One of our two prime objectives of staying in the San Ignacio area was to explore a Mayan cave. The particular one that we wanted to see was Actun Tunichil Muknal (known as ATM or 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden') because of the skeletal remains of Mayan human sacrifices still there as they have been for the last 1100 years. Accordingly, the evening of our Xunantunich and Mopan River tubing adventures, we asked the Trek Stop owner if he could arrange a morning tour for us. It was no problem, and he set things up for us to start the next morning, at US$60 each for the all-day excursion.
However, in talking to him in the morning, I detected that maybe we were not talking about the same cave. Further discussion revealed that he had booked us into Crystal Cave south of Belmopan in Blue Hole National Park, whereas we really wanted the 'Cave of the Crystal Maiden'! John called his tour guys and they said that it was no problem to switch locations on the spur of the moment, since we were the only two people on their tour that day!
It was not long before our Mayan guides, Eduard and Gliss turned up in their van and away we went at about 8:30 AM on a foggy morning that soon burned off into a typical 31 C day. A few miles short of the Hummingbird Highway near Belmopan, we turned right onto a dirt road and headed east toward the Maya Mountains. We were soon driving through vast fields of vegetables that had been carved out of the jungle along Roaring Creek. It was so well organized that I mentioned to the guys that it must be a government experimental farm - no they said, this is all Mennonite land! In fact it was a couple of young Mennonites who discovered the cave in 1989, through a jungle covered hole in the mountain side.
It took us about 45 minutes to make the drive, including a few fords (second photo) of a relatively placid Roaring Creek, now that the rainy season had abatted. Continued next tip.
St. Herman's cave is part of the Blue Hole National Park. It is located 400 meters from the Hummingbird Highway. We elected not to walk from the Blue Hole to the cave.
The cave is a large sinkhole, 60 meters wide, funneling to a 20 meter entrance which is part of a lattice of sink holes, caverns and creeks. To make it easier for visitors, concrete steps have been built over the steps made by the Maya who used the cave during the Classic Period (0- 900A.D.). A surge of cool, damp air can be felt when you approach, in contrast to the high temperatures outside. My camera lenses and my glasses fogged up.
We used a dive light as a flashlight, but we didn't go back much beyond the entrance as we didn't have a guide.
From the website: "The cave has archaeological importance. Pottery vessels, used for the collection of "Zuh uy Ha" or virgin water from cave drippings, along with spears and torches, have been removed from St. Herman's Cave for study by the Department of Archaeology in Belmopan. Thanks to the Belize Government, permission has been granted to BHNP visitors, admitting them to St. Herman's Cave without the usual permits required for entering caves. Permission must still be obtained from the Department of Archaeology to enter Mountain Cow and Petroglyph Caves, which are beyond the border of BHNP."
Cave tubing is a big attraction in San Ignacio, and the premier place to do so is at Jaguar Paw. Hire a guide prior to arrival-- though they tend to be more expensive, the quality of service is purportedly much better. Upon arrival, you are "fitted" for the right-sized rubber inner tube. You then hike 30 minutes through the forest to the drop off location, then position your rear end in the tube and casually enjoy the ride down the river. In some spots, especially during the dry season, the river is more a creek, with less than 10 inches of water. This means if you "ride low" in the tube, you will get a "butt massage" (as our tour guide puts it). Watch those pebbles and stones!
The limestone caverns are gorgeous, and if you have a good tour guide, he will enlighten you about all the medicinal properties of the local plants, as well as point out the bats in the caves and how the caves are formed. Our group consisted of just me and my husband, and two tour guides-- talk about great service and attention! As we were exiting Jaguar Paw, we saw another tour group arriving that consisted of close to 30 tourists and only 4 guides. They were being told to "hurry up" and no information on the local site or historical significance or ecological importance was provided by the guides. And we found out they paid the same price we did for the tour! So do your research, please, and hire reputable guides so your trip is enjoyable.
BIG TIP: I hear Mondays and Fridays tend to be cruise days, i.e. days when cruise ships dock at the cayes and send hordes of tourists to this region. On such days, it is near impossible to enjoy the serene calm of the caves or the ziplining, as the tour operators are forced to hurriedly shuttle tourists in a speedy fashion through the site.
It was then into the water as we began our 'jungle cruise' adventure! We wore T-shirts with our bathing suits to protect us from the hot sun as we alternately were drenched in the rapids and then dried off in the calm sections, where we would splash a bit of water on ourselves. This was a really fun trip as just the two of us floated down about 5 miles of the winding Mopan for more than two hours, traversing a series of eight Class II and III rapids, interspersed with quiet stretches of water. These sections were very peaceful as the thickly forested banks drifted by and colourful Amazon Kingfishers flew past. Of course this was after the first set of rapids tipped us both out of our tubes, but that was the only time that happened. We had also worn our coral reef watershoes and these came in handy on the underwater limestone ridges as we climbed back into the tubes! Each set of rapids was fun as you could hear the roar of the water as you floated closer. Usually there was a small island in the middle of the river at each of these, and it was difficult to guess which way was the safest to avoid the deepest drop into a back-swirling pool (Sue got caught in a couple of those but my 'inertia' carried me through!). Also had to remember to bring your butt up out of the water and lay straight as a board on the tubes to avoid scraping on the rocks as we went over these ledges! The force of the water was very strong - when I tried to wait for Sue I could not hold my own against the waist high water without grabbing a jungle vine for an anchor! There was no way to be going upstream for a rescue!! We had a fantastic time, at last reaching the hotel beside the final Class III rapids at Clarissa Falls. There, we paddled to shore and called the Trek Stop from the bar area - the truck soon arrived to pick us up. I don't have any good photos of this because we did not take any glasses, watches, cameras or anything for this one!
After the van reached the end of the road, Sue and I left our set of dry clothes in it and then set out on foot with Gliss. Because this 40-45 minute walk involved three fords of Raging Creek, Gliss put our cameras in his waterproof backpack. The first ford was up to our thighs and you had to be careful about your footing on the smooth boulders littering the bottom. It was a pleasant walk through the jungle with Gliss pointing out various things as we zig-zagged twice more across the Creek before reaching the Base camp used by all tour groups (3rd photo). This consists of a bunch of thatched shelters in case of rain and a rough toilet off to the side in the jungle, as well as some wooden benches to sit on. We had a short stop here for a snack from the lunch provided as part of the tour, as well as a toilet stop before entering the cave.
Once Gliss got our miners helmets out of his bag and showed us how to adjust the intensity of its headlamp, I wandered the short distance over to the mouth of the cave itself. This is shaped like an hour glass (2nd photo), and there was not a large amount of water coming out from the underground stream that created the cave. However, once you are standing on the bottom lip at the cave mouth, you then have to plunge into a 16 ft (5 m) deep pool and swim for about 35 ft (10 m) in your clothes and sneakers before reaching solid ground that you can climb onto. Because of the climbing required on the 600-m trip into the depths of the cave, sometimes over rough rock surfaces, it is recommended to wear sneakers and long trousers. It was about 11 AM when we took the plunge! Continued next tip.
It was close to 1:30 PM by the time Gliss was ready to show us the most famous human sacrifice of the Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave. He asked us to turn our headlamps off and then turn around. When we did, he then illuminated this skeleton with his large handheld lamp - and what a sight it was there deep inside the cave!
This lady is believed to have been about 20 years old when she was sacrifced, likely by a blow to the head which left her spread-eagled on the ground just the way she fell, sometime around the year 900 AD. Due to natural processes within the cave, the skeleton is now calcified such that it forms a part of the cave floor. Young girls, especially virgins, were believed by the Mayans to be the most powerful sacrifices they could make. All fourteen of the human remains sacrificed to the rain gods were in this deep area of ATM, indicating that things must have been getting progressively worse for the Mayans. This is supported by recent research on lake sediments in the Yucatan Peninsula, which has revealed that a severe and prolonged drought struck the area at around this time, the worst drought in the preceding 7000 years.
Our return trip to the mouth of the cave did not seem to take long and by 2:30 PM, we were back at Base camp enjoying the rest of our packed lunch before we once again headed off on foot along Roaring Creek. The van was there waiting for us, where we got out of our wet clothes and sat back for the drive 'home' - arriving at about 5 PM. It had been a fantastic day!!
This cave complex actually extends much further underground than we covered, and is much more challenging. That night, as we all sat in the Common Area of the Trek Stop, an expert group of American cavers staying at the Trek Stop was discussing this with our two guides, since the Americans planned an attack on its remote parts the next day. Our guides were also interested in buying additional equipment from them, including cave rescue gear.
After over an hour of making our way up the cave, we came to an area that had a large natural platform high above the stream. Using the protruding rock formations, we followed Gliss as he climbed up and out of the stream onto this portion of the cave. It was here for the first time that we saw another, much larger group also doing a tour. In this sacred area of human remains, we had to take our sneakers off and carefully walk among the many artifacts of pottery and human bones in our sock feet.
The first human skull (shown here), Gliss explained, was that of a 35-year old male. Close examination showed signs of cranial modifications (flattening) to his forehead and his teeth had been filed. Since these things were done by the Mayan elite as a form of beautification, he must have been an important sacrifice.
Further on (second photo), we came to a jumble of sacrificial remnants that had been washed loose over the centuries, ending up as a pile of broken pottery, two human skulls and a large bone.
We were getting close to the furthest Mayan sacrificial relics now, as we climbed an aluminum ladder to an even higher small ledge. As we came off the ladder into a roped off section, Gliss explained that this skull (3rd photo) belonged to a 15-year old boy who had been sacrificed with his hands tied behind his back.
Just beyond this were the remains of the victim for which the cave is named. Continued next tip.
Once we had made it past the first water hazard, Gliss led us up a narrow channel that wound past large fallen boulders and some razor sharp edges. The air temperature inside the cave tends to stay at about 15 C and the water temperature was not bad either, although some people complain because it is colder than the outside water temperatures. The light from the entrance soon faded as we went deeper, and we passed the small high up hole through which the first discoverers entered by rappelling down. Soon we were in complete darkness except for our head lamps, with an eerie quietness except for the trickling water. Sometimes we were on solid ground, or up to our waists or even our necks in water a few times as we snaked through narrow passages and held on to avoid slipping into deeper water. We passed through several large chambers (2nd photo) where there were amazing displays of stalagmites and stalactites formed by the constant dripping.
It was great having our own personal Mayan guide, as Gliss kept up a commentary on the many features we passed and explained the Mayan customs behind the use of this cave. As you can see in the main photo, we first came upon broken ceramic jars that were used to hold water. In the course of our journey, we came across hundreds of these artifacts, some on the floor and others hidden here and there high up in grottos. Because they are used for water, it is believed that they were offered as sacrifices to the Mayan rain god 'Chac'. The Mayans believed that even inanimate objects had a spirit, so they purposely broke the jars to allow the sacrificial release of this spirit. These relics closer to the mouth of the cave date from the period of around 250 AD. Based on more recent relics found deeper in the cave, it is believed that as the Mayan situation worsened over the years leading to 900 AD, they went deeper into the caves as they tried to get 'closer' to Chac so the sacrifices would have more impact. Continued next tip.
After our morning walk to Xunantunich, we chilled out on the internet for a while and then had lunch. However, by 1 PM the heat had built up quite nicely to the 30 C (86 F) range, so we decided to take advantage of the Trek Stop's river tubing adventure package. For US$10 each, we hopped in the rear of one of their pick-up trucks and they drove us to the Mopan River just upstream of the hand-cranked ferry to Xunantunich (note the local guy in the photo standing by a small island out in the shallow rapids). There, we were both outfitted with life jackets, which were attached by a small rope to the large rubber inner tubes that we were both given.
The Mopan River gets its beginnings in the Maya Mountains of Guatemala and crosses into Belize very close to the village of San Jose Succotz where the Trek Stop is located. Once into Belize, it continues northward through the jungle and farmlands before swinging east, where it joins with the Macal River (which flows through San Ignacio) to form the Belize River. Because of its origins in the limestone mountains famous for their caves, the dissolved limestone in the waters of the Mopan deposits here and there along its length, forming many sets of rapids. We were told to be on the lookout for the Clarissa Falls Hotel, because we should go ashore there after besting the large Class III rapids there, otherwise we could be floating off into the jungle for quite some time!
There are many guided cave tours in Belize and they are very popular, especially the ATM tour. I met many people who had done this tour and just raved about it. I am not a lover of caves so I passed on this one, but did visit Rio Frio Cave as part of my tour to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.
This cave was neither dark nor claustrophobic and technically speaking it isn't even a cave! Rio Frio Cave has a very large 65 foot high entrance. You walk about 50 yds and the cave makes a right hand turn where you can then see it's equally large exit. So that makes Rio Frio Cave, a tunnel not a cave. It is a quarter mile walk from end to end. When you exit the cave you can follow a nature trail through native plants and trees.
Inside the "cave" you will find a stream and a small beach, stalagtites and stalagmites, possibly some bats and some interesting terracing. This cave is a great option for those of us who do not love spelunking.