The San Ignacio Belize ATM cave experience
An alluring sleepy town that serves as the base camp for one of the most incredible caves in the world
By Laura Lazorski
(Emily Hunkler contributed to this story)
A lot of travel done in Belize is on old school buses that are surprisingly still functional. We came to San Ignacio on one of these.
He saw us coming in on the bus. He was even back there helping to pull our luggage out of the back of the bus. He owned the Acropolis Maya Hotel and ran the ATM cave tours to boot. We stayed at the hotel he recommended, and we went on the tour he arranged for us. He intercepted us, and we were at his service for our entire stay. It is a hotel I would return to, up on the hill overlooking the colonial style town with mountains and mist hulking in the distance. I kept thinking how I’d love to come there for a time and write a novel, maybe a mystery.
San Ignacio and the ATM Cave: Often off course, totally off budget — worth every inconvenience
ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, and was the main reason that we came. At $100usd average, it should be noted this tour is off budget. And the way we happened to be there is of controversial origin. One night while Emily was enjoying the free rum punch someone mentioned cave tubing. Emily’s eyes flickered with excitement and intrigue before she said, “Oh yeah, there’s cave tubing inland, I thought you were talking about a different cave.”
And she was talking in that probably-shouldn’t-have-said-that kind of way, and happened to talk of the ATM caves and how there was a crystallized skeleton of a Mayan sacrificial victim up in there, and how she wondered at it even being open to the public for long. How could we not go there? So I committed my shameful act, because in her three-drink-deep compromised state, what would later be jokingly coined the “vacation rape,” I got her to shake on a deal to go there and see that cave. This trip was not on the itinerary and was out of our way. It would slow us down. It wasn’t part of the budget. But there we were, rolling into town after a long and bumpy ride through the Belizean countryside. San Ignacio, that intriguing, misty town folded into jungle.
We were solely here to take the tour, so only two nights. The tour left at 7 am the next morning, so we had meals and showers and went to sleep. The next morning broke golden with church bells after a fresh fallen rain. Tom came out of his room grumbling about the church bells. We all climbed into an Isuzu Trooper driven by Mendoza, and bumped an hour or so on rough roads into the jungle.
Our guide was Danny. He was very no bones about it. Here are your helmets, here are your headlamps. Don’t get the headlamps wet, as in keep them above water. You must have clothes on in the cave, clothes that will get wet. You will remove your shoes once you are in the sacred part of the cave. These things are done out of respect. I will not talk about the cave till we are at the cave and gathered together. I will not tell you individually about the cave because this wastes my time. I will tell you all about the cave once we are ready to enter. Where you will need to listen, and in some cases tell the person behind you because it will be too narrow to communicate otherwise. It was terse, but effectively built my anticipation.
Through the jungle and into the sacred hollows of Earth
We had to hike in 45 minutes or so, and cross a river three times as we wound deep into the Tapir Mountain Nature Preserve. At the cave entrance there was a stilted roof where we stowed our water bottles on the rafters. Here Danny told us about the caves, how it was a privilege to enter a place once entered only by rulers and priests. I felt privileged. And suddenly I began to realize too the real challenge that lay ahead of me. I would swim deep water to get to a slim beach, a crescent inside the entrance of the cave. Deep channels carved in limestone ran away into the darkness, and slowly with a hand on each edge I lowered myself into the slate waters of the channel. And then we were told to switch our headlamps on, and we started in.
We were in water to our waist, and sometimes our neck. The channel was just wider than our bodies in some parts, with rocks closing over our heads or jutting toward our throats. In a train we would yell out “rock here!” or “swim this part!” and you could hear it repeat as people further down the line told each other and the instructions would ricochet around the cave or sometimes get completely absorbed in wet silence. We had to navigate one section by twisting our shoulders and feeding them through, and then our neck followed by our chin, and the head had to pivot during the motion so it could follow the chin. It was, in some parts, a squeeze. Danny told us that the water was probably much higher then, high enough for lit up canoes to pass and their light would flicker off rock formations and bounce shadows off the buttresses of the cave. Danny even said that people theorize the Mayans had sacred shadows. He used his flashlight to show us how a crone appeared on the cave wall when the formation was hit with light just so, and another a jaguar, and another a warrior.
If this had been a tour just to see stalactites and stalagmites I would have been impressed. There were columns that twisted like crystal be-gowned Oscar goers. There were wavers of rock that rippled and glistened like a tin washboard in the ceiling. And there were rivers of flowstone paralyzed and broken out in crystal sweat. Silence and darkness pressed around our small lights and showed us flashes of these bedazzled structures, opaqued by time. I never thought it was possible to seize the very rush of the river until now. Not able to track time all too effectively at this point, we reached the juncture in the cave where we had to climb up and remove our shoes. This was the entrance to inner cave, and the place of sacrifice.
Danny remarked, “You Americans were probably expecting a path and lights and rope,” and he sniffed. I thought, “No Danny, in American we would not be allowed in this cave.” I couldn’t believe I was even handling the stalagmites in this manner. There were times when we were using their arms and head as finger holds and a leg up. I was climbing on them for goodness sake. I was never allowed to even get my skin oil close to one in the States. I was overcoming a pervasive feeling of sacrilege when we came to our first artifact demarcated by some colored tape. Half emerged from the flowstone, as if they were bobbing along in an imperceptibly moving river, were human heads and bones and great earthen pots. Danny explained that this cave had never been excavated because there is no way to do it without disrupting the amazing crystal formations that encased the sacrifices.
The Mayans thought that the roots of the tree of life, the ceiba tree, reached down into this underworld and were the glittering stalactites above. So when they sacrificed a human they were feeding them directly to the roots of the tree of life. Danny explained that the pots too were intentionally placed on their side, pointed in certain directions. Some were upright collecting the milky drip off the stone roots above. He put forth a theory that some pots spilled their offering perpetually into the drift while the upright ones harbored the water of spontaneous beginnings. At least, that is what I thought he meant.
He also described the killings. One skeleton clearly had his hands and legs positioned behind him, meeting in the back, probably bound. He showed us a fracture in the back of the skull that was probably the fatal wound, but not an instant death. It is thought that the Mayans were offering the slow transfer of life force—the extensive pain was the important part of the gift. Experts believe that the boy was turned to face the wall and left to die out in the dark.
We continued to see fragments of pottery and bone, and in a great chamber there was a massive wall of solid stone bearing the weight of the jungle above it that seemed to ripple and wave with the delicacy of a chiffon curtain caught in a slight breeze. We were not allowed behind the stone curtain, but Danny said that behind it they found the many skeletons of infants. He asked us why we thought a culture would sacrifice its infants, and quickly answered because of catastrophic natural forces like drought or war that bring desperation to human’s relationship with the gods. He said it was thought that they would kill the infant by laying the head in their palm and smashing it into the altar.
Being in the cave, an atmosphere where none in our group felt native or entirely comfortable, and seeing the violent ritualistic practices of a people it truly felt as though we were in an altar of a religion we were not a part of — like going to a Catholic wedding or a Muslim prayer service. You know what happens here is held sacred by many, beliefs held strongly enough to sacrifice human life as an offering to the Gods which governed them. Dark smears of smoke and creosote scarred the walls and ceilings where Mayan priests had made fires to hold their gatherings and ceremonies.
If you know anything about Mayan culture, you know how human sacrifice was a part of their religion. In this cave, all the macabre curiosity and intrigue that brought you here is humbled as you see the evidence laid before you. Religious human sacrifice is no longer an abstract idea, it’s a punctured skull at your feet, it’s a full skeleton who’s facial expression is most easily interpreted as that of agony and horror. They say the cave was only accessed by the most highly respected religious figures of the community and to experience it now, centuries later, as a tourist paying for a guided tour is a provocative scenario, but one that is highly recommended for those who have an interest and a respect for the cultural history that is so rich in Central America.