Crawling through caves, San Ignacio, Belize
A little disc golf, a little caving, a little waterfalls, a lot of fun times: San Ignacio Belize.
Our island living on Tobacco Caye was quickly brought back to reality upon leaving the Chaleanor Hotel. Not long into our cruise up the beautiful Hummingbird Highway, we were stopped by police at yet another checkstop.
“License and insurance please”, the 12 year old officer asked at 11:36am on the 17th of April. After he checked our papers, he paused, looked at us quizzically, then queried Jayne: “Where are you headed today?”. “Guatemala” she ever so wisely answered. Our insurance would expire an hour and 44 minutes later, something I’m sure the boy had noticed. In a country you can drive across in under two hours however, an hour and 44 minutes was even enough time to stop for an ice cream along the way to the border! (though leaving the country we were not, Jayne’s a smart fibber).
After ice cream, we met up with Al in San Ignacio.
Al is a Harley rider we had met up in Cozumel at the biker rally. He kindly offered us a place for our tent, which turned into beers, dinners, a bed in his spare room for a couple nights and a swim in his pool… with good conversation and tourist tips to boot! Al was a great host, a good friend and we can’t thank him enough for his hospitality!
One of Al’s tourist tips, which matched up with many others we had heard for San Ignacio, was the “ATM cave tour”. It’s the top reviewed tour on trip advisor, the top recommended tour by other travellers we talked to, Belize magazines, and by the tour operators and their guest book comments… ok we get it, it’s supposed to be good! It was also 95$USD+. Each. It had better be good.
We debated this option for a day by playing Disc Golf!
I had heard about the course from a school group of kids on Tobacco caye, and it was great to get out and play a round. Challenging course too. If you’re in the area, check out the “Trek stop” between San Ignacio and the border. Playing disc golf clarified our decision to shell out for the ATM tour, which we found for 85$USD. Their Visa machine didn’t work, so Jayne just left a deposit and we went home.
In the early morning we found out the price had dropped further, to 80$USD since a large group had booked and negotiated a lower price. So as to keep it fair for everyone, Mayawalk tours dropped the price so that everyone on the tour was paying the same. Good business etiquette! While sitting around waiting to leave to the cave, we met Ruth, a girl from Ireland travelling solo, who became the third member of our team for the day. Apparently we travel well with the Irish (Hi Eoin!).
The ATM tour, far from a tour of cash machines or dirty sex acts, is renowned for it’s caving adventure (you swim in) but also the rare look at Mayan pottery and artifacts left as they were found, with no safety guardrails, no glass cases, no paths to follow. At one point you do have to take off your shoes and walk barefoot. They make you do this so that you’ll really pay attention and not destroy any 1000 year old artifact. No cameras are allowed for that very reason, since a few years ago someone ruined it for the rest of us by dropping their camera and SHATTERING A SKULL. Oh, right, and there are human remains all over. Try not to step on them. This was a cave of sacrifice.
Part of the sacrifices involved blood letting. In times of drought or poor crops, the Mayans would “let” blood as a sacrifice to the gods. As it was fertility of their crops they wanted, they would let blood from their own “fertility” in exchange: from their clitorises (clitorii?) and penises. Where the blood letting occurred in the cave was deep inside, well over an hour of wading through cold water to get to. This would cause shrinkage problems for the men, leaving a small target for the blood letting. As part of the ritual to stimulate blood flow to the penis, they would take Viagra. Natural Viagra. A toad. In the rectum.
The toxins excreted by the toad once it was, uh, “placed” in the mans rectum, would be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing hallucinations (“Whoa, I’m seeing frog legs coming out of my ass”) and a convenient side effect of the requisite erection. At this point they would take a stingray barb and insert it into the penis, letting the blood flow down over the rocks into the cave river. Eventually the reddened water would flow out to the people waiting at the cave entrance, who would then know of the sacrifices being performed inside.
Our guide Gonzo was very good at describing this all to us; the somewhat taken aback tour group. Except for “Chang-pow”, an ESL Chinese man who didn’t always understand everything that was being said. Having this whole process re-explained was classic! Everything was charades with words:
“Then they would put a toad in the rectum”
” a toad? Rectum?”
“They stuck a frog in the mans ass”
(acting out his sudden understanding) “A FROG? In his Ass??”
“yes, and then they would let blood out of the penis as a sacrifice”
“Blood? no, is sperms comes from the penis no??”
“Well yes, but in this instance it is blood. They cut the penis with a pointy thing”
“WHAAAAAAT? (doing a shiver dance) Wow! And he has frog in his ass??!”
(Everyone howling) “Yes. Yes this all happens with the frog in his ass”.
The ancient pottery and artifacts were neat to see how they were initially found, but Gonzo had us look at the remains in a different light. “Think of this as your child or sibling. How hard would this be to sacrifice, how hard would times have been?”. Gonzo also had us take a moment to respect the dead, and with all our lights off, had people share their thoughts on what beauty was. At this point Chang-pow, the 70 year old chinese man with only 3 years of education, shared again:
“I love the womens. All the beautiful womens I loves. But one time on the bus I saw really ugly womans. She was so ugly! Ugly face, ugly body, ugly legs; all so ugly! And she had baby. And baby ugly too! Have problem with mouth, all broken (“cleft palate?” someone suggested). But you look at ugly woman and ugly baby and woman smiling. The woman really love her baby. Even though she ugly and ugly baby,Â she smile and hold it close. There was real love. That is beautiful.”
Chang-pow was a very interesting man. Apparently when he was young the Chinese government shut down schools for ten years. Just shut them all down. So he only went to school for 3 years total when young. He was surprised that we knew about the Dalai Lama. And more surprised that everyone thought he was a good, respected man. In China they are of course taught what a terrible man the Dalai Lama is. Interesting to see his perspective on things. Between Chang-pow and Gonzo’s great teaching, they made our tour the fantastic excursion it was.
We liked Gonzo a lot, and he invited us to go on another private tour the next day. For free! As an archeologist, he had access to many caves, and knew the surrounding area really well. However, I would be doing this next tour with a broken face.
After turning out all the lights before going to bed that night, I realized I couldn’t find one shoe. I felt around the dark floor with my foot until my toes felt some shoe laces, then I bent down to pick up my shoe. SLAM! said my face, as it kissed an invisible marble countertop. Then I felt the stream of blood start to run down my nose and face. A little medical superglue and some steri-strips put my face back together. Travelling with a nurse is handy sometimes.
In the morning, my face throbbing, we said our goodbyes to Al then met up with Gonzo and Ruth for the days adventures.
It started with a drive through the Jungle, eventually arriving at a big hole in the ground. Clambering down inside, Gonzo leading the way, it wasn’t long before Jayne found a human tooth!
As we delved further into the cave, the way forward became more snake like.
From the caves, back in the truck down some rough back roads to a path to the waterfalls for a clothing optional dip.
Post-falls, we rinse off our insides with some Gonzo-provided cervesas.
Not ending there, Gonzo took us to pick up dinner (which we insisted on paying for something) then out to the pub for a night of pool and more Gonzo drinks. THEN he put us up in his house for the night. Thank you so very much to the Generous Gonzo! What a day!
Having Al and Gonzo as hosts to follow up our time on Tobacco Caye and at Crooked Tree Lodge, we really were treated like royalty in Belize. Prior to entering the country, we had heard so many folks give mixed reviews on Belize, and had even considered giving it a miss. After our time here, I simply can’t gush enough over how good a time it was. If there is a ride back up, there will certainly be a stop in Belize.
But for now, to Guatemala!!
Enjoy the extra pics in the gallery below. Click any picture to see them all full size.