Discover Belize's Mayan sightsTuesday, 13 Nov 2007 08:12 Bordering Mexico and Guatemala and within spitting distance of Honduras, the small, lush country of Belize is best known for its famous diving sites and beautiful island Cayes. The Cave of the Crystal Maiden, Belize (photo: mayawalk.com)
There is more however to this country than just sunbathing and swimming. For the adventurous of spirit, and anyone with even a passing interest in archaeology, history or wildlife, Belize hosts an absolute wealth of hidden treasures deep in its inland mountains and jungles.
Like its neighbours, Belize was once a stronghold of the ancient Mayan civilisation (brought to life recently courtesy of Mel Gibson), and remnants of their sprawling, elaborate palaces, pyramids and temples are to be found everywhere.
The town of Orange Walk is a gentle and interesting introduction to Belize life.
Sometimes known as 'Sugar City', it is a strange mix of English colonialism, Spanish, Mayan, Creole and Chinese influences. There is also a large, rural Mennonite community nearby, meaning the town is often filled with the blonde descendants of Dutch and German immigrants with their horse and carts, and old fashioned tools and clothes.
The New River which runs past the town is home to 400 species of birds and orchids and is full of turtles and crocodiles. These can grow up to 16 feet, so it is advisable not to stand too close.
Boats from here cruise up the river to the Mayan site of Lamanai, which dates from 1600BC. The name means submerged crocodile, and the site features the Temple of the Jaguar Masks where large sombre faces are carved into the stone.
Further inland, situated in the Cayo District near the Macal River, San Ignacio is a laidback town used as a base by travellers to explore the nearby ruins, waterfalls and rivers and one of the best sights of Belize is to be found here.
Actun Tunichil Muknal or 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden' is part of an intricate series of caves used by ancient Mayans as sacrificial burial chambers. The Mayans believed that entrance to the underworld was reached through these dark caves, and when you see them you will understand why.
The mouth of the cave is reached by a 45 minute walk through the forest of the Tapir Mountain Reserve, and from here you swim through a series of passages filled with stalactites till you reach a vast dry chamber. At this point shoes are removed, headlamps turned on and the scramble up various ladders and rock faces begins.
In the semi-darkness, headlamps pick out offerings left to gods thousands of years ago. Pots and jars that would have held corn can be seen on every surface, along with the crystallised remains of 14 human sacrifices, including the full skeleton a young woman.
None of the artefacts are protected by any sort of fencing so visitors must tread very carefully. The Mayan guides will not thank you if you stand on and break anything, which sadly has been known to have happened in the past.
The cave expedition is quite labour intensive and a bit chilling, so it is best not to attempt it if you are not very fit or have young children with you. For everyone else, it is a fascinating, atmospheric travel experience that is hard to beat.