The skies are gray when we arrive in Belize—the season lingering somewhere between wet and dry, the only two seasons this country knows. It’s mid-January and a group of us—journalists from all types of publications: New York fashion blogs, outdoor adventure magazines—are here to test the latest products from Helly Hansen, Cascade Designs, Quiksilver, and, surprisingly, Microsoft. As a professional gear tester, it goes without saying that I’ve also brought a spectrum of previously received samples to test so that I can take advantage of the spring-like weather while it snows back home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We’re here to explore the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or the ATM cave as it’s known to the locals, who guide tourists on multiple trips a day. We arrive by bus to a parking lot after a long, bumpy ride down an unmarked dirt road from the town of San Ignacio. We’ve been staying at Ka’ana, a collection of modern, tropical bungalows with pathways lit by candles at night. From the bus windows, the vegetation is so thick on either side, it makes me think of what it must be like to bushwhack through the Amazon like in the recent New York Times bestseller Lost City of Z.
From the parking lot, we are asked to leave all cameras behind and wear clothes we are willing to get wet. We have an hour-long hike ahead of us but stream-crossing here means fording a waist-deep river. We hike through the jungle, trees forming a canopy overhead—I’m expecting to see a monkey en route but we don’t. At one point, we stop to watch a line of cutter ants carrying chunks of leaves larger than themselves along an ant highway. Smaller ants are riding the leaves their bigger relatives—or so we imagine—are carrying. We start to piece together a fantasy ant world. “Faster, dad, faster,” the little ant prods its larger, leaf-carrying parent, we say.
The entrance to the cave is straight out of Indiana Jones. Deep turquoise water pools into the cave; ferns, fronds, and other flora decorate the entrance from the outside; and a peek inside reveals Disneyland-size boulders clinging to the ceiling, looking ready to drop. Our guide prompts us to swim across the first pool to a ledge about 10 feet into the cave where we’ll turn on our headlamps. From there, the water level ranges from ankle deep to full-submersion as we work our way deeper into the cave. For the most part, it’s largely open, cavernous, and the only times it gets hairy are when giant boulders have created blockades. In instances like this, our guide leads us through sometimes neck-size passages, telling us which way to turn our bodies. It’s exhilarating. Shimmering stalactites hang from the ceiling and coat certain walls. Bats huddle in tiny alcoves. Again, I’m brought back to Disney and am ready for a mechanical, gold-toothed Johnny Depp to start singing “Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate’s life for me!” around the next corner. It’s depressing that that’s what I’m thinking about.
Eventually, we scramble up a rock face on one side of the cave and walk into a ballroom-sized cavern with a stalactite for a chandelier. Our guide tells us this is where the Maya people performed sacrificial ceremonies and as our eyes start to scan the ground, there are clay pots—mostly in pieces—everywhere. Many of them are turning to dust and becoming one with the ground; others are bloated and white with calcification from water flowing over them time and time again. Our guide explains that these were the vessels, filled with blood, the Maya would offer to the gods of the underworld—where, in their spiritual beliefs, the Maya would pass before their version of heaven. We move through the ballroom, past more clay pots—terra cotta-colored, dark brown, black—until we come to the first of three skulls. The skulls are unusually shaped—pancaked across the forehead, the crown reaching taller than normal. They’re oddly reminiscent of the shape you would imagine when asked to picture an alien—the iconic, guitar pick head. Beyond the third skull, which has a giant hole in the forehead thanks to a camera-toting tourist (thus the no camera rule), is a complete skeleton. It lays on the ground undisturbed—skull, neck, shoulders, arms, ribs, spine, pelvis, thighs, shins, ankles, and feet in perfect, museum-like preservation.
Our guide tells us that experts have been through here and come up with theory after theory about this 1,100-year-old complete skeleton. The most popular is that she is an 18-year-old girl, her bones calcified with a shimmer earning her the nickname the “Crystal Maiden.” But they are just theories. No one will ever know for sure.
Looking around, I feel blessed to have seen this pocket of history and its relics. They won’t be here for long, their physical remnants quickly returning to their original state: sand and dust. They’re too fragile to be moved for preservation’s sake. They would simply blow away in the wind. It’s crazy to think about them not existing in years to come. I’m also grateful for countries like Belize, without safety regulations like the United States. Had this been on our soil, there would be a handrail along the entire cave, floodlights, a paved walkway even. The mystery would be lost to some degree.
We exit the cave the same way we came in, through neck-size openings, swimming at parts and walking at others. When we reach the mouth, kelly green ferns fringe its edges, framed against a backlit sky. We take turns jumping off the ledge into the deep pool at the entrance over and over, tiny silver fish winking at us in the daylight. None of us want to leave.