"You're very lucky," our guide, Patrick, told me when he picked me up in the morning, "the ATM caves have been closed due to flooding for the past two weeks and just reopened this morning." Surprise and relief washed over me, the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) caves were the main reason I was in the Cayo district of Belize. I was headed to the island paradise of Pelican Beach Resort the next day. As I settled in for the ride to the caves I thought I was ready. I was prepared for claustrophobic spaces and swimming through underground rivers but as we pulled away from our hotel, Rumors, I had no clue what lay ahead.
After a 20 minute drive on the highway, we turned onto a dirt road, bouncing and swerving to miss potholes and splashing through streams in the 4X4, heading deeper into the jungle. We arrived at the park entrance early, only one other vehicle was there but many more would soon be arriving, Patrick assured us. I was glad we had a small group and got there early so we could go at our own pace, rather than having to wait behind the large groups that were coming. We all slipped into our water shoes and life jackets and started off into the jungle, eager and a bit nervous.
Not more than 500 feet from the parking lot, we met our first obstacle, a wide, fast flowing river. The yellow rope dangling across it for guidance wasn't too assuring but the rest of my group gleefully plunged in and started swimming, so I jumped in too. The water was refreshing, a slight shock at first but it felt good as the jungle humidity had been growing all morning. The water wasn't as fast as it looked, I grabbed onto the rope, easily pulling myself to the other side. A 30-minute walk through the jungle foliage and two more river crossings ensued, bringing us to the cave opening.
At the mouth of the cave we switched on our headlamps and proceeded to make out way across the slippery rocks into the river streaming out of a large opening in the side of the hill. I swam through the turquoise water, which quickly became black beneath the vast cavity inside. I pulled myself out on the other side of the pool, gaping up at the cavern rising above me, engulfing the meager light from my headlamp as the cool air and darkness enveloped us. With a sly smile on his face, Patrick announced, "welcome to my office, you're now entering the underworld."
Patrick explained that the Maya believed the Gods who controlled agriculture and rain dwelt in the underworld and this cave was one of their most sacred sites, where the priest and elite would come to perform their sacred ceremonies from around 300 to 900 ACE. With the whispers of the underworld echoing in my mind we proceeded deeper into the cave, making our way upstream, carefully following Patrick. The depth of the river varied, forcing us to swim in places, fighting the current or climbing small waterfalls and around boulders. We squeezed through tiny openings and walked into vast caves that displayed sparkling stalactite and stalagmite formations. Our headlamps seemed dim in the heavy darkness and it was easy to image how difficult it must have been for the Maya who would have had only torches to explore the cave. I could only image accidentally dropping my torch in the river . . . what a terrifying place to be with no light.
After about a mile of navigating through the maze of flowing water, we came to the entrance of the sacred dry chambers where the Maya performed their ceremonies. We climbed out and made our way carefully up a rock outcropping. Removing our shoes, we wore our socks to protect our feet and the archaeological remains ahead. We knelt on hands and knees to crawl through another small opening, emerging into a massive cave on the other side.
Discovered in 1989, the cave was roughly in the exact same condition, containing all the same artifacts, a virtual living museum. We immediately started seeing ancient ceramics scattered throughout the cave, many calcified, merging with the floor. We moved deeper and higher up into the cave, inspecting relics, rock formations, and shadow pictures dancing on the cave walls. Patrick delved deeper into the meaning of the artifacts and their history; the pots were believed to have held food offerings, some were for holding liquids and even blood, as blood-letting was practiced in some ceremonies.
Finally, we came to a tall ladder that led up over a rock face of the cave, leading to the highest chamber. We shimmied up the ladder and over the rocks into a small chamber heavy with the smell of the musty earth. Patrick pointed his flashlight into a corner and there lay a full skeleton, shimmering from eons of crystal calcification. The young woman's skeleton lay with legs and arms slightly spread out, as if she had laid down for a nap. I couldn't begin to imagine who this young girl was and what had led her to this.
One of the 14 known human remains found in the cave, she is believed by some archaeologists to be there voluntarily, compared to the other who are found in captive positions. Patrick shared that clear-cutting and unsustainable use of resources to build temples had led to war, drought and famine, causing the Maya to venture deeper into the caves, offering bigger and bigger sacrifices to earn the gods favor and help. While heartbreaking, the human sacrifices seemed to be their last resort at attempts to save their civilization. On our way back, the mystery of the young woman and theories of the disappearing Maya whirled through my head.
The light hit my face as I emerged from the cave, warming my body and spirit. The jungle greeted us, alive with thick vegetation, chirping birds and buzzing insects. I had gone into the cave thinking primarily of myself, apprehensive of the darkness and claustrophobia, but I came out pondering the past and our present humanity.
Keeping it wild,
Want to learn more about Belize?
See where we went next: First Trip to Paradise at Pelican Beach Resort
Watch this video from an alumni family to see what a Belize Vacation looks like!
Read our blog 7 wild things not to miss on a Belize family adventure