Channeling Our Inner Cavewoman: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
My spelunking career aspirations were squashed early on, after an unexpected and very harrowing moment for my 11-year-old self. I was midway through the fox hole of a cave in Rockwood Conservation Area, ignoring a rapid heartbeat and clammy hands in pursuit of raw adventure. After emerging from the fox hole we were promised the awe of a chamber that would allow us to all sit semi-upright and experience the void that is the 1000% darkness of a cave.
We were slick with muck, jittery from anxiousness, knees and elbows soggy from contorting through the narrow passages. The fox hole required us to crawl on our bellies through an opening that would surely make me hyperventilate today.
My age 11 whippet-thin body was not naive to my summer camp BFF’s discomfort that day. She was a husky girl, and clearly, husky foxes did not exist in these parts. Husky foxes did not use fox holes of this size. Crawling behind me with an increasingly heavy wheeze, Cheryl came to a dead stop in the middle of the fox hole. She was stuck. Ahead of her, shivery in the silent, wet depths, I was now stuck as well. The only way out was where Cheryl lie prone, psychologically paralyzed. I imagined a hundred long and dark deaths in the cave with Greg, our semi-fearless leader, and Cheryl, stuck in the fox hole.
It was immensely terrifying and in no way enlightening. It was simply a terrible thing that I still can’t fathom when I imagine myself in Cheryl’s skin. It seemed like days that she was immobile, heaving with tears, wailing with worry. I’m not sure what I did besides breathe equally as heavy and contemplate my own sorry fate.
Of course, as you may have surmised from this post, we got the hell out of that cave with the lubricant of confidence and Greg talking Cheryl off the ledge, so to speak.
In my hurry to be upright and feel sunlight on my shoulders again, and get out of the cave that I almost perished in, I split my head open on the top of the cave in my scramble out. The dull thud of skull on rock vibrated in each of my 206 bones. Everything felt thick and in soupy slow motion. Greg kept asking me who the prime minister was (which isn’t really a fair question to ask a kid. In fact, it’s not even the best question to ask me nowadays either).
The camp counsellors plied me with charred marshmallows by the fire, and pestered with quiz-like questions all night, fully aware that I may have conked myself into a concussion. I ate the marshmallows and rolled my eyes at all the political talk and was apparently fine. Fine enough to still be excited by the allure of caves and to poke around bigger ones (with standing room only) in Tennessee and Kentucky when I was a teenager.
As Kim and I read intensively about Belize pre-departure, clearly, caves were a dynamic draw for Central American travellers. We had already booked a recreationally lazy tube ride through the Caves Branch system (stalactites taken in at the comfortable speed of a gentle river’s slow flow). We asked other travelers about the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave with more trepidation. Kim was keen on the challenge after our tube time while I was experiencing minor Cheryl-stuck-in-the-fox-hole flashbacks.
This WikiTravel ATM cave description made me sweat and pace a little: “The cave can be exited through a tight squeeze ending in a giant sink hole collapse in the jungle.” The main cave system at ATM is three miles long. Tight squeeze. Three miles seemed like a dreadfully long time to be in the dark. Again, tight squeeze.
Lonely Planet touted ATM as “undoubtedly one of the most incredible and adventurous tours you can take in Belize.” I thought our kamikaze boat ride to the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef to see the red-footed boobies was, but…Kim and I have a relationship that thrives on balance. She was a willing and enthusiastic participant in a back-breaking wave-smacking two hour trip to see birds with red feet. Surely I could suck up some old and dusty latent fears and poke around this cave at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
The part that made me scull back Belikin beer more quickly than usual? “Follow your guide into the cave starting with a frosty plunge into a 20-foot deep pool.”
We knew we’d have wet feet all day (with three river crossings en route to the cave opening), but to be completely wet up to my bangs—and frosty—for maybe three miles inside the cave? Insert groan and goosebumps here.
The 45-minute hike in was painless. The jungle was flat and moist. Bird shrills pulled our attention in all directions, massive morpho butterflies the size of Frisbees glided past, leaf-cutter ants led processions wherever they pleased. We paused to eat some live termites with encouragement from our guide who insisted they were minty. Indeed, they were. The African variety I had eaten in previous years had more of a scrambled egg aftertaste. The second jungle snack he introduced us to was a leaf with anti-venom properties that tasted like mouse shit, Vegemite, Buckley’s and death. Which meant, right before entering the cave, I felt like barfing from the bitter film of anti-venom leaf on my tongue with not a stupid venomy snake in sight.
Fast forward. We get the cave primer from our sturdy and sinewy guide and the plunge is totally frosty as promised. We have to swim 20 glacial meters to the cave shore and I already feel like I’ve entered an igloo.
But, wow. We are surrounded by a world that hums with the spirit of the Mayan people. Stalactites reach towards phallic stalagmites, thousands of years from ever meeting. The calcium-carbonate glistens as though the entire belly of the cave has been massaged with oil. We train our headlamps on the ceiling of the chamber to see massive jellyfish-like bodies of rock and shimmery chandeliers.
We become well acquainted with the river that winds through the cave. Sometimes we are knee-deep, at other times (more frequently), up to our collarbones with rocks pressing into our ribcages and unsuspecting knee caps. We scramble, heave, wade and swim deeper into the belly, in gentle pursuit of the Crystal Maiden.
Actun Tunichil Muknal translates into “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher,” and among the shards and intact pottery vessels that dot the chamber, we are on a strategic route to the calcite-encrusted remains of the Crystal Maiden. She keeps company with fourteen others that are visible. I begin to believe that more than 14 ancestral eyes are watching us.
In 1993, National Geographic filmed scenes in the ATM cave for a series entitled ‘Journey to the Underworld.’ ATM was also featured in the magazine’s July/August 2001 edition which boosted curiousity and foot traffic in the cave that only opened to the public in 1998. A Belizean archaeologist named Jaime Awe began exhaustive research into the ATM caves in the early nineties, and, to protect the area’s fragility, Awe personally trained two tour operators from Pacz Tours and Mayawalk Tours (six guides). To this day, only licensed operators are allowed to lead visitors inside the caves. The route is rigorous and a high level of fitness is paramount. You are sopping wet the entire time and in order to see the Crystal Maiden nearly half a mile inside the cave, you must remove your footwear and scramble up slick boulders and eventually mount a ladder to reach the uppermost chamber, in socks.
There is an eerie silence and historical pulse in that dry chamber. The depth of the darkness is liquid, calming and, if your mind permits, a bit anxiety-inducing. You are sharing breathing space with skeletons and troubling echoes of sacrificial cries.
Did I mention the squeeze where you have to angle your head and neck just-so? Yeah, with water up to your collarbones? That passage, tinier than a mouse fart, is a game changer. With walls like a vice grip, barely shoulder-wide, one must turn sideways, slide through the narrow neck allowance and heave up and out of the well. (Enter five pages of self-talk and mild cursing and palpitations here).
The guides spend around three hours inside the cave. The Crystal Maiden and the sacrificial grounds are the dramatic end point (where you can temporarily pull on a dry shirt from dry-sacs provided). Disclaimer: You must retrace your calculated steps back the same route and take that same frosty plunge to exit the cave.
National Geographic Society deems it one of the Top 10 Caves in the World for formidable reasons. The red-footed boobies are still awarded my Best Belize Moment, but if you want to wildly shake up your adrenalin stores into champagne fizz, submerge yourself into the world of 300 A.D. The ATM is taxing, exhausting and exhilarating. Our quad muscles groaned the next day from precarious toe-holds and careful foot placements in the riverbed.
When you click through photos that capture the heavy-breathing, chill and wonder, the reward is palpable. And the swallowed fear and hesitation is appreciated ten-fold weeks later in the safety of my Toronto apartment with a glass of wine and dry clothes.
The Nitty Gritty Insider Tips:
Most tour operators depart from San Ignacio (one hour to site, 20 minutes of which is spine-crunching bumpy). It’s a relatively easy 45 minute hike/amble to the mouth of the cave with periodic stops to learn about local flora & fauna and to enjoy termite pick-me-ups. It’s three shiver-inducing hours inside the cave, mostly submerged, but not completely. Lunch is provided by tour operators (a satisfying fix of grilled chicken, rice, curried squash and zucchini, grapefruit and granola bars).
There is a crude outhouse before the cave entrance where a pit stop is made for last minute nerve emissions and some carb-fueling for others. Helmets and headlamps are provided (they are Black Diamonds with fully charged batteries, not dim budget variety). You must be able to dog paddle at least 20 meters and be agreeable with water up to your chest in a few spots, be able to climb a 15-foot ladder and be comfortable in not-so-comfortable spaces. The tightest squish is the one displayed in the photo stream above. No flip flops or sandals are allowed, for good reason. The riverbed is rocky, silty and the the cave surface is often slick. Underwater cameras are best, although the guide carries several dry packs for cameras, money and dry shirts. Your feet will be wet the entire day and socks are essential for the dry chamber area. There is a small and primitive changeroom/washroom facility where you can change into dry clothing at the end. Bring your flip flops for the ride back to San Ignacio so you can slip out of everything that is soggy and be able to enjoy a cold Belikin or rummy drink in the downtown upon your return.
$85 US each, cash preferred. Half-payment on Visa allowed.
Photographs by Jules Torti
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Other Belizean "Pictures of the Day":
San Pedro Daily, Tony Rath's "Images of Belize"