A pic of the ATM Gang – Jason (Ottawa), Jake (Victoria), Shea (Victoria), Megan (Toronto), Tim (upstate New York), Rob and me (Helena, Montana).
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, Cayo District, Belize
As mentioned in my last post, yesterday’s adventure to the ATM Cave was a very memorable experience. We got lucky, as the rain had brought the level of the river up so much there was a rope to help us wade in a river up to our necks on the way back across to the parking lot! The cave had been closed due to the level of the river and our guide Danny thought it would be closed again by tomorrow, as the van driver told him the river had risen substantially in the few hours while we were gone. Lucky for us indeed! For the trip, we needed to plan on clothes and shoes that could get wet (we brought a dry set for afterwards).
I wrote about our breakfast in yesterday’s post, so I’m skipping right to the cave. We first hiked about 45 minutes through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. There are four entrances, but all tours use the same main one. We packed in lunches provided by the tour, and left them under a thatched lean-to near the entrance. No cameras allowed – due to tourists dropping cameras on invaluable artifacts and ruining them – made this a tough tour for Mr. Elder to do. Indeed, some of the coolest photo ops I’ve ever seen, and I was unable to try my hand at capturing their beauty!
The trek began with a swim! Yup, shoes on, clothes on, helmets on, headlamps affixed… the works! We had to climb over some large rocks with water cascading over the top of them to get to a large pool. It was about a 15 yard swim into the cave! The water was deep enough to dive, although we didn’t do that on account of our headlamps! We climbed up on a large rock inside the initial cavern. Dripping wet, we couldn’t believe this was a tour!
But, it was, and the next few minutes got even more exhilarating! We crawled off the rock into an underground stream – varying in depths – but mainly about calf-high. As we went, we’d trudge through the water, up and around rocks. At one point, there was a keyhole. The only way a person can get through is by putting their chin just at water level and sliding through. Well, I was the ONLY one in the tour group that took a few tries to figure it out. I wanted my chest to go through where my head should – and I didn’t fit! Everyone laughed, and our guide Danny helped me out a bit, so that on the third time, I made it!
The ATM Cave was discovered in the mid-1980s. There are 16 skeletal remains that have been found in the 4.3 km of underground caverns in the cave. We saw the remains of 6 people on our tour. All male. Short people. It is theorized that the Mayan Shaman (religious leaders) and there helpers were the only ones allowed into the caves. They went in them and performed rituals to bring good to the Mayan people. They would offer blood to the gods, pricking fingers or ear lobes. This blood letting was done in hopes that such offerings would bring good fortune to the Mayan people. Ultimately, when times got tough (drought, disease, whatever), they tried offering more blood – leading to the human sacrifices performed between 500 and 900 AD.
Danny talked of many theories as to what happened to the Maya. Mr. Elder thinks it was a variety of things. The Shaman leaders had many wives and many children. As these elite children grew, they may have fought with one another for who would ‘rule’ next. Further, they deforested lots of land so they could see there enemies approach. Without the forestation, rains came and washed the soil away. Nobody knows for sure, but these are a couple thoughts, and it may be a combination of many of them.
The human skeleton laying on his back at the top of the cave tour is called “The Crystal Maiden.” The skull is actually male – and the crystal comes from the calcification of the skeleton over time. It was pretty incredible.
As we crawled out of the current and around the last corner, what may have been the most spectacular scene of the entire trip lay before us. Looking out the entrance of the cave, the jungle beckoned – lush and green. The daylight glistened off the smooth pond before our feet. The sounds of the rainforest and the rushing of the water pouring over the rocks at the far end creating a scene of tranquil paradise. But, no cameras! Darn.
We took off our headlamps, gave them to Danny, and dove in for our final swim out! Then it was ham and cheese sandwiches, some water, and a very muddy hike out in the rain back to the changing area to dry off.
It was a blast. As we went to load in the van, Danny took a picture of the four Canadians and three Americans (photo at top)!