Jungle ruins and sea life await in tiny Belize

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 30, 2014 at 10:21 am •  Published: June 30, 2014

SAN IGNACIO, Belize (AP) — 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 Maya 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 may invade their jungle dwellings.

CAVES, SKELETONS AND A SWIM

Evidence of human sacrifice in Maya 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, with archeologists opting to leave most artifacts as they were centuries ago. 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 (which is patrolled by a resident vine snake). Water winds throughout the cave, and visitors have to squeeze through impossible-looking openings before being rewarded with the archaeological trove. But don't expect to plaster social media with photos documenting the adventure. Clumsy tourists — including one who left a camera-sized hole in the skull of a sacrificed child — led to a ban on cameras at the site.

PYRAMID IN THE JUNGLE

Just a fraction of Caracol, a once powerful Maya 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 while in search of mahogany. Nearly a century later, 90 percent of it still belongs to the jungle. Shards of ancient pottery are scattered around the complex, which includes astronomical buildings, ball courts, palaces and a 141-foot-tall pyramid that remains the tallest man-made structure in Belize. The guttural intonations of howler monkeys and the eerie screech of the yellow-tailed bird provide the soundtrack for those wandering through the massive archaeological site.

STONE WOMAN AND EL CASTILLO

This complex of ruins got its Maya 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's center. At the site itself, the main attraction is the ruin known as "El Castillo," which towers above the jungle. Four elaborate stucco friezes depicting Maya 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. Despite its lofty appearance and elaborate decorations, the Castillo likely served as an administrative hub, not a temple, according to the visitor's center.

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