Adventures in Xibalba

Belize is a tiny Central American country bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. Though small, Belize is culturally and ethnically rich as it is home the Maya, Mestizos (Spanish and Mayan mix), Creole (descendants of African slaves), Garinagu (descendants of West African and Caribbean shipwreck survivors), and other groups such as Mennonite farmers, American expats, and Chinese business people. Though Belizeans originate from many different places, they all seem relaxed and friendly. However, there is more to our adventures than the sun-kissed people. From the Beach to the jungle, Belize’s natural beauty and exotic wildlife add to the marvel of the country. The food is another experience altogether – we have sampled more varieties of hot sauce than we can count on all our fingers and toes, and Belizean chocolate has enough caffeine to keep us awake for the rest of the trip. Through the past 10 days of sweltering sun and torrential downpours, we have packed in all kinds of cultural activities and tourist experiences, and I can say with confidence that we are thoroughly enjoying our time in Belize. In this blog post, I would like to share my favourite experience thus far.

Last Sunday was our first free day, and I was desperate for some time to catch up on sleep, homework, and laundry, but somehow I found myself signed up for the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave tour, arguably the most talked about tourist attraction in Belize. This tour is for only the most adventurous as it consists of a 45 minute hike through the jungle, three hours of spelunking in tight, water-filled caves and a short climb up the rocks to a big open cave where the Maya used to conduct their human sacrifices. Actun Tunichil Muknal, translated to English means “cave of the stone tomb”. To the ancient Maya, this cave was considered a layer of Xibalba, the underworld. They conducted ceremonial human sacrifices in the cave as an offering to the Gods, in hopes for rain. The cave is filled with ancient ceramic pots, Mayan carvings, and 14 adult and child skeletons. The most famous remains belong to a 20 year old girl, called “the stone maiden”, whose sparkling skeleton has been calcified to the cave floor over thousands of years.

Note: Cameras are not permitted in the ATM cave. The images in this blog post were taken from internet sources, and the ULRs are displayed beside the headings. 

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The stone maiden. (http://thelankydrifter.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/entering-xibalba-at-the-atm-cave/)

 

I was nervous to do the tour, not because of the physical difficulty, the dark, or the skeletons, but because of the creatures that live inside Belize’s caves. The idea of cramming myself underground with bats, and venomous snakes and spiders gave me the shivers. Once we got off the major highway, the one hour and twenty minute drive was stunning. Expansive red kidney bean fields were framed by rolling thick jungle and mist. The rivers were sparkling clear and surprisingly cool. As soon as I got into the water, and swam through the mouth of the cave, my anxiety washed away. The cool damp darkness offered relief from my swollen mosquito bites and sunburnt shoulders, and I was excited to explore the underworld.

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The cave entrance. (http://www.gogobot.com/actun-tunichil-muknal-san-ignacio-attraction)

 

The cave started off narrow and jagged, but later it opened up to a series of pools and beds of stone At one point our guide asked us to turn off our headlamps and hold hands. We waded (I swam because I couldn’t touch the bottom) as a group through a large pool. Finally, we climbed up a series of boulders and onto a ledge. We made it to the Mayan ceremony grounds, and I was blown away. The cave was massive and magnificent. No wonder the ancient Maya thought this place was sacred. There were sparkling pillars of stone, calcified over thousands of years, beautiful red boulders, and intricate rock formations. The ceiling was a granite corral reef. Our guide sat us down on a rock to tell us ancient Mayan folklore and make shadow puppets on the walls of the cave. On the way out of the cave, he decided that we were fit for a challenge, which ended up being my favorite part of the tour. He sent us swimming down a deep passageway that became increasingly narrow. Just when I though it couldn’t get any squishier, we took a sharp turn through a tunnel that, at one point, was only wide enough for our necks. At the end of this passageway there was a small hole with water rushing through it. I thought we were going to have to turn around and swim out the other way, but our guide insisted that we hold on to the surrounding boulders and lower ourselves through the waterfall. Once I slipped half my body through the hole, the water sucked me down into a deep pool. There was light shinning on the far wall of the cave – we made it back to the mouth of the river!

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Stalactites in the underworld. (http://www.belizex.com/tunichil_muknal.htm)

 

After swimming out of the cave, we basked in the sunshine at the edge of the river, and I scooped out the rocks that had been collecting at the bottom of my shoes over the past 5 hours. We ate a lunch of chicken burritos and banana chips at picnic tables in the jungle before making our trek back to the van. Most of the group slept through the bumpy drive back to Log Cab – Inn. Though I did not, unfortunately, encounter the ancient Mayan rain Gods, I also didn’t run into any bats or spiders. I had an unreal experience in the cave of the stone tomb, and hope to return to the underworld someday soon.  

Thanks for reading!

~ Jenna Treissman

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