Sarah Down South travel blog

Me at the mouth of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Looking downstream from the mouth of the cave

Pots everywhere

Pot with a thick layer of calcium carbonate

More pots


Me in front of a formation called "the nativity"

Skeleton thickly encrusted with calcium carbonate

The skeleton that the cave was named for

Our lunch spot

The changing room

Last night I tried to book a tour to the Thousand Foot waterfall and the Rio On pools, but I couldn't find anyone running a tour there, so the guy at Mayawalk (one of the companies I checked with) convinced me to do a tour to Actun Tunichil Muknal, another cave in the Cayo region of Belize. I had heard about it, but the tours that went there were kind of pricey and I didn't think it would be worth it. Well, I was pleasantly surprised... today turned out to be one of the best days of this trip so far!

Actun Tunichil Muknal ("Cave of the Stone Sepulchre") is one of the most spectacular caves in Belize, which is saying alot when you consider that Belize is particularly well-known for its caves. It was discovered in 1986 and named for the well-preserved skeletons of Maya human sacrifices found within. In total, there are 14 individual skeletons that have been identified, and over 150 ceramic vessels. None of the skeletons were buried; they were simply laid in or near shallow pools in natural terraces. The cave is a registered archaeological site and only two companies are licensed to run tours there.

Our day started with an hour-long drive to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Driving through the Belize's countryside is really beautiful: lots of rolling hills and mountains covered in forest, palm trees, and citrus plantations, and dotted with brightly-painted houses on stilts. We saw some Mennonites in their straw hats, overalls, and beards (for the men) and long dresses and bonnets (for the women). I knew that Belize had a decent-sized Mennonite population, but it was still odd to see them. They looked out of place driving their horse-drawn carriage in the tropical countryside.

We got to our parking spot, hiked an easy 45 minutes through the jungle (fording three streams along the way), and then donned our helmets and headlamps. We had to wear closed-toe shoes and socks, and it was a weird feeling to walk right through a river with my hiking sneakers on. When we reached the mouth of the cave, it hit me that this was a hard-core caving trip and I started to get a little nervous. We started by jumping right in the water and swimming (yes, that's right, swimming) across a 20-foot deep pool. We spent the next hour hiking through stalactites, stalagmites, and other huge underground formations. Sometimes the ground beneath us would be dry, usually the water would be waist deep, and sometimes we would have to swim where it was over our heads. We went in single file and had a fantastic guide who would tell us exactly what to expect... he would yell things like "put your right foot on this rock!" or "big rock on your left!", and we would pass the message back, one by one. At times, we had to do some serious climbing to get up to higher caverns, and there were a few passageways that were a bit of a squeeze for me.

Eventually, we got to a high cavern that was dry where we retrieved our cameras from the dry-bag that our guide was carrying and we took off our shoes to continue in sock feet. Only about 10% of the artifacts in the cave have been removed; the rest have been left EXACTLY as they were found, i.e. they have never been touched and are not even roped off. I should mention that the guides that lead these tours have been extensively trained, and ours was vigilant about ensuring that none of us disturbed any of the artifacts or rock formations. We were told exactly where to step and stand and where to put our hands when we needed support, and we were always warned about even the smallest pottery shard that was in our path. And there was lots to watch out for... there were pots absolutely EVERYWHERE! Some were obvious, but others were so encrusted with calcium carbonate that they seemed to be part of the cave itself. We were lead through a series of chambers and caverns until we came to the skeleton that the cave was named for. It was amazing to think of people making the trip in here 1200 years ago with only fire to see by.

I should also mention that it was incredibly dark in the cave. At one point, we turned off our headlamps and it was utterly dark... I linked arms with the girl beside me because we were both a little creeped out. Kind of had us wondering where Gollum was. My photos make everything look warm and bright, but that's because my camera has a pretty bright flash; it didn't look anything like that to us. Our headlamps just projected a weak fluorescent beam on whatever was directly in front of us.

After we saw the last skeleton, we turned around and headed back. Our group was the first to arrive in the morning and it really enhanced the spookiness of the whole thing that we were the only ones inside. By the time we were leaving, other groups were coming in and I appreciated the early wake-up call this morning.

We ended with some lunch at a spot outside the cave and then hiked back to our air-conditioned Land Cruiser (which was as luxurious as a limousine, as far as I was concerned). Back in San Ignacio, I took a nap and then walked around the town for a bit. A couple that I met today raved about their visit to Placencia, so I think I might head there tomorrow, if I can find a bus. For now, I'm going to go relax on my balcony and then hit the sack.

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