Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Belize: ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Caves

So the ATM caves - or caves of the crystal sepulchre as it's also apparently known.  I never knew that fact, although I only had to go as far as wikipedia to find it, so not exactly elusive - was our destination for our 2nd full day in Belize and our final day in the Cayo District.  Again we were up with the larks for breakfast on the terrace at 6.30am - how awful for us - before our Hun Chi'ik tour guide, Gliss arrived at 7am to pick us up.  Btw I have to give props to Hun Chi'ik tours - so named for the solitary coati that breaks away from the pack to make its own pack - their guides were excellent, I highly recommend them.

I believe this is the approximately route we took to the ATM caves in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve from Ka'ana Boutique Resort as I recall driving through Teakettle Village.  "Named by the British" said Gliss our guide.  You don't say, I would have never have guessed from the name.  In truth I might have second guessed him because I never heard the word 'teakettle' until I moved to NYC.  To a Brit a teakettle is the only kind of kettle that matters and therefore does not need defining by the prefix 'tea'.  I mean seriously, do people think I'm going to be confused by the word kettle and think they might be referring to a fish kettle?  Trust me, such confusion will never arise.

The drive along the Western Highway is great, nicely paved roads, no big deal, but once we turned off into Teakettle it was a whole other story and what followed was 7-miles of rough terrain.  "How are you liking your Belizean massage?" joked Gliss from the driving seat as Melissa and I were violently shaken from side to side in the back.  I felt like a ragdoll.  

The terrain looks a lot less rough in this photo than it was in reality.  I think this might be Teakettle Village 
En route we passed teak trees.  "Very expensive wood," said Gliss

And Mahogany trees, a resource previously coveted by the British

The lush Belizean landscapes made me think of Hawaii, but since I have yet to visit Hawaii perhaps I've just watched one too many episodes of Lost.
The car park for ATM caves.  It's an easy 30-minute hike from here to the caves

Unfortunately neither car nor camera was not allowed any further than the car park, so we used the facilities - currently holes in the ground that could give those in the Inca Trail a run for their money, but needs must.  Workers were busy on building properly bathroom and changing facilities, but Gliss had no idea when they'd be completed - and
dressed in board shorts, swimsuits, long sleeved rash guards - "that's a great shirt for this activity, long sleeves are good," said Gliss - and water shoes we grabbed the cooler bag filled with 2 roast chicken sandwiches, chips and salsa, 2 portions of fruit salad and 2 bottles of water that Ka'ana Resort had thoughtfully provided as our lunch plus our hard hats provided by the tour company and set off on our 30 minute hike to the mouth of the cave.  Now as I mentioned in the photo caption above the hike is generally pretty easy and pleasant.  The terrain is fairly flat, there are no significantly hilly parts, but you do have to wade through the river - Roaring Creek - 3 times, which, by the way, is the cleanest river I have seen in my life.  You could clearly see to the bottom and for the most part it only ever came up to my knees and I am only 5ft 1, so not that deep at all really.  I think there was one point where it came up to my waist, but for the most part it was my knees.  You do have to watch your step as the stones can be a little slippery and can be hard to see as the person walking in front of you will froth up the water, but it's fine, no the worse part is the colonies of flesh eating ants that march along the route.

Um...hmmm...that's right, I said FLESH EATING ANTS!!!!!!

Okay okay, carnivorous ants that eat spiders and stuff, but still....carnivorous ants!!! Who knew of such a thing.  Basically you have to avoid getting the carnivorous ants on you, so on the 3 occasions where we came across them on the trail Gliss would pause at the foot of the ant army and then tell us to run quickly through them - usually a distance of no more than 10 feet - and then stomp our feet to ensure none had hitched a ride on our shoes.  We were fine and were never bitten, but that didn't stop me from jumping from every leaf that brushed against my legs in case it was an ant mistaking me for a banquet.

"Why are you so scared of the jungle," said Gliss

"Um...well that would be because it's the JUNGLE!!!" I responded  

"Are you scared of New York City?" he asked. Well no!!  "No, because you are used to it.  If you lived here you would be used to the jungle and you wouldn't be afraid.  People are afraid of what's unfamiliar."

Good point and for the most part I agree, but did I mention that not only does Belize have flesh eating ants it also has jaguars!!!  Jaguars roaming free at that!!!  What does one do when confronted with a jaguar was something I wondered as I hiked along the trail avoiding flesh eating ants??  

The ATM caves are a relatively recent discovery, first reported by Canadian Geologist Thomas Miller in 1989, later catching the eye of National Geographic who produced the documentary "Journey Through The Underworld" in 1992.  Our guide Gliss said that the caves first opened to tours in 1997, which is when he said he started leading people through them.

Now as I previously mentioned cameras are not allowed in the ATM caves ever since May of this year when a tourist got a little careless and dropped his camera fracturing the thousand year old skull of a Mayan sacrifice.  Nice one!!  However since cameras were allowed prior to May I found some good photos on Flickr posted by Island Expeditions that were downloadable.  There are a load of great photos of the caves on Flickr, including these ones by ShellyLeit, but most users had chosen to disable downloading so I was unable to share them here, but I am hoping that since Island Expeditions is a tour company that have no such qualms about me promoting them.

Here's a shot of a group crossing the river.  See, knee high max.  Easy right?

Crossing Roaring Creek on the hike to the cave entrance 

The hike ends at a camping area where we hung up our sandwich cooler, so that we could eat our lunch after the tour, which lasted approximately 2-hours.
A view of the cave entrance.  You swim into the cave, it's not far, maybe 10-feet.  For most of the tour you are wading through water or walking through the dry upper chamber

A view of the entrance from inside the cave

So like Melissa and I you may be cautious about committing yourself to an ATM Caves tour because you are worried it might be, shall we say, challenging!!  If you are averagely fit, don't be.  It's really not as difficult as you probably think it's going to be and the guides are amazing.  I won't lie to you, there are a couple of instances during the tour where I thought "that's way too tight," or "I may have got up here but hell knows how I'll get down," but trust me it's easier than you think, our guide, Gliss, was amazing at pointing out hand or foot placement and telling us not to worry about going down onto your butt.  Your eyes can be deceiving and unless you are significantly larger than the average human or significantly less fit then you'll generally not have an issue!!

Note these guys are in their hiking boots which are generally better for climbing than the water shoes we wore which felt a little too slippery when clambering over rocks for my liking, however you will have to wade through water in whatever footwear you decide upon, so I think the best option are athletic water shoes.  Our guide Gliss loved his New Balance water shoes which were similar to those shown in the photo below.  Note the drainage holes.  I think shoes like these were the best ones to wear, but my $10 water shoes from REI Outlet did me proud.

The cave has some amazing rock formations that I found more interesting than the Mayan artifacts to be honest

But no trip to the ATM caves would be complete without a photo of the Crystal Maiden, an intact skeleton of a Mayan sacrifice, initially thought to be female, but a fact that is now apparently questioned by archaelogists who think 'she' may actually be a 'he'.

That evening we befriended our bartender at Ka'ana Boutique Resort who introduced us to habanero infused tequila.  "It's not too hot," he informed us as he poured us a shot.

Good Lord!!  Not too hot if you're Belizean maybe!!  He then made us a cocktail of habanero infused tequila, pineapple juice and mint which cut the heat significantly by left enough of a kick.  It was delicious, I plan to make my own habanero infused tequila.  

The drink at the rear of the photo below is habanero infused tequila, pineapple juice and mint.  The drink in front is Belizean rum, Caribbean Gold I think was the brand, with soda.

I think I may serve the habanero cocktail at an upcoming gathering in support of friends who are running the NYC Marathon.


Carolyn Watson-Dubisch said...

Very cool cave pictures! The jaguars are probably like the mountain lions where I used to live. They mostly stay away from groups of people, but if you're on your own and you see one hold something up over your head, like a box, to make yourself look bigger and more threatening... It works!

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Thanks for the information Carolyn, I shall remember that, but hopefully I'll never have cause to try it :-)

Amel said...

You're one FUNNY lady. I LOVE the way you write your stories. Very captivating and in parts it made me laugh he he...

Knee-deep water? Ugh...for me it'll probably be close to my waist. ARRRGGHHH NOOOOOO he he...I think I'll pass and just enjoy your stories and pics ha ha...but good to know you had so much fun! :-D

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Thanks Amel, you are so sweet, I am glad the post made you laugh. I'm trying to write more often at the moment, but it's so tough with work.

Amel said...

Yeah, I understand about juggling writing with work, but DO keep writing. :-D I LOVE your style and your sense of humour! :-D

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Thanks Amel