This was a day I was really looking forward to. I heard that if I did nothing else in Belize I couldn’t miss Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). But, the day started with my worse breakfast in Belize. I figured ‘how could I go wrong if I ordered something at a French Bakery’. Well, ordering a sausage croissant was exactly how I could have gone wrong. Apparently the French that live in Belize think that a regular hotdog wrapped in a croissant could be considered a ‘sausage’ croissant. If I remember correctly, I actually spat it out.
Pacz Tours picked me up around 8am and we were off. This tour included eight of us along with our driver and a guide. Lucky for us our guide happened to be one of the very first explorers of ATM so his wealth of information was amazing. I can’t recall if I mentioned the road to Tikal being a bit rough, but the road to ATM was worse (and in a later post I’ll tell you about an even worse road).
Once we got to our drop off site, many of us were surprised to learn that we had to carry our own lunch and that we should have either waterproof bags or bags that we didn’t care if they accidentally got wet. And by accident, I mean if you couldn’t hold them up high enough over your head during the water crossings you’d have a soggy lunch. I guess the guide felt sorry for me, so he carried my lunch in his bag.
The hike to ATM was a fun adventure. We literally hiked through the rainforest and crossed a river three times. Since the cave had been closed for 3-4 days due to very high waters, this was the first group to be allowed to enter. Because of that, the water levels were still very high (each river crossing was waist to chest high for me…not short jokes!). Another highlight of the hike were the leaf-cutter ants. I hadn’t seen them before and I quickly became amazed by their ability to carry leaves probably 100 times larger than themselves…nature is wonderful!
We ate a quick snack and left most of our stuff in the makeshift picnic area before heading to the cave entrance. The entrance required a short swim to get inside and because of the high water level, we had to swim a short distance one other time during the hike up the river that flowed inside the cave. After a ¼ to ½ mile swim/hike we arrived at an area that we used a rope to climb up. At the top the guides request that shoes be removed and that the tour through the artifacts be done in stocking feet (not bare feet because of the natural oils on the human body).
Let’s just say the Mayan sacrificial and ritual artifacts left behind were truly amazing (see the pictures below). Our guide explained that the Maya were quite afraid of caves since they considered them the ‘portals to the underworld’. They only ventured into caves to perform sacrificial rituals to the gods. One thing that surprised me is that they would only sacrifice their best, which meant that many healthy children were sacrificed. We saw several male scales, one full toddler skeleton (bones were in a heap), and one full teen girl skeleton named the Crystal Maiden (her bones were full intact) due to the calcification of her bones which made them sparkle. The pottery left behind was in amazing condition considering the age. One of the pieces of pottery even had a very small etched monkey on it. It is the only piece of pottery still in ATM that has any type of carving on it. Everything we saw was in the main chamber. There are apparently other chambers, one of which contains the bones on an infant (very sad), but they have closed the other chambers off to protect the artifacts and respect the remains of the smaller children.
The Belize Tourism Board has only granted licenses to a small group of agents in an effort to balance its protection and the tourist revenue. I found that the guides self governed themselves very well and almost treated the cave as a personal belonging. Our guide told us there is a chance that ATM might become a World Heritage Site. He thinks if this happens there is a great chance that Unesco would close it to public tours. I’m torn…I understand why in the future they may want to close ATM to public tours, but it would also disappoint me if others were not given the opportunity to experience what I did.
After a long day and exhausting day we headed back to San Ignacio. I was very disappointed to find that my knee was causing me a lot of pain. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, traversing rocks in a river that you can’t see might cause anyone to feel some achiness and since I had just had knee surgery in June, pain should have been expected. I didn’t have anything planned the next day, so I was hopeful that a break would not only make my knee feel better, but it would allow my shoes to dry out before I needed them again.
I got back to Midas Resort around 530pm. I had previously made plans to walk to down with Roy and Doris from Wyoming for dinner, but I wasn’t sure if I had missed them or not. I got online and chatted with Mom for a while and eventually Roy and Doris showed up. We walked to town and had dinner at Flayas. Roy ordered Gibnet for dinner and Doris ordered Deer. I figured I might as well try a bite of each. The Gibnet was very gamey and kind of tough; the Deer was amazing.
After dinner we went to Han Nan for a drink. We were quite entertained by the kitchen staff when they nearly burned down the place. Luckily they didn’t.
In the end, the day I was so looking forward to did not disappoint me. It turned out to be ‘another day in paradise’ with many more to come.
For remembrance purposes here’s a bit about the people I met…
Ronadan (sp?) – Our tour guide from Pacz Tours.
Jane and Chris – From Austrailia. They were on a 4 ½ month holiday. They had already been on a 3-Day Sailing trip I was considering on taking later on my vacation and according to Chris it was likely to be the highlight of their entire holiday. When I got back to my hotel I immediately emailed the tour operator to book my sailing trip (see a later blog post).
Laura and Ashley – From Vancouver, BC. They met Jane and Chris on the 3-Day sailing trip and agreed that it was amazing.
Tara and Jon – They were from the US and they were celebrating the doctorate that she just received. She seemed so young to me…good for her.
Alisa – From San Francisco, CA. She was the same gal who was on my trip to Tikal, so it was nice to at least know one person before the trip started.