Feb 22th - 29th, 2020

I left El Salvador in the afternoon on an Avianca Airlines turbo prop plane for the 1.5 hour flight to Belize. The Belize City International Airport is quite small, and immigration was quick and easy, since my flight seemed to be the only one to arrive around that time. I was picked up by a shuttle bus from the hotel for the 30 minute drive into town.

There is very little reason to spend any time in Belize City. Most visitors to Belize skip the capital and go straight to the main tourist areas elsewhere in the country. I had decided to spend a couple of days here, just to relax and catch up on some e-mailing and photo editing after my El Salvador trip. The Radisson Fort George Hotel, where I stayed, was the perfect place to do that. It is a large and nice hotel, located right by the shore. I did go on a nice walk around town on my first morning, but I avoided the citiy's south side, which every tourist guide book warns you about. Apparently, it is not particularly safe to walk around there as a tourist even in daylight hours. There isn't much to see in Belize City, but it has a nice shore line, and some interesting looking older buildings. It was a Sunday morning, so the streets were deserted and the churches were full.

The country of Belize is located on the Caribbean side of Central America, bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. With a population of just over 400,000, it is the least populated country in Central America. (El Salvador is slightly smaller in area but has a population 15 times larger.) Belize differs from its neighbors in many other ways too. Being a former British colony, it is the only country in Central America where English is the official language (although the most widely spoken languages are Creole and Spanish). In terms of culture, language, ethnicity as well as political affiliation, Belize is much more a Caribbean country, than a Central American country.

Mayan civilization spread out across the area that is Belize today, starting around 1,500 BC, and the country is home to a number of major Mayan archaeological sites. The area became a British colony in 1840 and was then known as British Honduras. The colony was granted self-government in 1964, and renamed itself to Belize in 1973, but it did not achieve full independence until 1981. Belize is recognized by every country in the world, except for one - its neighbor Guatemala. To this day, the Guatemalan government insists that it has inherited Spanish colonial land rights, and thus it claims full sovereignty over Belizean territory. Referendums held in both countries last year finally agreed to allow the International Court of Justice to decide the matter once and for all. The court's decision is still pending, but most observers believe that there is little chance the Guatemalan claims will be recognized.

As a tourist destination, Belize is mainly famous for its marine environment and offshore islands. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest coral reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) and a diving and snorkeling paradise. In my short time here, however, I had decided to skip the ocean and venture inland instead to see caves and ruins. I was picked up in Belize City by a driver from my next hotel in San Ignacio. During the drive west, I learned a lot of interesting things about Belize politics from my driver. (He was not a fan of his country's political class, as corruption seems to be a major problem.) I also noticed that vegetation was rather sparse along the way. There was very little agriculture in this area, which is due to the fact that Belize does not have the same rich volcanic soil as its Central American neighbors on the Pacific coast. It took about 2 hours before we reached San Ignacio, where I stayed at the absolutely gorgeous San Ignacio Resort Hotel. It wasn't very expensive, so I was really surprised by how beautiful and luxurious it was. A great place to relax with very attentive service and wonderful food.

Located within the grounds of the hotel was the Green Iguana Conservation Project. I took an hour-long tour to see and learn about these fascinating and beautiful animals. A grown-up Green Iguana can measure up to 2 meters in length and weigh more than 4 kilograms. In large part due to the conservation efforts of this project, they are no longer considered highly endangered.

San Ignacio is a small town of about 20,000 people, located on the western edge of the country near the border with Guatemala. Tourism seems to be the main business here, the city is full of restaurants, bars, small hotels and hostels. San Ignacio is the perfect base to explore the main Mayan sites and caves in Belize.

Barton Creek Cave
I had booked all my tours through my hotel, which offered a range of different day trips. On my first day I went to see a fascinating cave system, called Barton Creek Cave. The drive took about an hour, mostly on a rough dirt road. The land in this region was much more fertile and green compared to the area around Belize City, and the drive took us past large orange plantations.

Much of the farmland in the area belongs to the Mennonite community in Belize. The Mennonites are a Christian religious group that originated in Northern Germany and the Netherlands in the 16th century. Many of them left Europe in the 1870's and initially settled in Canada. Some of them later relocated to Mexico and moved from there to Belize in the 1950's. Today there are about 10,000 Mennonites living in Belize, largely in traditional farming communities, and they still speak an old Northern German dialect, called Plautdietsch. Their clothing, customs and heritage are similar to the Amish in the US, although most Mennonites are less conservative and do make use of some modern technologies.

When we reached the cave, I was given a helmet and a flashlight, my guide grabbed a paddle and we got into a canoe, since Barton Creek Cave is completely flooded and can only be accessed by boat.

We paddled deep into the pitch-black cave, which was only lit by our own flashlights. The cave is not only a beautiful natural phenomenon, it is also an archaeological site, since it was used for ritual purposes by ancient Mayas. There are numerous ledges that were used for ritual burials and other ceremonies. We saw a few pieces of pottery and some human bones, which over the centuries had been fused into the rock walls. Caves were very important holy places in Mayan mythology. They were considered to be the entrance to the underworld, where Mayan priests could communicate with the gods that lived there.

Cahal Pech:
Back in San Ignacio, I still had some time to go and see the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech, which are located on a hill overlooking the city. It was only a 15-minute walk from the hotel. These are not the most famous Mayan ruins in the region, so I was incredibly surprised by what I found. Cahal Pech was a very impressive and large ruin. This had been the palatial home of a very rich Mayan family. It consists of two court yards surrounded by several large well-preserved residential structures and two monumental pyramids. The taller one is more than 25 meters in height, and you can climb to the top of it.

And best of all, there was almost no one else there in the afternoon. Walking alone through these ancient structures that are overgrown with large trees, was a magical and almost eerie experience.

The small museum near the entrance had some interesting artifacts and a lot of good information about Mayan history in this region, which goes back to the very beginning of the pre-classical period around 1,200 BC.

On my second day in San Ignacio I had a tour booked to the much larger nearby ruins of Xunantunich. It was only a 15-minute drive from the hotel. Before getting to the ruins we had to a cross a small river on a hand-cranked ferry.

Xunantunich is a large and impressive Mayan site, which was first explored in the 1890's. There is some evidence for much earlier settlements here, but the main site was developed during the middle of the classical period around 600-750 AD. It mainly served as a ceremonial center and did not house a large population. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was abandoned around 750 AD following some violent event, most likely an earthquake. But it rose to prominence again around 800 AD. Xunantunich is particularly famous for the 42-meter-high El Castillo, which is the tallest structure at the site and the second tallest structure in all of Belize even to this day. (The tallest is the main pyramid at Caracol. No modern building in the country has yet reached the heights of these ancient monuments.)

Near the top on the western and eastern sides of El Castillo are these incredibly well preserved and beautiful friezes (although what we see today are replicas, that protect the originals underneath).They were carved out of white limestone and they depict a rich story about the birth of the gods and the tree of life.

You can climb to the very top of the pyramid for a great 360-degree view of the whole site and the surrounding landscape.

They had told me at the Iguana center, that these animals are no longer endangered and that was obviously true here at Xunantunich. There were lots of Iguanas running around or warming  themselves in the sun like this one:

It was good to visit Xunantunich early in the day. Right when we left the park we saw several hundred people enter the ruins together. They were cruise ship passengers, that were driven from the cruise terminal in Belize City by bus to visit Xunantunich just for a few hours in the afternoon. Near the entrance to the park we witnessed another remarkable spectacle. We suddenly heard these incredible sounds from a family of howler monkeys. It sounded more like I would imagine dinosaurs did. They are the loudest land animal in the world. You can listen to their incredible howls in this short video. (Make sure you turn down your volume before clicking on it.)

On my last day in San Ignacio, I had booked a day trip to the amazing Mayan ruins of Tikal. But, since Tikal is located across the border in Guatemala, I wrote about that tour in my Guatemala blog.

It was only a short trip to Belize, and there is a lot more to see, than I was able to. I definitely have to come back another time to see some of the other Mayan sites, like Caracol, some of the larger cave systems, like the famous ATM cave, and of course the coral reef. I left San Ignacio the following morning for the two hour drive back to the airport, to continue onto my next Central American country - Costa Rica.

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