san ignacio

Exploring San Ignacio, Belize


Our DIY Tour of San Ignacio

Busy downtown San Ignacio

Our day off turned into a day of exploring San Ignacio Town, a bustling place with wild traffic and lots of people!

It seemed like there were no rules of the road as we know them, but no one seemed particularly concerned by cars and vans careening around corners, honking at pedestrians and generally appearing out of control. Most of the intersections had no stop or yield signs and it was a free-for-all!

Our taxi (we bought air freshener sheets from the driver - the smell has permeated everything that was close to it in my bag!) dropped us at the town market place. Even though it technically wasn't a market day, the stalls were stocked with local produce and we wished that we had been able to stock the boat from a place like this. Besides all the usual fruits and vegetables, we saw custard apples and papayas and granadillas! Plus some fruits and veges we couldn't identify. There were of course, lots of oranges, pineapples, coconuts, plantain and bananas. What a treat!

Coconut and Papaya at the open air market

Next, we wandered down to the main part of town where the Main Street is closed to traffic and lined with stores and bars. After browsing for a while we headed to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel where the Green Iguana Conservation Project lives. I had absolutely no intention of handling one of the reptiles, but they seemed to enjoy it and are quite docile, so I did! And four of us, Tina, Jane, Betsy and myself had a picture taken of us, each with a small iguana on our heads! That was a first, I think, for all of us!

Back down into town, a bit more shopping then a taxi back to Maya Mountain Lodge for couple of drinks on the deck before a delicious dinner.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (ATM) Tour

Early to rise and a thumbs up! The river had receded and the caves were open.

Because the caves had been closed the day before because of high water, it was quite busy out at the staging area. We had prepared ourselves, wearing the right clothes and shoes, although a couple who joined our group had not, and had no idea what they were getting into. She was all twittery, a newly wed, with all the right clothes etc., just not for what we were going to experience!

This really is an amazing adventure! No cameras are allowed, and after experiencing the tour, I can understand why!

The caves were discovered in 1989 and a National Geographic documentary put them on the map.  They have been left as they were found. The only thing keeping people from stepping on the artifacts and skeletons were two strips of orange tape fastened to the rocks, forming a pathway!

Orlando fixing our helmet and headlamps

Before entering, we were outfitted with helmets and headlights. Then walked for about 45 minutes along a cleared jungle trail Tapir Nature Mountain Reserve ( which is 6,741 acres of protected land), stopping every so often for a bit of history and nature tidbits from Orlando, our excellent guide. One time we stopped by a tree that had an ant's nest on it. Orlando stuck his finger into it and when he withdrew it, it was covered with tiny termites which he said,"Taste like carrots!" Which they did! Yes, I did eat one but they are tiny and not like the big, fat ones we get in South Africa.

We crossed the river three times, each time wading up to our armpits, pushing through the fairly fast moving water, stumbling on the smooth rocks, clutching the rope strung between the two banks. Just a taste of what was ahead of us.

The entrance to the caves loomed ahead and we waded in, turned a corner into pitch darkness! Headlights on, we moved forward, our group of eight keeping up with Orlando as he followed a path only he knew! Working our way through caves and caverns, stopping every so often to check we were all still there, Orlando pointed out the spectacular stalagmites and stalactites that created a fairy landscape when our headlights illuminated the tiny drops of water hanging on the tips of a gazillion of them! Pure magic.

All the while, we were climbing and came to caverns dotted with artifacts - broken urns and pots and yes, skeletons of the Maya people, the nobles, who lived and worshiped in the caves centuries ago. The bones were exactly as they were found; men, women and babies. Stories tell of human sacrifices in these tombs. Chilling!

We saw the crushed skull of one of the men - and the reason no cameras allowed. A clumsy tourist had dropped his camera and destroyed the bones! I know I needed every finger and toe to make my way through and if I had had my camera with me, it might not have been a pretty sight! And I am actually amazed that tourists are still allowed in but apparently there are 12 other caves being excavated that are closed to the public. I am just glad that we were able to do this before they decide to close this one.

We continued on to the scariest (in my mind) part, where we had to climb a ladder (remember it is all pitch black except for your headlamp) to a platform to see the "Crystal Maiden," a fairly young female skeleton. And then going back down the ladder was even scarier. Even writing about it makes my knees go weak! It's like stepping into a void!

Clambering back out, sliding down smooth rocks on my butt and going with the water flow made the trip out seemed easier, although we went through areas where you had to duck down in the water, turn your head sideways and wiggle your head through a gap! Good thing the water was low! Rounding the last bend and suddenly, there was light! We trudged back the 45 minutes to the staging area. The hotel had packed a lunch for us and we needed sustenance after the three-hour adventure!

Guava Limb

Guava Limb Cafe

Our day wasn't over, even though we were all pretty tired. We had decided to go off the reservation for dinner, to Guava Limb, a restaurant in town that came well recommended.

Extensive menus. both food and drink, reduced us to trying a variety of dishes and drinks, all well-worth making the effort to come out to enjoy. The service was excellent and it was comforting to know our waiter was checking on us as we waited for our taxi in the barely-lit street. Naturally, we made it home safely, for a good night's sleep before our departure in the morning.


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From Sea to Jungle


Heading to the Jungle


With half our crew heading back to California, the rest of us prepared to head northwest to San Ignacio. After a quick lunch at Laru Beya, we hopped on our Belize Shuttle that was waiting for us at the Moorings base, the van already loaded with all our bags. We settled in for the three-hour drive.

When I was in Placencia 16 years ago, the main road was a very bumpy dirt road, with very few houses. Now the road is paved and there are literally hundreds of houses and several resorts lining the beach. Quite a change! On the way we passed the turn-off to Gales Point, where Susan and I spent several days. Next time I return, I'm going to visit Mr. Gentle's bar if it is still there!

We drove through miles of orange orchards and banana plantations and brand new juice-making facilities that are apparently owned by the Mennonites. When we turned on to the Hummingbird Highway the terrain became quite hilly with much more natural vegetation, different to the type we saw around Placencia.

As we neared San Ignacio, we realized we were low on rum and as Maya Mountain Lodge doesn't serve liquor we needed to stop and stock up! Troy, our driver graciously agreed to stop at the local market where we loaded up with a large bottle of 1Barrel, the local rum, and a dozen Beliken beers! All set and just five minutes later, Troy deposited us in the lush entrance to the hotel.

It felt like home with all the tropical vegetation. Heliconia of all kinds and a wide variety of gingers grew madly, with philodendron climbing anything they could attach themselves to. Big petria plants, loaded with helicopter flowers, climbed the fences. It so reminded me of Mum's forest where she had so many of these kinds of plants growing.

Garifuna boys playing drums

Checking in was a breeze, and it was good to meet Elmer, who had helped us with our reservations. We were in time for dinner and a Garifuna event that included the young women, all but one dressed in yellow dresses, giving a little history about their people and then singing and dancing, accompanied by the two brothers on drums. It was very entertaining and I joined the girls in a dance! (Continuation of my birthday celebration!)

We made it an early night as our plan was to do the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM for short) tour the next day. But it rained in the night and at 6 am, Carlos told us the tour was canceled because the river was too high so the caves were not accessible! Hopefully, if it didn't rain, the water level would have fallen by the next day and we could go then. It would put our tours back to back, with the day trip to Tikal in Guatemala planned the following day, without a lay day in between.

So we had a leisurely breakfast in the delightful open-air dining room. With plenty of good coffee and fresh fruit to fuel us, we made arrangements to go into San Ignacio Town and explore. Our own free-form tour.

But first, a tour of the grounds with Bart Mickler, who has owned the property for 35 years with his wife Suzi. Part of Maya Mountain Lodge is a Wellness Center and many of the plants on the property are used in the natural healing process as well as in the kitchen! Our walking tour took us through the herb garden with numerous edibles, many used by the local bush doctors, and into the orchard. A lovely stand of papayas caught my attention along with large ginger plants. Bart showed us the Annatto seeds from the Achiote tree used to color the pottery of the area, and for flavoring in cooking. I was very impressed by the way he and Suzi are helping regenerate the use of local plants and vegetables into the Mayan culture.

Stay tuned for an article about Bart and Suzi - who Bart describes as "two people accelerating."

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