Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
Now listen very carefully. A wrong move on your part could cause an injury; and you are far from proper medical facilities. The guide, at the front of our single-file line of roughly 10 spelunking museum goers, gave very clear, and very precise instructions. I was right behind him, so there could be no misunderstandings... "With your left hand, grasp this edge of rock," as our guide patted the protuberance. Then, "Place your left foot here on this rock..." he said as he pointed the beam from his headlamp at a rock shimmering about one foot beneath the surface of the crisp clear water. "Then with your right foot stretch across to here," indicating the rounded point on a rock perched upon a submerged boulder, a few feet away. "And then shift your weight to your right foot as you pull yourself forward and grasp that larger boulder over there... like this..." as he quickly demonstrated, the splashing water sounding eery in the hollow sounding chamber. He then moved along further up the stream, deep within a cave, deep within the remote western jungle of Belize. But wait! Before you can go, turn around and tell the person directly behind you the instructions, and then send off a silent prayer for that unlucky one at the back of the line. A mistake here, in this "whisper down the lane" real life game, can cost you some skin or worse.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, is one of the most well known ceremonial caves in the entire world. It has been voted by National Geographic to be the #1 sacred cave to visit, and is a big draw for tourism in Western Belize. Caves were considered to be very spiritual places to the ancient Maya. As an entrance to the underworld, the Mayans would often hold ceremony and prepare offerings to their Gods, and occasionally ritual sacrifice. Deep within the ATM cave is a cavernous series of dry chambers that hold the remains of hundreds of ceramic bowls, pots, and shards which have essentially calcified over the years by the natural drippings of limestone. Rather than remove the items, the government of Belize decided to leave them in their positions, and to make the cave, and its contents, the museum. Guides must also be certified as museum curators; and clean socks are packed into the cave to be worn when you reach the inner chambers.
But this day long adventure is not an easy task. First you must be transported from your lodge, picking up other tourists and a picnic lunch along the way, and maneuver along another interminable road of packed dirt sprinkled with random gullies and holes. After arriving at a trail head you hike for about 45 mins... wait, I can just show you with pictures!
By the time you retrace your careful steps out of the cave, hike to the van, and drive back to your lodge it is time for dinner. What a magnificent day that was; and uniquely one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.