Nine people are trapped in a cave. They are hungry, soaking wet, scared and would offer an arm to be able to go to the toilet comfortably.
No, dear reader, I’m not talking about the Thai football team that got stuck in a cave. Instead, this is a summary of our excursion to Actun Tunichil Muknal, a descent into the deep innards of a cave which the ancient Maya used for their blood sacrifices.
Are you shivering yet?
Guide Manuel points at a wheelbarrow under a shady tree. We’ve just hiked 45 minutes over dirt trails through the jungle of the Tapir Mountain Reserve and we’re about to cross the Roaring River (‘snoring river’ according to Manuel) for the third and last time. None of the four Belgians in the group answer, neither does the single Estonian, all afraid to state the blindingly obvious. Luckily, the token family of Americans, a father and his two teenage sons, is not hindered by that European sense of awkwardness. The father, a hipster-looking, curly-haired man from Washington with a moustache that curls up towards the ends, hypothesises carefully: “A wheelbarrow?”
Manuel grins. That was the response he was hoping for. He strokes his chin and blurts out: “Aha! For you it’s a wheelbarrow, for me it’s an ambulance!”
It has been obvious to us for a while – our guide is a joker. Only problem: not all of us are in the mood for jokes. We’re about to enter the A.T.M. Cave and Anete is a bundle of nerves. She’s terrified of having to squeeze herself through tight spaces, especially if those spaces are underwater. But I’ve learned one thing in the past 3,5 years: don’t tell the girl that she can also stay in town to go shopping. After reading what must’ve been every single available online review on this caving experience, she has mustered up the courage to join me for a journey into the unknown. “Use your hands and feet”, says Manuel whilst he lines us up, “for swimming, climbing, crawling and crying.” Mine are not the only eyes that are rolled.
Place of fear
The A.T.M. Cave – as it’s known to tourists who can’t pronounce the original Maya name – is one of the key attractions for adventurous travellers in Belize. Actun Tunichil Muknal translates as ‘the cave of the stone sepulchre’, a sepulchre being a place of burial, a tomb. More on that in a bit. The cave is almost 5 kilometres deep, but we’ll only explore the first 850 metres.
When Manuel announces that it’s time for the last jungle toilet, we know there’s no way back. He urges us to jump into the cold turquoise water and swim across the pool that marks the entrance to the cave. We plunge into Xibalba, the Mayan ‘place of fear’ or ‘empire of shadows’. It’s the underworld according to the ancient local mythology, only accessible through caves. Here, the gods of death rule, together with their helpers.
We clamber on the first boulder and the exploration starts. In the beginning, we squirm and bend and flounder through small openings. Sometimes, the water is knee-deep, at other times it reaches until our waist or even higher. I can’t imagine how the Maya must’ve been scrambling up and down with candles and torches.
Towers of New York, or a raised middle finger?
The most daunting passage leads through a narrow crevice that only leaves a couple of centimetres on each side of your neck. I want to swallow hard – not a good idea unless I want to slash open my Adam’s apple. “This is the throat slicer”, says Manuel without batting an eye, “Also known as the decapitating rock.”
We pass beautiful formations of flowstone rocks, stalagmites and stalactites. Manuel detects all kinds of funny shapes in the shadows that his torchlight creates when meeting those cave sculptures. He shows us the towers of New York and a raised middle finger, among many, many others. But then he gets serious. We’re about to climb into the ‘cathedral’, the place where the Maya performed their holy ceremonies. Definitely not a place to joke around. After hoisting ourselves up onto a rock the size of a tractor, Manuel asks us to take off our wet shoes, a safety measure. For the same reason, cameras are not allowed in the cave: in 2012, a clumsy tourist dropped his Cannon onto a skull, piercing its ancient forehead. Socks stay on, to protect the site from skin oils.
We ascend a gentle slope towards an open space and all of a sudden we’re in the midst of an Indiana Jones film… Mayan artefacts are sprawled out all over the floor. I see ceramics, shards of pottery, stoneware, animal bones and human skeletons. One pot shows an engraving of a monkey (or, if you have a bit of imagination, a Sasquatch). And best of all, we’re allowed to walk in between these precious archaeological treasures.
None of these I’ve never seen before behind dusty museum glass cases. But that’s exactly the point. In Europe or the USA, all these findings would’ve been moved to a museum. Here, 97 percent is left exactly the way it was found. And what a difference it makes. It’s impressive beyond words to see these artefacts within the right context, something no museum could ever manage, no matter how much money they’d pump into flashy installations. Simply wow.
Sacrificed or lost?
Manuel explains that we see “classic” Mayan artefacts, from the end of the heyday of their civilisation. From 700 to 900 AD, the Maya experienced a long period of drought. Rain was not simply a reason to curse the weatherman, it was a matter of life and death. The drought led to increasingly desperate attempts to appease Chaac, the Maya god of rain, storms, water and lightning. Shamans would descend in the cave and cut themselves, lose blood and get in a trance to communicate with the gods. Blood is, after all, food for the gods.
For the same reason, human sacrifices were extremely popular. The Maya would sacrifice rulers they’d captured from rival cities, or children – mostly orphans and bastards. In this cave alone, 14 human skeletons have been found, all sacrificed for a couple of drops of rain. Even though, personally I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they’re just Maya whose torches died and who couldn’t find their way out.
At the end of the cathedral awaits a metal ladder, a staircase to the climax of the tour. The ‘fair maiden’ is the intact skeleton of an 18-year-old girl. Time and the elements have calcified her bones, giving her an eerie ghost-like appearance. “It’s no longer sure it’s a girl”, says Manual. “New evidence suggests that the structure of the face is masculine and that the pelvis is too small to push out babies. Then again, modern Maya women often have s-sections because their small pelvises don’t allow natural births.” In other words: it remains a big mystery, as it probably should be. Beholding this girl, boy or gender-fluid human being, 1000 years young, I wonder if she or he or it could’ve ever fathomed becoming an attraction in the most exciting living museum in Belize and beyond.
Actun Tunichil Muknal is the ultimate combo between adventure and history. It’s two tours rolled into one. The adventurous part – wading through rivers, swimming into a cave, climbing up and down – beats most tours advertised as ‘adventurous’. And the historical aspect, the archaeology within context, is plain astonishing. Nobody should leave Belize without experiencing it.