Articles on Belize and San Pedro

Actun Tunichel Muknal

Posted by "Gogo" on Message Board, August 28, 2002

When i got to san ignacio on sunday, i asked the host with the most, roy "stallion" smith, at whose cabins my friend and i were staying

---smith family farm---if he could put me in touch with patrick warrior. i met patrick the previous summer of 2001, through a friend and later in mountain pine ridge when he brought a couple gals to big rock falls while i was there. we all hung out for a while & i had a really good feeling about him and his knowledge of the area. later i went to the web site of diane, who posts regularly on this board and read her account of her trip to the ACTUN TUNICHEL MUKNAL cave. when i realized the patrick in her account was the same guy i met last summer i knew immediately with whom i wanted to plan my trip.

it took a few days to get hold of patrick, but when we spoke on the phone he remembered me and came over to discuss what i wanted to do. based on diane's account i wanted to do everything and even took a rock climbing class in the spring to prepare for the rapelling part of the adventure. my friend was not up for the trip at all and no one else had been in touch with patrick about wanting to go, so it was just me to be guided by patrick with the assistance of ricky, chef and sherpa type guy.

actually getting going was something of a delayed process, moving at a belizean pace of about 2.5 hours later than our estimated start time. we did some shuttling people around and odd stops then headed for the hills.

the road in is two potholed deep red ruts with tenacious stubs of grass poking up in the center. off to the left the mountains jutted up dark thickly forested, and were surrounded by a mist that obsucured and revealed the peaks and foliage mysteriously.

did i mention it had been raining off and on all morning, but by the time we were getting near our drop off point the rain was falling steadily, in that tropical rainy season kind of way? because our ride was not a four wheel drive vehicle we got out and walked what i considered, as i slipped and slid looking for traction on any sturdy tuft of grass protrouding from the mire, to be a long, long way. i trudged along telling myself i may as well be prepared for the rain to continue during the whole trip and i had best learn to love it since i couldn't change it. patrick stayed in front, except when he ran back to the car for his forgotten knife and ricky's machete. ricky walked with or behind me, mostly i think because he wanted to be there when i inevitably hit the skids in the mud. there was no doubt it was going to happen, i was just trying to postpone it as long as possible. eventually we reached the place where people with 4 wheel drive trucks dropped tourists off. from this point we were hiking a winding, up and down, palm frond stomping, log climbing, rock skirting, river crossing, slippery hill descending trail through the forest. the river was often nearby and the rain fell constantly and patrick walked in front of me holding his curve bladed knife just so at his side and the world was quiet except for footsteps and ricky laughing at my slips. there was so much time to think. i had plenty of time to consider my blunders: applying deep woods off instead of sticking with my avon skin so soft; my footgear which would have been fine in dry weather was absolutely hazardous in the rainy muck; the huge number of oranges i had packed in my back pack, plus my mocked art supplies weighing me down. i considered my problem with overpacking on the whole and a bunch of other boring stuff all the while trying as hard as i could not to turn an ankle or some other awful thing.

eventually we came to the place where people stop under some palapas to cook or rest or eat. we sat for a short while and ate a papaya that i have to say, was the best papaya i have ever tasted or looked at. i'm not a big fan, but this one was such a deep shade of salmony red, it sort of glowed in the gray of the overcast day and seemed very juicy and refreshing after the long walk. i enjoyed it immensely.

the entrance to the cave is just a ways down the trail from there, so i went with my camera to check it out alone. the rocks, pools and stream coming from the mouth of the cave are incredibly beautiful, with a green luminous quality that was not captured in my photos. the light filters down through the canopy that arches over the stream, and it's another kind of green. whichever way i looked was an ancient gentleness and tranquility, a pure expression of nature that just seemed magical. i was aware that the water coming from the stream inside the cave was probably the cleanest water i will ever touch and i felt a sense of connection to the people who lived long before and stood in the same water, seeing the entrance to that cave for all their various reasons. i swam in the pool at the entrance a bit and climbed across the rocks, and felt good about making friends with area, i felt comfortable there.

patrick called to me and i went back up to put on my pack and follow him across the river where i had just been bathing, back up the river bank on the other side and farther farther farther into the jungle. fom this point on, it's pretty much patrick's trail, with all the obstacles mentioned above and then some, maintained by him and ricky. as i followed behind, he periodically used the aforementioned knife to hack away draping vines and overlying branches. for the most part the trail is clearly defined but there are some tricky parts where if i wasn't paying attention, i'd just have gone wandering off into the bush. just past the river is a slight incline that was my absolute nemesis. every time i had to pass this bit of trail it did its best to kick my butt. the first trip down was sliding on my rear and the bottom of the wee hill was no less slippery, so getting up was not easy with the backpack & traction free inapropriate footwear. the second time i fell farther along the trail, i managed to flail my hand near or attempt to grab at one of these horrid prickly trees that are truly 100% prickles and look like dr seuss drew them and always seem to be where things are slippery and i have the impulse to grab at something. after that fall, with my thumb and pinky finger throbbing because little bits of broken thorns were causing small sore liquidy bumps to form over the area, i admit i snivelled a bit to myself, out of patrick's hearing range and not for too long. it was a more challenging experience than i had planned on, but when i thought of it even then, i was enjoying it being difficult, in a way. after walking a while longer, patrick stopped and picked a couple nice thorns off a different tree and removed my slivers. i felt like he was androclese (sp?) and i was the lion. patrick also started assisting me a bit with some of the slippery descents and i held his arm as we crossed the river several more times because the rocks are shifty as well as slippery. he was cool about it and didn't act as though i was a drag. pace wise he wasn't too difficult to follow and if he and ricky couldn't see each other they made these nice little "are you okay?" "yah i'm just fine!" hoots back and forth to each other.

we finally crossed the river for the last time and scrambled up the bank. patrick and ricky stopped and patrick said, "ok, this is where we're going to camp, you can just sit your stuff down here." i looked down and "here" was on some wet leaves. i looked around: just trees and vines. patrick told me to go hang out by the river for a bit while he and ricky set up camp. i went down to the river and walked about a bit, took off my muddy clothes and tried to wash them as best i could. i provided snacks for several mosquitoes and those little fish that rush up and trim the dead skin cells off your body. i thought about how we're waiting to eat the fish, while the fish are waiting to eat us! i sat on the rocks in the river, slapped by the continuous, nonstop, incessant, redundant rain. i wondered again what i had gotten myself into. i sang songs outloud & knew no one would hear me or see me nekkid. i started to get cold for the first time in belize and it seemed like time to get some not soggy clothes on, if possible.

i slopped back up the riverbank and was astounded to see what patick and ricky had done while in the 45 minutes to an hour while i was away. i had heard patrick remark to ricky about building a palapa when we rested and ate the papaya, but i didn't know he meant that day! i sat on a bucket of cooking supplies in the rain rain rain watching them finish up what i called "my wendy house." (from peter pan: the lost boys build a house of leaves and such when they think she's been shot with an arrow) it was a tall lean-to structure made of fresh green palm leaves. there was room for my hammock and our cooking fire underneath, and dang if it didn't keep the rain out! they had also built a tall table and all our food was laid out on it. while i sat there watching them lug all this stuff back and forth, creating certain comforts of living out of nothing but the environment around us, i had this huge sense of well-being and thanked them and told them they were pretty damned manly and impressive. i had a slight sense of life in a nomadic tribe, and as i sat looking down with my chin in my hand contemplating the acceptance of weather, a strange thing happened. i felt, on the back of my neck quite distinctly and warmly, a stream of air like a breath silently blown at my skin. it was so not a breeze and i quickly turned to see who had snuck up behind me....and it was no one. patrick and ricky were both going about their business quite some distance away. i decided whatever it was was friendly and i considered it a mischievious but nice hello. after that i had the idea that since we all had been such good sports about the rain, it should just stop. a few minutes later, it did, and the only drops falling were remainders from the leaves.

i started slappin together peanut butter & jelly sandwiches that we ate as fast as i could make em. i changed into jeans and a long sleeved shirt & felt comfortably warm again. next patrick and ricky worked on starting a fire which for me by myself would have been impossible. they used pitch pine and these wee coconuts that stay dry inside for the most part. it took some concentrated effort but we had fire in the end. their hammocks were set up triangularly from mine with tarp things overhead. ricky cooked us up some veggies and rice and we sliced avocadoes on top and drank water and ginger wine. yum.

then patrick gave me the choice: leave after dinner directly to the cave (which meant walking in the dark thru the jungle all that way and back to camp in the dark as well) or sleep for a while and wake at midnight or so, hike in the dark, do the cave and come back at dawn. i chose the second option, so we stoked up the fire & retired to our hammocks. patrick had pointed out a beetle with glow in the dark spots on its back, meant to lure fireflies closer so it could eat them. a bit later the bug climbed up a nearby tree in the dark and looked to me like a faraway volkswagon on the freeway. we all just swung in our hammocks in silence, listening to the sounds around us. i dozed/woke/dozed and a few hours later at 12:30 am patrick called out, "are you ready to go?"

here is where my heart really started thumping. it honestly was not fear of the cave so much as i dreaded the walk thru the jungle in the dark. it felt like an awfully long way to me the first time, when i could see where i was going pretty well. regardless, i put on my soggy wet clothes from earlier in the afternoon (oh! the clammy smelly goodness!) and we sorted out batteries for our headlamps (mine had a helmet as well, good thing!) and packed up whatever else we were taking (cameras etc) and we set off into the dark night.

we slipped down the riverbank and into the water for our first crossing. we all wore headlamps, mine over a helmet so hands were free while walking. even though it was night i didn't really need help across the river rocks this time because i was not carrying my big back pack. the rocks were still slippery & wobbly but i had better balance for handling them. for this part into the cave i had just my day pack with a water camera and regular camera and whatever else unnecessary crap i brought along. we walked quietly thru the dark jungle night, the strange bug sounds having changed tunes over time, while still remaining a constant thrum in the background. occasionally stars peeped down on us thru the canopy but truthfully, my eyes were on the trail and i was trying not to think about anything much more than keeping up with patrick, not touching anymore sticker trees and not slipping in any more mud or falling in some other way. i felt positively streamlined without my big pack & scampered over slimy mushroom covered logs like they were nothing. i whacked my head a good one on a low tree branch (i'm pretty tall) and i was glad, not for the last time, that i was wearing the goofy looking helmet. before i knew we were even close, we were trying to stomp up that mud hill that always wanted me to fall on it and then we were at the mouth of the cave. i thought we were just making another river crossing but then my eyes adjusted to what was yawning wide just to the left. surprise! we had arrived! we stopped here for a few minutes to get ourselves organized. i plastic bagged my backpack, the guys stowed their knife & machete and we had a short quiet meditation before we went into the cave. i thought about that strange friendly breath-like puff of air on my neck and about swimming here alone in the afternoon and just said hello again to the place from my heart and wished the trip good luck and safety, all things irie, inside and out.

patrick went first across the pool and waited for me on the rock ledge. slipping into the water was not much colder than in the daytime but it was strange seeing the headlamp light glancing off the fishies as they zigged up for a nibble and illuminating the soft looking pale green rocks but not all the mysterious darkness beyond. it only takes a minute or so to cross inside then climbing up the ledge is a bit slippery, but i got over slimy rock squeamishness last summer. ricky came last, swimming with my back pack held up over his head (he insisted, i accepted.) after that, patrick wore my back pack for me and pulled it up high over his head at certain points when we waded in deep parts of stream. i appreciated all the help. it's a real dilemma: the girl scout "be prepared for anything" side of me is constantly battling the side that loves to walk and enjoy life feeling totally unencumbered by stuff.

there was quite a lot of wading thru the water on shifting rocks and some squeezing thru tightish spots but nothing truly difficult or scary. at various points, in large open "rooms" the crazy stalactite and stalagmite rock formations are just dazzling, complex and funky like something shot out of a giant baker's enormous pastry bag. the walls and hard drippy bits sparkle in the light tossed about by the head lamps as you try to look everywhere. the cave formations have a lot in common with coral so if you are used to snorkeling or diving it's easy to apply the same principles: keep your hands off! this stuff has been growing for a million years and YOU can mess it up in a minute!

diane's website ( can give actual information about geological classifications and mayan artifacts and history, i recommend it for all the educational points i will not be including in this report! my whole experience that night was surreal and i feel like i took it in on a very primitive, sensory level. the dead of night trek thru the jungle and now into the cave on very little sleep made everything feel dreamy and strange. even now, like a dream, i cannot clearly remember which things happened first once we were in the cave, so i will just give mishmash impressions.

the air always felt fresh to me, except in one instance which i'll describe later. the water was totally friendly and gave me a sense of direction. follow the water out, scout! wherever i went i could hear it in the background and its music felt safe. creeping among the mayan artifacts was an amazing experience. the cave has incredible preservative qualities and depending on where the item was placed, it will have changed in a variety of ways over the years, or in some cases, almost not at all! some pieces of pottery were calcified into the ground and almost looked like they were covered with fluffy volcanic ash. other pots showed black sooty marks of having been placed on fires. some pots were cleverly narrowed on one side so three pots with these narrow parts could share one cooking fire. in one niche we examined some red clay dishes that were still shiny beeswax glazed as if they had just come from the pottery barn, even though they were a thousand years old or more. the human remains were especially intriguing. i got a few excellent photos of the skull with the filed jagged teeth and of various other bones. based on my rather disappointing shots of barton creek cave last summer i tried not to go hog wild with the photo taking in actun tunich muknal. i mostly tried to take it in mentally so i'd remember. the photos i took, however, came out very well i think.

after looking at the skulls and bones, and maybe near that place where the fancy fellas used to slice their penises for bloodletting, we sat on a slope of rock in the dark and patrick passed each of us a personal size mango. the darkness was so complete my eyes got tired of straining to see nothing. i closed them and ate my mango and it was probably the best tasting food i can remember in a long, long time. we were quiet except for wee slurpy sounds on occasion. i felt so comfortable in that dark i could have slept quite easily right there, with the water rushing in the distance and everything else so quiet and black. this tranquility was probably quite an opposite experience than that of the mayans who had been left behind so many years ago. i hope the cosh they got on the head knocked them out before they died, because waiting there in the dark, injured and scared seems like a miserable way to go.

we passed by some stalagmites that were of different heights and widths, strange ripply whitish formations with flat tops. tapping them produced from each a unique, slightly gonging tone. all of us tapping at once was quite musical and sweet. it was kind of like one of those garifuna drums, the lighter it was tapped, the more it seemed to resonate. the sound was unlike anything i have ever heard or will hear again (unless i go back.) the ladder to the skeleton of the girl is no longer rickety and wooden, but aluminum and modern, which i must say i appreciated. again we turned out our flashlights and patrick was spinning his yarn about how she got to be where she was and i was standing in the darkest dark in all of darkness, my eyes kind of closing, my mind kind of drifting when suddenly i nearly pitched forward onto my face. i barely regained my balance in time by grabbing hold of the rocks sort of sloping up behind my head. i held onto the bit i grabbed until patrick finished his story and we turned on the lights to see the skeleton. i was interested in checking out where i would have fallen and it seemed my helmet would have smashed right into her face, had i indeed keeled over. it's a weird and disorienting feeling standing in the dark on legs wobbly from exertion, i prefer to sit down and chill out. a while later we went into a "room" where the remains of a small baby lay on the ground. this room was the only place that felt uncomfortable to me, very hot and stuffy and as i became more uncomfortable, i noticed the water sounded very far away. i had told myself in advance that if anything freaked me out i was just going to sit down and put my head on my knees and breathe. so this is what i did for a minute or so then we skeedaddled on out of there. i think by then we were on our way back out of the cave.

at some point it occurred to me to ask patrick if he could get out of the cave without lights, should the occasion arise. he said he'd done it in the past and could do it again. i'm glad it really wasn't an issue! when i talked about this trip with a guy i know in placencia he said NO! no way would he go in some crazy cave like that. as soon as he walked in, he said he'd be badgered by terrible thoughts like "what if this guy (the guide) DIES while we're in there?" i was amazed when he said it because honestly, the idea had never occurred to me and i usually worry about everything!

this trip had a lot of elements to it that in certain ways i did not consider before or even while i was experiencing it. before going i never could have imagined the degree of trust i would impart on patrick and ricky; it didn't really hit me until a day or two after i got back to san ignacio. i am completely used to being on my own and relying on only myself. this was a situation i could not have managed alone and i had to follow instructions and do as i was told when i was told. i felt no resistance to this. i had a complete willingness to follow patrick wherever he led, my only concern, really, was to keep up and not disappoint him. i had a slight understanding of how it feels maybe to be on some sort of survivalist team, military or otherwise, at least how i imagine such a team would feel. patrick wasn't drill sergent-y at all, he was nice and friendly and completely professional. on the two occasions when something had fallen out of my dumb pockets while walking, we later passed said items of now litter (accidental! i swear!) patrick just pointed silently at the items with his toe and i scurried to pick them back up. you really don't wanna litter patrick's trail, mkay? incidentally, i never felt even an inkling of creepiness or worry as a woman alone in the jungle with two men. i did feel safe and cared-for and challenged and excited and tired and dreamy and amazed and exhilarated.

on the way out we passed the hole overhead where mayans lowered things down into the cave. where earlier stars had pricked through the leaves and the darkness to reach us, a pale green morning light filled the opening. mayans had grown strangling fig vine ladders down into the cave from this break in the ceiling for easier access. they thought of everything.

when we got to the opening of the cave, looking out was like waking up on the first morning of the world. to come from such complete encompassing darkness to the gentle dawn in the jungle was incredibly beautiful. the pools are so calm, the colors so delicate, the light and shadows so tranquil, the trees and drooping vines so idyllic. it's easy to imagine yourself the first person to ever step along those rocks and gaze downstream standing in that clean, clear water, even with all the evidence you have just seen of the many people who came before so long ago.

to go from the night time jungle through the cave and walk back to camp in the early morning jungle with the birds calling and howler monkeys woofing a comfortably safe distance away (monkeys gimme the creeps) just added to the dreaminess of the trip.

when we got back to our camp i swam a bit and scrubbed out my muddy shorts before sacking out in my hammock for a few minutes. two seconds after lying down i was dead asleep and next thing i knew ricky was waking me up for breakfast. it seemed like it should have been my mom telling me to get ready for school. we ate eggs w/veggies and fresh tortillas and tea and went back to sleep. when we got up i told patrick i was going to nix the rappelling part of the trip, i just didn't feel up to it. probably annoying for him since he lugged all the ropes and harnasses along, but sorry, i'm a wuss. we didn't bother having lunch before we packed up camp and headed out. we stopped by some unexcavated ruins and saw some cool mayan graffiti. we stopped at the cave where i should have rappelled down past the shelf to see the giant pots mysteriously up high. this cave is at the top of a very steep and of course muddy hill. i was not super excited to enter it, ricky didn't go in at all, just waited for us outside. i was whiny about the whole thing, there were some muddy tight squeezes under rocks i didn't appreciate and the only, and i do mean ONLY reason i pushed under was because patrick had gone first and was on the other side calling me. anyone else and i would've said, you go on ahead, i'll wait with ricky. however, i had my "do not disappoint patrick" standard to uphold, and followed him, grumbling. once we were inside the dang cavern, it was pretty cool. i liked the negative space hand prints on the walls, that's something you can see in aborigine caves in australia. i dig on the interconnectedness of ancient civilizations, it's groovy. this cave is where the mayans did their tripping and envisioning. i have an affinity for the number three and also triangles so i liked the three triangles graffiti and the palm tree. i didn't enjoy this cave as well as muknal, there really is no comparison. but as we sat there with the lights out again, i liked it more and more. the giant blind spider we saw on the way in didn't even stress me. i don't think patrick imagined when he said "just let me know when you're ready for the lights back on," that i would take so long to be ready. i didn't get any scary vibes from the place, again, i was surprised at how comfortable i felt. patrick told me various people have had strong uncomfortable reactions in there. maybe i am just insensitive.

we came back out and went back down the hill, whereupon i slipped and fell for the third and final time, cursing the mud with vigor. ricky found this hilarious, so for entertainment purposes, i guess it was ok. once i fell the third time i knew my falling was over. the trail out was MUCH drier than coming in and we made excellent walking time in comparison. i felt like one of those nag horses you can rent that never moves faster than a walk till he is turned back toward the stable, then he gallops! man, i could smell my oat bag. i was thinking most fondly of a shower, anticipating it to be the best shower of vacation. (it was!) patrick mentioned he has stayed six days in the jungle, wet the whole time. i don't think i could do it, my skin would rot off my bones.

when we got to the drop-off point for the lucky dawgs with 4x4 vehicles, patrick asked if i wanted to stop for a rest, but i said i just wanted to keep hauling booty out of there. by the time i reached the truck down the much drier and more pleasant to travel road, i was praising jah i was smart, smart, smart enough not to do that rappelling. i honestly believe if i had expended my energy doing that, i would not have had the gumption to hike back that day. i'd have been too depleted and they'd have had to drag me or air lift me out--serious.

we drove back to town stopping for frosty bottles of stout on the way. i took an incredibly nice warm shower and scrubbed off the layers of mud & hideous bug spray and went to dead rock sleep after dinner at eva's.

remember if you take this trip, you are staying at MIGHTY CAMP. act accordingly! peace all!

Posted by Gogo, 09-25-2002 09:38 AM
cheers everyone!

thanks for all your nice responses. i know it took forever for me to finish & post----that's part of the curse of longwindedness.

this trip was the highlight of four vacations in belize and i truly think patrick and ricky enhanced it to the highest possible degree of enjoyment. i'm a prickly sort of person & good vibes with my traveling companions are key for me. this experience could have gone wrong in so many ways and it was perfect, start to finish, rain included.

as far as there being anything more to the story, my friend & i did hire patrick to take us to mountain pine ridge saturday after we came out of the jungle. we did a sort of waterfall tour day trip for the afternoon that i could write up if anyone cares about it. we also hung out around roy's place and at the culture club (i think it's called----the upstairs place with open walls and a balcony around 2 sides just overlooking the wee park where the reggae band plays on weekends.) nice guys to spend time with just chillin and enjoying san ignacio.

i'm looking forward to seeing everyone again in december!

peace & love

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