Note: They don’t allow cameras in the cave, so some of these pictures we poached from the internet. Apparently someone dropped a camera on some Mayan artifacts once. Nice job.
We got up early, packed spare clothes, ate a quick breakfast and met our driver, Jose, to take us to ATM (ATM is the anglicized abbreviation for “Actun Tunichil Muknal” – “Cave of the Stone Tomb” in Mayan).
Jose drove us 30 minutes in a rickety old Isuzu Jeep. The speedometer didn’t work, so the mileage was permanently stuck at 195,444 miles. However, there was a digital touchpad CD/DVD/mp3/radio/whatever else installed – an interesting feature in a car with manual windows. We picked up Ibrahim. Our 27 year-old guide was friendly and knowledgeable, if a little quirky. He had a habit of ending sentences with “mm hmm” and a gentle chuckle.
The road from Hummingbird Highway to ATM was 7 miles long, all dirt and rocks and washed out mud. We had to ford at least one stream in the jeep. Apparently they’ve kept it this way to keep the traffic down. The road passed through mostly Menonite (“Money-nite” or progressive) farms. Oranges and corn, plus some young teek trees.
From the parking lot, we geared up and had a 1.8 mile hike to the cave entrance. Almost immediately, we had to wade across the first of three rivers. Ibrahim pointed things out to us along the way, like tourist trees, or the plant on the path with cyanide in its prickers that will make your skin swell up and then fall off. The cave entrance is less than 30 miles from Sleeping Giant, but all told it took us at least two hours to get there.
A river flows through the cave, so our first order of business was to swim (up to our necks and NOT touching the ground!) 20 yards with dozens of little fish to get to a walkable part on the other side. We’d later get used to the water, but at first it was cold enough to take the breath away.
We waded through the cave, usually between ankle and waste deep, with hard hat lights. In a couple spots we seemed to be at a dead end, until our guide showed us through a crevice between two boulders. One required you to push your head through an opening, then slide your neck through with about an inch of clearance.
Things we saw:
- Bats, stuck into holes in the ceiling made by guano destroying the limestone.
- An albino crawfish.
- Spiders! Like a big, nasty-looking female grey wolf spider.
- A rock that looked like a croc. “Rockadile.”
- Calcite crystals that made many some of the wall sparkle and glitter.
- Stalactites. Stalagmites.
- Layers of rock that dripped or flowed like curtains.
About a mile into the cave, we took the high road. By climbing up a boulder onto a ledge, we left the river and approached the Great Room. We took our shoes off (keeps people more attentive to where they step), then went through a crevice into a massive room that expanded like a cathedral.
From ~650-900 AD, the Maya trekked into this chamber by torchlight to perform ceremonies. There were still several hundred pieces of pottery there – many embedded in the limestone, which had calcified around them.
Many of these ceremonies were quite sick.
Blood letting. The king and queen would shed blood into a bowl, which was broken to release its spirit and please the gods. The method of blood letting? The queen would pierce her tongue with an obsidian blade, then pull a string with barbs through the hole. The king would pierce his penis with a stingray tail. Yeah, you read that right. These might not have been as painful as it sounds, because apparently they first took an enema of fermented honey, magic mushrooms, and hallucinatory frog glands. Apparently the taste was too bad to take orally. Or, that’s what people believe happened.
Human sacrifices. Early in the Great Room, there are a couple skeletons, with bones scattered about. Apparently, the Maya believed more pain made for a better sacrifice – hence the broken and scattered bones.
Journeying further in, and up a 15’ ladder, we found more artifacts. There were more bones. Archaeologists believe only one died a natural death – likely a child who had water in the brain. Its skull was enlarged and had a bore hole in the forehead. There was also the Cave of the Stone Tomb’s namesake: the very intact skeleton of a woman. Only the back was broken. It is believed the woman was sacrificed toward the Mayan collapse, as drought led them to offer more and more valuable sacrifices.
There were also several infant skeletons in the cave. Maya women having trouble conceiving would pray to the underworld gods and promise to sacrifice their firstborn in exchange for fertility.
Our guide also told us the “abbreviated” story of the Maya origination. It was about 20 minutes long and involves twins besting the underworld gods in a ball game. You can look it up.