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« Pampering with a twist..among other things | Main | A Zoo unlike any other »

The stone sepulcher aka craziest thing we have ever done!

The previous post on this Belize trip series is here..

The main attraction we were going to see on this trip was ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal), a hidden cave created by an underground river which the Mayans used as a sacred place. 

We had heard that the Indiana Jones movie was inspired by this place. Not sure if that is true. Even after reading accounts of other people going through the 4 hour wading/ swimming/ hiking through this cave system to see the large sacred chamber where there is a crystallized fossil, we underestimated how challenging it was going to be!

ATM is in Western Belize. So it was not the usual 1 hour drive from the resort. It was a 2 hour drive to the meet up point for ATM guides. We left the resort after a breakfast at 7. The kids had just done the Altun Ha climb and walked the Zoo the previous day. So it was no surprise that they complained about a 5:30 wake up call. The resort staff are not used to folks going from there to ATM. Apparently most folks who visit ATM stay in San Ignatio, another small town in Western Belize with a population of almost ten thousand. ATM pick up point (called Pooks hill) was 45 minute from there.  The resort staff were up and ready for us and served us breakfast. Then off we went. 

The area was called Belmopan and was full of crops. Reminded us of driving towards Monterey when we see lush green fields and similar landscapes.

Once we reached the pick up point, our driver handed us off to an ATM guide. This guy Manuelo or Manny spoke 5 or 6 languages, had a mix of Polish Jewish, Mexican, Mayan, etc. etc. mixed ancestry and was born and raised in Belize. For some reason he spoke with what sounded like a Ukranian Russian accent! 

To the kids, he remined them of Madras thatha (my dad) because of his jokes. He had to tell us he had just cracked a joke!

It was only 7 miles from the pick up point to the Tea Kettle Village (there is no village as far as I could tell.. it is two sheds where you could sit and have lunch and a parking space with one really good restroom with changing rooms and a shower) and the road was not paved.. there was 3 to 4 feet of water at places and the vehicle had to cross it. Manuel joked "don't worry, this vehicle knows how to swim. if not, tourists know how to push!". 

A video of the bumpy ride... the TKO plantation was all teak and Mahogany introduced by the British. On one side was Valencia oranges. 

The Belizians call the Teak and Mahogany an investment for their grand children. It apparently takes 50 years to 80 years for these trees to mature and their wood is extremely sought after. The kids in Belize are also taught to carve these woods.. you see wood carvings sold everywhere!

We had two other couples on the trip from that leg. One from Spain (where the lady was a swimming instructor!) and another from Colorado.. the guy was 6'4" and that had its advantages and disadvantages on the tour. 

Manuel informed us that there was no photography unfortunately at ATM because many years ago, a tourist dropped his lens on one of the skulls and broke it! So some idiot had to spoil it for the rest of us.. I cursed that guy on sacred ground and moved on.. 

We got our safety gear (we were used to the lifevest and miner helmet combination by now) and got a crash course on what we were to expect. Most of Manuels don'ts ended with "you will die!" and much later we realized he wasn't joking!

The the couple from Spain suggested we at least take a picture before the start, given the cameras were going to be left in the vehicle. We got a good picture! Think after this the next smile was 4 hours later..

ATM is a "shock and awe" trip. You walk for 5 minutes from the parking lot and you see a river that is going quite fast and there is a rope tied across it. You can swim across, but if you are not a good swimmer.. you have to hold the rope and pull yourself to the other side as you float. I managed to do that after gulping some water at the deepest point. San was lucky. She declared "I no swim" to Manuelo and he literally pulled her across to the otherside as she was floating facing the sky.  It should not have been that difficult for me.. but the water was very cold and the thermal shock is what got me. The kids swam, the tall guy mostly walked and had to swim for maybe a few seconds. 

Then we kept walking through the jungle and reached antoher river, this time it was 2 to 3 feet deep but was slippery. So we held the rope and walked across. The little one swam across!

More walking and a third river crossing.. by now we got used to the routine. Then some more walking and we came to a stop. We were at the cave entrance. But there was a catch. You have to almost go underwater to reach the cave entrance. How the Mayans figured this out itself was beyond me. I got some help from the guide this time as well and once we reached the cave entrance, it was pitch black. The lights came on and we were told that given our swimming grades were F for San, D- for me and an A- to A+ for the rest of the folks on the team, we will be following Manuel and everyone passes on the information from him to the person behind as we move along. 

It was the most challenging thing we have ever done. You walk, wade, swim against the river as you go into the caves and there are some places where there is barely enough room to squeeze through rocks. To add to this, you are not allowed to touch the walls on some places because they have stalagtites or stalagmites growing and sweat from our skin will make those stop. So we would get instructions like "right side only" or "left side only"  and in some places the water level would go from 3 feet to 8 feet abruptly.. so we would get warnings for those. 

After going through this for an hour and a half, we reached a point where there was a near vertical rock climbing. Then we knew why socks was mandatory. You are not allowed to wear shoes and go up as it was a "sacred place". You were not allowed to go barefoot as it would damage crystal formations. So you go with wet socks. There was a ledge where all 9 of us assembled and removed our shoes. We had to wait for the previous group to get down and then we climbed up. 

Once we were up, there was this dome the size of a football field with crystals everywhere.. there was mist particles dancing in front of us with the miner helmet lamps, the ceilings were full of crystals left behind by the eroding river and the whole thing was like a natural Cathedral with Stalactice columns reaching down to their stalagmite counterparts.  On the floor were beds (naturally formed by the water).. think little pits 8 feet by 3 feet with ridges and skeletal remains in each of those pits. 

We walked for five minutes to the other side of this dome and it was time for the grand finale. There was a ladder tied to another ledge on the top with a rope. Again we waited for another group of 8 people to climb down and we went up. There was not much room up there in that litle cave within a cave but there was a crystallized skeleton there. Think of an old pickle where the sugar or salt comes out in needles.. the entire skeleton was like that. 

We saw that, got a lot of interesting theories on what "possibly" happened there... actually the whole place is fascinating, given all the artifacts and skeletons we saw there.. infant skeletons, jaguar skeletons, older people , people who were literally "offed" with a blow to their head with their hands tied behind their back and kneeling down..  you get the idea?! 

Then it was time to climb and get down. This was again challenging with the wet socks. So we come down literally on our butts by going from stone to stone. 

After having been out of the water for a good hour, we forgot how cold the water was.. so when we jumped from the last rock to the water below.. that was interesting.

Then the wading and swimming and tip toeing in neck deep water started. This time we were going with the water flow. So controlling the speed with which we went was challenging. Almost all of us had cuts and bruises on the return as we hit sharp rocks under water or got our hands cut as we tried to hold on to the walls (again sharp rocks) to slow us down. 

Finally we came to the ledge where the cave entrance was. Manuel took San and walked out. The rest swam out. I froze. My confidence level in getting out of this was low. Luckily he came back and said "you can do it. I will be here" and I managed to half swim, half wade through. Apparently things were not this difficult till 2013. Then the river flooded and water level rose a good 10 feet higher than what it is today and it also eroded and cut the path to the cave to be a good 6 feet deeper. 

We still had a 45 minute trek back and three river crossings. This time the swim instructor from Spain was my savior. That couple stayed back with me and literally gave me a crash course on swimming with a life vest on.

Once we made it back to the parking lot, we showered, changed and had lunch (not from the resort) but provided by the guides. There was no veggie option really that worked for me, but I had granola bars. The wife and kids ate salad and some rice which did not look very appetizing to me. Quaker Chewy never tasted better! 

Then it was time to go to the main road. We said bye to Manuel and were back in the resort pickup truck. Two hours later we were tired and exhausted and happy to be back at the Spa. 

It was almost a little after 6PM when we reached the Spa. It was time to go shower, change again and have a nice dinner. A lot of folks we met were leaving the resort the next morning. It was a good dinner.

Before leaving for ATM, I had asked our Spa manager if she would see if there was any spots to visit Lamanai, another big pyramid burried within the jungles.. which was an all day trip. After ATM, I dropped the idea.

The last day was going to be a day of rest for the family, exploring the resort area and getting some much needed last minute pampering before flying out.

One thing kept coming back to me. I should learn to swim better. Would have enjoyed it even more if I didn't freeze everytime I saw a fast moving river or stepped into nothing while wading in water.

This years goal is to learn to swim properly and with confidence.

ATM is definitely the highlight of the Belize tour.. a jaguar licking my forehead being a close second. If you have health issues, check with the guides before you plan this trip. Learn to swim properly before you go. Also don't bother lugging a heavy camera bag or take gopros etc. No use. Always take extra socks with you so you can do the last climb easily. (we put the extra socks inside our miner helmets). We were lucky that one of the usual guides at the resort told us to take extra socks. He had been to ATM before. 

A must see and experience place if you visit Belize!

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