My second week in Cayo was an incredible mix of history, adventure and culture, from walking through ancient Maya cities and exploring some of their mystical caves or “underworld” to ending the week flying through the rainforest on Belize’s longest zipline. It wasn’t hard to pick my top four picks.
1. Exploring Barton Creek Cave by Canoe
“How low can you go?”
I thought Anastasio was kidding at first. I was too busy taking photos of the unusual formations inside Barton Creek Cave and snapping along the way at the human remains (a skull) and the pottery bits left behind by the Maya thousands of years ago in their “offerings” to their Gods.
But before I know it, I’m faced with huge rows of low stalactites and I only have one way to go, duck my head down or lie flat backwards into the canoe. And I mean waaaaay back. Rather than risk hitting my head and potentially losing my faculties, I lean back, way back some more to allow space from my camera on my chest. It’s like doing a sit up and holding it for five long seconds, until we pass the low ceiling. And we do it a few times more, going and returning. But it’s fun, and I’m glad we’re going all the way to the end of the cave (and not punking out like one group did, ha!).
The formations inside are unique; armed with powerful handheld lights, we play a game of “what do you think that looks like” and there were many hidden symbols all along…some funny, some mysterious.* And dispersed in the cave, evidence of Maya offerings thousands of years ago: a child’s skull, abandoned high up above on the edge of a rock. Anastasio, one of Pacz Tours’ awesome tour guides, told me that before the cave became a Government protected site, it was abused by sightseers (mostly local) who would come and move these archeological items from their original location within the cave.
Nevertheless, proof of Maya life is there, right before my eyes.
Barton Creek is the only cave in Belize you can explore by canoe, and a major plus: the emerald-color water at the mouth of the cave is ideal to swim in after you come back out.
2. Caving through Bega One at Calico Jack’s Village
Belize has hundreds of caves, places where the Maya would come to make “offerings” to their Gods. No matter how many of them you visit, each one is unique and each one teaches us something about Maya history and civilization.
There are still many that are not yet open to the public, but even those that are, are fascinating. There are often signs from Maya ceremonies in the “underworld” which is what the caves were to them: ceramics, ashes, and even human remains like a child’s skeleton. There are no human remains at Bega One, but lots of pottery in various chambers, and the even more amazing thing about this cave: the amount of crystal on the formations. It glitters all over and photographing it was a blast.
Another plus to Calico Jack’s caves: ropes to help you as you enter the cave and make your way down, and even steel ladders here and there to descend further without possibly slipping and twisting your ankle. After a sprained ankle from week 1, can I just say how much I appreciate that? The ladders and ropes are not everywhere in the cave and you still have to occasionally “spelunk” but the extra help is pure genius.
3. Visiting Xunantunich, Maya Site
It took a little practice to finally say it as fast as a Belizean. Shoo-nahn-tu-nich.
Belize is chock-full of archeological sites. And even today, hundreds and hundreds of them remain undiscovered and still more continue to be studied and excavated.
The Maya civilization flourished here from 2000 B.C. to about A.D. 900, and while there were also Mayans in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, Belize had the highest concentration.
Once a major Maya city, Xunantunich is Belize’s second highest Maya structure, after Caracol, and means “stone woman” in Maya. Legend has it that a man from a nearby village was walking by the site and saw a woman appear before him, like a ghost, and disappear into the stone.
Without my licensed tour guide Dora, also known to all as “Dora The Explorer” and who loves archeology, I wouldn’t understand the meaning in the design of the various “rooms” or structures at Xunantunich.
Eventually, all of these sites were abandoned by the Maya and there are various theories as to where they went, and why they abandoned their cities. Some say they fled to other parts of the country due to drought and deforestation, while others think the Maya left when the Spanish and British arrived in Belize and tried to enslave them. The theories are numerous.
At the top of Xunantunich: an amazing view of the Cayo District, and a breeze that makes me want to stay for hours.
4. Discovering Medicinal Plants at Calico Jack’s
Calico’s calls their medicinal trail the “Ancient Jungle Garden Trail.” As I’ve mentioned before, Belize has hundreds of medicinal plants and trees. I’ve become slightly obsessed with learning about them and I’m working on a separate project related to this. So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the trail at Calico Jack’s has some unique medicinal plants that I haven’t yet come across anywhere else in Belize. Like say, a plant used as natural Viagra for men. Stay tuned for more on that! ;-)
*Many more shots from all these activities and I’ll post as soon as the Internet cooperates!