Even before leaving on our trip to San Ignacio, we had booked an Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave
tour through River Rat Expeditions
, after reading great recommendations and reviews online stating that they were THE tour company to see ATM with. Thursday was our last full day in the Cayo District, and an excellent day it was indeed.
We started with breakfast at Mr. Greedy's again. I had a breakfast sandwich that was supposed to be on wheat bread but came on white bread, unfortunately, though it was still yummy. Barry had his usual -- a breakfast burrito.
My breakfast sandwich -- I removed the onions!
Our Burns Ave. construction view seated outside at Mr. Greedy's
After breakfast we changed clothes and waited to be picked up on the steps of Casa Blanca, joined by a very pregnant black cat who hung out there during our entire stay. Gonzo and Becky with River Rat picked us up around 8:45 am, and we joined three other people who were taking the tour with us, a Hungarian couple and a man from British Columbia. The five of us, plus Becky and Gonzo, made a nice small group as opposed to some of the groups we saw with eight to ten tourists plus guides.
After driving over to Teakettle Village in their SUV, we parked, then took a two-mile hike along a well-worn trail through the jungle to the cave. It was a beautiful hike, and nice and flat since it went alongside the water. We had three river crossings that were fun -- the water was so clear, with many river rocks visible below our feet.
A final water stop in Teakettle Village
We were given helmets to prepare for going into the cave
Hiking to the cave
Gonzo explains how to cross the river
I'm not sure what he was telling me here. Probably something like "If you think THIS water is cold, just wait until you get into the cave!"
Beautiful clear water and river rocks
Hiking through the beautiful jungle
Another river crossing
And another...we're old pros now!
Cool tree with vines
When we arrived near the cave, there was an open area with picnic tables, and Gonzo and Becky served us a nice lunch that Gonzo had carried over in his backpack. A local lady makes the lunch for them, and today it consisted of traditional Belizean stew chicken, rice and beans, and some fresh fruit. So, we were well stoked for our big trip through the cave. Gonzo hooked headlamps onto our helmets, and we headed over to the cave.
Gonzo prepping our meals
The opening to the cave was absolutely beautiful, but the first challenge we had was swimming through the deep 68-degree water at the entry. That woke me up and got me breathing fast and my heart pounding. We wore quick-dry clothing since we'd be wet for the entire trip through the cave, and walking in water of varying depth from inches to chest-high. We were also required to wear close-toed shoes to avoid hurting our feet, and to grip the many rocks you have to climb and scramble over. My trail running shoes performed admirably, and Barry said that his Keen sandals did as well. This tour definitely requires a certain level of fitness to be able to scramble over all the rocks, but it's very doable for moderately fit folks. We absolutely loved climbing around like monkeys; it really makes you feel young again to do something like this! Becky told us that we would hike around three-quarters of a mile into the cave before turning and coming back out.
We were very fortunate to have our waterproof camera along, meaning that we could take photos even in the "wet" portions of the cave. All other cameras were placed into Gonzo's dry bag ahead of the tour and were only taken out in the "dry" portion of the cave, far into our hike. So we were able to get many more photos inside the cave than we've seen on a lot of web sites and blogs. I wasn't totally sure that the camera would hold up to full dunkings, because we'd never really put it to the test, but it stayed in one of our pockets during the deep water crossings and never missed a beat!
ATM cave opening
Beautiful blue (COLD) water at cave entrance
Becky and Emily heading in...eek!
Our group swims through the cold water at the entrance
Damn, it's cold!
We're all in now!
Breathing and heart pounding...
Inside the cave
Just look at the colors in this rock!
Some tight squeezes, but the rocks are not slippery, thank goodness
This is so much fun!
Barry makes a dashing caver, I think!
A ray of light from outside entering one of the chambers
The many perfectly round holes in the ceiling of parts of the cave are made by bats nesting (and eliminating), explained Gonzo. Unfortunately, we only saw one bat. He said there weren't many left in the cave now; they had apparently moved on.
Deep water here
The cave is filled with beautiful rock formations, stalactites, and archeological artifacts like pots and other vessels. Gonzo and Becky were the perfect guides for this tour as they are both archaeologists, so they were able to provide so much information about the items that have been found in the cave. Fascinating!
At this point in the tour, we climbed up high and entered the dry portion of the cave. Gonzo unpacked the non-waterproof cameras and handed them out. We had to remove our shoes and walk in socks only for this part of the tour after a short rest up on this ledge.
We had to stay between the lines in this section to avoid damaging any artifacts
Gonzo by Maya pottery
As we got deeper and deeper in the cave, we started seeing some human remains. Remains of fourteen individuals have been found in ATM. Creepy but very interesting. Gonzo and Becky told us that it is not fully known whether these remains resulted from human sacrifices made by the Maya people or whether the cave served as a natural burial site, or both.
We had to climb up this ladder to get to one section
These formations kind of reminded me of drippy icing. Tasty!
Another skull -- possibly had cranial modification or hydrocephaly (note the large size)
The penultimate chamber contained the much-discussed "Crystal Maiden", nearly full skeletal remains of what was long-thought to be a female, but very recent research has claimed is actually a male teenager, based on studies of the pelvic bone structure, we were told by Gonzo and Becky.
"The Crystal Maiden"
We headed back out of the cave much more quickly than we came in, since we didn't stop to look at everything. Moving faster kept us much warmer than on the way in.
This space seemed to have gotten tighter than on the way in!
We retraced our steps hiking on the jungle trail and over the river crossings back to the River Rat van, and I enjoyed a nice conversation with Becky on the way back. Gonzo and Becky were the BEST to tour the cave with, and we would highly recommend River Rat for anyone wanting to experience this amazing adventure.
Becky and Emily hiking back
When we arrived back at the parking area, changing rooms were available for us to get out of our wet clothes for the drive back to San Ignacio. Upon our return to town, Barry and I wasted no time in heading over to Mr. Greedy's for another pizza (barbeque chicken this time) after this adventurous and exciting day. And yes, we ate it all up once again!
Yummy BBQ chicken pizza to top off the day