San Ignacio offers close encounters with a long-departed civilisation, writes Tim Roxborogh.
I've never been plied with rum at a sales pitch by a travel operator before, but this is Belize and they do things differently here. They also drink a lot of rum.
And so the rums are poured into plastic cups as we're presented with a slideshow of different options for the next day's potential adventure.
"You don't really want to do that one," or "That one's okay but if it rains it's not so good," says our operator of each of his company's activities, ranging from tubing down jungle rivers to crawling through ancient ruins.
But they all looked like so much fun ... And then it clicked: "Really your best option is the ATM Caves — this is the most impressive site in all of Belize." Also comfortably the most expensive, hence the plying of punters with rum.
We're in San Ignacio, a jungle-clad town in the hills near Belize's Guatemalan border. Belize is a curious country in that it's just south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and shares some of that region's Mayan history and culture, but it's predominantly black in population. It's a former British colony, so English is widely spoken, albeit with a classic West Indian drawl.
As a cricket fan I hoped the locals — who talk just like Viv Richards and Michael Holding — played cricket like them, too — but no, it's all about soccer and basketball here. San Ignacio sits in Belize's jungle interior, surrounded by extraordinary ancient Mayan sites — such as the ATM caves just added to our itinerary.
Their full name is Actun Tunichil Muknal and they truly are remarkable. For a start, they're so secluded they were discovered only 20 years ago, though rumours of their existence had long been part of Mayan folklore. And if you venture deep enough into them, you find sacrificial sites that have remained untouched for 1300 years.
The caves are an hour's drive out of San Ignacio, followed by an hour's jungle trek complete with several precarious river crossings.
Once at the cave mouth, it's on with torch-lit helmets, followed by a leap from a small rock cliff into the river to swim inside the cave. For the next few hours we swam and climbed our way deeper and deeper into the rock mountain. Along the way, our helmet torches illuminated enormous atriums of stalactites and stalagmites, and the fact you must either climb or swim to get to each chamber made it all the more awe-inspiring.
Inside we passed old cooking pots left untouched from 700BC, as well as several skulls — but, for all that, nothing prepares you for the site of a preserved human skeleton.
Archaeologists believe it is that of a 16-year-old girl sacrificed to thank the gods for the end of a drought. The skeleton lies exactly as it did at the time of the girl's death some 1300 years ago — in a dancing position to show her joy at the end of the drought, and with the heavy stone used to break her spine still lying next to her. It's a sobering sight.
This Intrepid tour was a journey of meeting new people, of sunshine, snorkelling, partying, history, culture, adventure, and, at moments like this, total silence.
Tim's top 5
The ATM Caves — They're not cheap, but this helps preserve this most sacred and amazing of Mayan sites.
• Barton Creek Cave — Not as grand as ATM and more claustrophobic, but you still see ancient pottery and bones and at less than half the price.
• Cahal Pech Ruins — Close to town, these Mayan ruins comprise 34 buildings dating as far back as 900BC.
• Rio On Pools — These plus the Five Sisters Falls are natural water slides in the jungle and are amongst Belize's cheapest and best highlights.
• Local karaoke bars — They are not used to tourists who can actually sing, so if you fall into this category you're sure to get a rousing reception.
Tim Roxborogh was assisted to Central America by Flight Centre.