Saturday, September 26, 2009

Spelunk...Spelunk...Spelunking



The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave...this was a day I was so very much looking forward to!  How often do you get the chance to explore a cave?  Let alone a cave that was once used for Mayan rituals thousands of years ago?  And one that still has fully preserved artifacts, incuding human skeletal remains in it?  I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I was expecting a great day!

Francisco from Pacz Tours picked us up and this tour was part of our package at Chaa Creek.  Again, I can't say enough about what a great package we had.  It allowed us to do so many great things!  We headed back out to the Western Highway and Francisco just talked about everything  from the country, Belizean history, his family, past tours he'd been on.  We were the only two people on the tour with him, so it was an ideal day.  Our own private excursion!  After about thirty minutes on the main road, we made a quick stop for Francisco to pick up a sandwich - we had boxed lunches packed for us, and we turned off onto one of the all too familiar bumpy roads of Belize.






We drove for about forty more minutes on the bumpy roads, crossing two river beds.  Francisco said they were very shallow compared to past trips he'd taken.  We finally got to our parking area and packed up our gear.  We had about a forty minute hike into the jungle.  It was maily flat walking.  There wasn't much wildlife to see, but it was very pretty.  We had to cross three river beds on foot.  It wasn't deep, no higher than above the knee in the deepest areas, but it could get slippery because of the rocks on the bottom.  But the water was nice and cool.  I felt great!  The walk was very fast.  Francisco wanted to get to the cave before any other groups showed up.  He said the experience would be best if we were the first group in.  He talked the entire way there....he had a lot to say! 

We finally got to our base camp, and left all of our dry gear there.  That would be our backpacks and boxed lunches.  I gave Francisco my camera for his dry bag and kept my underwater camera out for some shots going through the cave.  We put our hard hats and head lamps on and off we went! 


The opening of the cave is beautiful.  It's shaped like an hourglass.  You have to swim into the cave to start.  It's a short swim to the rocks that we climbed over and under and all around.  Some of the rocks were very large, some not so big.  Some of the spaces were a bit hard to navigate through, but Fransicso always made sure we had the best footing and showed us how to place our hands and feet to get through the maze to the next area. 


The rock formations that we climbed around were fascinating and we also saw several bats!  We has some areas that we had to swim in water that was maybe chest height and other areas where we just walked in water that was ankle deep.  We walked into the cave for about 45 minutes or so.    Some of the rock formations that we climbed through looked like these...





In this one section of the cave, there was an opening out to the area outside.  The archaelogists theory is that this opening may have been used to lower supplies into the cave because to take everything in from the cave opening and past all of the rock formations would have been very difficult.



After about 45 minutes we got to a very high ledge which we were to climb up....I was thinking NO WAY!!!  But, we did it.  It was steep, but with the right footing, we made it.  And it was so worth the climb!  We got to the top and there we had to take our shoes off and put socks on to not damage the surface of the floor of the cave.  Here we were in the Great Cathederal.  This area is 350 meters long and 50 meters wide and it is amazing!  This is where the Mayans held their rituals and there are many, many pieces of pottery laid out in just the places where they were last used.  You can just imagine how the cave looked in 900 AD under the lighting of only torches, we only had the glow of flashlights, and you could see how mystical the cave formations looked.  As a mater of fact, many looked just like the shapes of some of the Mayan gods themselves.  Here the Mayans did rituals to the gods of sun, rain and fertility. 








This formation looks like one of the Mayan gods!



As we walk farther into the cathederal area we start to see some of the human remains.  We're told there are many human remains and many more that are likely undescoverd at this time.  They are still studying the bones to determine the ages and trying to figure out how these people may have died.  They do know some things about some of the people.

We go futher to the far back of the cave and climb a ladder to get to the only full skeleton which is fully preserved.  It's that of a 15 year old female.  They call her the Crystal Maiden.  It is absolutely stunning - both eerie and peaceful at the same time. 

After spending about an hour in the cathederal area, we made our way back out of the cave and had our boxed lunch before trekking back out of the jungle, crossing the three river crossings and back to our vehicle. 

It is absolutely no exaggeration when I say that this cave experience was likely the most unique thing we have ever done and truly an opportunity of a lifetime.  There is some talk of controlling or no longer allowing visitors to enter the cave in the future so I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience the magical ATM cave while I could.




The Crystal Maiden - teenage girl, fully preserved by the cave's natural processes.


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