Actun Tunichil Muknal

Our main goal in San Ignacio was to take the Cave of the Crystal Maiden (Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM cave) tour. This is a cave that you swim into and then alternately swim and wade for two miles underground. Then, you climb up on a ledge, and wander around through a ton of Mayan pottery, tools, and human remains. Although over 1000 years old (dating from 300-900AD), these artifacts are extremely well-preserved due to calcification from being underground.

Or something. I wasn’t totally clear on the preservation part.

We’d read that the stuff is just strewn right out there on the cave floor and you can mosey around in it all like you’re browsing at a flea market. You’d think this would lead to destruction, and indeed, in 2012, a French tourist dropped his camera right through one of the skulls. People talk about this guy a lot — guides, rangers, other tourists — and everyone always refers to him as a French tourist, so France, you apparently have some reputation salvaging to do in Belize. Anyway, the Belize government’s response to this incident was not to say, hey, maybe let’s not allow big groups of tourists to tromp around in the mud and pitch black amongst thousand-year old ruins anymore. Instead, they just said no one could bring cameras in anymore. Because of this very stringent regulation, I have no pictures of this day, but I will steal some from the Googles.

Our tour guide, Carlos, met us early in the morning. He looked like the sort of person you’d expect to lead you on adventure touring, down to the baggy quick-drying cargo pants and belt-loop machete. There was a very thin, soft-spoken British guy going along with us, and otherwise it was just me and E. Carlos eyed the three of us approvingly and asked if we were strong swimmers. It had been pouring through the night, so water levels were possibly going to be high-ish, but he said we didn’t look like we’d require life jackets.

On the long drive out to the cave, Carlos proved to be extremely entertaining. We heard all about his friends that he stays with for half of every year in Sonoma, and one in particular who’d somehow talked Carlos into driving a newly purchased car across half the country despite his not having a license. I can’t explain now why this was funny, but trust me, it was. He also talked a lot about growing up in Belize and his Catholic upbringing.

“Are you still Catholic?” asked the British guy.

“Well, the thing is,” said Carlos. “You kind of just want to say yes to that kind of question, because you don’t want to argue.” Then he made a lot of jokes about being Mormon (because of all the wives).

I wish I could remember some of the stuff he said about the Cayo district and so on, because it was all interesting, but I only remember the Mormon joke and the car story, so sorry.

He also said that he doesn’t really give tours at the ATM cave anymore, but it was the off-season and our hotel manager had specifically asked. He said it was fine this time, since we all looked more or less with it, but that he refuses to give this tour to people who don’t know what they’re getting into or aren’t healthy enough for it, but that other guides just bring in anyone who pays and it’s all a great big old mess. We mentioned we’d heard they might be closing down the cave to tourism altogether soon, and Carlos implied that he wouldn’t be all that sorry to see that happen.

After driving awhile, we pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store, where we added another couple to our party, Bob and Wendy (Canadian). They were very nice, probably in their early 50s, and had booked this tour in San Pedro and flown all the way out for it that morning and would fly back in the evening. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, it came out that Bob had just ruptured his eardrum coming up too fast from a scuba dive, that he also had a really bunged up knee, and that he had told Wendy nothing at all about what this tour would be like. (“We have to swim?” she asked me, incredulously, after someone mentioned something about that.)

Remember that whole thing about Carlos not liking to take people on the tour who weren’t prepared for it? Yeah. Plus while we were stopped, some other guide ripped off most of the sealing strip from around the back door of Carlos’s SUV while trying to close it, with the result that it wouldn’t close. We were there for a long time trying to get it to latch, and by the time we were on the road again, Carlos was in a Mood.

His mood did not improve when we arrived and another tour guide who works with him showed up with a French family who had along something like 47 tiny little children. Carlos also does not give this tour to children.

“Life jackets for everybody!” he hollered. “No cameras! Bring that little kid a shirt, he’s going to freeze. I said no cameras, no nothing, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! ”

Very quickly we were marching in a long line through the jungle in life vests and helmets with headlamps on them. Just a few steps in, we came upon a roaring creek with a rope over it that we then had to wade across. With the recent rains, it was up to my chest. I knew I was going to get wet, but I hadn’t really expected to get so very wet so very soon. There were two more such creeks to ford before we got to the cave. Wendy was beginning to give Bob some serious stink eye.

Now that we were underway, Carlos recovered his equanimity enough to deliver a long lecture about children today and how their devices were rotting their minds and ruining the world. He also pointed out a lot of different kinds of plants and things, and cut some liquorice-tasting leaves for us to chew on.

By the time we reached the clearing outside the cave, he was fully back to himself. There were outhouses at the clearing, and Carlos observed that he didn’t really understand why they were necessary.

“I’ll never forget the first time I was at a party at my friends’ in Sonoma,” he said. “Everyone kept going into the house over and over again. I finally asked why? They said, to go to the bathroom! I said, bathroom? I’ve been going in the yard!”

“And they had you back again next year?” I said.

Carlos gave me a fist bump, which was his way of acknowledging a good burn.

“You know,” he said, ruminatively. “Many years ago when I was just a little boy, my grandmother said to me, ‘Carlos, you watch – very soon, they are coming. They will come on planes. They will come on buses. The modern woman! They will come in droves. Some will even make more money than you.’

“I said, ‘Grandma, no, you’re crazy!’

“‘Carlos!’ she said to me. ‘Don’t ever give them a machete!'”

With that, it was time to swim into the cave. Here’s how the entrance looks:

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The water was freezing. The first hour or so, we alternately waded and swam. The first long stretch was pretty close-quartered, but then it opened out more. Every time we had to plunge in fully again, Carlos would holler out “Refreshing!” And Wendy would make a joke about how much she would be killing Bob later on.

Carlos told us about the Mayans and how they came back into these caves to do rituals and sacrifices. If you’re interested in why the Mayans used caves for this and what they did, this National Geographic article on the cave is informative.

There were also bats, fish, spiders, stalactites, and stalagmites, and huge yawning chambers that opened up above us.

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After about an hour, we got to a big rock where you had to hoist yourself up onto a ledge.

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Once on the ledge, we removed our shoes and put on our socks (to protect the cave floor from erosion), and then we were to walk up this big slope.

At this point, Wendy peaced out. She apparently was deathly afraid of heights and she refused to go any further, which caused some problems. Carlos told her she could wait there and we’d be back in an hour. But she didn’t want to wait by herself. So, we were at a bit of an impasse. Finally, a ranger happened by and Carlos had a quick conversation with him, and he agreed to wait with Wendy on the ledge. (Later, Carlos would reveal that he had to pay this person to stay with Wendy, about which he was, as you can imagine, less than thrilled.)

The rest of us slithered up the muddy cave floor in our socks. The cave opened out and we wound around some giant boulders, and there were the artifacts strewn across the floor — tons of pots and a few skulls, separated only by some strips of masking tape from the many groups of tourists who slipped and slid and leaned over the artifacts in the dark.

Carlos told us about the different kinds of pots, their uses, what the dyes were from, and what kill holes were. He said there were a lot more remains in adjacent chambers, but those were closed off to tourists.

“Lots of baby skeletons in there,” he mentioned.

Per Atlas Obscura:

The skeletons range in age from one year old to adult. Four of those sacrificed are infants between the ages of one and three, some of them stuffed into crevices and small adjoining caves. There is one child of seven, a teenager of fifteen who appears to have been bound before being killed, a twenty-year-old, and the rest are adults between the ages of thirty and forty-five. Many of the younger skeletons show signs of cranial deformation or “skull shaping,” giving their heads a slightly elongated alien look.

Almost all were killed by blunt trauma to the head, with some having had their entire skulls crushed. While the precise dating of the skeletons is difficult (due to their being essentially cemented to the cave floor by calcite) most of the pottery found at the site dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is likely when the bodies found here were sacrificed.

Historical!

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I can’t emphasize enough how bizarre it was to see huge throngs of tourists of all ages stumbling around on slick, uneven cave floors in the pitch black amongst these ancient pots and skulls that were one strong sneeze away from collapsing into piles of dust.

Next, we entered a massive cathedral chamber. This entire chamber fills up with water at least once a year, and so all the pots and things have been washed in a crescent along one side of it, from the way the water recedes out of the chamber.

These aren’t very clear photos but they show the scale:

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On the far side of the cavern, we ascended a ladder and a few more boulder-strewn slopes, and then waited for a while for several other tour groups to exit the area. These included an elderly lady who was shaking all over while being led by the hands by a couple of guides and cursing her tiny, withered husband for misleading her about today’s adventure tour.

The guides hollered to each other as they passed.

“What time is it?” one asked Carlos.

“Eleven thirty,” he replied.

“Foooock yah, still arly!” he bellowed in front of a pack of children and their parents, who fortunately couldn’t decipher his patois.

When they’d all exited, we crouched down into the chamber of the “crystal maiden,” who has been having a very rough millennium indeed:

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She/he might be a boy or a girl, jury’s still out, but everyone agrees she/he was a teenager and was likely clubbed in the head and pushed from a very high place, crushing several vertebrae and possibly busting her/his knees backwards, as well. Historical!

Once we’d had our fill of gawking at the ritually slaughtered kid, it was back to the beginning.

Back at the parking area, we all dried off and changed, and then ate lunch. And then Carlos drove us all back from whence we’d come, and I imagine was not sorry to do so. Before he went, I managed to accidentally drop my wet underwear down nearly upon him from the balcony outside our hotel room, because that’s how us modern women like to say ‘thanks for the swell tour!.’

That evening, E and I walked down to the cute little town of San Ignacio. Everyone was out and about promenading, and there was even a movie and presentation in the town square that lots of families were gathering to watch, but it turned out to be some sort of informational lecture on water drainage best practices, so instead, we tucked in at a bar on the main drag and had more beers than the server thought was proper.

Overall, it was a very interesting day.

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