“It really was a surprise find,” says Dr John Morris, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, who hopes to make the tomb viewable to visitors by the summer. In the meantime there is much to marvel at, including a massive stele depicting a ruler wearing a splendid headdress of quetzal feathers, two ball courts, and a steep-sided pyramid with views to Guatemala from its 130ft summit.
You’ll be hiking for 45 minutes, crossing a river three times, then swimming through a cave,” warns the letter on my bed.
The staff at the Ka’ana Resort near San Ignacio, Belize may be full of sound advice but they give nothing away about the sensational experience that awaits on a day trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal!
Lost in the northern foothills of Belize’s Maya Mountains, this colossal cave was once used by the Mayans and is today known as ATM. Three miles long, it dispenses splash rather than cash, and only 120 visitors are allowed in per day.
After I have donned a safety helmet and head-torch, Elias, my Belizean guide, invites me to plunge into the cooling river, haul myself along by a rope, then follow him into the forests.
Another leap into the water is required to enter the cave, after which follows an hour of swimming, climbing through tunnels, and hiking under massive formations of stalactites and stalagmites to reach a lofty chamber where, 1,200 years ago, Mayan priests would conduct their rituals.
The climax of our underworld journey is a stash of calcified ceramic pots, bones, and even skulls! In many other countries, a phenomenal archaeological site like this would be full of hectoring signs and watchful security guards, but here in easy-Belize everything runs on trust. The guides are respectful & safety-conscious, and there’s not a single souvenir stall in sight.
Tuning into the legacies of the Maya world is a chief reason to visit the only English-speaking country in Central America. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981 after 119 years as a colony.
The Queen of England still smiles out from the local dollars, and the British Army continues to train in the country’s dense jungles. Belize City, the former capital, has a Victoria Street and a Princess Margaret Drive, along with the odd red postbox and the squat, brick St John’s Cathedral with its marble memorials to earlier visitors felled by yellow fever.
One joy of travelling here is how empty Belize seems. While neighbouring Mexico and Guatemala are famously populous and exuberant, here the roads are quiet, the beaches relaxed, and the archaeological sites often blissfully free of crowds.
Bordering the Caribbean Sea, the country does have its moments of sound and colour – drumming is popular and all the police stations are painted bright yellow and green.
Just 380,000 people inhabit an area similar in size to Wales, and they are a most engaging jumble of cultures, including Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, Chinese, and Mennonite. That’s very different from the heyday of the Mayan era in the third to 10th centuries when more than a million people lived here!
There is plenty to ponder from that mysterious era, with more than 600 Mayan sites identified across Belize, including Caracol in the Cayo District where the 141ft-high Caana pyramid remains the tallest building in the country.
Many of these have yet to be fully explored, as was made clear last April at Xunantunich, a vast ceremonial acropolis a few miles south-west of San Ignacio, when one of the largest royal tombs in the country was found along with two valuable panels inscribed with hieroglyphics.
As well as adventures inland, Belize offers the chance to wallow, swim, and gawp on the second longest barrier reef in world. Stretching 185 miles, this dazzling necklace of more than 200 atolls and cayes (small, low-lying coral islands) is home to vivid marine life including turtles, eagle rays, whale sharks, and curiosities such as the Christmas tree worm.
The most popular destination is Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile-long island in the north that attracts more than 40 percent of visitors, mostly from North America. Here, protected sites such as the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Alley, where schools of nurse sharks gather, lie just a 10-minute boat ride away.
The snorkeling here is terrific while the island capital, San Pedro, is so small and congested it offers one of the most bizarre sights in modern tourism: golf-cart traffic jams!
Life is much quieter on the smaller cayes, which often have just a single resort where guests are encircled by sea, birds, and mangroves. Beneath the waves lie magical gardens rich with tropical fish and coral, while up above is a dome of stars unpolluted by modern lights. South Water Caye, which sits right on the reef near Dangriga and is inside a marine reserve, was once a retreat for the Catholic Sisters of Mercy.
The southern end of Ambergris Caye is home to a stunningly relaxing resort, Pelican Beach, which shuns television and air conditioning in favour of sea breezes, freshly grilled lobster, and family board games after dinner. You can snorkel from the shore and take boat trips to dive the underwater cliffs, admire the frigate birds at Man O’ War Caye, and call into Carrie Bow Caye, where the Smithsonian Institution runs a field station.
Many visitors to Belize take great joy in its simplicity & isolation, and the chance to feel close to nature as you swing in a hammock slung between the palms while sipping on a cold Belikin, the locally-brewed beer.
One thing is certain: you can’t help but step back from our hectic world. “I turned off my phone the moment we arrived,” a guest at St George’s Caye Resort tells me proudly, “and it’s staying off until I leave.” A 25-minute speedboat ride from Belize City, this small, adults-only resort is popular with divers and sits in the middle of St George’s Caye, a mile-long sliver of sand and coconut trees that has played a starring role in our long-running love affair with Belize.
Back in the 1650s, English buccaneers established one of the first settlements here, and in 1798 a decisive naval battle was fought that saw off the invading Spanish forces for good. The victory is now commemorated with a national holiday every September, St George’s Caye Day, featuring fairs, beauty pageants, and a regatta.
Today the only mementos of those wild pirate times are a forlorn cemetery and a solitary 10ft cannon pointing east. Walking along the shore, past the pelicans diving for fish, and colorful hammocks swaying in the gentle breeze, I feel most-moved by the people.
“We’ve gotta keep this place beautiful,” one local with long dreadlocks wrapped in a red, green, and yellow bandana emblazoned with “Belize” in bold letters explains as he rakes the beach. It’s a tenacious spirit that comes naturally to this small and flamboyant Caribbean country, where you can be sure of a friendly welcome, yet travel still feels like discovery!