Tag Archives: Actun Tunichil Muknal

The ATM Cave & Concurring Fear

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

   My son at Jewel Cave, South Dakota

When ever chatting with friends and family about outdoor activities, and the subject of spelunking and exploring caves came up, I always said that’s not for me. I’m not all that claustrophobic but the idea of squeezing my body through a tight space in a dark cave gives me the eebie-jeebies. What if I get stuck? And panic? And no one is there to get me out? Flash flood? Cave in? Aliens? Nope, not for me… Forget it!

In 2015 we took a family vacation to South Dakota. While there we visited the Jewel Cave. The cave had an elevator, walkways, railings, and LIGHTS. I was a little nervous but there were not any tight spaces and as long as we kept moving and the guide kept talking I was good. On the outside of the Visitors Center was a block to crawl through demonstrating how tight some of the “off trail”  paths were. Nope, not for me.

This January my husband and I visited Belize for the first time. We were told that a “Must-See” was the Actun Tunichil Muknal “ATM” Cave. The ATM Cave is a Mayan archaeological site near San Ignacio, Cayo District, that includes skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware. It sounded cool, my husband did the research and we booked the tour when we arrived at the hotel.

On the morning of the ATM Cave tour I woke to this notice that it was a POW day back home.
We were instructed to wear cloths we can hike, climb, and swim in. Including water shoes and a pair of socks. I wore a one piece swim suit and a pair of light weight cotton shorts, (next time I will pack some river shorts). For my shoes I wore my Keens and a pare of smart wool toe sock booties. I wear prescription glasses, and so did most of the others in our group, we needed to wear retainers on them so we would not loose them or drop them on an artifact. We were allowed to bring a day pack with dry cloths, snacks, and a camera but we had to leave it in the van at the trail head. Cameras were not allowed in the cave, damage to the artifacts had happened when someone dropped a camera on a 2000 year old skull and broke it. After 3 separate incidents the government passed a rule forbidding cameras. I wasn’t even allowed to carry my eppi pen, I had to the guide to carry in his dry bag. At the trail head we were given a life jacket, climbing helmet, a head lamp, and a liter of water. It was a mile hike to the cave entrance and we were told to drink half the water before we get to the cave, the other half on the way back..


We hit the trail, the first thing we did was swim across a river that is several feet deep. There was a rope to hold onto to guide us to the trail on the other side. IOn the trail we crossed water 2 more times, and the trail itself had several muddy spots that squished around (and into) the shoes. When we got to the last several yards before the cave entrance we were told to find a place to set our water bottle. There were no facilities, the men were told to use the jungle on the left, women the jungle on the right.

entrance-to-atm-cave-belize-actun-tunchil-muknal-600

Entrance to the ATM cave from the Belize.com website
Click photo to read more about the cave.

It was a privilege to be able to visit the site, they only allow 200 people a day in the cave. All have to be with a guide. The guide instructed us on footing, how to step, and what to touch & not touch. Then back in the water we went and swam into the cave. What was I thinking when I said yes to this? I have NO IDEA what I was thinking! Maybe because the Jewel Cave was so commercialized I didn’t give much of a thought to what I was getting myself into. My darling husband, being the smart man that he is, didn’t tell me it was a non commercialized cave, we would be doing real caving. So, on I trekked, thinking “no prob, I can do this”.

Squeezing through the cave openings

The “Guillotine” – We could not have cameras, this is not
my photo, it’s from a stranger’s blog blog. But, I did that!

The water in the cave was over our head at the entrance, throughout the cave the water was anywhere from ankle deep to several feet deep. A little way into the cave we met our first obstacle, a tight spot nick-named the “guillotine“.  I was the second to last to go through, my husband was behind me. We had to position ourselves so that our head was above a rock sticking out, and the rest of our body below, so that our neck goes by the rock. Remember, up until this very moment doing exactly this was a “I will never do” activity, and definitely NOT on my bucket list! What was I thinking? HOLY CRAP! I was not going to turn around now, everyone would have to leave too, so OMG I’m going to do this! As the woman in front of me worked her way threw the opening I was having this quiet conversation with myself in my brain that started out “Oh sh–! Oh F—! Oh sh–! Oh F—! Oh sh–! Oh F—!….” Then I rationalized with myself that my husband is bigger than me and if he would not fit they would not let him go, therefor I will fit into that tiny little space and not get stuck. Once it was my turn, I made a couple tries then decided to take off my life jacket (not dangerous), I slipped right through, no freaking out, no panic, no alien abductions. YAY!! I could not believe I did it! I was so pleased with myself. The woman in from of me said she was having the same feeling about it too. After that anything else in our path would be a piece of cake.

A video of people passing through the guillotine.
 

On the hike to the artifact room the guide made many stops to tell us about the cave, the Mayans, the culture, stalactites, stalagmites, the sink hole, and answer questions. When we got about a mile into the cave we had to climb a bolder and up on a (wide) ledge to get to the artifact room. The guide instructed us on climbing the boulder. It had divots where to put your feet, I would compare it to hoisting myself into a saddle on an 18 hand horse without standing on a log, the first step was a doozie! I had my husband push my bum up that rock. Once we climbed onto the ledge we took off our life jackets and shoes. This is where the socks come in, no shoes were allowed into the artifact room, minimizing damage to the cave. The wool toe booties worked great! They were not saturated with water, the grip was good, and my feet were protected. As I was walking into the artifact room in my socks I thought to myself “this is sooo worth missing a pow day for!’. 

In the artifact room was pottery and human sacrificial remains 1500 – 2000 years old, some just inches from the marked trail. For example, an artifact named the “Monkey Pot” was right there, next to our feet, easy to get a good look at in detail. It was SO COOL! In the very back of the cave was a calcified full skeleton nicknamed ‘The Crystal Maiden’, our guide said that was just a name dubbed by a reporter and there is not enough evidence to determine if it is a male for a female. The archaeologists believe she (or he) was sacrificed during a period of drought, to appease the god of rain. The Mayans believing the cave was where all water originated.

Did you read this and say ‘Hell no! Not me!”? I want to stress… don’t let your fear get in the way of this awesome opportunity. If I can overcome my fear and do this, so can you.
On the way out we stopped and the guide had us all turn off our headlamps. Then he had us close our eyes. When we opened our eyes they did not adjust, it was completely black. Up until this moment I had not even given the darkness a second thought. Imagine the Mayans trekking to the back of this cave with only torches.

The next day it started raining and all the caves closed, and it didn’t stop the rest of the week. We chose our day well. Would I do it again? YES! However there are so many other cool things we didn’t get to see in Belize I probably would not do it on our next trip unless we were with someone who had not done it before.