travel :: Sunday, November 30, 2008
Actun Tunichil Muknal
UNBELIZEABLE VACATION DAY 7 :: TAPIR MOUNTAIN NATURE RESERVE, CAYO DISTRICT, BELIZE :: Actun Tunichil Muknal is a Mayan term that I love to chant. It just sounds cool when I raise my chest and lower my voice: Awk-toon Toon-each-EEL Mook-nal. Translated, it means "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre". It's the name given to the incredible network of subterranean spaces that descend over three miles into the earth and were used between 1000-2000 years ago by the Maya for religious ceremonies, including grisly human sacrifices. Caves were churches for the Maya, and indeed, some of the caverns rival the greatest cathedrals with their immense volume and transcendent beauty.
Kristie and I have never considered ourselves to be spelunkers, but this is the one tour that the Belize travel guides consistently rank as the best. The NSS (National Speleogical Society) includes the ATM cave on its list of the top 10 caves in the world, and it has been featured in National Geographic magazines and on a Discovery Channel documentary. We couldn't skip it, and we're very glad we didn't, because it proved to be among the most amazing experiences ever.
The adventure started with a 45 minute walk through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. We followed our guide through the forest and forded four rivers to reach the entrance to the cave. Along the way, we learned how to identify several trees and plants, as well as their commercial and medicinal uses. The hike alone was fascinating, as the weather was perfect, the jungle was lush, and we enjoyed splashing through the rivers. We didn't care, because we knew we would be getting much more wet in the cave.
At the cave's entrance, we readied the lamps on our helmets and put our cameras and dry clothes into a drysack. The guide provided one for our small group to share, but we brought our own to fit my DSLR and flash. These would be brought out again when we reached the elevated caverns containing the artifacts. Until then, I relied on my Elph within a waterproof case to photograph our way through the water-filled cave.
The portal into the Mayan underworld is shaped like an hourglass, but to me, it also eerily resembles the screaming, haunted face within Munch's famous painting. Into this mouth we entered, and sank into a tourquoise pool fifteen feet deep and filled with fish. As we swam across, we were warned of vampire bats above our heads. Welcome to the abyss.
We bid farewell to the light of the world, and for the next three hours, relied on our headlamps (and the near constant strobe of my flash bulb) to illuminate our way through the total darkness. We stepped in and out of water, sometimes waist deep and sometimes swimming. Occasionally, we needed to climb or crouch, often using four contact points to navigate over fields of fallen boulders or twist through narrow passages. Our helmets were essential to protect our heads against overhangs that appeared just above the headlamp's beam.
At about the half-mile point, we emerged from the water into a large cavern. Here we ascended a series of rocks and ledges to the main ceremonial center. We removed our shoes, to respect the hallowed ground and to protect the pottery strewn about the cave's floor. Many of the pots are still intact, left untouched for a millennium. Most have been intentionally punctured or smashed, to release the spirit of what they once contained: Water, food, blood, bones and ashes. One of the pots contained a carving of a monkey, which the Maya considered to be the gods' third attempt at creating humans...
First came Man of Mud, who didn't work out for various reasons. Next came Man of Wood, who tended to catch on fire a little too easily. Third came Monkey Man, who was too playful and disrespectful of the gods. Finally, there appeared humans, who apparently were deemed just good enough.
Walking deeper into the cavern, our guide illuminated the tall ceiling and enormous stalagmite and stalagtite formations. These were believed to be the roots of the Yaxche, the sacred Maya Tree of Life. Its high, axial branches were believed to touch the celestial realm of stars and glorified ancestor spirits. The roots extended through the nine layers of the underworld, Xibalba.
Here we began to see the remains of the 7 adults and 7 children that have been discovered in this cave. The Maya did not sacrifice slaves or common people; only the best people in society were offered to the gods. One of the skulls had filed teeth, inlaid with jade. His forehead had been shaped and flattened by a board since birth. It's likely he also had a bead suspended above his nose, so that he could stare at it and permanently cross his eyes. He was royalty, and according to the ancient Maya, a pretty attractive guy. He was likely clubbed and/or choked to death by his priest.
Continuing further into the cavern, we came across a ladder propped against a wall. On this ledge, a chamber contains the famous Crystal Maiden, the completely intact skeleton of a teenage girl, covered with sparkling cave minerals. Just as the Cystal Maiden's journey ended here 1000 years ago, so had ours. We decided to postpone our entry into the afterlife, however. We hiked, crawled and swam all the way back the same way we came as we contemplated the world of the ancient Maya through their relics and magnificent cave. Actun Tunichil Muknal was truly an awesome experience. One that we'll always remember and treasure!
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