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Saturday:  Exploring the ATM Cave


Saying Goodbye

Our group ate our final breakfast together – scrambled eggs and bacon – on Saturday morning at Chiclero lodge before we split up and went our separate ways.  A small group was heading to the airport in Belize City that morning to catch a flight back to the U.S.  Others decided to stay in San Ignacio for a few more days and visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal, nearby in Guatemala.  Still others, including myself, wanted to explore a site called the ATM Cave that we had read about a few nights before in a Lonely Planet guidebook of Belize. 


After exploring the cave I was planning to travel down to the Belize keys on Saturday afternoon, where I had a reservation for several days on Caye Caulker.  A “caye" is a small island in the Caribbean and is pronounced “key,” as in “Key West,” and there are hundreds of keys – or "cayes" as it's spelled here – off the coast of Belize.  I would see many of these folks again soon, though, because after visiting the Tikal ruins on Sunday, several of them were heading down to Caye Caulker the next day. 


We all waited for the ProBelize bus outside Chiclero on a misty Saturday morning and said goodbye to the folks who were heading to the airport, including my affable 72 year-old roommate, Bernie.  There were lots of hugs and warm words, and even a few tears.  Shortly after they left, a dozen of us boarded a mini-bus that had pulled up and we headed off to explore the ATM Cave.  The cave is located in a jungle national park between San Ignacio and the country’s capitol, Belmopan and only a few miles from Barton Creek Cave that we had explored in canoes a day earlier. 


My Belize trip updates include:

This ATM isn’t a place to withdraw money.  Instead, it stands for the Mayan name, “Actun Tunichil Muknal” (which is why most people say “ATM.”)  It’s similar to Barton Creek Cave – a limestone cave with a river running through it.  But from what I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook it was much larger, longer and more impressive. 


O.K., that’s an understatement because, as the guidebook described, the ATM Cave is probably the most unique and incredible site not just in Belize but perhaps in all of Central America.  According to the book, no tourist should come to Belize without visiting the ATM Cave because it is “truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”  After reading that description a few nights earlier, several of us decided to sign up for a tour.


The cave was a sacred site that had been used by ancient Mayans for religious, ceremonial and sacrificial purposes for hundreds of years, from about 300 A.D.  to around 1200 A.D.  The Mayans believed that the gods of rain, agriculture and fertility lived in the underworld and therefore they thought this cave was likely a gateway to the gods.  By making sacrifices here – 14 intact skeletons have been found in the cave, mostly children – the Mayans believed they could appease their gods (sort of like "greasing the palms" or "covering your bases," to put it in modern terms).  The Mayans also left a large trove of beautiful pottery and other artifacts scattered throughout the huge cave.


Above:  At Chiclero on Saturday morning, saying goodbye to the folks who were flying back to America that morning.  Doris gave Bernie a big hug. 

After the Mayan civilization collapsed, around 1200 A.D., the ATM Cave was abandoned and, being deep in the jungle, it remained untouched for hundreds of years until it was discovered again in 1989.  With its artifacts and skeletons preserved for hundreds of years in a pristine and protected cave environment and given its remote location, untouched by vandals or plunderers, the ATM Cave proved to be something of a Rosetta Stone and helped explain to archaeologists many facets of the ancient and mysterious Mayan culture.  The cave was accessible only to scientists during the decade after it was discovered, but in 1998 it was opened to the public for limited tours.  Since then it’s become one of the most coveted tourist destinations in the country, with over 100 people now visiting each day.  There is debate, given the growing demand and yet sensitive setting, about whether or not to completely shut down the cave to tourists or to merely limit the number of visitors. 


Fortunately for our group, the Belize government hadn’t yet decided to close the cave.  However, since individuals can’t explore the cave on their own, we had to go on a guided tour.  About a dozen of us in our group had signed up a few days earlier for a Saturday visit of the ATM Cave with a tour company in San Ignacio called Maya Walk and their bus picked us up at the Chiclero lodge around 9 a.m., then we headed off.


Above:  Swimming into the ATM Cave.  I couldn't access my camera during the river portion of our cave tour – Luis had it in his backpack to keep it dry – so I got this photo from the Internet.  But this is what it's like.

We rode down the foggy highway for a half-hour, then turned onto a dirt road and several miles later crossed through a manned gate as we entered the national park.  About 20 minutes later we stopped at a parking area, got out of the bus, and were split into two groups of six.  Our tour guide, Luis, introduced himself and handed each of us a helmet with a light attached. 


Luis guided us on a mile-long walk through the jungle and across several shallow streams until we reached the entrance to the cave, where we stripped down to our swimming apparel and donned our helmets.  Everyone in my group – Cecelia, Coleen, Laurie, Tamera, Sylvia and myself – gave Luis a few personal items that we didn’t want to get wet and he put them in a rubber bag.  I took one last shot of the cave entrance, then gave my SLR camera to Luis to keep dry in his bag, which he sealed and hoisted onto his back.  Then the real fun began.


Our group waded in the stream until we reached then cave’s entrance and then, one at a time, each of us plunged into the bracing water – so cold that it initially took my breath away – and swam into the mouth of the cave.  Now, I’ve entered a lot of caves over the years but I had never swam into one. 


Above:  Another Internet photo – heading deeper into the cave.  You can see why I gave Luis my SLR camera to keep dry in his backpack.

We ventured deeper and deeper into the river cave, sometimes sloshing our way in knee-deep water, sometimes creeping along a ledge in neck-deep water while clinging to the edge with our fingers, and sometimes swimming from one side of the river to the other, all in total darkness except for the light of our headlamps.  I got used to the water temperature after that initial shock and, given the warm and humid air, was quite comfortable throughout the trip.  It was a challenging adventure though, sloshing and scrambling around rocks in the stream and climbing up boulders, but no matter because I was completely awestruck by the countless stalactites, stalagmites and other wondrous geologic formations that lined the cave.


After a half-hour of hiking through the stream, we reached a landing with a smooth, red limestone trail leading upwards – dry land at last!  We left the stream here and, as Luis requested, took off our soggy shoes and boots, then he opened his rubber backpack and returned to us our personal belongings. 


You’re not allowed to wear shoes on the trail, to help protect the cave, so each of us put on a dry pair of socks which we had given to Luis before entering the cave.  Luis also handed back to me my Canon SLR camera.  Gosh, I wish I had an underwater camera so I could’ve taken pictures of our hike in the stream.  Instead, I’ve posted a few pictures here that I found on the Internet to give you an idea of what hiking in the river portion of the ATM Cave is like.


Above:  Another Internet photo of the ATM Cave.  They illuminated this picture with artificial lights.  The only light source is actually your headlamps, but still, this gives you a good idea of what hiking in the cave is like.

We followed Luis up the trail, past dozens of perfectly-preserved Mayan pots that were sitting in the exact same place when they were last used over a thousand years ago, then we scaled a ladder to an upper chamber.  One of the skeletons lay here, a girl who was about 14 when she was sacrificed centuries ago.  It was incredible – and so strange and humbling to be here at this sacred site. 


Our group spent a few quiet moments here and then turned around and headed back down the ladder, past the ancient pottery, back to our boots that we had placed near the stream edge, and plunged into the stream once again.  We sloshed our way past a few inbound groups in the near-darkness, then after a half-hour we reached the mouth of the stream and swam out into the piercingly-bright daylight. 


Visiting the ATM Cave was an absolutely unforgettable and singularly unique experience.  Certainly, like so many other things I had seen and done this past week in Belize, it was something I would never forget.  This one, though, was special.



Above left:  Riding the minibus to the ATM Cave on Saturday morning.

Above right:  After we parked at the trailhead, we hiked about a mile through the jungle to the cave entrance.  This is one of many streams we crossed.



Left:  And another stream crossing.




Above left:  We finally reached the cave entrance, then we donned our swimming suits and plunged in. 

Above right:  Looking back at the creek from the cave entrance.  This is the last picture I took with my camera before handing it to Luis, who kept it dry in his backpack.  For the next half-hour, we swam and sloshed up way up the river cave.



Above left:  After a half-hour of sloshing we hit dry land again, deep inside the cave.  Here's the happy crew:  Sylvia, Coleen, Cecelia, Laurie and Tamera.

Above right:  Hiking up the trail.  We had taken off our soggy boots and put on dry socks.  You're not allowed to wear shoes or boots on the cave trail.


Above left:  The limestone cave formations here were amazing.

Above center:  And more of them.

Above right:  Pottery left exactly where it had been placed by Mayans over a thousand years ago. 



Above left:  More pottery.  Note how the limestone has partially-covered the clay pots over many hundreds of years.

Above right:  From the time the cave was rediscovered in 1989 until 1998, only archaeologists were allowed in the ATM Cave.  Then in 1998 it was opened to the public for limited tours.



Above left:  Heading up the ladder to the upper chamber, where there was a skeleton of a 14-year old Mayan girl who had been sacrificed over a thousand years ago.  From there we turned around and headed back out.

Above center:  And across the streams, heading back to the parking lot.

Above right:  Back at the parking lot after an amazing trip.  But Cecelia (in red, center) had one more surprise in store for her.

A Kind Farewell  (Part 3 – Cecelia Style)

Our group of six waited near the cave entrance for 20 minutes for our other group of six to join us after they had completed their tour, then we all hiked a mile back through the jungle, crossing several streams once again, until we reached the mini-bus while sharing stories about the incredible cave hike.  Moments after reaching the van I dug something out of my daypack and gathered everyone around me.


Here's Simon & Garfunkel singing their hit from 1970, Cecilia. 


The previous night after we had returned from our celebratory dinner at Succotz and after most folks had gone to bed, I sat on the balcony at Chiclero lodge overlooking San Ignacio and composed lyrics to the old Simon and Garfunkel tune, “Cecelia” (actually they had spelled it “Cecilia”).  Our group leader, Cecelia, had worked hard in Portland to put this team together and she worked even harder in Belize, coordinating all the work while making sure that everyone was having a good time and an enriching experience.  It was a challenging task, trying to please everyone while getting our work done, too, and at times this past week I could tell that it had taken a toll on her.  But she pulled it off and my amazing adventure in Belize wouldn’t have happened without her. 


And so, as a tribute to Cecelia I had penned some new words to Simon and Garfunkel’s old tune on Friday night and made a few copies to hand out to the group.  After folks returned to the mini-bus, I gathered everyone around Cecelia and passed out my lyrics, then we sang it in unison (well, sort of) as she stood in front of us, laughing and even blushing a bit:


Cecelia, you’ve stolen our heart
You’re kind, strong and smart
And you’re lots of fun, too.


Oh Cecelia, we’re down on our knees
Our trip to Belize
Was a blast with you.


Waking up at 5 a.m.
To build a wall and a slab and then do it again

You were always oh so nice
Even when it was hot and we ran out of ice.


Cecelia, we think you are grand
When crammed in a van
With the ProBelize crew.


Oh Cecelia, it’s you we must thank
We’re really quite frank
When we say, “We love you.”


Everyone in our group told Cecelia they felt the same way.




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