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 (www.mayabelize.ca
) 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 tunichel 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!
contact patrick warrior: [email protected]