Day 15; Mayan relics of the ATM Cave
7am that morning saw most of us, those going to the ATM cave anyway, rocking up to the restaurant where we’d had dinner with suitcases in tow and packs on backs. The restaurant is directly across from the company taking us to the cave in about 45 minutes and one by one we start piling our bags in front of Mayawalk’s closed front door.
Compared to last nights dinner the breakfast was pretty average. The coffee even more so. I miss Guatemalan coffee.
The guides arrive as we are finishing up and a mini-bus starts reversing up the lane. They’ll drive us straight from the ATM cave to Belize City to catch the Water Taxi to Caye Caulker this afternoon. We load up our bags on the trailer and all pile in, a sea of boardshorts in anticipation of the river crossings we know we’ll be tackling this morning. At my feet are some dry clothes, and my sneakers. Something resembling crocs that we all spent ages trying on last night, await me wherever it is we’re going. They are far from a comfortable fit but were the best I could find, a choice I hope I am not suffering for later.
We aren’t allowed to take anything into the ATM cave with us, phones and cameras included. About five years ago one of the tourist visitors to the cave dropped her camera. Not much of an issue you might think, except it landed on the skull of one of the skeletons inside the cave. It survived a thousand years or so, until modern technology punched a hole through it. I wonder if the she felt bad about that, or if it was treated with a modern nonchalance. They tell us the ATM cave was closed for years after that to protect it, but they eventually decided it was too important a site not to share and it was reopened. Now you can’t take in anything that could be dropped.
Part of our package includes a stock set of photos that we are allowed to use on social media. Not as artistic as the ones I might have taken myself perhaps, testing out the new waterproof pouch for my phone, but them’s the breaks. Pardon the pun.
About an hour, and many digs at last nights karaoke stars who had outed themselves and each other over the grumbles and laughter at breakfast, we pulled up to the beginning of the trail. Here there is shelter, toilets and running water. The last we will see for a while once we depart for the ATM cave so naturally it is where we all head. Then comes the business of getting geared up. We all find our croc-shoes and are dispensed life jackets and helmets. The law prescribes that there has to be a maximum of eight guests with each guide, so we are split between two of them, and three Canadians join my group. The guide has an accent but his English is good. He looks like the actor Pete Postlethwaite and this is all I can think of when I look at him. Only a small number of people are approved to be guides for this site.
ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, meaning The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre. It is under a mountain in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and is a famous Mayan archaeological site containing both artefacts and a number of skeletons within its chambers. I have no watch and my phone is waiting back at the van so there is no way to know how much time passes hiking through the jungle. According to internet sources it is about an hour but it doesn’t feel anything like that long. The trek includes three river crossings, each with a rope strung across the flowing water to hold or pull yourself along if needed. I wade into the beginning of the first but it quickly becomes evident that it is going to be too deep so I tuck my water bottle in the front of my life jacket and go for it. The life jacket proves to be an impediment to effective movement so the rope turns out to be quite useful. Halfway across my water bottle shoots up out of my jacket with its desire to float, fortunately it is fixed by carabiner to one of the straps otherwise it would have been bobbing off on an adventure downstream. The water is cool but refreshing and not at all unpleasant in the warmth of the morning. The holes in the shoes mean that water passes straight out so it is only my socks squelching underfoot. However it also means that the small pebbles and sand of the riverbed are let in, and they don’t pass through so easily.
The next two river crossings are ankle to shin depth, though we’re all drenched now anyway so it didn’t really matter. I’ve been chatting to the Canadians about the property market in Australia of all things. One of the women is older, she’s traveling with her son and another female companion. I never caught any of their names.
Eventually we reach a clearing with a couple of permanent shelters erected. Pete gestures to the bushes where a short distance away we can see the mountain within which is the entrance to the ATM cave. He tells us to leave behind our water bottles to retrieve upon exit. Mines not a disposable one like some of the others so I place it between some tree roots where I hope it will be concealed from view. Pete points to some more bushes, telling us they are the lava-trees with a chuckle at his own joke. When no one takes him up on the invitation he leads us to the mouth of the ATM cave.
Someone must keep it cleared, it isn’t hard to imagine the foliage taking over if left untended for a time, concealing the entry from view. It is dark and uninviting, as most caves are I suppose. A stream flows out into a pool which our path leads into. Pete tells us that at some times of the year the ATM cave is dry throughout. As we find, in January there is plenty of water. We all switch on our head lamps in readiness and led by Pete we all wade through the pool and clamber over some rocks just inside the entrance. Then its time to swim.
The pool leads us around the corner from the entrance, and the light from outside no longer reaches us. A fact demonstrated by Pete when he tells us all to stand still and switch off our lamps. We are instantly plunged into a darkness so thorough I cannot even see my hand in front of my face. Pete apparently has spare batteries if anyone’s lamp dies. On cue we all turn our lamps back on and follow him along the sandy floor. So far so good.
Hours pass inside that place and I cannot say how far we traveled nor how deep. Parts we swim, parts we walk or wade, and parts we climb. The climbing doesn’t phase me, my rock climbing experience comes in handy in picking the best routes over the obstacles. Being towards the back for much of the time I find Pete is excellent at guiding you over when up front near him, but those at the back are largely left to find their own way. On a number of occasions I felt the pressure of multiple people following behind me, and no ones example to follow in front. The exception was the final climb into the upper chamber, where Pete, perched on a rock gave instructions where each foot should be placed to safely reach the top. My height and climbing experience meant I did this with ease.
However, I struggled in the tight passages, feeling the air and the rocks a suffocating atmosphere around me. One part of the passage was named the Decapitation, a narrow passage between rocks wide enough for a neck to pass through. You had to go through with your body underneath and head above and slide your neck in between, holding your life jacket down and out of the way to leave enough space. After demonstrating Pete was on the other side encouraging us through. I slid through painfully slow, holding onto my life jacket as I tried to breathe slowly and controlled, feeling the rock against the front of my neck. Relaying it now people ask me why, if there’s room for your body underneath, you wouldn’t just go under completely. In dry periods you probably could, however the rock meets the water, and if your buoyancy vest is functional then you wouldn’t be able to get down enough into the water to move under it. Guess you trust that someone who does it every day knows the way it needs to be done. I’m not looking forward to tackling it again on the way back.
At several points through the trek we pause for Pete to show us earthenware left by the Mayan’s and explain the ceremonies they were used for. They are all broken, not by time but by the Mayan themselves, as they believed if left complete they could house souls and spirits. The Maya used caves because they believed it brought them closer to the gods and some relics are well beyond the reach of the light. They feared to come so deep, that they came so far into the ATM cave speaks of the seriousness of the rituals and their increasing desperation. Many date back to the same time when changed weather patterns prevented the Maya from cultivating the crops required to feed their population, and the rituals were likely praying to the gods to bring them rain. It must have been terrifying to venture down here with only the light of a burning torch as a guide, without the knowledge of where the next footstep might land.
Our foray culminates within the upper chamber, where we must remove our shoes to walk on designated points of the rocks in only our socks to prevent damaging the cave floor. Despite the huge expanse of the chamber and its high ceiling, the air is stifling and thick and one of our group borders on panic saying she can’t breathe. I’m struggling myself but helping to calm her gives me something to focus on instead. One of my shoes has been painfully compressing a toenail since early in the cave, and it is somewhat of a relief to remove the pressure.
The cave also contains a number of skeletons, more than what we are shown but we see a few of them. Several are children, while others are of noble birth, demonstrated by their flattened foreheads. We squeeze through some passages and past groups coming the other way to reach the most famous and spectacular, the Crystal Maiden, from which the cave derives its name. Her skeleton is complete, still laid in the same position in which she died, encrusted with calcite over a thousand years to give her a crystalline appearance. She was believed to be twenty years old, and was sacrificed to appease the gods. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be looking at in that deep, dark place within the earth and I am grateful for the experience, but I can’t wait to get into the sunlight again and breathe air carried on the wind instead of trapped under a mountain. So I am happy when we turn back to start the trek out. I have no idea how long we have been in the dark.
Much of the path back looks unfamiliar, its hard to get the full picture of a place by the light of a few head lamps, so there is no retracing my steps across the rocks when there is no one in front to follow. At one point I know we deviate onto a different route, a narrow passage just wide enough for us to bob along sideways in the water, our hand pressed against the rock to keep moving. I don’t recognize the decapitation from the other side when we get to it, and I can’t see how to get through, trying multiple times to angle my head or squeeze myself under with increasing panic and desperation to get out. Finally I throw my hands up in defeat and refusal and push myself back in the water to let others pass, trying to calm my breathing and heart. I watched how the others did it and attempted it again after a few others had gone through, this time the older Canadian woman was nearby encouraging me softly and I was relieved to reach the other side.
It all looks different coming from the other direction, and I am surprised at how soon I turn a corner in the water to find the light streaming ahead and scramble up the rocks to stand on solid ground in the open air. The pain in my toe makes it hard not to limp and I fall further and further behind on the hike back to the starting point, wondering what creatures might leap from the jungle path to ambush a solitary walker. By the time I make it back there is a shower free into to which I eagerly leap. My toe is red and swollen down to the first knuckle, it seems the shoe has been bending it backwards.
The included lunch is tasty, if somewhat hurried due to our appointment with this afternoons water taxi. We’ve been gone over four hours. We’re ushered into our bus to commence our journey to Belize City. We arrive a little before 4pm, Dani had arrived shortly before on the public bus with the member of our group that didn’t come to the ATM cave. With some time to kill before the taxi we sit down at a café in the terminal and I order a coffee, but their machine isn’t working. It seems like a good time to start drinking and I order a cocktail which, by the time it arrives I have to gulp down in order to head to the boat.
Most of the group heads upstairs, but I’m happy on the open part of the lower level where I can watch Belize City disappear into the distance behind us as the sun sets over it. I’ve learned from our last trip on a boat and my jumper is tied around my waist. It’s not long before I’ve put it on. It takes about 45 minutes to get to Caye Caulker. By the time we arrive dusk has set in and we send our bags ahead on a taxi and walk the sandy street to our hotel. I take note of the laundry service we pass on the way. No doubt we’ll all be visiting there tomorrow, myself included.
There is time to freshen up before we meet in the hotel lobby for a briefing on the optional activity for tomorrow, another one which fills me with trepidation which I am still undecided upon. Dani introduces us to Captain Keith.
Keith has a boundless energy and enthusiasm for his island and its surrounding water habitats, and it is impossible not to be drawn in by the musical lilt of his speech, though the speed with which he talks and his accent mean everyone is only catching every few words, but we’re carried along anyway. His company, Stressless Tours, does the approach to the local snorkeling trip a little differently to other vendors on the island. Instead of a big sailing boat, pretty but slow, meaning we’ll only see one or two of the spots the area has to offer, we’ll be on a speedboat, meaning we can cover off all the local marine sites of interest. He also has a beachfront property, and offers a sunset bonfire on his private beach with plenty of rum punch to go around.
I have never been a strong swimmer, and didn’t even learn to swim until I was an older child. And I’ve never been able to swim with my head under water. I’ve tried, but something happens and I am unable to regulate my breathing and match it to the rhythm of the strokes, culminating in hyperventilation and breathing in water. I swim freestyle, but my head stays above water. At some point snorkeling had the same effect, which degenerated into a sense of complete panic at trying to breathe through the tube with control. The thought of being in open water terrified me.
But I was charmed, and it sounded like an experience that would be a shame to miss out upon. And I liked their sustainable, eco-friendly business model. I resolved to try, even if it meant that I only spent the day on the boat. I handed over my deposit to Keith.
Dani took us to a busy place for dinner and many of us ordered the lobster, including myself naturally. It took its time arriving, but it was worth it. It was only grilled, but the meat was the most flavourful I could remember having in my life. I was hard pushed to make a decision which was better, this or last nights.
All around the restaurant visitors have graffitied the paintwork of the walls and beams of the building. Someone asks for a marker which is then waved around waiting for someone to volunteer. When no one takes it I grab it and stand on the seat to leave our mark on a blank space of a beam supporting the corrugated iron roof. The marker is crap, sinking into the layers of paint rather than smoothly writing upon them and I have to go over and over each stroke for the writing to show up, carved into the paint. I write the name of our tour and each of our names. I wish I’d taken a photo, I couldn’t even tell you where it was.
Somewhere, in a beachside restaurant in Caye Caulker Belize, is a beam with my name on it.
After dinner we ended up in the local sports club, cramped and full of people as it seems to be the only place to party on the island. It is the birthday of one of our group and she’s pulled up to dance with some guy, and later invited to walk along the bar pouring shots into the upturned mouths of the waiting crowd, myself included. Well it seems to be a trip for trying new things, may as well add that to the list!