Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre or the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave is a must do if you are floating around Belize, and in particular San Igancio.
Getting there is a bit of an arduous journey over a bumpy road for a bit more than hour, and once at the carpark you need to hike through the jungle for around 40 mins, which I think helps to build the whole experience – as you really are on a special journey into a remote Mayan sacrificial and relic resting place. The 3 river crossings on the hike give some much needed practice at getting your footing in slippery, watery surrounds.
By the time you reach the small shelter just outside the cave entrance the heat will have really set in and humidity will be palpable. It’s time to shed the last of your belongings and perhaps have a quick bite to eat before donning helmets, testing out your lights then slowly clambering across the first of many rocks and sinking into the cool water before swimming a few metres into the darkness – look back to a stunning vista of lush green vegetation and limpid spring water as you descend into what was once believed to be the Mayan netherworld.
Within moments you are enveloped by the dark coolness of the cave – let the adventure begin! The journey is around one and a half kilometres, sometimes with the water around your ankles and sometimes it is up around your neck. There is quite a bit of manoeuvrings required and a few tight squeezes where you need to place your head in just the right position to get through narrow openings in the rocks. When you are not squeezing you are climbing, crawling or wading – there really isn’t that much normal walking.
Arriving at the natural rock platform which holds the precious artifacts you face the biggest challenge so far – a climb up a two metre boulder and onto the ledge above you. Watching another group come down I feel slightly at ease as some make it look not that difficult. In the end going up and down was not a problem – it is all mind over matter and if you have reasonable fitness and flexibility you should have absolutely no issues.
The story of the cave as a space where ritual offerings were carried out some 1400 years ago fascinated me on the practical side as I could not quite work out how they carried some of the pots into the cave in the first place as some of them were pretty big. However I was assured that there is more than one entrance and the offerings were of such significance that it was all worth the effort. Many of the skeletal remains inside remain untouched and the whole site seems to be fairly well treated and respected by the local guides.
Unfortunately, some visitors have not been as respectful – cameras were banned a couple of months ago as someone ignored the “no enter” area to get a closer shot of a skull, the idiot dropped their camera and left a rather large hole in this priceless relic….. aaaargggghhhh unbelievable!!!!
There is a surprising amount of life within the cave with some tiny plants battling their way into existence from seeds in fruit bat poo to live a short but sweet life on rocks in the darkness. Sizable crabs can also sometimes be seen – I happened upon one by chance sitting on the wall and was surprised at its size. Up in the dry chamber unusual looking cave dwelling insects with antennae two or three times the length of their body dart around in the darkness. The stalagmite and stalagmite formations are simply stunning, with the cathedral area having almost a natural chandelier.
Overall definitely worthwhile and as I mentioned not that difficult if you have reasonable fitness and flexibility. It’s expensive at US$85 but I am finding most of the region to be quite expensive. Lunch is included, takes a whole day and is impossible to do without a guide.
Unfortunately no pictures coming for this story as camera’s are no longer allowed inside the cave but to see a selection of images in National Geographic click here.