Jungle Trekking, Amateur Spelunking and the Crystal Maiden

Actun Tunichil Mucnal Travel Blog

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A chaya bush
Early morning breakfast at Pop's was had with more of that delicious chaya scrambled eggs, and we opted for a waffle too. We needed to load up for what promised to be an invigorating but potentially challenging day. I'd read warnings that this particular adventure was not for someone out of shape. This worried me, considering I hadn't really been to a gym in years. But my friend Matt, who had traveled to Belize earlier this year, highly recommended it and said it was the highlight of his trip. I'd also read that it was many a visitor's favorite place. Besides, where else could one get within reach of Mayan skeletal remains, ancient fragments of pottery and spectacular cave formations? I thought we'd better jump on this before they decide to close it off to tourists. So, with a backpack of dry clothes, a couple towels and my camera, we set off on the Pacz Tours bus bound for Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Our tourbus

Translated as "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre," but better known as simply "ATM," this cave was located a couple hours in the wildnerness of Belize's tropical rainforests east and a little south of San Ignacio. There were about 12 of us, plus two guides and a driver. A couple of the seats were piled high with helmets, waterproof backpacks and assorted gear like flashlights and headlamps. More on that later.

We turned off the main highway at a village called Teakettle, where I swore I saw a "Catholic Public School" at the junction. I later learned that all schools in Belize are affiliated with a church, with the exception of the university.
Mark crossing Roaring Creek (the first time)
Most of the grade schools were Catholic or some sort of evangelical Christian and named after an obscure saint or the denomination itself. And despite it being early July, summer school seemed to be in full session, as we saw uniformed schoolchildren every time we passed a school.

When we arrived at the parking site, we were told not to bother with sunscreen, insect repellent, sunglasses or hats because they would be pretty much useless after we forded three streams, trekked for 45 minutes through a mostly shaded rainforest and swam into the entrance of the cavern. I brought only my camera, which would be protected in one of the waterproof backpacks. Indeed we did cross a stream three times, the water crystal clear--a big contrast to the muddy rivers we'd seen thus far. It also felt very cooling in the hot and humid day.
One of our river crossings
Water in the first stream came up to our waists. My Teva sandals had always gotten me by, and were still reliable, but it was a little cumbersome wading through deep water with them on, the hydrodynamics serving to slow me down more than if I'd just worn shoes. I'm certainly not complaining though, and I'm very happy that's the only pair of shoes I brought.

When we got to the picnic area near the entrance to the cave, the lead guide warned us that we'd be in the cave for almost four hours and if we were even remotely hungry or had blood sugar issues, we'd better eat something now. Yesterday they'd had a diabetic man who had gotten as far as the top level of the cave but couldn't get down.
At the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave
The guide had to go all the way back out of the cave and get him a Snickers bar. I ate a few snacks without hesitation. Our helmets were assigned, and headlamps affixed to each of them. We were given a brief lesson on how to wear and adjust them, and with that we were on our way.

All of us had our pictures taken on a rock in front of the wide mouth of the cave before relinquishing the cameras to be safely stored until we reached the upper ledges of the cavern. It was a sinister mouth, but provided an excellent backdrop of intrigue into what we were getting ourselves into. We gently trod over the slippery stones to the lip of the entrance pool, and one by one, each of us swam across to the calcified "shore" on the other side, a good 30-50 feet or so. The water was cold, but relieving. Our guide's name was Oscar and he told us that he'd be the leader and would give us instructions for how to move about the cave.
Ceremonially placed pottery in ATM cave
Things like, "sharp rock on the right" or "don't touch the stalactites." We were to play "telephone" game by passing these instructions down the line to the person behind us and so on, because voices do not carry well in a cave. I wasn't sure which end I wanted to be on: the front end who might be responsible for passing along the wrong instructions, or the back end who would receive all the wrong instructions. In truth, it varied depending on how we moved through the cave, and there were only six of us (the other group had broken off and gone with their guide to space the timing of our entrance), so it wasn't that bad. After a few times, it was clear that there were sharp and/or slippery rocks everywhere, and we probably shouldn't touch the walls. Oh, and watch the head! The headlamps weren't waterproof.
Skull embedded in calcified limestone

It was an exciting journey through the cave, and we were all so preoccupied with just following where we were supposed to be going that it was impossible to track time. Of course the only light was from our headlamps once we turned a few corners away from the entrance. We did pass a point in the cave where there was another entrance to the cave, a narrow brushy crack in the roof of the cave that would not have been a viable human entrance (or exit). Oscar stopped to explain facts about the cave, both from Mayan historical and speleological perspectives. I didn't know that stalactites (the ones that hang down) were hollow. And the Mayans believed the stalagmites (the ones sticking up) were auspiciously shaped like some of their gods, or if they weren't they took liberties and carved them a bit so they would appear in shadows as eerily large versions of their gods.
Speleothems with pottery fragments in foreground
Oscar illustrated with several different angles of the flashlight how the shadow shapes changed into other things.

We trudged through the cave for awhile before we reached a lopsided pillar that we had to climb up. We had reached the upper ledge of the cave, which appeared as a "frozen" limestone river. At this point, we removed our shoes and put on socks so that we were more sure-footed and our feet wouldn't be prone to getting body oils or potentially blood all over the place. We also got our cameras back, but taking pictures was difficult with the high moisture content in the air. It actually looked like it was misting, but it was just water vapor. We climbed up further to a wide open space they called the "cathedral." We then began to see fragments of pottery partially embedded in the hardened limestone.
Spectacular displays of speleothems surrounded us, but we could hardly see them without the aid of Oscar's spotlight. We did reach an area with an "altar" of stalactites and stalagmites, where we posed for photos. To get around, we had to walk on relatively thin ridges of limestone between depressed pools of water, all of which contained fragments of pottery. The whole place was a museum.

We approached an area with three pots fairly well intact: one resting on its side, one sitting up and another upside down. Oscar explained that these pots had been placed that way deliberately and ritualistically. The sideways pot had a hole in the side that was perfectly circular with a small divot. This was the "kill hole," which meant that these pots were "sacrificed" in a ceremony as if they had been alive.
Posing at a particularly impressive display of stalactites and stalagmites
The right-side-up pot had burn marks on the bottom, indicating its relative importance during the ceremony (it did not have a kill hole).

A little further we discovered a skull that was calcified into the cave floor, its spooky eye sockets and smoothed teeth jutting out. Apparently there had been more teeth, but a clumsy tourist dropped his camera on it. I tightened the grip on mine just in case. Further still was an area where it was clear that water had flowed through a back branch of the cave, bringing with it chunks of pottery and several bones, all petrified into the stone of the cave's floor after years of speleogenesis.

We came to a place in the cave where the path dead-ended and an actual ladder was fastened it to the rocks for us to climb up the the next and final level on this tour.
Cascading speleothems
The floor here resembled mud, and I was surprised that they were calcified and hard as rocks. White cascading formations surrounded us, a sort of geologic cauliflower. Cradled in a crevice of rock to our right were the bones of a teenager. The hole in the skull, however, the result of another clumsy tourist rather than a sacrificial blow, even though it's possible that the teenager was indeed murdered or sacrificed. A few steps later we came to the end of the line and the grand finale, the Crystal Maiden herself.

Spread eagle and looking utterly horrified, she lay completely intact embedded in the limestone. Oscar explained that they had found an blunt obsidian object, which could have been used to her demise. Mark and I surmised that she could have been a victim of rape, especially given her position.
Bones of a teenage Mayan
In any case, her frightening visage is frozen in an everlasting gaze.

On our way back, we took mostly the same route, with one exception. We were stopped by Oscar and he told us to turn off our headlamps, hold the person in front of us and follow him. It was pitch black and we had no idea where we were going. It was an exercise in pure trust. We were a little wobbly, and it didn't help when he said "step up a little," but actually it wasn't too bad and once we turned a corner we discovered the reason why he'd done this. We had approached the part of the cave with the "skylight" and without our light we were able to see the light streaming in in a way we couldn't have done otherwise. It was at this point we took a slight alternate route through a more treacherous passageway. A particularly narrow crevice in the rock was so tight that we had to partially squat, move sideways and tilt our head at an awkward angle to avoid a tracheotomy by an arrowhead-shaped rock jutting into the path.
The Crystal Maiden
The guy behind me actually just took his helmet off and swam underneath it. I could see that someone with claustrophobia would have actually perished on this tour. But we really enjoyed the unknown thrills that it provided. We really couldn't have expected all that we saw or experienced, even having read about the bones and pottery.

By the time we got back to the van, I still hadn't dried off much. Of course, we'd just crossed through the streams again, but even the top part of my shirt was wet. There was no changing area, so I went on the other side of the vehicle and changed while dodging mosquitoes tempted by my unprotected flesh. We got back to town and had a batch of sopping wet, muddy and sandy clothes that we would have liked to have cleaned and dried for the next day. It would seem as if a miracle, but we did find a place to get our laundry both washed and dried.
Meeting up with Cihan at Mr. Greedy's bar in San Ignacio
It was not cheap, but in foreign countries you pay more for convenience. We were to pick up the clothes the next morning.

All cleaned up and hungry, we headed out to Erva's for another scrumptious burrito and some Belikins. We watched the skies grow dimmer as night fell. Mark wrote a few postcards. I watched the beads of sweat gather momentum and drip down the side of the bottle, thinking about the amazing adventures we'd had after only three full days in the country. We were finishing up dinner when someone walked into the restaurant (we were sitting outside), saying hi to Mark as he passed. I had an odd sense that perhaps this was one of the Couchsurfers we'd tried to meet up with, but as I was turning around, I heard someone say "John?" and looked up to meet the eyes of Cihan, a man I had met in Istanbul over a year and a half ago. He had seen my Facebook post from the first day in country and when we checked e-mails the previous night, I responded to a message he'd sent, not really thinking we would actually be in the same place at the same time. He had been in Guatemala and was coming to Belize. As fate would have it, we met up in San Ignacio and Mark, Cihan and I hung out the rest of the evening drinking beers at a couple bars in town and sharing travel and life stories until it was closing time. What a small, strange and wonderful world.
bellasusanna says:
Great write up - I was in Belize last year this makes want to go back and check this out. Take care!
Posted on: Jul 20, 2010
Africancrab says:
Great blog, I'm so interested.
Posted on: Jul 20, 2010
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A chaya bush
A chaya bush
Our tourbus
Our tourbus
Mark crossing Roaring Creek (the f…
Mark crossing Roaring Creek (the …
One of our river crossings
One of our river crossings
At the mouth of the Actun Tunichil…
At the mouth of the Actun Tunichi…
Ceremonially placed pottery in ATM…
Ceremonially placed pottery in AT…
Skull embedded in calcified limest…
Skull embedded in calcified limes…
Speleothems with pottery fragments…
Speleothems with pottery fragment…
Posing at a particularly impressiv…
Posing at a particularly impressi…
Cascading speleothems
Cascading speleothems
Bones of a teenage Mayan
Bones of a teenage Mayan
The Crystal Maiden
The Crystal Maiden
Meeting up with Cihan at Mr. Greed…
Meeting up with Cihan at Mr. Gree…
Actun Tunichil Mucnal
photo by: sayohat