It’s hard for me to pass a hole in the ground without strapping a light to my noggin and diving in.
But the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, known as the ATM Cave, would surpass all my other underground adventures. I’ve been in bigger, more scenic caves before. But I’ve never been in one that contained an underground river and the most incredibly graphic, gruesome vestiges of the Mayan culture. Nor one that made just getting there such an adventure.
The day started at the Maya Walk Tours headquarters in San Ignacio. The place was jammed with people milling around, getting their gear, meeting their guides, etc. It was a scene of total chaos. Finally, they tossed us all in an Isuzu Trooper and some weird Toyota I’d never seen in the states before (though the model is ubiquitous in Belize). We bounced along for close to an hour, first on decent paved roads and then into jungle roads that got more rutted, slimy and muddy as we drove. Meanwhile, there was a steady drizzle falling.
Our driver/guide, another guy named Emile, was telling scatological stories about people freaking out/needing to pee/getting the runs in the cave. One guy, who he claimed was a famous American football player, even filled his shorts up!
Anyway, we finally arrived at a clearing alongside a river. There were a few primitive stalls there made from thatched palms and stick (more on that later). Basically, we left all our gear but lunches, helmets and headlamps in the truck: Cameras would get soaked (Unfortunately, I have to rely on photos taken by others to tell my story) unless carried in the guide’s plastic bag, and my Fuji S5200 was just too big. So it stayed behind.
We followed a slippery path down to the river, where we made the first of three traverses. It was flowing really fast, and was more than waist-deep but not very cold (equipment note: I highly recommend Vasque Gore-Tex boots. Seriously, I hopped in the stream and took 10 steps before I felt my feet get wet AT ALL!). We hiked for about 30 minutes before reaching another hut, where we left our lunches.
In We Go
Then it was time to swim into the cave. It was like falling out of your boat at Pirates of the Caribbean and going back through it backwards! We dogpaddled to keep our lamps from getting wet. The water was calm at first, but it started rushing really hard. Most of the time, we were up to our thighs. Other times, we were on solid ground and still other times we had to dogpaddle. Progress was slow since we had to move around obstacles and call them out to the people behind us.
I saw a little bat, and he woke up, looked at me and yawned. He looked like a little dog with wings! I want one as a pet! There were also lots of stalagmites and stalactites.
We finally got to a point where the rest of the route was dry. Mind you, we were 500 feet below ground at this point. We took of our shoes because of all the artifacts.
Where we started happened in about 600 BC. There were lots of pottery and food remains that the Mayans sacrificed. At some point, the society started going into decline.
Decline of the Mayan Civilization Part I
The offerings to the gods got more extreme. First, we started noticing calcified human bones on the cave floor. Femurs. Arms. Skulls. As we went further back, it was clear the Mayans were getting worse off, whether because of war, rebellion or climate change. The sacrifices really became disturbing:
Infants. We saw bones from babies not yet old enough to walk. The society was getting desperate, and would do anything to appease its gods.
Emil also told us that the rituals included hallucinogens. Of course, the cave represented the Mayan underworld, and their priests said the first people came out of the caves. Emil also said that the shadows the Mayans’ torches cast on the cave walls looked like their gods and demons moving around them; he played his extra-powerful flashlight over the rock formations to show how someone high on hallucinogens could think that.
Finally, we went up a metal ladder loosely strapped to a wall, entering a chamber about 25 feet above the surrounding area. Emil had us sit down and shut our lights off. Of course, you could see absolutely nothing at all.
He told us about how, as the society began its final decline, the shaman sacrificed a member of the elite. She’d been bred and raised to be a sacrifice. At 5’3, she towered above most Mayan people. They bound her skull to achieve a flattened forehead the society found attractive.
Then they brought her here, leaned her against a rock, ripped her back open, removed part of her spine and ribs, and yanked her heart out. For good measure, they gave her a good crack in the head, enough to fracture the skull. They also severed her hands.
He turned on his light again, and there she was, not five feet from us. You could see where her spine was missing. For once, the group’s chatter died down. After a few minutes of stunned gawking, we turned around to head toward the mouth of the cave.
After that, I barely even remember the rest of the day. I’ve been in quite a few caves, but the ATM is the standard for all the rest.