I'd heard lots of good things about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour, so I was pretty psyched for this one. And I was not disappointed! This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It combined the cool spelunking activities of the Costa Rican cave expedition with an excellent hike through the jungle, and inside the cave itself is a section of pottery and other archaeological remains, including several human skeletons from human sacrifice rituals. Kickass!
Our small group consisted of Patrick, our spirited guide of Mayan and African heritage who is also a shaman; and Bill & Katie, a friendly couple from Arizona with a real zest for life. It was great fun hanging out with these folks for the day. We started off with a 45-minute hike through the thick jungle, during which Patrick pointed out tidbits of local history, and various uses for the local flora and fauna. And he taught us how to use materials on the jungle floor to make a blowpipe and nail someone from 50 yards. Nice. Occasionally he'd swipe his huge machete at the overhanging vines in order to clear the trail a bit. The jungle seemed much denser than anything I'd been through in Costa Rica or Guatemala, and we had to cross a small river three times to get to the cave site. Patrick, ever the flirt, took the opportunity to hold my hand because the rocks were slippery. Have to give him a few points for creativity, I guess!
We reached the cave entrance and went for a brief swim and had lunch while we waited for another group to pass. The water was really chilly, and there were small fish nibbling at our skin, but it felt great after the sweaty walk through the jungle. We tossed our cameras and clothing into a dry bag, strapped on our helmets and lights (dead sexy!), and swam into the cave entrance. Patrick prompted us to dive to the sandy bottom and pick up a handful of gravel in a particular area that was supposed to contain special energy. Not sure if it was the frigid water or the power of suggestion, but I certainly did feel more awake when I emerged! Just inside the cave entrance was a rock formation that, when viewed with a bit of a squint, looked like the profile of a man. That was Chac, the river god, standing guard over the cave. Cooooool.
We swam and climbed and waded our way through the cave, turning off our lights at various points to appreciate the symphony of sounds the water was making. It was truly fabulous. At one spot we climbed up to a terrace where ceremonial remains stood, marking the bloodletting rituals the rich and powerful would perform on an annual basis. It was important to give something back, Patrick explained. Creepy-cool! A bit later we reached the dry area where the majority of the archaeological remains were found: huge cavernous rooms with pottery shards as far as the eye could see... some left in place and some washed around by water over time... lots of tripod stones, and examples of various styles of pottery, including one very sacred pot with a funny little character carved into it, the only one of its kind found at this site. And, the coup-de-grace, human bones! One skull in particular showed the various types of body modification fashionable at the time: flattened skull and ridged teeth, to give the appearance of youth. Makes about as much sense as breast implants. Further along was the female skeleton for whom the cave was named, almost completely covered in calcite deposits to give her a furry appearance. The whole thing was totally kickass.
We made our way back to the cave entrance, sometimes swimming and sometimes climbing. Patrick was careful to point out all protruding or dangerous rocks, but I missed one and gouged my knee. It is important to give something back, after all. Ouch! Back in the picnic area, we observed a long leaf-cutter ant highway and Patrick bashed open a nut he'd asked us to collect earlier in the day. It turned out to be a relative of the coconut, and the white fibrous meat inside was similar to coconut. Yum! Along the path back to the van Patrick spotted the tiniest little turtle I have ever seen, and collected it to place it in a safer spot later. The entire day was incredibly fun, tiring, but excellent.
When we got back to San Ignacio the four of us had drinks at Faya Wata, the bar next door to the tour office, and reminisced about the day. Patrick, it turns out, also makes jewelry, and I wound up getting a small carved ring made out of the same nut we'd snacked on earlier. It was a delightful end to a fabulous day.