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15 January 2010
Photo Friday: dem bones, dem bones
spelunking in ATM cave

dem bones, dem bones, deep inside the cave
dem bones, dem bones, deep inside the cave

Sometimes my best adventures have the fewest photos, because I'm so busy *doing* that I forget to play travel photog. This was definitely the case during a daylong trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, outside San Ignacio, Belize. (At the tail end of my 10-week Central American junket in 2007.) The tour consisted of a hike through the jungle, a swim upriver to the mouth of the cave, and then spelunking -- I love that word! -- through the cave itself. The highlight of the cave tour is the pottery and human remains found deep inside, evidence of Mayan spiritual ceremonies from days of yore. Creepy goodness!

entrance to ATM cave
entrance to ATM cave

Mayan pottery inside the cave
Mayan pottery inside the cave

calcite-encrusted skeleton of The Crystal Maiden
calcite-encrusted skeleton of The Crystal Maiden

Don't forget to visit DeliciousBaby's Photo Friday for more fabulous travel pics!

* original ATM blog post: Spelunk, Part 2!
* all Belize stories
* all Belize pics
* DeliciousBaby's Photo Friday

If you enjoyed this post, please help us spread the word!

Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

07 September 2007
Spelunk, Part 2!
Dem bones and more in the ATM cave
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.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

06 September 2007
Lots and lots of Mayan ruins
OK, back in business after a few days of waiting for Hurricane Felix, which turned out to be something of a non-event. It did dump several inches of rain out here in western Belize, which had an impact on some of the cave tubing trips but was otherwise no big deal.

Today I did a tour to Caracol, largest Mayan ruin site in Belize. Led by guide Jorge and driven by a funny little guy named Everald, both of whom work for Mayawalk Tours, we were a fairly small group of two British couples and myself. The drive out to Caracol started off along some nice paved roads that took us past several Mennonite farms. (Can I just say how bizarre it is to see Amish-looking people in middle-of-nowhere Belize??? Yet another piece of Pennsylvania here in Central America.) But then we veered off the main road onto one of the bumpiest paths I've encountered since the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Part of it was due to the recent rains, but I got the sense that these dirt roads are never in particularly good shape. We did pass through two distinct ecosystems -- pine forests on one side of the river, and rain forests on the other -- which was pretty cool. Unfortunately some nasty beetles brought in by Hurricane Mitch had destroyed most of the pine trees several years back, but it looked like they were starting to make a comeback.

After about an hour of frog-in-a-blender jouncing and bumping, we finally arrived at the park. Thank god! Jorge led us through a lush forest trail and gave us a history lesson along the way. He used rocks and stumps on the trail to illustrate the complex interdependencies, alliances, and wars between the largest Mayan civilizations of the region: Caracol in Belize, Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, and Calakmul in Mexico. Belizeans are quite proud of the fact that Caracol defeated Tikal, twice. After Jorge finished, we were all a bit dizzy with information overload. If you care to know the gory details, you can read more about Caracol here.

We spent the next two hours clambering over various structures: temples, a ballcourt, and some spooky dank tombs. There's a lot to see at this site, but it's still only a fraction of the entire city. As with Tikal and most other sites, the jungle has encroached over time and still covers most of the temples and residences. They have done a pretty good job of reconstructing some of the jaguar masks on the sides of the temples, which illustrate scenes from the various levels of Mayan heaven and underworld (Xibalba). And some of the stelae show representations of the most powerful rulers in great detail, including the dwarves which were considered sacred attendants to the king.

We had some lunch at the visitor center -- standard chicken-with-rice fare, which is pretty frickin tasty when you're ravenous -- and continued on to the Rio Frio cave and Rio On Pools. The cave was OK. No bats or anything, and we saw the entire thing in about ten minutes. We were hoping to get to swim in the pools, but with the recent flooding the river was dangerously high and all we could do was stand at the overlook and look forlornly at the lovely cool water below. Oh well.

All in all, it was a nice day, and felt good to be getting out and about in the world after several days of waiting around.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

05 September 2007
Chill time in San Ignacio
Back in business tomorrow!
I've been holed up here in the mountains of western Belize, waiting for the rains to pass. Fortunately Felix went further south than expected, so I managed once again to avoid any major weather trauma. Still kinda bummed about cutting my Ambergris junket short, but I'll probably spend the last few days of the trip on Caye Caulker to make up for it.

In the meantime, I've decided to book two trips in the next two days to take advantage of the best the Cayo District has to offer. The first is to Caracol, largest Mayan ruins site in Belize. The second is to Actun Tunichil Muknal (don't worry, nobody knows how to pronounce it and it's generally referred to as ATM) which involves some cool spelunking and checking out human remains and other archaeological goodies. Sweet!
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
03 September 2007
And then there was Felix
Time to get the hell outta Dodge
OK, well, I managed to avoid Hurricane Dean, but it looks like Felix might be a direct hit. Dagger!

boarding up White Sands Cove Today was spent hurriedly getting off Ambergris Caye, where I'd been lounging in the lap of luxury with my DC peeps Josh & Kathryn. Nobody's entirely sure how bad this one will be, but it was looking like all international flights might be canceled tomorrow, so J&K came home day early and I split as well.
They've pretty much evacuated the Cayes and are boarding up windows in Belize City. Everyone is glued to the Weather Channel, which in addition to showing mostly-useless updates is also featuring lots of People Who Died In Severe Storms-type shows. Just what we all need, more drama!

I took a bus (a nice one! with air conditioning!) two hours west to the town of San Ignacio, which is close to the Guatemalan border. Unfortunately everyone else in the country seemed to have the same idea and I had a REALLY hard time getting a room. I finally found one, and plan to hunker down here for a few days. I don't think there will be any major issues this far inland, but keep yer fingers crossed and I'll check in when I can!
Posted by soniaz at 5:30 PM | Link | 0 comments