We were primarily using San Ignacio, Belize simply as a point to stop at in between other destinations. But we were delighted to discover all the awesome recreation the Cayo area had to offer. From cave tubing to waterfalls to horseback riding all in the mountain jungles, there was a lot to explore. But it seemed that something called the ATM was what everyone was constantly recommending to us. I already had sufficient cash on me, so no need for an automatic teller. But this ATM had nothing to do with banking; instead it’s an abbreviation for the Mayan name: Actun Tunichil Muknal. We didn’t know much about it or what to expect but decided to embark on the full day adventure and we were very glad we did.
We met our guide Luis, loaded up in his van, and left San Ignacio for about an hour’s drive out of town. The mountainous jungle roads eventually turned from asphalt to dirt roads that were crossing right through streams. We finally arrived at a trailhead and began hiking along side a river. After about a 15-minute walk, the trail seemed to lead directly into the river. The guide instructed us to wade and swim across the chilly water. We thought he may be joking, but he wasn’t, so with our backpacks over our heads, we forged across the river. We crisscrossed the river another two times throughout the hour-long scenic hike and this was just a light taste of things to come.
Finally we reached a point in which the river was coming out of a dark and narrow cave.
Our group of eight, dawned our headlamps, plopped on into the waist-high river, waded past the big brown spiders on the walls of the cave entrance, and then fought the current to swim upstream in the darkness. Stalactites, stalagmites, and columns protruded everywhere as our headlamps each darted along the cave’s walls to check out the formations.
We went deeper and deeper into this wet cave, submerging ourselves in the water. Sometimes it was knee deep, other times waist deep, and periodically we would be completely swimming.
Rather than lead us, our guide would instead rotate a leader from our group to navigate through the narrow crevices. Often the cave would branch off. This gave us a true sense of exploration but if we chose the wrong route, the guide would let us know to go the other way. At times we would need to get out of the water to climb up over boulders or down a wall in order to continue. Then there were the times in which we would need to contort our bodies to make it through extremely tight crevices in which I could barely fit. At one point I had to submerge myself just so that my neck and head were able to get through an incredibly narrow squeeze. We’re doing this all while still forging against the current moving a few miles into this deep cave.
After nearly two hours of spelunking, squeezing, and swimming our way up, we finally reached a point where although the cave continued our guide instructed us to instead climb up the side of a 30-foot tall wall up. Once we hoisted ourselves up there, we found a plateau of sorts and a large wide opening.
Luis then began showing us ancient Mayan pots and other artifacts brought into the caves centuries ago as sacrificial offerings. Many of the pieces were left exactly as the Mayans left them and had not been moved or altered from their placement thousands of years prior. Seeing the ancient artifacts deep in this cave in their original settings was like walking through a living museum. The pots and tools were interesting but he then started showing us skeletal remains and body parts of some unfortunate souls who were sacrificed. We pointed our headlamps at a number of bones and skulls as Luis elaborated on theories that led to their demise and how they were killed.
We finally reached one particularly well-preserved full skeleton towards the back of this area. Insane!
There were a few damaged remains in the cave as well. This was because a few years back tourists were being extremely careless and had stepped on artifacts and even dropped a camera on a skull. Since that incident, cameras have been banned from entering ATM, and rightfully so. So although we always use our own photos for this blog, we were not able to do so for this post, which is why the photos are sourced from elsewhere.
After viewing the artifacts it was time to navigate our way out of the cave. It was a bit quicker and easier going out with the current, than it was coming in. I had recalled how to maneuver through some of the tight spaces, which helped when having to squeeze through them again on the way out. We were actually getting used to things but Luis was not going to let us off that easy. At one point he had us turn off all of our headlamps to navigate through the pitch-black darkness, locked together with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us. This sightless conga line of sorts made me extremely uneasy as we were essentially blinded trying to travel through an extremely technical wet cave. The guide would instruct us to move more to the left or right at times, but I still wacked my head on an overhang a few times. Am very gladded we were supplied with helmets.
After being in the dark cave for about four hours, we were glad to finally see the sunlight again and dig into our packed late lunch back amongst the lush tropical mountain setting. We hiked out the way we came in, still excited and talking amongst each other about what we just saw and this most insane caving experience we had all just completed. It really is incredible, indescribable and unlike any other cave experience we’ve ever been in. Luis cruised us back to San Ignacio jamming out to 90’s gangster rap. Tupac thumped from the speakers as we recollected on this astonishing adventure.