It was another rainy day in Belize, and we were heading into the Tapir mountain reserve where some of the best caves in Belize are located. This was one hell of a drive, over rocks, mountains, fording rivers (no joke!), and finally arriving at the jungles edge where we hike the rest of the way to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM for short. Carlos was our guide this time, and he is one of the best known cavers in Belize, having even taken the Discovery channel on several expeditions across the country. Our walk through the jungle was something out of a movie, Indiana Jones perhaps? Trees the size of skyscrapers, absolutely impossible to veer off the beaten path because the jungle was so dense, and Carlos still needed to carry a machete for any re-growth (I got to hold the machete for pictures). On our way to the caves, Carlos pointed out plants that were used for medicines, for eating and taught us tips on how to stay alive in the jungle (we were hoping there wasn’t a test at the end). Carlos was in the military, and he was trained to survive. He showed us a termite nest, and said how great a source of protein they are. We laughed. He told us they taste like carrots and we laughed even harder. “You don’t Belize me? Try it for yourself!” He said, so we did! Yes, we ate live Termites, as live as they get. And God as my witness, they taste almost identical to carrots!!
We had to cross what was nicknamed the “roaring river” three times before we got to the cave, how did we cross you ask? Well we walked through, chest deep, charging against a fast river (mind you it’s rainy season, so all the rivers are very fast, and very high). This was very difficult and we all had to hold hands so none of us lost balance and fell down stream. This was all so crazy to me! Little did I know it was about to get a lot crazier.
We finally arrived at the cave entrance, after about an hour’s worth of hiking into the heart of Belizean rainforest. And wow, the entrance was almost as beautiful as it was intimidating. The pitch black opening in the mountain side had a river roaring out of it, covered with trees and vines over the entrance. It was about as wide as a single lane road, and about as high as a three story house. Did I mention there was a river ROARING out of it?? And I didn’t see any sidewalks, or hand rails… By the way, I will be referring to myself as Indiana for the rest of this story…
After a bunch of awe inspiring pictures, we strip down to our bathing suits, turn the lights on our helmets and head in. You can see about 15 feet into the cave, then nothing, black as black can be. The only light source was coming from the tiny lights on our helmets. We couldn’t use any hand flashlights because we needed our hands to swim and climb. After fighting the initial waterfall, it’s a 15 foot swim in 10 foot deep water directly against the river current to an area that’s about stomach deep. It was amazing, you look up, and it’s a giant cave, bats flying everywhere, and the only sound is the rushing water. CRAZY! EXHILIRATING! AMAZING! We went deeper, fighting the water, sometimes swimming, sometimes climbing, and sometimes ducking through passage ways the size of a beach ball (no fat people allowed). There were parts where Carlos had to go ahead with a vine, so we had something to pull ourselves with against the current, especially in the parts where we couldn’t even stand. There was nobody else, just Erica, myself and our guide in the dark, deep cave. The only other group at the caves that day went back because the water was too hard and strong. We had the choice to go back, but we knew we could do it.
I write quite often, and have good use of words, but putting this part into words seems impossible, the feeling was just so amazing. We have no pictures of this part either, because the camera had to be in a dry bag. There are no more words.
This cave was just discovered 20 years ago, and opened to the public only 10 years ago. Everything in it is exactly how it was left thousands of years ago. After about 500 meters into the cave, we reached our destination, the “Cathedral,” which was a 15 foot rock climb up to the cavern. An enormous dry cavern deep inside, hundreds of feet high and wide. Before we entered, we had to take our shoes off because it is considered hallowed ground. Absolutely filled up with ancient pots, where the Mayan priests would burn incense for their ceremonies, there were still ashes from the fires, and even smoke marks on the very top of the caverns above the fire pits. There were stone tools, and pots with carvings on them. I couldn’t believe the experience, I felt like we were discovering something ancient for the very first time, and the feeling is indescribable.
At one point, we got to a specific spot and Carlos instructed us to turn off all the lights, so we did. Pitch black. We could hear some rushing water in the distance, but that’s it. Carlos began a monologue about what the ceremonies where like in a very scary tone, he talked about how they would sacrifice noble families in here, to appease the gods, and then, just like that he flipped on his flashlight right beneath us. And there is was: a human skull. With the two front teeth carved out and the forehead flattened by a board at birth as a sign of nobility. Carlos took us to other areas that were off limits to tourists because we were all alone, we saw much of what only archaeologists and the guides have seen. There were skeletons, bones, tools, ceramics, even the skeleton of a baby in a little nook that we had to crawl on our stomachs through a tiny hole to get to. The giant stalactites and formations were totally awe inspiring.
Lastly, we saw the main attraction of the cathedral, the “Crystal Princess.” The skeleton of a young woman that was left in the cave thousands of years ago in a ceremony, covered by calcium mineral which gave the skeleton a crystal appearance. So many questions, who was she? Why here?
We left in deep thought, knowing that she died in this cave thousands of years ago, and remained there for so long. The Mayan civilization collapsed over the course of many centuries, and there she stayed, while the world progressed outside. To be found again, just 20 years ago, completely untouched, left the way it was, so so long ago. We felt sad, exhilarated, amazed. So many feelings, so many emotions.
We left feeling like we had conquered the world, that nothing could stop us. Erica and I both agreed it was one of the most exciting, and adventurous things either of us has ever done, and one experience we will never forget. We exited the cave screaming and cheering in excitement, like we just won the lottery. And in a way, we did. We feel very rich, rich in experience and culture.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.