Thursday, July 2, 2015

No Pictures? I can't Belize it...

I spent today at the Actun Tunichil Muknal Mayan site. ATM is a system of caves that have recently been rediscovered in the Cayo District of Belize. This system of caves has a ton of Mayan artifacts in it, including the calcified remains of about 17 people. It is thought that this was a major religious and sacrificial spot for the Mayans somewhere in the period of 700 - 900 A.D.

There are no photos allowed within the cave system since some idiot of a tourist dropped a camera on a thousand year old skull, shattering it, back 2012. So, that means I have nothing to post from inside the cave.
The road that takes you to about 1.5 miles from the entrance of the cave. You hike the last mile and a half through the jungle.

 We got to the end of the road where someone from the Belizean Government was posted to keep count of how many people came into the cave site. You cannot enter the space without a native Belizean guide. There are only about 20 licensed guides in the country with a limit of 8 people on a trip per guide. They do this to minimize the impact people have on the site. Once we got our helmets out of the van we started our hike through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve to the entrance of the cave system. We had to ford across a river three different times. Once we got to the end of the trail, there was a larger river coming out of a cave. We walked down to the river, jumped in and swam into the cave. Once inside we worked our way further into the cave. Our guide was fantastic. He was funny and very knowledgeable.

Many archaeologists think that the Mayan altered formations in the cave to create not only sacrificial altars, but to also create formations that cast certain shadows on the wall as you walk by with your torch. One of the first ones you see is of a jaguar mouth that will open and close as you walk by. You could see where certain stalactites had been broken to create the nose and the teeth. As we continued to go deeper into the cave system, we started to see more and more Mayan artifacts. They were not behind any glass or behind any barriers. They were simply marked off with tape so you didn't step on them. One of the highlights was seeing something that is called a 'Monkey Pot'. This is a ceremonial pot that has a certain monkey marking near the rim of the pot. It is one of four to have been found in Central America and is thought to be a ceremonial sign of life.

As we moved along, we came along more and more skeletons. There have been about 17 skeletal remains found so far. All of them have strong evidence of sacrificial killings, most involuntarily. The many of the remains have been found in a way that suggests that the had their hands and feet bound, were placed facing the wall of the cave and then were clubbed. You can see the evidence by the holes and cracks in the back of the skulls. After about two hours going deeper and deeper in the cave, we came across what is called the "Crystal Maiden". The Crystal Maiden is the skeletal remains of an adolescent, around 16 or 17, that was sacrificed in the cave. The skeleton is missing its hands (they are believed to have been cut off as part of the ceremony). There is also evidence that the person had their leg broken before being clubbed in the back of the head. It is called the Crystal Maiden because of where the body was left. It was left in an area where water ran over it for thousands of years, causing the bones to become calcified and cause them to sparkle a bit in the light.

After spending some time with the Crystal Maiden, we turned and started to head out of the cave. we spent another hour of swimming, rock climbing and squeezing our way through the cave before coming out at the entrance where we swam to the edge of the river and started our hike back through the jungle. We stopped and had lunch a little bit away from the edge of the river. We saw a few howler monkeys swing in the trees above us. After finishing lunch, we hiked out of the jungle and back to the van where we started the hour or so drive back into town.
On the way out!
This is one of the coolest day trips I have ever done. It is not for everyone. You have to be in relatively good shape, be able to swim and climb a bit over slippery stone. Not being afraid of small spaces or the dark is highly recommended. I think it is going to be hard to top this experience in my life. I am glad I was able to find a spot with a guide.

Tomorrow, I head into Guatemala to spend my last full day in Central America at the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I hear it is supposed to be a great trip and I am very much looking forward to it. It is hard to believe that this portion of my trip is coming to a close, but I have made some amazing memories that will stick with me for a long time.

But! for now, it is time for some Belikin Beer, some dinner and some reading to close out the day.

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