After exploring the magnificent sprawling Mayan ruins of Tikal, I made my way across the Guatemalan border to Belize (this was the easiest border crossing ever and took less than 5 minutes even with a line!) and on to the town of San Ignacio.
Entering Belize was like entering another world. EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. What???? I’m so engrained with speaking Spanish now that having to speak English was so strange. I asked the shuttle driver that picked us up on the Belize side of the border why that was that everyone spoke English and he said that it was because Belize was settled by buccaneers that roamed the Caribbean in the 16th century. That being said, because trade and shopping is so frequent with cheaper Mexico and Guatemala, most Belizans can also speak Spanish and some Creole as well.
Anyway, I had made this pitstop in San Ignacio for one reason, to tour the ATM cave Belize. ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal in Mayan or Cave of the Crystal Maiden. There were many companies offering this tour, but I went with Belize Nature Travel, mainly because they departed earlier in the day than anyone else who responded to my email query, although they cost a bit more than others quoted. Only 25 tour guides have ever been trained by archaeologists to offer this tour and each guide can only have a group of 8, so it’s somewhat vital to sign-up before arriving in San Ignacio.
After getting picked up, we were driven the 45 minutes to the park where the ATM Cave Belize is located… on the way, we saw many types of trees such as Mahogany as well as Chicle trees in which they use the sap to make gum from and I learned that cashews come from a fruit. What???? How have I not knew this before?
The nut is actually inside the green stem of the fruit, and you can eat the fruit itself. The world never ceases to remind me how little I still know, and how much there will always be to learn.
But I digress, back to the ATM cave Belize adventure….
On the tour, no one is allowed to have cameras past the parking lot. As a blogger and travel nutcase, this alone almost made me not take the tour… but the reviews others left were enticing, “the best thing I did in Belize!” “an experience not to miss” people raved. Some of this I rolled my eyes to, I mean… it’s a cave people… but here I was on the tour because those reviews suckered me in.
Our guide told me that the ATM cave is considered the “best cave in the world” to which of course I challenged… what makes it the best? He told me I’d see, my mind would be blown. I said… no really, how is that quantifiable… he looked like he wanted to punch me in the face. I shut up and decided I’d just wait for my mind to be “blown.”
Later on he explained that National Geographic, History and the Discovery Channels have done documentaries on the ATM Cave Belize and the National Geographic Society has ranked it one of the top ten caves of the world. That doesn’t still doesn’t make it quantifiable the “best cave in the world” as “best” is subjective, but that’s just minor details I suppose.
Entrance to ATM Cave Belize (this is not my photo)
The entrance to the cave was a 45 minute hike from the parking lot through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve that also required traversing three rivers, so we were waist-deep in water before even hitting the cave. I like it. Then at the entrance, we had to jump into the water and swim; climb rocks, and wade some more in more waist-high water before entering the lower chamber. I should add, we were all issued hard-hats and headlamps previous to entry so we could see what we were doing.
According to our guide, the Mayan’s considered going into the cave going into hell or the underworld and they went there to find their Gods as they were beginning to experience famine in their lands.
So in around 300 AD they began venturing into the cave to give offerings. In the first few hundred years, they only went as far as the first chamber, where they offered to the gods gifts of corn, chocolate, etc.
As things got more desperate, they ventured further into the cave and offered blood-letting, and when things were at a critical time for the Mayans around 900 AD, they went even further into the cave to the upper chamber offered human sacrifice to attempt to appease the Gods and bring rain.
This… is why the cave is called the cave of the crystal maiden. This female skeleton from 900 AD was a human sacrifice offered to the Mayan gods. Due to the water in the cave, it has been well-preserved and calcified.
In the ATM cave, there are actually skeletal remains of at least 14 people including at least one baby, but the crystal maiden was the most preserved and there are more than 1400 artifacts.
The reason people are no longer allowed to bring cameras into the cave is that idiot tourists have damaged artifacts #1, by dropping a camera on to a skull and knocking out its two front teeth; #2 by dropping a camera on to another skull which created a giant hole that made the skull look like a blunt force trauma victim and #3 someone got so excited about taking a picture of an artifact that they didn’t pay attention where they were going and stepped on the skeletal remains of a tibia, smashing it.
So in agreement with the archaeologists, now no one can have cameras and everyone can only wear socks in the chambers, which makes everyone a lot more conscious of where they are stepping and they have not had any more incidents since.
After 5 hours of swimming, climbing and caving in the ATM cave Belize 1000 feet deep under the earth, we finally swam out of the cave entrance and ravenously devoured our lunches.
Was my mind “blown”? No, but it was a GREAT adventure. Even without the ancient Mayan artifacts getting to explore the cave was a very unique type of fun and I was not disappointed I had listened to the reviews that beckoned me to join. UnBelizeable.