Life after Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
As someone who can struggle with motion sickness, a 30 minute bus ride along a muddy and bumpy road seemed like a nightmare at the start of my adventure into the jungles of Belize. In a few short hours on our return trip, that ride would seem like a pleasure cruise.
It’s amazing what a little Dramamine and some perspective can do for an outlook on life.
The bus ride was just the first of many challenges on a group trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal. A local Belizean who ran a tour company sold my husband on what was billed as an adventure of a lifetime. It’s a sales pitch perfected over time: “It’s an easy walk!” the promised. Sure, you’ll walk through some water, but it’s always warm: “so warm!”
The first part of our cave adventure doesn’t start at the parking lot. These elements are left off the tour guide’s sales pitch. First, there are the three river crossings in murky water and a healthy hike along a trail where large cats could be lurking behind the next corner. Finally, we arrive at camp only to be told the adventure is NOW beginning.
So, we leave behind everything we’ve carried along this early part of the adventure, and walk straight into the mouth of a pitch-black cave with a river running through it.
We wear miners lights on our helmets help us see, as we walk through yet another river – the same river we crossed three times earlier. The water comes up to our waists. Sometimes, it reached our shoulders. We squeeze through narrow openings left behind by fallen boulders and balance in soaking wet shoes on loose rocks beneath our feet.
I slip. My knee hits a rock and I bleed. But I’m stuck in a cave miles from daylight. So, I keep going.
After what feels like hours, we reach a rock wall. We climb. From there, we’re told to take off our shoes. I’m really in no place to argue, seeing that the guide who makes the request is really my only lifeline to ever seeing blue sky again. At least we’re out of the river.
From there we walk in our wet socks towards a small opening. We squeeze through and enter a huge cave several dozen feet tall. Our guide tells us it’s a sanctuary once used by the Maya. It’s a place they went to hide when danger came their way. Left behind are signs of life which include a rare clay pot left behind for centuries. But the main attraction centers on death.
We take one last climb, this time up a creaky ladder, and our tour ends with at the Crystal Maiden. She’s a fully intact skeleton, whose bones seem to sparkle under the light of our headlamps. Who she is, no one knows. Questions on how she got there will likely never be answered. One thing I do know is the discovery of these bones and they mystery surrounding her death lead thousands of people just like me into a dark, wet cave every year to look on her skeleton and wonder about life, death and everything that comes after.
With another tour group waiting for their chance to take their turn looking at the Maiden, our group leaves this final resting place. We head back down the rickety ladder, though the cave littered with ancient pots and put on our wet shoes. It’s back down the rock wall and into the water for the slow walk in the river and along the rocks until finally we see the sun.
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