Actun Tunichil Muknal Recap

Actun Tunichil Mukal was absolutely my favourite part of my Mayan Adventure. I can’t believe I didn’t write a post about this while I was on my trip. Blame it on my inability to find an internet cafe in San Ignacio. That or spending too much time at a bar called Faya Wata:

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The ATM cave was so cool that I’m going to hit you with a read more link to get the rest of the goodness, see you after the jump!

Let’s get straight down to buisness. The ATM cave is formed by a system of streams that flow through the ground in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. To get there our tour group took an early morning van ride from San Igancio into a region that was covered by orange groves. We had a short stop at the last sign of civilization, only to find the most foul-mouthed parrot I had ever heard.

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From there is was only a short drive to the edge of the jungle and the path that would eventually lead us to the entrance of the ATM cave. If you are planning on doing this trip, it takes up almost a full day. There’s about an hour hike to the entrance of the cave through the jungle, which is full of very interesting plant and animal life. For the most part we only saw insects, but our guide knew a ton of stuff about the plants. Along the way, it’s necessary to cross a stream several times. I say stream, but I was given to believe that it was at it’s lowest point of the year. Our knees got wet, but it wasn’t much of a challenge to cross.

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Before we entered the cave, our tour group served us a horrible lunch of tuna and cucumber sandwiches, so bring your own snacks. We also had a chance to have a dip in the pools which formed at the mouth of the cave. The water was refreshingly chilly, since it was incredibly hot and humid. I also noticed schools of tiny fish, which looked very close to the aquarium style Tetras you can buy here in Canada.

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After lunch we got suited up with our helmets and our headlamps and it was off to the races. The entrance of the cave was a deep pool, that we had to swim across. Oh, and advice to weak swimmers, bring along a strong swimmer. In most cases the parts of the cave that you have to swim across are short and shallow, but occasionally there is a very deep pool, so it helps to have someone who can help you along. There was a 60-ish year old woman who was with us that wasn’t a swimmer at all, and the tour guide gave her assistance along the way (needless to say, she didn’t make it all the way to the end of the cave, so she turned back when we met up with an earlier tour group on their way out).

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Only a few dozen meters into the cave the darkness started overpowering our tiny headlamps. The following picture is looking across a large chamber towards the entrance of the cave. I tried getting a shot of the giant stalactite which the Mayans believed was the physical representation of the guardian of the underworld. It was a suitable symbol, but as you can see below, very hard to take a picture of (without a flash, of course).

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The trek into the cave lasted for over two hours, and we had more luck with wildlife in the cave than we did in the jungle. Inside the cave we saw a blind cave crab and a few cave fleas, which I think are more closely related to crickets than they are to fleas. There was also evidence of bats everywhere, although I didn’t see a single bat along the way. In the picture below you can see an awesome limestone formation in the foreground. In the background of the image you can see the ceiling of the cave, along with some strange holes. The holes are actually formed by the bats. Apparently when they are hanging from the roof and they poop, some of their poop hits the roof above them and slowly dissolves those holes into the roof. I have no idea how it works.

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So after about two hours hiking, swimming, scrambling we come to a point where there is a giant ledge, about 5 meters high and a single boulder that reaches up to it. This it the most challenging part of the hike, since it’s a wet, slippery, and wholly eroded rock that stands between the cave and an incredible cathedral underground. This is where the 60-ish year old woman got turned around. She spent about 15 minutes trying to climb this rock, but kept getting freaked out by the height. It was entirely psychological, since about a dozen people were giving her help. I felt incredibly bad, because as soon as we had climbed onto the ledge, out tour guide started pointing out signs of human life, notably sacrificial pottery.

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The number of artifacts in this part of the cave were staggering. The chamber that we were in could literally house the largest cathedrals that I had ever seen. Everywhere we stepped we had to plan carefully so that we didn’t disturb relics of the past. We were even require to take our sandals off and walk solely in our socks, to prevent our sweat from damaging the artifacts and the interior of the cave. The cave was used about 1000 years ago as a place of religious sacrifice to the god of the underworld. There were even remains of humans that had been sacrificed, many of them bludgeoned on the head with special tools that had been found near their resting places. The picture below is a skull illuminated by a red LED. One of our tour members had strayed off the path and almost walked on it, but our tour group was watching everyone carefully, so there was no risk of damaging it.

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One of the most famous features of the cave is know as The Crystal Maiden. It’s a complete skeleton of a teenage female that was sacrificed in the cave. The skeleton had been covered with layers of calcium carbonate as the water levels in the cave rose and fell through the rainy and dry seasons over the course of a millennium. Our tour guide speculated that she had been hit in the face, because her jaw was inhumanly askew, and then left for dead in the cave. Her resting place is high up above the main chamber, which means it is possible that she was trying to find a way out of the cave when she finally succumbed to her injuries. There is a skeleton nearby of a very small person, who would have been her guide in the underworld, since she was likely to be a Maya royal. This point marked the end of the tour where we would have to turn around and head back to the jungle.

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The return journey was an excellent way to reconcile how difficult it must have been for the Mayans to access this cave, let along discover and explore it in the first place! Several of our group member’s headlamps had started to go dim (mine included) and luckily our group leader had packed some extra batteries for us. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to accomplish a journey like that with only fire based light sources? You have to remember that we swam almost a third of the time we were traveling through the cave, sometimes through crags and cracks that were so small that our largest companions had difficulty getting through them!

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By the time we had finished our hike out of the cave, we were exhausted. We were inside for nearly 4 hours, and in addition to that we had to hike another hour just to get back to the van. Before we packed up for the hike I had a celebratory swim in the entrance to the cave, to celebrate my return from the world of the dead. I’m looking forward to visiting again!

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