“You will get a little wet…”
This comment seems pretty unambiguous, right? That’s what we thought when we first signed up for the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour in San Ignacio, Belize. We wore our swimsuits, and comfortable clothes, but neither of us even thought about a towel or an extra pair of dry shoes. It said “a little wet,” so how much preparation did we really need to make?
Actun Tunichil Muknal, commonly referred to as ATM, is a notable Mayan archaeological site where skeletal remains and old ceramics are sprinkled throughout the cave. ATM is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and only a small group of agents have licenses to conduct tours in the cave, so you have to go with a group in order to experience it. The main cave system is about three miles long and a long river passage occupies a large portion of that. Even with this information in my head, I didn’t think water was going to be a big concern. How wrong I was.
After a long drive to the reserve, we needed to hike about a mile through the jungle to reach the cave, and within 50 feet, we were waist deep in water crossing a stream. Before the end of the hike, we would wade through the stream two more times and trudge through muddy trails. To enter the cave, we had to swim across a deep pool, drenching our entire bodies before clambering up onto the solid limestone. A little wet? Yeah right!
San Ignacio was the first stop on our week-long trip to Belize, and the ATM tour was our first big adventure. The morning of our tour, we rose bright and early, loaded up our backpack with sunscreen, bug spray, water and my boyfriend’s camera, and headed down to the main house for breakfast.
The van picked us up and we all piled in with some folks from a place up the road. The ride to the cave was long and bumpy, but thankfully we had a local who knew how to navigate the many potholes and divots. I mean, if you think Chicago has bad potholes, go to Belize and you’ll be singing a different tune. The whole way there, we were forced to slow down at speed bumps and pedestrian crossings, two things considered hassles in the U.S. But in Belize, they use it as a chance to say hello to the people standing along the road. It’s not a typical wave or a shout “hi,” but rather a peace sign. Just two fingers and a smile, and that’s it.
When we got to the parking lot, we grabbed our water, strapped on our helmets and started walking. As I mentioned, when we reached the stream, our only option was to walk straight through the water. In the U.S., someone would have built us a nice bridge to cross. But that’s not how things work in Belize.
We reached the mouth of the cave and made our way across the deep pool of bluish gray water. When our whole group had assembled on the limestone rocks, we turned on our headlamps, and followed our guide through the darkness. Again, I was expecting some kind of assistance in the cave, some lights here and there, a ramp or two, some railings. But there was nothing of the sort. We relied only on the headlamps for light. A marked path? Forget it. We waded through water, climbed along limestone, squeezed through rocks, clung to slippery walls and swam through shallow pools, until we made it nearly a mile into the cave.
There, we were faced with yet another unexpected challenge. We needed to get to an upper passage, the burial site for hundreds of Mayan artifacts and a few skeletons. But to get there, we had to ascend a large limestone formation in the middle of the creek, and then pull ourselves up to a shelf-like portion of the rock face, without the help of a ladder or any other kind of man-made contraptions. And so we climbed.
Once everyone made it up to the passage, we had to take off our shoes so as not to cause damage to the artifacts as we walked through the hollowed chambers. Pottery and tools were all over, calcified right into the cave floor. We continued through the caverns, where we spotted three skulls and even more ancient artifacts. The tour culminated with the best-known of the skeletons, the “crystal maiden,” a young female whose bones have been calcified so they appear almost crystallized.
The return journey didn’t feel nearly as long, and we emerged from the cave a short time after descending from the upper passage. I was grateful to feel the warm sun on my skin, as being in a dark, damp cave for three hours didn’t help the fact I was soaked to the bone. Despite the chill, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I consider myself adventurous, but this took me out of my comfort zone. I had to rely on my physical ability, basic instincts and the leadership of the guide to make it through the cave. And the reward was well worth the effort. The cave had given me a gift, a memory that will stay with me forever.
The drive back to the lodge was filled with talk of the cave, the old artifacts and the stories of the ancient civilizations that occupied it for thousands of years. These people were now my friends, companions that shared the same experience and understood what it meant. When it was time for us to say goodbye, I simply held up two fingers and smiled.