Belize is a great place exploring caves. And I had not received enough punishment the day before when I swam instead of tubing through a set of caves the day before. I was ready for the next challenge: Actun Tunichil Muknal, dubbed The “ATM cave” about 45 minutes from San Ignacio.
My lovely tour guide actually ended up driving me to San Ignacio, so I thanked him by buying him dinner at a street side BBQ stand. He then dropped me off at the cutest little colonial guesthouse called Hi-Et (which I thought sounded hilariously similar to Hyatt) where I rented a room for $20 BZD from a ninety year old man who instructed me to call him “Junior”. It was the cutest little place with two corgis named Princess and Duke (mother and son) who sat next to me on the porch swing while I watched the sunset. I felt right at home.
ATM cave was only discovered in 1989, but the archaeologist in question decided to keep it to himself until he’d had time to map the cave and assess the many Mayan artifacts contained within.
Speaking for myself, I thoroughly enjoy a caving adventure on its own merit. I love venturing into the dark underbelly of the world, especially if its journey is through water, marveling at the formations and experiencing the genuine creepiness of it all. This particular cave had even more going for it than its flowing river, stalagmites and stalactites.
It was the location of many ancient Mayan ritual human sacrifices. It contained many very well-preserved artifacts which included skeletons, parts of skeletons, and rather less exciting: ceramics.
I was excited.
After what was described as an hour-long hike into the deep jungle, and turned out to be a flat meander along a well-beaten path to the cave’s entrance, we arrived.
Annoyingly, there were several tour groups ahead of us. Silly me: when I’d read that only two companies could take up to eight people per group, I had booked online thinking that I had better reserve my spot on the tour since I had only one day allotted to going. I didn’t realize that between the two companies , there were 18 guides allowed to take 8 people in EACH.
There were several groups crowded at the cave’s entrance making cheesy smiles and chanting “you won’t Belize it” for their photo, and it felt more like Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland than the jungle. I could tell patience would be in order for the rest of the tour.
It got even more annoying when our guide explained that he would be pointing out potential hazards to us inside the cave and that as we passed them ourselves, we should repeat the warning to the person behind us so that we could all stay safe as a group. This works in theory, however in practice, all it accomplishes is hearing “there’s a big rock to your left” shrieked 8 times when the last person in line is far behind the obstacle being warned about.
This is not to say that the entire experience was irritating. Far from it. I really enjoyed the cold short swims followed by the bodily contortions and squeezes that you had to make to get through the cave. I wondered what the tour guides did to the fat tourists who couldn’t make it through the tight spots. Did they refuse to sell them the tour? Were they sent back to the entrance on their own? Or made to wait in the cold water for two hours for the guide to return?
I was relieved that neither I nor anyone else on my tour was tubby enough to find out.
After an hour or so of horizontal exploration – we were told we had to climb up into the main cavern referred to as The Cathedral – where all of the artifacts lay. It was not too difficult of a climb as long as you had shoes with grip and a fearless attitude. Up, up, and up we climbed, sometimes using the guide as a human step-ladder, sometimes over a strategically placed metal alternative.
When we reached the main chamber, the guide launched into his long, serious, and how-many-times-must-I-hear-the-same-speech lecture about Mayan history. Don’t guides ever stop to think that perhaps some of us had racked up a few Mayan sites and already learned the basics? That maybe some of us would be more interested in the geological significance of the cave instead of the year Mayans first began construction on their elaborate pyramids?
However, I must say that the information presented concerning the human sacrifices was interesting. For instance, I knew that sometimes babies of the upper classes had their skulls bound with a wooden board in the front to make it more angular, but I didn’t know that their teeth were also filed into sharp points. It has been suggested that this was done to resemble the jaguar – an animal revered by the Maya.
The majority of remains in the cave, 14 persons in all, belonged to children as their sacrifice was considered more valuable to the gods. It is believed that if a person belonging to the upper echelons of society were chosen for a sacrifice, it would be considered an honor for the victim and death would occur voluntarily. Not so for the lesser in society who were brought to the cave to be sacrificed against their will.
I couldn’t actually believe that tourists were allowed to walk so close to the artifacts and bones. Even only being permitted to wear socks is not going to preserve these relics from further damage in the future. There were even a number of skulls that we were told had been punctured by tourist’s dropping rock or their camera lenses on them. As such, I highly doubt that tours will be allowed to continue here for much longer.
The final relic is a fully intact skeleton known as “The Crystal Maiden” whose bones have been calcified leaving them with a sparkling crystallized appearance.
By this point, I was ready to get out of the cave. I was shivering, and starting to feel a little claustrophobic. At least I could count my blessings: I wasn’t brought here as a sacrifice to the gods.