Sunday, August 21, 2011

Discovering the Mayan Underworld in Actun Tunichil Muknal

After an hours drive in a van with our guide, a driver, and one other couple we pulled up to a small cleared out area of jungle with only one other van parked in it. It was the low season in Belize and not many people were visiting the cave that day. There were a couple of outdoorsy buildings which turned out to be to outhouses and changing rooms. We quickly used the bathrooms and set off into the heat of the jungle with our guide leading the way.

The trail was narrow and we walked single file through the undergrowth. After about two minutes we were at our first river crossing.

On the hike to the cave, you must cross the river three times and you have to keep your shoes on. Closed toed shoes are a necessity when visiting the ATM cave and you must wear socks to avoid damaging the site with the oils from your skin.

So, we were wearing socks and sneakers and sauntered through the river three times and then proceeded to walk on a dusty trail. All in all the hike takes about 45 minutes and your lower half will be pretty dirty by the time you get there. No worries through, because you have to swim into the cave and it all washes off anyway!

Right before you arrive at the cave, there is a campsite where you leave whatever you have with you that you don't want to get wet. Here we also had the option of eating our lunch before or after the tour.

I had half before and half after since I knew the tour would be long and I was already a little hungry. I would recommend this so you aren't completely starving on the way out.

Then we put on our helmets and walked to the cave entrance.

The entrance of the cave is like an hourglass carved out of the limestone rock. Water pools at the entrance and you can see little fish swimming about in the milky blue water.

You have to swim in for about 10 to 15 feet before you climb up onto and over a rock. It's an easy swim but the water is a little chilly since it's been rushing through the cave for about 7 miles and hasn't been warmed by the sun. However, the water is very refreshing after the hike through the sticky jungle.

Once inside, we followed our guide over, around, and even through rocks. We walked in the water the whole way (for about an hour) and the guide told us all about the cave, what lives and grows in it, and about Mayan beliefs regarding it.

I was constantly turning my head to shine my head lamp on all the stalagmites and stalactites. There are some VERY impressive formations inside the cave. They are living things and we were instructed not to touch them since our touch can kill them. There are sparking white blobs and cone shaped blobs that look like wax from a melted candle melted both right side up and upside down trying to reach each other in the middle.

When I told our guide the sparkling white ones looked like snow he replied with, "Oh really? Hmm...I've never seen snow."

After about an hour of walking, we got to a big boulder and were told to climb up and onto the landing above. Here we would be out of the water and were allowed to take pictures. We took off our shoes to protect the artifacts and listened to more history and legend on the cave before setting off to see the goods.

We walked in a single file line on a path marked by reflective tape. There are many pottery pieces scattered on the ground and the tape helps to prevent accidental damage. The pottery was impressive and very, very old. It was so amazing to see learn about the traditions of the Maya and see where they actually performed rituals to the gods.

All of the pottery was damaged in some way during the ritual. It is custom to make the pot especially for the ritual and then, to signify it's purpose is over, it is smashed or broken in some way. The piece above was just chipped but many are totally smashed and only shards remain.

There are also human bones in the cave, thought to be the remnants of human sacrifices. We saw the bones of three people but there are many more. The grand finale was a full skeleton of a teenage girl, known as the Crystal Maiden. It was amazingly wretched.

The remains of humans killed as sacrifices to the gods was a little disturbing. It was strange to walk among the bones of those once living. Even with, and possibly because of the strangeness, it was one of the best, most adventurous things I have done in my life.

The ATM cave is a MUST see while visiting Belize. Get your adventure hat on and book a tour. You will not regret it!

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