With it now so being so cold that my sweaters need sweaters, I’m seeking a ‘July in January’ scenario to revoke the shivering. So, with our wives still focused on work, my buddy Greg (a.k.a. MOP) is joining me for a little ‘manventure’ in the tropical Caribbean country of Belize; formerly known as British Honduras.
After four flights, and exchanging 24 hours of our life for geographical distance, we deplane in Belize City. The city has about the same approval rating as a rat’s nest, and we waste no time in hiring transport to travel 114 km to the jungle town of San Ignacio near the Guatemala border. Our lodging is located five kilometers outside of town in a village called Bullet Tree Falls along the Mopan River in the Cayo District.
After paying the gruff Brit owner, we find ourselves suffering an acute case of premature elation. Neck-cradling a few beer with the guy, we soon learn about his troubled environs; including robbers, fer-de-lance snakes, scorpions, a guy from a bar fight threatening to shoot him, a rotted deck courtesy of the rain-swollen river, a wife who has left him, Dengue Fever deaths in the area, and finally, the place is up for sale!
This crusty old coot ain’t exactly a plethora of positivity, and sadly, our splintery hut mirrors its owner; being worn and forlorn! On the positive side, his large German Shepard has taken a shine to me, and can’t seem to conceal its exuberance while trying to lick the epidermal layer off the face of his new best friend.
After hiking the Mayan ruins of Cahel Pech, we head into town to book for tomorrow what looks like an exciting excursion to the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM). This, after all, is the main reason we’ve come all the way to San Ignacio. We are informed there are only two requirements for those wishing to explore the cave: being physically fit, and being mentally prepared for the tragedies that lie within.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, translating to ‘Cave of the Stone Sepulcher’, is a relatively unknown jungle cave, discovered in 1989, and only opened to the public since 1998. It is a spectacular network of subterranean spaces where 1000 – 2000 years ago the Maya ventured down over three miles into the earth to reach this underworld for religious ceremonies that included grisly human sacrifices.
Greg and I, along with our guide Renan, drive from San Ignacio to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, where we abandon the car, change clothes, lather on bug repellent, and wade across the river. Renan recounts a previous encounter on this trail when he almost enjoyed an eternal slumber after being bitten by a deadly Fer de Lance. Not packing any anti-venom serum, our attention is suddenly riveted on the trail and we’re sticking to him like a wet T-shirt, to avoid an encounter with any worrisome vipers in the area!
After 45 minutes of hiking and three river crossings, we emerge from beneath the tree canopy of the jungle and spot the gaping mouth of the ATM cave. It has the shape of an hour-glass, with emerald water spilling out from within. The cave was believed by Mayans to be ‘Xibalba’, the Place of Fright; and a portal to another world. Donning safety helmets and securing water-proof head lamps, we stuff our cameras and clothes into a dry sack, ready for the adventure that lies beyond.
Taking a big breath, we plunge into a tranquil pool and enter through the portal of the cave. Just minutes later I’m attacked by a denizen of the deep, when one of the many little fish apparently fancying themselves as guardians of this Mayan underworld, makes his bold move. The naughty wee nibbler has the audacity to nip me right on my nipple! Now immersed in the blackness of the cave, we bid farewell to the light of the world for the next three hours and rely only on our small helmet lights. Welcome to the abyss!
Along the spooky subterranean creek bed, we descend deeper and deeper into the ink-black darkness, with water levels varying from ankle to neck deep. We climb, crawl, slither, and squirm around and over massive boulders and through claustrophobia-inducing passages. Our heads are protected from the overhangs by our helmets, which illuminate the mysteries ahead. The only signs of life in this forbidding environment are a few eerie looking jumping spiders big enough to trip over. Lights, don’t fail us now!
After an hour and a half, we’re immersed deep within the bowels of the cave, and climb out of the water to scramble up cold limestone rocks into an underground chamber. The sheer enormity is impressive, with a vast array of glossy stalactites and stalagmites resembling a mouthful of teeth from Hell. This is the main Mayan ceremonial chamber, and ancient place of sacrifice. We are asked to remove our shoes and put on socks to respect the hallowed ground and protect the cave’s floor from body oils which may contaminate it.
Dusty ceramic vessels dated between 700 and 900 AD litter the floor; many with their bases delicately pierced with ‘kill holes’ to release the spirits within. Scattered about are also human skulls, with flattened foreheads and blank eye sockets. In the dampness our senses are alive with visions of ritual sacrifices made more than a thousand years ago in this living museum of ancient souls and unwelcome fates. We’re approximately a half mile underground and it’s so unnervingly silent one could hear a fly fart.
Living our best Tomb Raider life and exploring further into the cavern, our eagerness is upgraded to elation when reaching an old wood ladder propped up against a limestone wall. Clambering up onto a ledge, we discover the startling spectacle we have come to see; the ‘Crystal Maiden’. The perfectly preserved skeletal remains of a teenage girl has been ‘cemented’ into the ground by hundreds of years of water running over it and causing a sparkling crystalline coating to form over the bones. Her fate was being clubbed to death, as one of the many human sacrifices to appease the gods and try to bring an onset of rain in a time of drought. The setting is so beyond surreal I feel almost total paralysis in trying to describe it.
Reflecting on how privileged we have been for the opportunity of this journey into the ancient Mayan underworld, we retrace our path back out of the cave. Finally, our time as troglodytes ends as we re-emerge into the dappled daylight of the jungle and back into the known world where we belong. Actun Tunichil Muknal is an exhilarating travel highlight we won’t be forgetting anytime soon!
We understand the ATM is currently in the process of becoming a World Heritage Site, and feel fortunate to have seen it before this happens, as surely things will change. Contemplating our commendation-worthy day during the drive back, we realize it’s ‘beer o’clock’ and suddenly have an urge to congregate with a couple of Belikan beers; after all, without a few brewskis the world just can’t spin.
Our Bullet Tree Falls hut is a horrid hovel; dark and dank with amenities pitifully few; plus a three 5 km walk to town for food. Sleeping is also ‘ruff’, with the plenitude of village canines participating in nightly bark-mitzvahs. The shower is busted, and there’s no air con, hot water, or soap. We try ignoring our predicament, but two long nights of battling battalions of bloodthirsty mosquitos has taken things to a whole new level of suck, and we end our suffer-fest by buh-byeing the Satan inspired hut.
Returning to Belize City, we hop a plane over to the island of Ambergris Caye. Collecting our bags, we jump into a golf cart taxi, bumping over giant nautical ropes strung across the beach as speed bumps. A search for lodging that suits the wallet turns up Blue Tang Inn. It seems an astute choice, and all is good. That is, until we alarmingly learn the small island may be in the path of Hurricane Richard, now barreling towards it!
The island is a welcome change from the humid jungle. It has many long wooden wharfs extending across the white sand into the shallow aquamarine sea, and locals stand in the gin-clear water cleaning fish and lobster, while stingrays circle around their feet optimistically searching for any off-cuts and guts.
We meet a local who informs us the best way to catch lobster is by using a mop. He recommends dangling it in the water in front of the rocks, and when a lobster comes out to attack, you just flip it into a sack. A Cheshire cat grin moves into my face as I inform the fellow that I am, indeed, travelling with a MOP!
However, for some strange reason when I unveil my ambitious plan to ‘MOP’ that we’re going lobster fishing on the reef and going to use his dangly bits for bait, an apparent phobia of ‘emasculation by lobster’ has the Mop in a mope, and he suddenly finds something of great interest on the top of his shoes!
Exploring the Caye on bikes, we come to a pre-school surrounded by a fence made to look like pencils. This is extraordinarily appropriate as I’ve brought along bags of pencils to give out to needy kids. Reaching agreement with the teacher that the gifts are OK, she then escorts outside a class of ragtag little inmates hand in hand. I quickly get the lead out, and dole out my pencils in front of the colorful pencil fence.
Over the next two days we embrace the ’go slow’ motto of the island, and end up booking a snorkeling trip to Shark Ray Alley to swim with the sharks and rays. On day three however, the weather begins harshing our mellow, with dark foreboding clouds smudging out the sky. During the night we’re awoken by biblical rains pummeling our widows so hard that I’m thinking the animals are probably starting to pair up!
Calling the airport about the weather situation, we’re informed that tomorrow is the last day planes will be able to fly out. It has been confirmed the island is now smack dab in the path of a mighty hurricane about to roar ashore within 24-48 hours. Regrettably it’s time for us to depart, as the low lying island is flatter than frog road kill and offers virtually zero protection from what is sure to be one Hell of a blow job!
Our farewell feast is a lobster dinner at a little hole in the wall joint called Waragumas. The huge crustacean sensations are delicious; and just for the record, I am pleased to report that no MOP was injured in the procurement of this dinner! After finishing a nice bottle of wine, we head back to pack our bags for tomorrow’s evacuation.
The airport is frantic with people scrambling to vacate the island. Airlines have now abandoned regular schedules and are making continuous flights back and forth from the mainland every 15-20 minutes, trying their utmost to get everybody off the island. And so begins our arduous day of travel, bouncing through the skies via Belize City, El Salvador, San Francisco, Vancouver, and finally home to Victoria.
This tiny island/nation of Belize punches well above its weight, and as disappointed as we are to have our holiday cut in half, we did enjoy our brilliant but all too brief adventure. Now, we just have to explain to the wives why it’s mandatory that we be allowed to go again!
Mark Colegrave 2010