, an ancient cave buried deep within the Belizean jungle, has a serendipitous acronym: ATM. I'm wading through waist-deep river water wearing non-swimwear. I've been trekking through the overgrown terrain for nearly an hour and I have one more river-crossing still to conquer. The ATM cave's name is often times a joking matter in
), but already it seems as though there may be more to these acronymic parallels drawn than just a joke. For starters, I can already profess that one would have to put something into the ATM journey in order to get something out of it. And so here I am, putting in my energy, my time, my yogic muscle mass... all into an adventure that prefaces the cave itself: getting to the cave to begin with.
In order to get to ATM's wide, open entrance mouth, I had to follow an unchangeable series of steps.
1. I flew to Belize City
2. I traveled to San Ignacio
with a driver and my photographer, where I stayed for the night.
3. In the morning, we were driven for nearly an hour before turning off on a dirt road, where we drove for another 40 minutes or so. The road was flooded in one area, but the vehicle we were riding in was ready and able to make it through the water.
4. Hike about an hour through the thick and sticky jungle, crossing the river three separate times.
5. Finally, we arrived to the cave's entrance. We ate lunch before beginning the ATM voyage.
The mouth of ATM opens like a keyhole amid the fanning jungle leaves that surround it. It not only allows the river to flow through it, but swimming through that river is the only way to enter the cave--well, it's the traditional way, anyhow. Our guide tells us that for those incapable of swimming who wind up at the cave's entrance, there's an alternate route in. And while swimming in the cold water with my hiking shoes and helmet on isn't my forte, I'm happy I didn't have to take the alternate route in.
As our clothes and shoes immediately sponge up the chilly water, the sunlight trickling in from where we entered becomes less visible. The blackness within the cave is like tar; thick and all-encompassing. We swim. We wade. We scale the slippery, shiny walls. We stop at every glistening turn to relish in the silence, while my brain is simultaneously beholden to deafening thoughts--imaginings of what it would have been like to be a Mayan
, exploring this damp and dark cave by torchlight. Every time my brain follows this path, I cling to it vigorously. I want my journey through this cave to be a reflective one--one in which I follow the same footsteps as those before me, with their footsteps in mind. Especially the footsteps of the doomed.
They might not have considered themselves doomed, the humans who were sacrificed and marched through the cave. Some of them, like the adults whose skeletons are still in the cave, might have said that sacrification was a privilege, that it is the ultimate honor to give one's self to the gods. Others, like the children whose skeletons are also still in the cave, might not have known what was going on, but they very well may have been frightened at the times. And still others, like the prisoners of war or criminals who were potentially sacrificed here, may have considered their fate one of doom. I keep all of them in mind as I walk, only in socks now in order to protect the artifacts, through the elevated space with cathedral ceilings (The Cathedral) where most of the artifacts in ATM can be found.
The Mayans would travel deep within the cave, combating the forces of mysterious, dark water, in order to be closer to Chac. Chac is the Mayan God of Rain and it is said that the Mayans in this region of Belize believed that he could be found dwelling deep within the underworld, within this watery cave. During times of prosperity, the Mayans would visit the bloody than peaceful.
Extreme drought, no doubt, aided in the fall of the Mayan Empire. When things got bad and weren't getting any better, the agriculture suffered. And when the Mayan's agriculture suffered, the people could not be fed. And when the people could be fed, well...
The Mayans began sacrificing as a cry to Chac, right inside of ATM. Regular sacrifices included pottery (much of it meant to hold blood), which is shattered all over ATM, and blood from excruciating blood-letting ceremonies (Typically, women let blood out by way of their tongue and men let blood out by way of their genitals). Human sacrifices were made inside of ATM, as well. Although the bones cannot always give us clues to exactly how a human sacrifice was carried out, they were frequently done via heart extraction. A still-beating heart would be accessed through a cut, ripped out, and the blood would be smeared in honor of the god for whom the sacrifice was made.
Finally, we arrived at the notorious Crystal Maiden. The Crystal Maiden, found at the end of the public's path in ATM, is a fully-in-tact skeleton of a teenage girl. Her bones have been thoroughly calcified by the cave and because of this, they sparkle. We make our way back out, leaving with a certain something, but not without having put something in.
ATM spans from Belize to Guatemala
, but its depths are still largely unknown. While puzzle pieces of artifacts help archeologists put the big picture together, the cave is filled with many more questions than it is answers.