Some more photos from our recent trip to Belize.
Xunantunich is the site of what was once a major Mayan ceremonial and administrative center. It is maybe not the most famous of the Mayan ruins but is still very imposing. What you see here is not exactly what it would have looked like - the stone structure was augmented with wooden walls and roofs to form offices and housing. It was explained to us that the pyramids were built over many generations, successive rulers simply entombing the old palaces in larger and larger buildings.
Xunantunich was also home to a couple of Pok-ta-Pok courts - a ball game played with a heavy rubber ball. It formed a big part of Mayan culture with people vying for the chance to show that they deserved to be sacrificed to the godssAll the cultural information here comes from what the guides told us - they may have been embellishing. But the Mayans did sacrifice a lot of people.. Personally I might not have played to win.
From the top you can see for miles around, all the way in into GuatemalaNot as impressive as it sounds, Xunantunich is very close to the border.. We got there early enough to beat the rush (apparently it was a "cruise ship day") so were at the top in time to look down on the crowds milling around in the courtyards below us. We could almost pretend we were Mayan royalty, except for the loud Australian backpackers sharing the top with us
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Ruins are all well and good but what we were really in Belize for was the caves. We visited two. The first was the Actun Tunichil Muknal CaveUniversally known as the ATM Cave. They don't allow cameras inside so I don't have any pictures but it is an amazing trip. Just getting to the entrance is a bit of an adventure, the first thing you do is ford a large river up to your neck. A (different) river flows through the cave - at the entrance you have to actually swim a short distance.
All this wetness is well worth it. After sloshing around for a while you climb up a steep cliff to see the real attraction. The Mayans used to sacrifice people in caves and there are skeletons lying around in various nooks along with a lot of urns and plates. Interestingly, all the pottery is broken - not by age but by the Mayans themselves who deliberately broke their containers before they left to release the spirits.
The absolute highlight in a day fulled with wonders was the famous Crystal Maiden. This is a perfectly preserved skeleton posed as if dancing. It lies in a shallow pool and over time the bones have covered in glimmering minerals.
We thought we were pretty hard-core but the ATM Cave is very well traveled and as we turned to begin the trek out we saw a long line of other tourists, some of whom looked a lot older and fatter than us who managed to get all the way just as well as we did.
The ATM Cave is what everyone does - the Crystal Cave is more off the beaten track and a lot more technical. After a 45 minute trek up a jungled hill (in 100°F heat) we were very happy to reach what we thought would be a nice cool cave entrance only to have our guide mention that it was always 80°F inside. No refreshing cave river here, the Crystal Cave is "dry" in the sense that there is no running water but everything is covered in a thin layer of damp mud and instead of a nice flat riverbed there is only succession of boulders and rubble to clamber over, around, and occasionally under.
The mud is that special kind that sticks to everything except itself so there is a lot of sliding around and gingerly testing footing. If I was going to do it again I would definitely wear better footware - I kept throwing envious glaces at our guide'sOur excellent guides for this adventure were José and Dora, which sounds like something I made up. sturdy hiking boots.
There are skeletons and artifacts in the Crystal Cave but the real attraction is the geology, which just gets better and better the further you venture until you get to a section that the guides just called Wonderland.
The AMT cave was filled with tourists, we were the only ones in the Crystal Cave. It really is a completely different experience.
After all this excitement, we needed a bit of a break.