A Bag of Magic Mushrooms and a Deep Dark Cave in Belize

After earning the title of “Worst Sandal Tan” on the island of Caye Caulker it was time to head towards Western Belize for a change of pace. The rolling jungle hills around San Ignacio made for a solid layover connecting the road from the coast to the Guatemalan border.

After talking with a few backpackers on their way out of San Ignacio I quickly found that the most hardcore activity near San Ignacio was the guided cave exploration of the mysterious Actun Tunichil Muknal, more simply known as the ATM cave by phonetically challenged gringo folk.

I was warned that this experience was not for the faint of heart. Ancient Mayans used to consume unspecified quantities of mind altering mushrooms before daringly descending into the cave with little less than a trusty reed torch. I was surprised to find that a lot of their bones still lay where they fell.

The whole experience was sort of like being inside of a living museum

If you decide to visit ATM, be prepared to strap on your caving helmet, and keep your battery powered headlamp above water as you’ll be swimming, wading, crawling and traversing some challenging tight spots along this well preserved Mayan underworld. Fortunately the water flowing through the underground river system remains a balmy 60 something degrees which shouldn’t deter opponents of cold, damn environments.

Hiking deep into the jungle along a path requiring multiple waist deep river crossings I eventually found myself standing face to face with the ill-omened cave entrance of ATM. Tightening down the straps of my helmet and carefully depositing my digital SLR camera into a heavy duty dry-bag, my heart almost stopped when our guide Aaron threw the bag into the pool and jumped in on top of it. “Alright, well I guess were doing this thing”, I thought as I jumped in following his lead.

Into the Cave

The descent began with a 20 meter swim across a placid, crystal clear pool separating the subterranean depths of ATM from the safety of the green, sun drenched world above. Unlike many modern day attractions, ATM remains free from the commercialized distraction of electricity and safety railing. It sure aint no Disneyland ride that’s for sure.

Once inside and away from the last photons of visible light, we paused to disable our headlamps and appreciate the severity of how truly dark and threatening the environment was.

In the vulnerability of pitch black darkness Aaron opened the tour with a short blessing and a vivid account of traditional Mayan cave exploration. With the sound of his words and a feeling of complete helplessness my mind began opening to the complexities associated with finding ones way into an uncharted, alien cavern with nothing more than a bundled reed torch.

Along the descent we observed an astonishing collection of incredibly well-preserved Mayan artifacts including stella stone tablets and hand crafted Mayan pottery. Almost a mile below the earth’s surface, through a labyrinth of narrow bat filled corridors and jaw dropping cave formations, we eventually climbed the steps of a rickety ladder into a dry shaft where we observed the full skeletal remains of “The Crystal Maiden”.

Believed to have been around 16 years of age at the time of her sacrifice, she served as the ultimate offering to appease the vengeful gods of Shibalba. Her remains were laid out in a mortifying last minute posture as a contribution to end the drought and famine that were believed to plague the desperately failing post-classic Mayan civilizations.

It was pretty heavy to sit there for a moment and imagine how frightening those last moments must have been. The whole experience was sort of like being inside of a living museum which lent incredible insight to the Mayan ruins I’d recently had the pleasure of visiting. The tour was a definite highlight to my time in Belize. Even though I wasn’t tripping on mushrooms the whole experience still pretty much blew my mind.

Rebirth

The earth never looked greener, the sky never bluer, and the sun never as bright as the first moment that my eyes fixed upon the beautiful world waiting outside the mouth of the cave. With one final swim and a camera that was still intact, I had a new appreciation for the world that I belong to. After descending into the furthest depths of Actun Tunichil Muknal the rebirth of my own spirit had been achieved.

Recommendation

If you decide to take on this incredible adventure, take my advice and book with Mayawalk Tours in San Ignacio. They are a family run operation and their knowledge and professionalism is unmatched. Not to mention,they pack a delicious home cooked meal which hits the spot on the way back.

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Author:Barry Hackett

Barry is a wedding & lifestyle photographer with a passion for environmental and philanthropic issues. He currently resides in Long Beach, CA. You can view his other work at www.barryhackett.com and www.hitchedphoto.com

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