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Trip Report Belize Trip Report - Cayo Part 2 ATM Cave, Rio Frio and Caracol Ruins

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ATM CAVE. Hidden Valley Inn booked our ATM Cave tour with Pacz Tours. $80 pp. We drove back to San Ignacio, bumping all the way, and joined another couple. Pacz provided the van, the guide, all fees and lunch. We had a driver and a guide named Orlando. The drive is maybe 25 minutes outside of SI, and then we got out of the van, got fitted for our helmets, left some dry clothes in the van and started across a shallow stream, carrying our lunch. A word on clothing here-- you are going to be wet the entire time you are in the cave. Personally, I wouldn't want wet jeans wrapped around my legs for hours, so I wore hiking shorts. You must have shoes and socks on because of the rocks. You probably don't want to wear a bathing suit only. Ok, so we cross the stream, get into another van and drive through some fields, get out and walk pleasantly, about 2 miles, through a forest, to the cave. At the entrance to the cave, we handed Orlando our cameras, which he put into a waterproof bag inside his backpack and we leave our lunch in the picnic area. We put our headlamps on our helmets and enter the cave. You are not allowed to carry anything because you need your hands. We swim, not wade, across a small pool and then climb up onto a ledge. I'm not going to spoil the rest of this by giving too many details except to say it was tons of fun and very interesting. It was tiring but doesn't require above average agility or strength, but it is not for the weak, small kids or elderly folks not in good shape. I'm only 5'4', which meant I was up to my chest and neck a few times in water but mostly its knee deep or less. The temperature was fine. Your eyes adjust to dim light plus you have your headlamps. I loved it. The cave is mainly open and large and there are only a few tight squeezes and they don't last beyond 10 feet or so. The sounds of the water and Orlando's quiet voice explaining why the Mayans came here and how they were trying to save their civilization made it one of the most unusual tours I've ever experienced. There are other groups in the cave but each group keeps its distance from each other. Pacz Tours doesn't take large groups--there were only five of us and I liked that. Orlando kept a sharp eye on everyone. We did see Mayan pottery and skeletons and skulls which just emphasizes Orlando's narrative. This is not a tour for people who have trouble climbing around for 2-3 hours or walking or who don't want to be wet. Otherwise, DO IT.
The next day we decided to drive ourselves to Caracol. Hidden Valley Inn gave us a map, which we really didn't need since its a straight line from the Inn to the ruins, and loaded the ice chest cooler and water and juice into our SUV. You must bring your lunch and there are no gas stations anywhere in this area, so be sure you have gas. The road to Caracol is probably better than the road to HVI, which means its only slightly less horrible. Those who get car sick, better take a pill. If Caracol is one of your destinations, then you will enjoy the fact that HVI, Blancaneaux and Five Sisters are half the distance from those hotels closer to San Ignacio. It took about an hour from HVI, bump,bump, bump, jolt, jolt, until we arrived at the military convoy check point. There were problems a few years ago with Guatemalan bandits robbing tourists at Caracol, so now there is an armed gaurd convoy to drive the route with you and a couple of young armed gaurds who stay in the picnic area once you get there. I felt entirely safe. The convoy left at 9 am and we were a little early so we drove just around the corner, to see the Rio Frio Cave. It's open all the way through, not very long and worth the 15 minutes to see it. We rejoined the convoy, which basically means these young soldiers, ride in a truck at the back of the line of vehicles going to Caracol and then back with you when you leave. Again, I won't spoil the effect of Caracol, but its definitely worth seeing, Young kids might get bored, but I really liked it. You will enjoy it more if you have a guide or at least a guide book. We hired a guide named David at the ruins and he did a great job giving us the history of this particular group of Mayans and details about the temples. For example, I didn't realize that Belize's current population is less than 300,000 people but the Mayan population in Belize, which died out about 900 AD, is believed to have had over a million people. After the tour, everyone sits down in the picnic area and eats their lunch. There are decent public restrooms. We discussed our upcoming visit to Tikal ruins just over the border in Guatemala and David, among others, didn't think we three ladies just dragging our suitcases and walking across the border to hail a cab was the best idea. I asked him if he'd be interested in picking us up at Matus Car Rental (so we could drop our trusty, but utterly filthy SUV off) and driving us himself over the border to our hotel at Tikal Park and he agreed. It cost us $150 + tip and was worth every dime. We, unlike the group of six tourists behind us, were not stopped and robbed by bandits. More on that in the next installment "Tikal".

David knows everyone at Hidden Valley Inn and probably knows everyone in The Cayo. He's married with two young kids, lives in the area, very well spoken, dependable and knows his stuff. I'm kicking myself because I wrote down his full name and cell phone number and now I can't find it. I will email Misael at Hidden Valley Inn to get David's number though and post it. The convoy leaves about 1 pm and everyone heads back. We stopped at the Rio Pools on the way back, which is very pretty. You can swim if you want. That night we drank wine, talked to the other tourists and got into the hot tub. I think we were asleep by 9 pm. The next day we just lazed around, drove to some of the Falls and got ready for our trip to Tikal.