans planned an attack on its remote parts the next day. Our guides were also interested in buying additional equipment from them, including cave rescue gear.
Hawksworth Bridge with San Ignacio on far side
With our various tours having kept us busy for our first two days in the area, we decided to head the short distance into San Ignacio for a look around on our third full day in this part of Belize. We were standing on the side of the Western Highway by 9:30 AM and it was not long before a 'share cab' stopped to pick us up for the ride into town (US$3).
The outstanding feature of San Ignacio is it's Hawksworth steel suspension bridge, built in 1949 when the Western Highway was extended from Belize City all the way to the Guatemala border. This 172-m (563-ft) long bridge carries a single lane of traffic across the Macal River on a steel mesh roadway and it also has a steel mesh floored pedestrian walkway along one side. We took a walk across the river to Santa Elena for a quick look around, and the bridge shook and rattled as large vehicles rumbled past. We had a great view of the Macal River from mid-span (3rd photo), as it flowed north to join with the Mopan River a few miles away, where they combine to form the Belize River.
Directions: At the centre of San Ignacio
A Calcified Skull lies on the floor
After over an hour of making our way up the cave, we came to an area that had a large natural platform high above the stream. Using the protruding rock formations, we followed Gliss as he climbed up and out of the stream onto this portion of the cave. It was here for the first time that we saw another, much larger group also doing a tour. In this sacred area of human remains, we had to take our sneakers off and carefully walk among the many artifacts of pottery and human bones in our sock feet.
The first human skull (shown here), Gliss explained, was that of a 35-year old male. Close examination showed signs of cranial modifications (flattening) to his forehead and his teeth had been filed. Since these things were done by the Mayan elite as a form of beautification, he must have been an important sacrifice.
Further on (second photo), we came to a jumble of sacrificial remnants that had been washed loose over the centuries, ending up as a pile of broken pottery, two human skulls and a large bone.
We were getting close to the furthest Mayan sacrificial relics now, as we climbed an aluminum ladder to an even higher small ledge. As we came off the ladder into a roped off section, Gliss explained that this skull (3rd photo) belonged to a 15-year old boy who had been sacrificed with his hands tied behind his back.
Just beyond this were the remains of the victim for which the cave is named. Continued next tip.
Once we had made it past the first water hazard, Gliss led us up a narrow channel that wound past large fallen boulders and some razor sharp edges. The air temperature inside the cave tends to stay at about 15 C and the water temperature was not bad either, although some people complain because it is colder than the outside water temperatures. The light from the entrance soon faded as we went deeper, and we passed the small high up hole through which the first discoverers entered by rappelling down. Soon we were in complete darkness except for our head lamps, with an eerie quietness except for the trickling water. Sometimes we were on solid ground, or up to our waists or even our necks in water a few times as we snaked through narrow passages and held on to avoid slipping into deeper water. We passed through several large chambers (2nd photo) where there were amazing displays of stalagmites and stalactites formed by the constant dripping.
It was great having our own personal Mayan guide, as Gliss kept up a commentary on the many features we passed and explained the Mayan customs behind the use of this cave. As you can see in the main photo, we first came upon broken ceramic jars that were used to hold water. In the course of our journey, we came across hundreds of these artifacts, some on the floor and others hidden here and there high up in grottos. Because they are used for water, it is believed that they were offered as sacrifices to the Mayan rain god 'Chac'. The Mayans believed that even inanimate objects had a spirit, so they purposely broke the jars to allow the sacrificial release of this spirit. These relics closer to the mouth of the cave date from the period of around 250 AD. Based on more recent relics found deeper in the cave, it is believed that as the Mayan situation worsened over the years leading to 900 AD, they went deeper into the caves as they tried to get 'closer' to Chac so the sacrifices would have more impact. Continued next tip.
Central Roundabout & Taxi stand area
San Ignacio is a strange little town, located on the hillside of the Macal River valley. I guess that is to be expected, since it has been here in the jungle a long time, and was once known as 'Cayo' in the days when it's major purpose was for harvesting mahogany logs. Its streets were a confusing jumble and the town's buildings seemed to be a disjointed lot, coming in all sizes, shapes and states of disrepair. Sidewalks are a haphazard affair as well, sometimes disappearing completely or turning into sudden large drop-off due to the driveway needs of business establishments. One thing that was interesting were areas where deep channels ran beside the sidewalks. That reminded us of Mendoza, at the foot of the Andes mountains in Argentina, where similar channels are required to deal with the heavy runoff from the mountain snowmelt. I guess it is tropical rain downpours that are the problem in San Ignacio!
We walked around town exploring as we shopped for a few things such as extra cash from a bank ATM, new novels for both of us from a used-book store, a pineapple and some limes from a street vendor and a bottle of Belize's '1 Barrell Old Rum' (wine was next to impossible to come by) from a Chinese supermarket. By noon the temperature was 31 C, so we took refuge in an excellent little restaurant - Cafe Sol (see my Restaurant tips), before heading back to the Trek Stop to lounge around for the rest of the day. We also had to make our final preparations for a 2-day excursion to the Mayan ruins in Guatemala's Tikal National Park - time was running out on us!
Side view of Temple III and Ceiba tree tops
We succeeded in our objective of having a 'sunset' experience while at Tikal National Park. After first scouting out where in the park the best viewing spot would be, we made the half-hour trek there from our accommodations to one of the smaller, but oldest, temples - Mundo Perdido. It is located at the western edge of the complex of structures, a perfect spot for looking eastward toward the other large temples as the west-setting sun bathed them with soft light.
There was only a small crowd atop Mundo Perdido, because all the big tour busses had left prior to the 6 PM sunset time. It was great to be perched above the jungle canopy, with only the huge main temples and very large Ceiba trees managing to poke themselves through the canopy. We all sat there in the fresh breeze and listened to the sounds of the jungle as we watched many different kinds of tropical birds flit from tree to tree in the soft light. Once the sun finally does go down in the tropics, the light does not last long, so everyone quickly descended and hit the trails leading back to the hotel area. It was totally dark by the time we made it back, but it had been another great experience!
After further explorations the next morning, we were picked up by the driver who had dropped us off and we were back at the Trek Stop by early evening. We then had one more day exploring San Ignacio, followed by a trip to 'Belize City' for our flight home. Our three weeks in Belize passed in a blur!
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