We had a quick breakfast to try to get on the road. The guides again were going to be ready by 8am. Today we’re doing what would be the highpoint for a lot of us; the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves (ATM for short). The ride was rough, our van barely wanted to go up hill, and the suspension was shot from all the bouncing down dirt roads it must do every day. It took the better part of 2 hours until we reached the parking lot.
We were reminded that the rule is no cameras. They’re incredibly strict about it, and we were reminded no GoPros, no phones, no SLRS, nothing. It’s not just a matter of the possibility of dropping a camera on a priceless artifact (this happened with one of the skulls), but also not paying attention and crushing one (someone stepped on a bone). I can understand this. It would have been nice if the guides were at least allowed a camera, I’d buy pictures off them in a heartbeat, but the thinking by the government is that the guides are fallible people too, and I can see the logic in it. The sad part though is that for such an incredibly day all I have to show for it is a photo of the group at the end. The images I’m including from inside are from Wikimedia commons and are public domain images.
Our first steps down the trail were immediately into a river, low for the dry season with a rope spanning it’s width that we could hold onto. The rocks were slippery but the water was quite warm, surprisingly warm. We would cross the river 2 more times on the 45 minute hike to the cave entrance. We were instructed to leave our packs and water here. Jenn and I split a cliff bar and drank a liter of water. Here we were given head lamps for our helmets and walked down to the entrance. We’re split into groups no larger than 8. We have the Schneiders, Linda and Roger and Sara with us.
The start is pretty striking. The cave itself has a river running through it, bursting out into the open to fill a large pool surrounded by green jungle. Our start is to jump into this pool and swim across into the cave where there is a point we could climb out of the water. Not that it mattered much, we’d spend much of the trip waste deep or deeper wading and swimming through the cave. Once inside our group collected back up with bats flitting around us. They get tons of visitors.
From here we were scrambling over rocks, and eventually back to swimming and wading. Jenn slipped on a rock and landed really hard on her side. I was really worried, it took her quite a while to compose herself and the resulting bruise was impressive, black blue AND red. Ouch! Inside the cave the temperature was very temperate, not uncomfortable at all, and the water remained about as warm as the air. It takes over an hour to get into the final section where we climb up this 10’ bolder and pull ourselves up onto a shelf headed up.
In the final section to avoid damage to the rock we’re asked to take off our shoes and put on socks. It’s now 1/4th of a mile each way just in socks. This is really the spectacular part of the whole thing. From here there are pot shards all over the place, so much so that if you stepped an inch off the winding path you’d likely step on a piece. It’s amazing the density of the relics here, and how undamaged they are after centuries. I hardly expected to see full vases with the only damage to them often being a hole punched in them by mayans when they sacrificed the contents. In addition to the pottery there were many skeletons from sacrifices made during the lean years when more than just the best goods needed to be sacrificed. Interestingly many of the skulls we saw were strangely shaped, intentionally so by the people of the time to make themselves look more attractive in life. Everything was covered in lime laid down from the mineral rich water of the cave, giving it a sense of age. Sadly many of these skeletons here had been damaged resulting in the camera rules I mentioned before.
It was kind of fun to have our large group broken up into smaller groups strung out through the cave. As we finished at the far end of the cave and made our way back we saw the other 2 groups as we passed them.
Surprisingly I think the way back was more fun and interesting than the way in. We took a different route through the cave and had a number of narrow spots and more than one swim through culminating in the “neck chopper”, a narrow pass where you had to bring your head above a small out cropping so it could slide between your chin and chest, twisting your body and neck part way through.
Out of the cave everyone was really hungry and salivating for another great meal from Black Rock. Out of the cave we collected our things. Jenn and I scarfed down a cliff bar before the hike back to the cars. Then we had some pretty boring chicken deli sandwiches, but god I needed something!
The ride put about everyone to sleep, except for Lisa, who managed to stay awake. Mostly. It’s an interesting ride, but we’ve done it before by now, and it’s been a long day.
Showered and back into normal clothes with a quick nap before dinner starts. Tonight’s being my favorite dish from our first visit, a light chicken curry over rice with pumpkin seeds. I’d mentioned it to black rock when we first put together the menu and here it appeared again. I think it didn’t taste quite as good partly because we weren’t in the same state of mind as the last time we visited and had this meal, absolutely exhausted, cold and wet with it raining heavily, plus the meal 2 nights before just overshadows all.