Our last full day of the trip, it’s hard to believe almost. What an early morning too. Overnight it poured buckets again. We’re told 5-8”!
We after breakfast and right before checking out we called our tour operator to confirm he’d got our message that we were coming. We woke him up, but he confirmed he would have someone waiting for us.
We gathered our things and checked out. Wow was the bill big. The food wasn’t too bad, but the drinks were, and the $45 transfer was, put it all in one place for 2 people for 2 nights it added up.
Our transfer down was really decently quick, our driver had a 4wd Toyota Hilux and was able to drive quickly. At one point the foliage at the side of the road gave way to an absolutely beautiful view of the river tumbling down the valley. We got to the bus in time and hopped on. Queuing isn’t really a thing here apparently, just a bunch of pushing and shoving and cutting in line. Somehow we managed to get seats together. I was surprised how little I felt out of place, it was like so many other buses in so many other countries.
We were told to get off at “mile 37” but saw no mile markers the entire trip. We knew it was after Belmopan, but a ways past it and we started to get a bit nervous we’d missed it. The weather wasn’t improving either, the air was thick with moisture and the skies gray. It’s hard to be motivated to jump in a cold river either with conditions like this, but after the day before we want to have done something! I keep reminding us we’ll be wet anyway, what does it matter if it rains. The truth is though it’s not as warm as I’d have expected this far south when the sun is behind the clouds. Right as we’re at our most nervous we catch a sign that says snacks and drinks as mile 37, and then signs for cave tubing and call for a bus stop. We had found our place, and sure enough there was a guy with a sign waiting for us.
For all our plans though, rain still was a factor. The large amount of rain we saw last night meant that though the river was just barely low enough, flash flood warnings went into effect about the time we were getting on the bus, and an email was sent 30 minutes later about when we were getting to Belmopan. Cave tubing was now no longer an option, nor was the Actun Tunichil Muknal( ATM ) caves Jenn’s family was planning to visit. We were offered to go horseback riding instead, so we decided we might as well make a day out of it and go horseback riding after ziplining. Plus we’d missed out on riding to Xunantunich, so this seemed like a way we could fill in that missing activity.
Along with us were 2 girls from New York that oozed the NY stereotypes. They were also going to go zipline, but weren’t interested in horseback riding, but instead were thinking about touring one of the ruins in San Ignacio like Xunantunich or Cahal Pech. If they had a long lunch perhaps we could even tag along and get to do everything we’d missed yesterday!
The zipline was a blast, Jenn has wanted to do this for some time and we hadn’t found a place we liked in the Philippines. We both thought the course could have been longer, and the one in Costa Rica was much more spectacular, but it was still a ton of fun and worth the time. I tried my best to capture what it was like and Jenn having a blast. Along the way our guide Sayid pointed out a bunch of different interesting plans and critters. We also got a bit eaten alive by mosquitos, I think we all picked up at least one bite on our eye brow where the helmet left a little bit of skin. Black Rock Lodge really should put in a zipline, it fits with the ecotourism, and would be so much more amazing if you could zipline across the river and down its banks.
Next up was the horses. Jenn told me on our way there that she had a horrible experience riding horses in Puerto Rico where the horses were poorly treated and she felt really bad for riding them, and that if she didn’t like the way these horses looked she wanted to back out. I told her that’s more than fine, I had a similar experience in Thailand with the elephants, I felt really guilty riding them, especially after when I saw them being hit over the head with a metal club for not behaving the way the trainer wanted. The horses were skinny, Jenn thinks because they needed to be wormed, but that’s kind of expected. The horse I was put on was named Hummingbird and she was shivering in the rain. None of the horses had any muscle mass to speak of and I felt kind of bad riding them with these somewhat extreme bits, and we were given switches because “sometimes they don’t want to walk”. We got 100ft down the road and it became clear why they don’t want to walk, the road is really rocky, and you could tell their feet were sore from all of the rain. I got my mare onto some dirt and she started walking at a normal pace. Jenn though was concerned and didn’t want to be walking the horses with their feet so soft and unshod. Apparently the owner had taken off the shoes because the rain made the rocks too slippery, but that just exchanged one problem for another. Jenn didn’t want to go on so we got off and lead back to the stables and put the horses away trying our best not to offend them but explain that it was just bad timing with all of this rain. When it comes to the horses I trust Jenn 100%.
Back at the tour home base we found the girls having just finished their lunch and joined in for some stew chicken and rice. When you ask for Belizean food, this is literally the only thing that comes up. Jerked chicken from The Split back in Caulker is really creole food, not Belizean, but at least it had tons of flavor!
While we ate Sayid told us all about the area, and how it’s riddled with caves. We’re told caves are to Belize like holes to Swiss cheese, which has a nice rhyme to it. One of the ones that stood out was the Crystal Caves, a set of caves that take all day to visit but the walls have quartz embedded in them and shine like diamonds. Many of these were used by the Maya for ritual purposes as they felt they were getting closer to some of their gods, gods instrumental in a good crop. The Maya also believed that the gods appreciated great personal sacrifice, so the deeper and harder the better.
The girls decided they wanted to see Cahal Pech after Vitalino explained the two options. Originally I’d wanted to see Xunantunich, but Vitalino pointed out that we’d already see Tikal, and Xunantunich is another Classical period city but much smaller while Cahal Pech was built mostly in the Pre-Classical period and had different architecture. We asked if we could join and he said he wouldn’t charge us. I’m sure he felt guilty about us coming all this way and to not go tubing. This almost works out better, instead of being wet and cold we’ll get to go along with an excellent guide and learn a lot more, possibly filling in the gaps from Tikal, but expanding into the Pre-Classical Mayan civilization. Plus this meant an easy uncomplicated trip back to San Ignacio where we were to spend the night.
We grabbed our things and hopped in their van and Vitalino came up with his kids and his wife and they all got in the car, and then he grabbed Sayid and another one of his guides and got them to come along. He told us he decided today would be a learning day for everyone, including his guides. Now instead of just Vitalino we actually had 3 experienced guides.
The guiding didn’t just start at Cahal Pech but basically as soon as we got on the highway. Vitalino is a constant stream of information, pointing out Mennonite communities, the Agg college, and various other things. Sayid had a lot to add as well and at times we had two different conversations going about two different things! Information overload. Vitalino added that he learns a lot from his guests as well, and at some point the conversation touched on atolls, and one of the girls asked what they were and I chimed in about how they typically form around an island that erodes away leaving a coral ring and the whole van went silent. Then Vitalino bursts out laughing that he just learned something new and quick someone give me one of their yellow guide shirts!
Cahal Pech itself is much more interesting than I expected, and while only 2 buildings and 2 plazas have been excavated and restored to varying degrees, we spent a good 3 hours tooling around getting in depth explanations about religion and beliefs, the practical uses, and architectural choices. Even from time to time they’d tell us silly and sometimes believable things other guides have told people and why they don’t make sense. Between the 3 guides there was always something to be added, and it was like they were feeding off one another and competing. The most noticeable difference between Cahal Pech and Tikal was that Tikal was much less about practicality and much more about monuments and chest thumping, while in Cahal Pech you could see the areas in which the royals lived, where they would store maize, and I felt like I had a more intimate experience with the ruin. I’m sure there are aspects like this to Tikal, but its size and scope make that hard to explore, and when you go you just scratch the surface.
From there we parted ways at the San Ignacio Hotel where we had more than 24hrs ago told the Stalleys to meet us when they were done. With wifi they could also leave us a message if they would be at home and we’d be able to know we should take a taxi to the house. What we really didn’t want was in the fading light to go to the house and find it locked and no one there. So instead here we were, having drinks and appetizers wasting time for now. With how late it was though it was clear that though they might not have done ATM, they certainly did something. We joked they caught a flight to Honduras or something. Maybe they were diving in Caulker. After went seemed like an hour they showed up and told us to hurry, our ride was waiting. I thought we’d be having dinner but we scrambled and paid our bill, grabbed and things and bailed.
On our way to the house with Pam we heard how they had gotten themselves ready for ATM but at 8 Luis called and told them they couldn’t do ATM but instead they were going to do the Crystal Caves. Not knowing what they were or how extreme of a day this would be they were off. Now here they were, nearly 12 hours later, muddy, sweaty, knees bloodied and bruised and swollen utterly exhausted but triumphant. This would be one of those “how did I get myself into this!” kind of stories that are rough when you’re experiencing them, but making for great story telling after. This was kind of their Half Dome. Their guides had been amazing and a laugh riot. I don’t think I could do their story justice. Perhaps one of them would like to write a journal of their own which I’d be more than happy to share. I wouldn’t mind hearing it all again myself!
Jenn though felt like she’d gotten the short end of the stick again, having missed out on another adventure. But my toe was still swollen, and when we landed in Belize a little over a week ago still bleeding from time to time after having just had surgery on it to remove portions of my toe nail and nail bed. The last thing I’d want to be doing would be going through a cave stubbing it on things. For me, today was exactly perfect. And for Jenn, she says she’s with me, whatever that might be. So in the end we were where we should have been. And Pam, she should perhaps have been with us having just had knee surgery a few months ago herself. Luckily everything was fine, all she had was some muscle swelling from having to give every last ounce of strength to get through the caves, something that earned a solid +100 bad ass points in my book. Though the next time we visit Belize, and with how close it is we think there will be a next time, Crystal Caves will be on the list for us.