After getting back from Caracol, I had a sleep debt I needed to work off. This was erased by the morning of the 23rd as I got up rearing to tackle Actun Tunichil Mucknal (ATM), a sacred Mayan cave. I went to pay at the tour operator and OBVIOUSLY the debit card machine was broken, meaning I had to get cash. Out of an Automated Teller Machine.
Now I hadn’t heard of ATM (the cave) before Belize, and it was only on the Caracol trip when I was talking to three separate people who wrote the guidebooks about the region (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Moon) and all raved about it, that I decided to readjust the travel plans and stop in San Ignacio a little while longer.
It was one of the most impressive trips I’ve taken; combining intense nature, fascinating Mayan history, and a unique opportunity to get close (I mean really close) to undisturbed artefacts from over a millennia ago.
The morning began with breakfast, followed by an hour’s bumpy bus ride to the rest station, just under an hour’s hike from the entrance to the cave. At the outset, our guide, Gonzo, an archaeologist who discovers new caves for a living (hard life), gave us a brief introduction to why this place is so special.
Firstly, the name. Since it was discovered, in only 1986 by someone mapping river routes, archaeologists have been unable to prescribe which Mayan culture used it as a sacred place, and so the name comes from the three main languages, so as not to offend. “Mayan” is like describing someone as “European”, and we wouldn’t want the French claiming credit for Stonehenge…
Secondly, geography. It’s a deep, intricate system of passages carved out of a limestone mountain by millions of years of erosion. To walk all of the way to the back with no stops would take 13 hours. The place is vast. Stalagmites and stalictites (‘tites’ go down, remember..) have formed throughout; creating a cathedral-esque atmosphere within.
Thirdly, its cultural importance. The Maya world was directed by their interpretation of Heaven, Earth and (especially relevant here) the Underworld. For them, the Underworld was a place ruled by Water Gods who held power of their destiny. When, amongst other things, drought hit, these Gods needed to be appeased, and to do so required venturing into the entrance of ‘Hell’, the ATM cave, to perform a series of rituals…
With our interest sufficiently whet, we strapped on our helmets, turned on the headlamps and took the first steps into the cave. Needless to say, within seconds the rest of us was sufficiently wet.
As we swam, climbed and clambered in single file throughout the rocks, Gonzo stopped us at regular junctions to explain the awesome stonefaces around us. Calcites that formed on the rocks glittered in the torchlight, huge boulders piled up requiring circumvention, and stalictites swept across the cave ceiling with unfathomable intricacy.
All of this would’ve been enough, yet after an hour or so of wading, we ascended a particularly well placed boulder to a reach a platform where we were instructed to remove our shoes, put on our socks and make our way to the next level up. Unsure what was to follow, we duly obided, and resumed our single file formation.
For the next half an hour we tread carefully through the stone platforms, each side offering a wealth of artefacts untouched by human hands since the time of the Ancient Maya. A lot of these were ceramics: huge pots and vases that lay discarded from our path. There was a story behind why they were broken. It’s, apparently, to do with bringing the items to this resting place (remember though the effort it took for us to get there) and then making them no longer usable to release the object’s spirit into the Underworld.
On cave shelves were large slabs of rock, with intricate, symbolic monuments surrounding them. These, Gonzo informed us, were the sites of human sacrifice. In ever greater acts of offering to the Gods, the Maya (or strictly speaking, Mesoamericans) would let blood from their own bodies, remove limbs and even disembowel select individuals in attempt to appease. How do we know this? That came next.
The next stage up was one of the primary water sources for the cave. After climbing an Ancient Mayan aluminium stepladder and limbo-ing under some sticking out rocks we looked onto the body of a 17 year old boy, kept preserved for over a thousand years.
This person had a number of his vertebrae removed, and he lay strewn out on the rock floor. The intestines would’ve been removed, and the body left as homage to the Gods. I’ve never seen anything like it before, genuinely like something out of ‘Waking the Dead’. And I had to remind myself that it had been like this centuries before William the Conqueror came to Britain. I still can’t quite comprehend it. It lay feet away, and any one of us could’ve (theoretically) gone and got up close to it.
The way back we were shown more human remains, partioned only by a piece of red string, and right by our feet. The pottery was presented on ledges, it seemed as if a museum. But no, Gonzo said, this is how they were found. The Mayans saw this as a sacred place, only highly regarded members of their society were allowed in, to perform very important rituals. Because of this, it was kept in good order (apart from the dismembered bodies).
As we retraced our route back towards sunlight, we left behind the eerie underworld Mayans so deeply feared and respected, behind us. Three hours since entering, we were back in the trees.
No cameras are allowed in the cave, and so unfortunately you’ll have to take my word for all of the above. This is because a tourist a couple of years ago dropped their camera (who drops a camera..) and cracked one of the skulls. If this sort of behaviour continues, it may soon be that the site is no longer accessible to the general public. Fingers crossed they learn lesson though.
After that, we headed back to San Ignacio. Dinner was my new favourite dish (stew chicken, rice & bean) and then it was to bed. Morning came and got on the Express Bus to Belize City, port to Caye Caulkner. I’d not heard many positives about the city and, due to lucky timing, spent a grand total of 17 minutes with my feet on the ground there. Hopped on a Water Taxi and arrived on the island of CC an hour later, at just before noon on Christmas Eve.