Arriving in the Yucatán
When you travel to the Yucatán, leave the mega-resorts of Tulum and Cancun behind. Vacate the frantic energy of the city and the safety of pre-arranged tours. Instead, travel down single lane highways that cut straight through the low and dense vegetation, never once crossing a river. You will discover that the entire Yucatán peninsula is a shelf of limestone, porous like a sponge. Rivers are drawn down into the rock rather than running over it.
In thousands of places across the peninsula, the limestone has collapsed, revealing the underground pockets of freshwater. Some of these cenotesare as small as swimming holes, overhung with rock and overgrown with vines. The light pierces the blue-green water and tiny fish nibble on your toes. Other cenotesare as large as craters, with diving platforms and full restaurants perched on their edge. Some are so shallow you can touch the bottom; others appear to go one forever. The Mayans, who long ruled the peninsula, believed cenoteswere gateways to the afterlife.
Without rivers, they built their great civilization on these water sources. The stone ruins of these cities now rise from non-descript corn fields. In places where the Mexican government can afford it, the vegetation has been beaten back to reveal courtyards, platforms, sleeping quarters, and bureaucratic offices. Trees with stubborn roots still cling to the stone steps. Climb the pyramids of these smaller Mayan cities and look out over fields once tilled by a complex and highly capable society, now collapsed.
Crossing into Belize
Crossing the border into Belize, Mexican ballads give way to Caribbean Afro-pop and evangelical radio. Be prepared to pay a number of sundry fees for unidentified purposes: a fumigation fee for a car never cleaned, tourism tax, border tax, trans-border vehicle tax, insurance, and possibly insurance on your insurance. Spit out from the border zone on to another single lane highway, the familiar low-lying vegetation gives way to grasslands and hills, then rising mountains and rainforest. The limestone shelf is left behind.
The lush landscape is littered with Mennonite signs: Prepare to meet thy Lord! Houses, brightly painted and raised on stilts, flash by in the green. Old yellow school buses make their way through citrus groves and over one lane bridges. Tucked between Mexico and Guatemala, you will find Belize home to an unlikely mixture of people: Mestizo and Creole, Mayans, Garifuna exiles from the Caribbean, and the Mennonites, forever fleeing taxes and conscription. A former British outpost, it was only granted independence in 1981. It retains a curious British legacy: a “Cheers” bar, ham sandwiches, and English breakfast of fryjacks, eggs, and bacon. But no corner of the world is without its tensions: Guatemala still claims the entire territory as its own.
If the Yucatán was a sponge, Belize is Swiss cheese, shot through with caves and underground rivers. At Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave known locally as ATM, you can walk kilometers into the earth, chest deep in water. After squeezing through crevices you ascend a large and slippery stalagmite. Climbing above the rushing water, you enter a vast, dry chamber. In this underground room, Mayans, likely driven by drought and desperation, ritually sacrificed their own warriors and children. Their skeletons still rest here, amongst pottery shards, calcified and crystallized by centuries of the underground floods that follow heavy rains.