Today we signed up for another unique adventure - we went on an all day expedition to the Actun Tunichil Muknal, which is commonly called the ATM cave. The ATM is a site sacred to the Maya, who believed that the caves were an entrance to the underworld, and so held a lot of symbolism regarding birth and death. Inside the cave are signs of Maya sacrifice and ritual, including the skeletons of human sacrifice. The most famous sight is the skeleton of the "Crystal Maiden".
On the ATM tour, you are forbidden to bring a camera - this is because a tourist, when trying for a closeup of one of the skeletons, dropped their camera and shattered one of the ancient skulls! Indeed, many archaeologists are unhappy that the Belize government even allows tourists into the cave at all, because if someone strays off of the path, they might crush pottery remains or bones. But for now the cave remains open to the public.
We traveled with PACZ tours, but all of the tour groups do the same route and see the same thing. One nice thing about PACZ is that the guy in the office gave me a CD filled with official pictures from inside the ATM cave - so that is how I have some photographs to show here, I did not take any pictures myself.
The trip starts with a drive out to a lunch stop. Here, you eat lunch and then leave all your behind all packs and go to the bathroom one last time before entering the cave. To reach the cave, you have to wade across three rivers and hike about a mile. At the deepest part of the wading the river reached about the midpoint of my chest (no children are allowed to take this tour.) At the entrance to the cave, our guide asked if everyone could swim. I thought this was amusing, because what would they have done if someone said no? To enter ATM, you have to swim about 30 feet. Actually, you have to dog paddle so that your head stays above water, because you are wearing a helmet with a flashlight on it.
Inside the cave, the guide leads you along the river. Sometimes you are wading in water up to your chest, some times you are walking on stones. It is important to listen to what the guide says because he points out where there are underwater rocks. You can not see these submerged rocks, and you don't want to scrape yourself and get a nasty cut. I don't know how often mishaps occur, but no one got into any trouble on our trip. At a few points you have to make a series of choreographed steps to turn and twist through some tight rock formations. It isn't hard, I don't want to make it sound overly dramatic - but my making those moves, you will place your feet correctly in the water and turn your body for the right way through.
We journeyed deeper into the cave, and I was impressed that the Mayans, who had only wood-burning torches, were able to penetrate so deeply underground. Especially when we reached the Crystal Maiden skeleton, which seemed to me to be in a remote corner of the cave. The guide told us that the Mayans had made changes to the cave formations, at one point they had broken stalactites and carved rocks so that the shadow of a certain formation would like a giant jaguar head if you held a torch behind it.
At one point we had to climb a twenty-five foot rock. Again, this isn't too hard - the guide shows you exactly where to place each foot, and you can clamber right up it. Hundreds of people do those precise steps each day (you will see a lot of other tour groups underground). Once we had climbed up to this underground plateau, we had to take our shoes off (so that we would be less likely to crush pottery fragments.) You have to wear an old pair of socks beyond this point.
It was here that we saw all the artifacts left by the ancient Mayans. The archaeologists had not disturbed anything, but constant flowing water had stirred things around, so some of the skeletons are all jumbled up. The Crystal Maiden skeleton is reached by climbing a ten foot ladder and then stepping to the left and into a chamber. (I wondered how the archaeologist had even found the skeleton - they must have explored every nook and cranny of the giant cave system). The Crystal Maiden is still intact, the mineral growth from chemicals in the water has grown around the bones and anchored them in place. It is quite a sight to see.
We returned by the route that we had come in. It is quicker going back because the guide doesn't stop to explain everything that you are seeing. We swam out of the cave, regained our packs and walked back to the shuttle van. Unfortunately, Melanie slipped when wading across the final river and banged her knee on an underwater rock, so she had a marvelous bruise for a few weeks as a momento to our underground tour. Certainly this was a unique adventure!
Click here for a map of the ATM cave.
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