Friday, June 29, 2007

Belize Inland - Actun Tunichil Muknal

The next day (Monday) we were up bright and early for our 8:30 departure with Mayawalk Tours to see Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). We were told to bring sturdy shoes for walking, a pair of socks, a change of clothes, and a bottle of water. Mayawalk provided the rest: lunch, and helmets and headlights. It took about an hour to get to the locale, half on paved roads and half on dirt roads. There were no signs to guide the way, at all, anywhere (ie you couldn't find it on your own at all)

Once we got to the end of the road, we geared up and had a 45 minute hike thru the forest (crossing 2 streams) to a base camp outside the cave. There we had our lunch and then donned helmets and headlights.

Our guide, Emil, gave us a stern lecture about listening to him and doing exactly as he said. He threatened to confiscate the headlight of anyone who didn't (and presumably leave them there in the dark...??). Our group was pretty well-behaved so we never tested that threat. Emil also gave us his version of the Mayan culture, what the caves were used for, and the history of their use as determined by researchers. Then we went inside.

The entry of the cave is a pool of water that you have to swim into. We swam about 10 yards inside the cave and then scrambled up onto a ledge. From there we walked/ scrambled/ waded/ swam for about an hour in the dark (with head lamps). Sometimes we were at the front of the line of people (about 10 of us) and sometimes we ended up at the back. Emil instructed everyone to pass his instructions (where to step, etc) back down the line, but this was done haphazardly. About half the time it was garbled. If Emil said "watch the left, step on the right", at the tail end, we'd get something like "go left" or "(mumble) left".

At the end of the trek, we were instructed to take our shoes off and put on the socks. Then we walked in several levels of caves in our socks for about an hour, with Emil using a high powered spotlight to point out artifacts and the most spectacular cave features . There were shards all over and a number of nearly-whole pots as well as 4 skeletons.

Emil was careful to make us walk on a path that kept us clear of anything we could harm. He went slowly and was clear with his instruction, and allowed plenty of time for people to take pictures (so people weren't lagging behind to get that last shot). He pointed out several crushed artifacts saying "some tourist stepped on that one". The final chamber of the cave, we had to climb up an aluminum extension ladder, about 10' to a higher level cave, had the most intact of the skeletons.

To sum up the purpose of the cave... it was considered a portal to the gods of the underworld. Toward the end of the period when the Maya civilization was at its height, around 900 AD, there was a 30 year drought, and the caves were used for sacrifices to ask the gods to send rain and help the corn grow etc. Only priests and rulers, generally, were allowed in holy places like the caves. See my photo album for our hike and pictures of the artifacts in the ATM cave.

The hike back went much more quickly. This is where we ended up at the tail end of the line and at times felt "left" by the guide. Because we weren't getting the guidance on the route through the rocks that was most efficient, we got further and further behind the group. And we felt obligated to wait for the one guy who was behind us as well. But eventually we made it out to sweet daylight (and a 45 minute hike back thru the woods to get to the van).

Another nap in the A/C completed a very nice day. There was a TV in the room, but every time we found a news channel, all they were covering was Paris Hilton's exit from jail, and we just weren't interested... Most channels were a little snowy, except the Cartoon Channel, which came in crystal clear. This must have been from a Satellite TV. The CNN channel seemed to be CNN Mideast. We got more about the weather in Hong Kong than about the US or Central America.

Photo album link:

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