Monday, July 7, 2008

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Yesterday Betsy, Dave, Jen, and I took a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is one of the most unforgettable places I've ever seen.

ATM is a cave emerging inconspicuously from the jungle about ten miles south of the tiny, impoverished village of Teakettle. To get there we rode a minibus out the Western Highway to Teakettle, then followed a series of progressively worsening dirt roads before arriving at a trailhead at the edge of the forest. We hiked at a brisk pace over a muddy trail featuring three shallower river fordings before reaching the mouth of the cave. There we ate a small lunch, donned plastic helmets with headlamps, and transformed into amateur spelunkers.

The entrance to the cave is at once inviting and foreboding. I could imagine myself stumbling across it while walking through the woods, carefully considering it from a distance, then making my way up to the entrance to peer inside. If it was the right time of day, say early morning, and the sunlight bathed the cave in soothing tones of reddish-orange and lit up the crystal clear water enough to consider what might be lurking within, I'd probably be motivated to enter the cave and explore a little bit. If, on the other hand, it was later in the day when the sun would be higher and harsher and the cave would have appeared like a yawning black wormhole to the netherworld, the place would have scared the shit out of me. I imagine that the ancient Mayans who started coming to this place some time around 250 AD must have felt the same way.

Fortunately, we were being escorted by a friendly and knowledgeable local tour guide named Ben, so there was nothing to be afraid of. Unless my headlamp went out. Or something mysterious and scaly brushed past my leg in the dark water...

The only way to enter the cave is by swimming through a twenty-foot wide pool of water. I dove in and was immediately engulfed in the first sensation of chilly that I've experienced in Belize. By the time we were back standing on solid ground it was dark enough to switch the headlamps on. Ben gave us a quick lecture on safety, communication, and not disturbing the contents of the cave. Then we started deeper in to the darkness.

Traveling through the cave requires considerable amounts of strength, agility, and concentration. My first thought was that there is no way we would be allowed to do something like this back home in the States without five levels of certification and a dossier of liability release forms. The first time some arrogant yuppie lawyer from New York City assumes he knows more than the guide, wanders off on his own, and slips into a hidden crevice and breaks his ankle, that would be the end of that. Of course, this isn't the land of multimillion dollar lawsuits, this is Belize. You'd be lucky to get a free ride to the hospital here.

Anyway, as we waded through chest-deep water, climbed over boulders, snuggled through form-fitting crevices, and splashed through puddles, the beauty of the cave emerged. At some points we were surrounded on all sides by eons-old geological formations: stalagmites, stalactites, limestone flows, iron deposits, bat caves, and other chaotically beautiful natural sculptures beyond description. I was subconsciously astounded by the incongruity of the time dimension of the life of a geological entity. Aside from the water level and the occasional collapsed boulder, the cave I was seeing is nearly identical to the one those first Mayans would have seen while exploring by torchlight all those centuries ago.

And the more we saw, the easier it became to understand how the Maya came to see this place as a powerful spiritual enclave. At one point we hoisted ourselves onto and elevated ledge serving as the entryway to an enormous cavern nicknamed "The Cathedral". At that point we were asked to remove our shoes before entering, primarily to preserve the artifacts and cave formations contained within, but also as a sign of respect. Modern Mayans still identify strongly with the traditions of their ancient ancestors.

Inside The Cathedral we were exposed to other things that would be strictly forbidden back home in the land of handrails, velvet ropes, and bullet-proof glass. We tread lightly and consciously through a maze of pottery shards, firepits, and decapitated skeletons of human sacrifices left virtually untouched since the Mayans abandoned this holy place. And to stand in the center of The Cathedral and ponder the amplified echo of our voices and become immersed in the perfect darkness and stillness of the underground world is to truly understand for a fleeting instant how the Mayans could have believed this place to be a holy crossroads at the junction of life and death. My dad mentioned that parts of Barton Creek Cave reminded him of the enormous cathedrals of Europe. I have to agree I felt the same about ATM.

The tour lasted a few hours, and after we viewed the penultimate exhibit of the cave, a complete female skeleton hidden so well in a high, deep recess of The Cathedral that we have to assume (even if only for our own gratification) that she must have been a person of great ceremonial importance, we were ready to return to natural sunlight and dry clothing. We left the cave deeply satisfied, knowing that for the same cost as an SUV's tank of gas we were privileged to visit a place as unique as any on this planet.


Melinda said...

What a great adventure! You are so right about the difference in security/safety standards in the US. When we were in eastern Turkey many places were accessible and the attitude was that you were supposed to use your judgement and common sense....not rely on guard rails etc. Can't wait to see where your next explorations will be!

Susan said...

Hi karl and Betsy. I have been following your adventures with awe. I think what you are doing is incredible!!!

Enjoy the rest of your stay. Looking forward to seeing you in Portland when you return.

Be well,
Susan Ristau

Anonymous said...

hey bets and karl! have been following along and enjoying your accounts of the work you've been doing as well as the trips you've taken to different mayan ruins. its incredible what they were able to build with the technology they had available to them....and the fact that they are still standing today! sounds like you guys are loving your time in belize and learning a ton through your work. bets, your posting on health care in belize was very interesting and thoughtful.....i loved reading your perspectives and was amazed by many of the personal examples of situations of families in the community. wow. i miss you and hope you keep loving your experiences in such a unique country (im learning a lot about it through both of your posts!). un abrazo fuerte!