Actun Tunichil Muknal - probably the most exciting ATM on the planet! W
e're back from our trip to Belize in Central America and the one word that sums it up is WOW
! We spent one week on Glover's Atoll out in the (normally) sunny Caribbean and the second week at Ek Tun, Phyllis Lane's unique jungle retreat in the Cayo District.
While we were staying at Ek Tun, we took the chance to explore one of the archaeological wonders of the Mayan world, the cave system of Actun Tunichil Muknal or 'Cave of the Stone Sepulchre'
, which is every bit as thrilling as the name suggests. In caverns deep within the mountainside lie hundreds of beautifully crafted Mayan pottery artefacts, littering the floor for tens of metres, from small drinking cups to large storage vessels, alongside stark evidence of human sacrifice in the pierced skulls and other skeletal remains lying amongst the pottery.
The entrance to the cave, shown below, is an hour-glass shaped 'hole-in-the-wall' through which the fully fledged Roaring Creek River plunges into the sunlight from a deep, turquiose pool.Entrance cavern to ATM
We signed up with PACZ tours, run by Emilio Awe (pronounced Ah-way
), who according to National Geographic in their 'Place of Fright'
article about this cave, knows more than anyone else about the caves around these parts and runs expert guided adventure trips to the cave.
Our guides, Patrick and Carlos certainly knew their stuff. We were quite a large party, nine in all, as prolonged heavy rains in the Cayo district had made the cave impassable for over a week, so we were one of the first groups lucky enough to go down there for many days. Patrick asked us to introduce ourselves and say where we were from, then promptly ignored our names and addressed us by our home town. I was London for the day and there was Arizona, Seattle and Miss Canada. Jos became Mother for some reason, probably because Mrs London would have been too confusing.Our fellowship gets a briefing from Patrick Warrior. That's Jos, my wife, on the right. When this guy speaks, you listen!
Patrick and Carlos made it clear that we were about to enter a priceless and unique living museum and that we were extremely privileged to be doing it. ' We don't want nobody mess
ing up our heritage, there's too many artefacts get'n broken down there
' Carlos had railed in the van on the two hour drive to the forest trail. We thought he was being a little over the top at the time but later we understood exactly why.
Patrick told us he used to train British squaddies in jungle survival, taking them out to live out in the wild for two weeks at a time. He stopped every few hundred yards to tell us some plant lore such as which leaf to eat to combat malaria or how to waterproof your skin or how to build a shelter for the night out of palm leaves. We felt we were in safe hands on our yomp towards the underworld.Team work. We quickly learnt to look out for each other on this hazardous adventure.
Not that you just drive up to the front door. The journey to the cave is a one hour route march at a brisk pace along steamy jungle trails, punctuated by three tricky river crossings over the youthful and vigorous Roaring Creek River, which varies in depth from navel to chest deep depending on how far your navel or chest is from your feet. Oh, and the river bed is covered with big unstable boulders, which are difficult to see in the rushing waters. I have to admit, I feared for my camera equipment.
A swim across the entrance pool is our first introduction to life underground.
We arrived at the cave mouth in good shape though and after a light lunch, a thorough briefing and a traditional Belizean bonding ceremony hosted by Patrick, we were ready to enter the 'Place of Fright'. You can judge from the photographs how fast Roaring Creek flows from the cave and it's pretty much like that for the half kilometre we had to swim, wade or paddle against it underground.
We passed through the dreaded 'breakdown', a section of collapsed cave roof quite easily, taking care of ourselves and each other. It's a good thing we hadn't read the National Geographic article beforehand, which perhaps overdramatises the risk:
“breakdown”—a talus pile of collapsed boulders, here half-submerged in the wall-to-wall stream. I made my way over this chaos gingerly: The grotto was filled with limestone fins and prongs so sharp that a slip or fall might gash you to the bone.
OK, so we were lucky!
We passed through successive wide and narrow sections of the cave, always following the river upstream, sometimes passing bare rock walls and sometimes enchanting caverns decked with stalactite ceilings, flowstone walls and stalagmite floors. The ancient dry cave system, site of the Maya artefacts, displays many speliological wonders.
After about an hour making our way steadily upstream, Carlos pointed out a huge rock on our right and behind it a ledge, perhaps ten feet above the river. We would have waded straight past it as many cave explorers had in the past. Patrick told us the river cave went on for another two kilometres but contained no Mayan artefacts. In 1986 however, a team led by Oxford archaeologist Thomas Miller decided to investigate the cave beyond this ledge and 'hit the jackpot'.
We climbed up the rock onto the smooth, sloping ledge and immediately saw pottery artefacts embedded in the flowstone of the cave floor. We were told to abandon our shoes here and walk the rest of the way in socks or barefoot, to make us more careful and aware of where we were treading amongst the precious and fragile artefects on the cave floor. We left the river behind and tiptoed our way into this dry cave system, much older than the one we had just left and eerily quiet after the comforting companionship of the river.
We walked through majestic caverns, like the aptly named 'cathedral', a huge open space, floored with undulating dams and pools of creamy flowstone and walled with rows of organ pipe columns where stalactites and stalagmites coalesce.
We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Mayans to come deep into the earth like this, with only pine torches to light the way and keep them from absolute and terrifying darkness.'The Cathedral', a chamber of truly epic proportions.
Beyond this great chamber, the passage narrowed again and at the top of an upward gradient of rippled flowstone, we came upon hundreds of pottery artefacts and an atmosphere of hushed reverence came over the party.
Parts of the cave floor were so thickly strewn with pottery remains, it was a real effort to avoid treading on them by accident. There was good incentive to be very careful however as our guides comfortingly told us 'You break anything, we leave you down here.'
Nobody broke anything!'Arizona' examines a group of Maya ceramic shards.
All the pottery artefacts were either broken, or pierced at the base, sometimes with neat keyhole shapes, supposedly to release the spirit of the vessel. Many were completely smashed and none were completely intact. They are thought to have contained food offerings for the 'Lords of Death''; spirits of 'Xibalba', the Mayan underworld that was connected to the living world through these fearful caves and when their ritualistic function was fulfilled, they were ceremonially 'killed'.Patrick explains the history and use of these pots.A group of larger broken vessels.Large vessel with animal motif on the shoulder.
These pottery vessels are a tribute to the skill of the artesans who made them. Patrick told us they were made by the coil method, yet they were smooth and perfectly symmetrical. Even the biggest pots, perhaps half a metre in diameter, were only 3 or 4 mm thick and of even thickness from base to neck. Anyone who has tried coiling even a small pot will know how amazing that is.This group includes the largest vessel we saw.A captivating story teller and his awed pupils. What he's talking about is shown next.
Ceramic vessels were not the only thing to be ceremonially killed in these caves. Lying amongst the pottery, a total of fourteen human skeletons have been discovered, from adults ranging in age from twenty to forty, a child of around seven, to six infants under three. They were slaughtered, possibly with stone axes, as evidenced by their broken skulls and laid in travertine pools in the flowstone of the cave floor.
All this happened around 1200 years ago, so long in fact that the human and ceramic artefacts have, over the centuries, been calcified by the lime rich waters of the cave, preserving the organic remains in far better condition than would normally be the case.This skull, calcified in the flowstone floor of the cave, gazes upward into the darkness.The same skull from a different angle, showing it's flattened forehead. Notice the light in the eye from the hole in the right side of the cranium. Carlos talks about a group of heavily calcified artefacts.
The climax of our journey came at the end of a narrowing section of cave, where a ladder led up to another ledge, perhaps fifteen feet above the rough floor. We climbed this cautiously, one at a time and scrambled into a further rough, narrow tunnel, strewn with huge fallen rocks. This curved to the right for a short distance and ended in an enclosed shrine-like chamber. Carlos shone his torch at the floor, revealing a remarkable sight. The near complete skeleton of a young woman lay before a smooth flowstone 'altar', her bones heavily calcified and seeming to dissolve into her stone deathbed. It was a breathtaking vision and one which none of us are likely to forget in a hurry.Skeleton 13 belonged to a young female, sacrificed to the gods and left lying in a shallow pool.
The way into ATM is also the way out and we picked our way back through the dry cave system, collecting our shoes at the ledge before rejoining the river cave. Going with the flow made the return journey much easier than fighting the current on the way in. Within an hour we were at the breakdown and soon after saw the welcome glow of daylight on the walls of the lofty entrance cavern.
It was early evening when we followed the Roaring Creek out from its cool turquoise entrance pool and emerged into the warm forest, buzzing with light and life. It felt good to be back in the land of the living and even a pleasure to ford the river three times on the three mile hike back to the bus. There was a new spring in our steps after our day in the underworld.On the way back we retrace our steps through the ornate and colourful 'Cathedral'Postscript:
In other, more 'developed' countries, a comfortable dry tunnel would no doubt have been blasted through from the 'show caves' to the Visitors Centre and they'd be putting a thousand visitors a day through here along roped walkways to look at what remained of the artefacts after the museums had taken their cut. Of course, that would make the visit more comfortable and accessible but you'd miss out on a wonderful life enhancing adventure and the sense of awe and mystery that touched us would feel somewhat 'canned' if you felt it at all.
Belize allows only small groups led by specially trained guides into ATM, maybe 10 to 20 a day when conditions allow. The guides are fully conscious of their responsibility to preserve the integrity of both the natural caves and their archaeological contents. If you intend to visit ATM, you need to be fit and unlike the National Geographic author, able to swim. It's also useful to be free of phobias such as confined spaces , creepy crawlies and the dark, though a day on this tour will probably cure you of all of them. As Patrick said to encourage us before we set off on the jungle hike, 'We don't want no wimps on this trip'.We can thoroughly recommend the Pacz Tours operation, which is based in San Ignacio and if you're lucky enough to be led by Patrick and Carlos, you're in for a real treat.