SAN IGNACIO, Belize — The same turquoise waters that lure tourists to Caribbean destinations slosh around Belize’s island chain. But tiny Belize has a major advantage in reeling in the holidaymakers — spectacular Mayan ruins tucked away in lush jungle. The nation is home to more prehistoric buildings than modern-day ones, according to its Institute of Archaeology.
That ancient appeal draws in backpackers eager for adventure as well as divers ready to gawk at its bustling reefs or plunge into its famed Blue Hole. Belize has all the ingredients for a surf and turf vacation — at least for those who don’t mind the odd giant cockroach or neon green frog that might invade their jungle dwellings.
CAVES AND SKELETONS
Evidence of human sacrifice in Mayan times litters the floors of the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, where the skeletons are welded in place by limestone sediment. Mayan pottery is also frozen in time there. To get to the caves, visitors are led down a gentle jungle trail that includes several river crossings. Next comes an invigorating swim across a frigid pool of water at the cave’s mouth. Water winds throughout the cave, and visitors have to squeeze through impossible-looking openings before being rewarded with the archaeological trove.
PYRAMID IN THE JUNGLE
Just a fraction of Caracol, a once-powerful Mayan city state, has been unearthed by archaeologists. Once home to 150,000 inhabitants (nearly twice the population of Belize’s current industrial center, Belize City), the site was lost until a logger stumbled upon it in the 1930s. Shards of ancient pottery are scattered around the complex, which includes astronomical buildings, ball courts, palaces and a 141-foot-tall pyramid.
This complex of ruins got its Mayan name, Xunantunich — meaning “Stone Woman” — from a sun-soaked apparition said to haunt the site. The city was built up over millennia and its history is sketched out neatly at the newly opened visitor center. At the site itself, the main attraction is the ruin known as El Castillo, which towers above the jungle. Four stucco friezes depicting Mayan gods once hugged each side of the building. Now just two remain, and they’re both covered up by fiberglass copies to preserve the originals.
Even from its perch high up on a hill, Cahal Pech lives in the shadow of its more impressive neighbors, Caracol, Xunantunich and Tikal. Cahal Pech — which unflatteringly means “Place of the Ticks” in Yucatec and Mopan Mayan — sits on the outskirts of San Ignacio, a popular base for those exploring Mayan ruins. Under the cover of an encroaching jungle, visitors can get a glimpse of how the upper crust lived in Mayan times through the site’s palace structures.
Caye Caulker is a sandy strip of land surrounded by a bounty of sea life. The more laid-back alternative to San Pedro provides a base for the thriftier tourist looking to explore Belize’s nearby barrier reef. The island is crowded with tour companies that ferry visitors to reef hot spots, such as the intimidating Shark Ray Alley.
Eerie night snorkeling affords an opportunity to watch the fish scurry to find a home among the reef before darkness falls. When things do turn truly nocturnal, snorkelers armed with underwater LEDs have an opportunity to spot squid, octopus, lobster and crabs.
Iguana scurry all over San Ignacio thanks in part to the efforts of the Iguana Project, which hatches and releases the critters whose eggs are regularly gobbled up by predators in the wild. A guided tour of the facility where they’re kept allows tourists to see the scaly beasts up close.