For most people, Belize conjures images of crystal clear Caribbean waters and world class diving, however in May 2006, I discovered the interior jungles are filled with mystery and adrenaline-pumping adventures.
The highlight of my two week backpacking trip through this unique country was a 3-hour cave tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (“ATM”), also known as the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. The Mayans used the cave over 1,200 years ago for ritual sacrifices.
The expedition began with a 45-minute drive from San Ignacio, a city near the western border with Guatemala, to the entrance of the park which contained the cave. Our eight person group hiked for 20 minutes along a jungle trail, wading across three streams, until we arrived at a staging area used by Thomas Miller, the archaeologist who discovered ATM in 1986. It consisted of a campfire site, outhouse, and small roofed area.
We donned our helmets and headlamps, climbed down a small bank, and began to swim upstream into the ominously dark, hourglass-shaped entrance of the cave. After a few minutes, the headlamps were our only source of light, while the cool water being splashed around was the only sound.
Walking single file, my eyes were consistently focused on the foot placement of the person in front of me. Twisting an ankle or falling on the slippery rocks was a real danger. Our guide navigated us through spaces small enough to confound a contortionist.
Eventually, we arrived upon a giant boulder, which we climbed up in order to reach the dry chambers containing ancient Mayan pottery and remains. Due to the sensitive nature of the archaeological site, we were all required to wear socks, which were sopping wet by this point. Great care was given to walk only where our guide walked, as we navigated through the eerie chambers of stalactites and stalagmites.
The ultimate reward for our efforts was the opportunity to climb up a 12-foot ladder to a small chamber containing the full, calcified skeletal remains of a young woman who had been sacrificed to the Mayan Gods.
This experience left me feeling like Indiana Jones. It was truly one of the greatest adventures of my life. Tour entries into ATM are timed so you rarely run into others. Group size is limited to about 8 people. Many tour companies across Belize offer trips to Actun Tunichil Muknal, however it is easiest to access from the small city of San Ignacio.
I signed up for a tour one day in advance, at a cost of $80, through Mayawalk Tours. The drive and cave guide were both excellent.
See all of my photos from backpacking in Belize on Flickr.