|Entrance to ATM, photo courtesy of Jamir|
When we began planning our trip to Belize last winter, Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM as everyone called it) was a name that appeared often in travel guides and in conversations with people who had been to that country before. "If you can only do one thing while you're in Belize, this is the one you can't miss."
At first I was intrigued by the challenge. A cave. A long hike just to get to the mouth. A longer hike to the end where a centuries old intact skeleton lay. A guide required and only a limited number of people allowed in a group.
I should probably mention here that I'm claustrophobic, don't like heights, and am not that fond of the dark either. But still, there was something that drew me.
I decided I needed to have this experience as a way to face my fears, so it became a Belize must-see for us, along with Maya ruins, toucans, and the market in San Ignacio.
For most of the winter and spring, my hip was limiting a lot of my activity, and at one point I considered maybe ATM wasn't the right choice. I was worried about being able to handle the physical challenge. Walt didn't care much one way or the other so we decided that climbing ruins was more important and ATM was probably over-hyped anyway.
Our first hour in Belize, as we were checking out our rental car, I asked the owner what was the one thing he thought people needed to see when they visited his country. He said ATM. I asked if he'd ever gone, and he said no, but he didn't change his answer.
He did change my mind, and a decision was reversed.
When we arrived at Table Rock, we told our hosts what we wanted and when, and they made it happen. We were given clear instructions. Be prepared to be wet all day. Be able to swim 15 yards or so. Take a change of clothes for the ride home. No cameras - a tourist had recently dropped his on a skull. Take socks for the part where shoes aren't allowed to preserve the artifacts.
At 8:00 A.M. on a Monday Jamir, our guide, and Ronnie, the driver, picked Walt and me up in the parking lot of Table Rock in an SUV that seemed about to lose its battle with Belize's famously bad roads.
As we introduced ourselves, Jamir asked if we were afraid of closed places, heights, the dark, or tall ladders. I said maybe a little to the ladder, but I could handle it if I didn't look down. I didn't say anything at all about the other things.
We rattled our way to the highway, then left the pavement and rattled along more dirt and pot-holed roads until we reached a barrier manned by the Audubon Society. They let us through after we promised we had no cameras and that we'd listen to our guide, and we continued rattling and rolling up to the entrance.
The whole day, Jamir told stories about the Mayas, their sacrifices, their world. Part Maya himself, his connection to the stories was strong. For one myth about the creation of man (involving twins, a Maya game called pok a tok in which the winner is sacrificed, the underworld and corn) I commented what a great story it was. He said, in a serious voice, that it was the truth, not a story.
He asked why we chose ATM. I said I'd heard so much about it, and it was the one place in Belize everyone said we needed to see. He asked what they had said about their experience. I said they said it was a grueling day, you were wet the whole time and you got to see amazing artifacts. As the words left my mouth I realized that no one had really articulated what was so special about the cave, and I said that to Jamir.
He smiled and said he'd ask me at the end if I could explain what made it so special.
For the next several hours, we hiked through the jungle; forded a wide, deep, chocolate brown river three times; swam through the mouth of the cave in crystal clear water full of tiny shimmering fish ("You're about to enter the Maya underworld, Xibalba," Jamir said.); waded, scrambled, squeezed, stretched, climbed rocks; stood in awe at the fantastical cave formations.
|Photo courtesy of Jamir|
"Actun. Tunichil. Muknal." Jamir said in his careful but Caribbean heavy English. "The Cave of the Stone Sepulchre."
We stood quietly for uncharted minutes, just the three of us. Walt and I absorbing the wonder of it all. Jamir watching us.
"So can you describe this?" he asked with a smile.
"Not even close," I said. Even so, I thought, I'm going to give it my best shot. And so I have - inadequately, I'm afraid. I've read a handful of other firsthand accounts in the last few days, and none of them do more than give facts about ATM, or talk about the things, the substance. None get close to the real reason everyone who has a the chance would be giving themselves the greatest gift possible by having this experience.
For the last two weeks, I've considered how I might explain the magic that happened in that cave. I entered a place the Mayas considered an entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, also called The Place of Fear. I thought about the last year and a half of my life, a time when I felt like I was living in my own underworld. In this one I felt no fear the entire time we were there. No anxiety. No worry. Nothing connected to time at all. I felt strong, pain-free, unlimited. I felt whole, alive, and blessed beyond measure. I felt awe, wonder, gratitude. And when we swam back into the daylight at the end, that light was important, substantial, and sparkled with welcome.
ATM was a holy place to the Mayas, a place they worshipped and prayed and sacrificed in hopes their gods would bring the rain that might save their culture. Only the elite were allowed to enter. Yet there I was, an American tourist seeing sights only available to non Maya eyes for the last couple of decades. I breathed air that was in the lungs of ancient people, walked on limestone that was first trod by Maya feet so far back the mind can't grasp, saw the same formations their eyes beheld - shapes only slightly altered by the slow deposition of calcite over the centuries.
I live with and love someone who shared that experience with me. Who was as moved as I. And somehow that becomes a part of who we are as a couple at the end of our first quarter century together, and on the verge of whatever might lie ahead of us.
If I could give you more of Actun Tunichil Muknal than I have here, I would. Since I can't, I wish for you that you find your own (if you haven't already), even if you never get to Belize.
|The Crystal Maiden, photo courtesy of Jamir|