Actun Tunichil Muknal, a.k.a “A.T.M”

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Throughout our travels, my husband will often chide me for my tendency to give in at the first set-back. But sometimes I surprise him. I pull things together, get my head around the trek, and follow his lead to completion. Joining him in one of Belize’s most impressive caving adventures would not be one of those times.

The Actun (meaning cave) Tunichil Muknal is an important attraction for Belize, one that not only offers caving adventure to reach the inner sanctuary, but is of historical interest, being an ancient Mayan burial site. In the combination it inspires the Professor Indiana Jones in many of us, certainly in my husband. It’s accessible only by licensed guides leading no more than a party of eight. While such exclusiveness might sound intriguing, don’t believe brochures with throw-away lines like, “it’s a 45-minute hike to the cave but well worth the effort.” There’s a story behind “the effort” that – surely you’ve seen one Indiana movie – travellers over fifty may wish to consider.

We’ve booked the ATM adventure tour for the next day. I’m looking at the weather. The report is bad, but experience in Belize tells us that the weather report is frequently wrong. I’m talking to different people at our hotel to get more information about the level of difficulty for the day-long tour.

By some, ATM is described as “extreme adventure”. But a survey of our housekeeper, a birding guide, the bartender, and a tour operator is mixed. “It’s not hard, you just need good footwear.” “The water is very shallow.” “The water can be up to your shoulders, sometimes.” “I took my girlfriend last week and she loved it.” Three days later, and too late for my survey, Lascelle, of S&L Tours will tell us he doesn’t schedule tours there in early December because of the unpredictable weather.

Our recent experience at Blue Creek Cave near Punta Gorda in the south of Belize tells me that the hike into cave sites in Belize can be difficult. A twisted ankle is a real possibility in negotiating one’s way over and around boulders and rocks.

To reach the cave at ATM, it’s a 45-minute hike, with three turns of the snaking “Roaring Creek” to wade across. Inside, there’s nearly a kilometre of wet and dry trekking and narrow corridors to squeeze through.

I’m wavering. Dan’s frowning. Should I cave-in, so to speak, to my nervousness about caves in general and wet ones in particular? Then all at once, it’s settled. My sinuses start throbbing and I can feel a headache coming on. “Dan you go without me. You know what I’m like when I get these headaches. It could last a day or two and I don’t want to hold back the group.”

The day starts out well enough, warm sunshine in the early hours. But that’s about to change. An advancing storm system might have blown away but for my predictive headache the night before. I’m sensitive to changes of air pressure. But Indiana Dan is not paying heed to my nose this time.

Oscar is the guide and he leads only three people today, Dan, Scott and his girlfriend Danni. The young couple are surfers and appear to have great upper body strength. Dan himself is a solid all-round athlete, only recently retiring from weekly hockey concerned these days about the real threat of concussions or shoulder injuries – something he thinks about in his fifties but didn’t in his thirties.

Later that night, towelled down and tucked into a comfortable chair in the bar at the Chaa Creek Lodge, Dan tells me about his day.

“When we started the kilometre trek into the cave, the water was only up my chest. There’s a point where you need to squeeze through rock passages, and then you walk on a dry area in front of the rubble of a past cave-in. If you’re going to have a panic attack, Oscar says it will probably happen at this front-end portion. The first twenty yards of the cave are the most intimidating.”

Tour operators warn hikers that they will have to take off their water shoes once reaching the dry ground. They also insist that you bring a pair of socks since it’s a matter of respect not to walk on the burial ground in bare feet. But what follows (fortunately with your shoes still on), is that you must scale a ten-foot high rounded boulder. “Oscar shows you how to climb the rock. You first get your left foot wedged into a slight shelf a few feet up, then you need to stretch as high as you can up to the pinnacle of the rock, grip the bulge, and swing your right foot up and over the top to pull your body up. You need incredible upper-body strength.” Putting down his drink, Dan looks straight at me. “You could not have done it without help. You’re too short to swing your leg up to the top of the boulder. Even Danni who is as tall as me had trouble. Scott was behind her and he had to push her up on the butt to get her up and over the boulder.”

I’m the first one to recognize I have little upper body strength. While my golf swing hits the ball straight, it will land hardly fifty yards down the fairway.

Dan continues: “We had to walk across a muddy area and climb over some more rocks in our stocking feet (the socks are in some garbage now). Then the route was littered with sharp rocks under foot, an area that Oscar called, the “oochy-ouchy”. Eventually, you find yourself in a huge cavernous chamber, overhead stalactites and towering stalagmites. Our headlights are strong enough to reveal pieces of pottery, skulls, and a complete skeleton littered about, all calcified. They are now part of the rocks.

To get to the last, most sacred area, you need to climb a twenty-foot steel ladder, again, you’re in stocking feet and you’ve just completed the oochy-ouchy. Oscar says that some people freeze facing the ladder and can go no further.”

At the top, a path is wired off to prevent people from walking over the calcified remains. While the site has been open since the late 1990s to tourists, only two years ago, orange tape was laid on the ground to show you where not to walk. “People were walking on these relics and crushing them”, says Oscar. “Cameras should be banned too.”

“Because of the flash?” asks Dan.

“No. “It’s because people will lean over the protected area to get a close up shot and drop their camera. One of the skulls was damaged in this way. It now has a hole in it.”

There is one place where stalactite and stalagmite meet in a calcium embrace and they look like tree roots. The Maya believed that man came from the underworld and would return there. The symbol of tree roots represented the passage between the two worlds.

Dan’s trip back to the underground river is strenuous but offers the happy prospect of being united with his Keen’s water boots and separated for good from the mud-saturated stinky socks.

Deep in the cave, no one knows it has rained hard for the past three hours; the roar of the river outside cannot be heard. Emerging from the cave, there is no blinding light, rather, sheets of water and grey skies above the beaten jungle canopy. Expecting a rush of joy in the transition out of darkness, instead, Dan feels physically heavy. It will be a difficult hike back to the van.

The trail follows the north bank of the snaking river, by now a wild torrent. Here lies the danger after three consecutive hours of heavy rain. It’s not possible to wade through two of the three crossings that allow the hiker to follow a straight line. This means that the party will need to follow the curving path of the creek, twice as long, before reaching the final bend at which point crossing is inevitable.

A contingency, in the form of a rope affixed across the banks of the third crossing tells Dan that these conditions are not unusual. The rope protects adventurers from being washed away even though the river still can be waded. Oscar admits, however, that the river can be too swift to cross, even with a rope. Hikers have been known to be stranded on the bank overnight. In some cases, a boat may be sent down river for them, but it will depend on conditions.

The rain makes the path thick with slippery mud. The party is mired shin-deep and trips over tree roots; the walking is hard. Facing a small hill to descend, Danni announces she will not even try to pick her way down rather she’ll slide and wash herself off in the river crossing. Dan is getting sore feet, sore shoulders. Forty-five minutes coming up here is turning into an hour and a half on the return. Vultures are overhead. With their easy glide on shafts of wind, they could cover the same distance of this trek in minutes.

When Oscar spots the river crossing, the rain continues to pelt down hard. Dan’s backpack by then is dripping wet but thankfully remains dry inside because of the densely woven ballistic nylon. But that’s about to change.

Oscar is first across and it’s clear that the crossing, which can be ankle deep at other times of year, is now up to his neck. There’s no way around it. Dan and his specially-designed photographer’s back-pack will be nearly submerged. The camera itself however is safe in Oscar’s dry bag.

Over margaritas that night, Dan confesses, “I’ve learned from this experience that if I do it again, it will be in the dry season but I’m still happy I did it.”

I know my husband well enough to understand why he’s justifiably proud of himself. It’s wasn’t about caving for him. The fear he faced was about the physical demands of the adventure. Happily, he demonstrated to himself that he still has upper body strength, stamina, and most of all, he’s tough enough to navigate the oochy-ouchies.

There’s a raw quality to Belize caving, something that has an appeal to some and discourages others. ATM is a challenging cave to penetrate regardless of the weather which perhaps saves it from excessive tourist damage. The advice for travelers of any age is to know your own physical strength. And can you do the splits?

(photos courtesy of Dan Cooper)

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