I woke up full of fear.
Firstly, Jacob, the Tucan guide, had been adamant that the day spent exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal (commonly called ATM) caves was normally a highlight of everyone’s trip. I however, am pretty claustrophobic and have never been completely happy on any cave experiences I’ve had before. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of immediate exit, the crushing feeling of being underground or the actual physical small spaces but it has often taken a lot of deep breathing to get me through the caves.
Secondly, I had to wear Crocs with socks. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.
The ATM caves offer a unique adventure opportunity. The caves have hidden Mayan artefacts from rituals and ceremonies for a thousand years. Skulls of babies, children and even a complete skeleton remain. The best part? Only a small sliver of orange tape separates you from experiencing the caves exactly how the Mayans did.
Mayawalk tours picked us up early in the morning to start the one hour drive to Tapir Mountain Reserve. The name excited me but we saw no cuddly Tapirs. Instead I had to get my Tapir fill a month later at the zoo back home.
The last twenty minutes of the drive left the tarmac road behind as the minibus bounced over the rock, gravel and mud road. We entered the reserve, parked up and picked out our gear. This meant finally accepting my Croc fate and leaving my flip flops in the minibus. You need secure water shoes or trainers (beware, in this humidity they may take weeks to dry) for swimming and scrambling over rocks in the first part of the caves. Then once you are nearer the Mayan relics the caves are famous for you are asked to take your shoes off. The socks stop oils from your skin damaging the caves and running off into the water.
After an enjoyable walk through the trees and bush, including three wading river crossings, we arrived at the entrance of the cave. Helmets donned, headlights on, we plunged into the river flowing out from the caves.
Over the next three hours we climbed, clambered, fell, stumbled and swam through the caves. My fears of claustrophobia were never realised, I think I was too busy concentrating on where my feet were going next and the true grandeur of the caves. There were only a few times that we had to squeeze through narrow parts of rocks and these were always in a large room.
At one point the guide asked us all to turn off our headlamps and wade through the water just by holding onto the shoulder in front of us. I’ve never seen such all encompassing darkness. Once we’d gotten over the initial nervous giggling, our guide told us stories in his best atmospheric voice and led us through.
There were definitely some points were I wished I was just a bit taller. It was hard work sometimes to pull myself up but the exertion was worth it. It’s so hard to believe that you are allowed to walk so closely to the relics, to peer into and underneath vases. You can’t help but think that in Europe or America you would be suspended on a metal walkway the whole way through the cave, if allowed in at all.
The final rooms in the cave were enormous and the darkness was very disorientating. We were heading towards the highlight of the day, a skeleton from a sacrifice, preserved yet covered in crystals from being covered and uncovered by water in the cave. Despite the guard insisting she was arranged in a party pose – “Look, she’s dancing!” – it did seem more like the poor dear was in distress.
Walking back to the minibus, we quickly dried off in the afternoon’s heat. Belize gets one thing absolutely right – complementary drinks at the end of an excursion. As we sat drinking our Belikin beers, I realised just how happy I was that I had ignored my fears (and fashion conscience!)
(All photos taken from http://www.mayawalk.com , cameras aren’t allowed in the caves since a tourist dropped a camera onto a skull last year)