Travelers in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (Jonathan Brunger)
We woke up floating in our stilted cabana among the forest plants and animals. Many bird species sang during the early morning hours, sounding like a tropical symphony. The Keel-billed Toucan squawks repeatedly each morning as a beacon of the forest, reminding me of where I was. As I looked out into the sea of green, Blue-crowned Mot-Mots called deep within the forest and Social Flycatchers flitter about in the bushes at my feet. After breakfast, we hiked for 15 minutes out of the Pook's Hill area with a guide to a gravel road where we met our guide and other travelers to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal. We had heard so much about this cave from other travelers, including \"one of the coolest things we have ever done.\" That was a big claim, and I looked forward to seeing what the hype was about. We had a quick briefing with the guide, and he went over the expectations and gear. He passed out helmets and headlamps and checked that we all had lunch, water, closed-toed shoes, and socks. It was important to have closed-toed shoes that can get wet for safety reasons when in the cave to protect feet on the slick rocks, and the socks are required to wear in the upper chambers of the cave. After getting geared up and checked, we had a 40 minute hike that involved some stream crossings, and we arrived at the caveâ€™s mouth where we had lunch and went over safety concerns and protocol. You enter the cave with a bang -- It starts off by having to get into a deep pool and swim about 15 feet. Life jackets are provided for travelers that would feel comfortable with extra flotation, but this is the only place where you are required to swim. With the remainder of the time, we waded in water and climbed around as we went about a half a mile in the cave in an hour's time. Safety was always stressed, and our guide went at a cautious pace. Once we got to the end of the cave, we climbed out of the water to a ledge where we took off our shoes and began to explore the area of the cave with many archaeological features and relics. The area was used for ceremonial purposes and sacrifices, and there were a number of clay pots dispersed around the area. Care had to be taken not to step on the pots, and there were the unfortunate signs of were travelers were clumsy and had broken the artifacts. I was intrigued by the skeletal remains that are supposedly human sacrifices that were left in this chamber. Who were these people? Did they know their fate? Did they kill themselves? These are questions that are impossible to answer but certainly keep archaeologists busy. We then returned from the upper chamber to the water and hiked back out of the cave. After having spent almost two hours in the cave, everyone seemed more comfortable, and we descended at a quicker pace (a lot of us needed to get to the bathroom). I did have some hesitation in going into this cave. I have spelunked often and feel comfortable being underground, and my reluctance was more in the spiritual and cultural aspect. Is it appropriate to enter this ceremonial area as a tourist? I have always felt weird queueing up and touring catacolmbs and cathedrals as a tourist, and I saw this as being the same thing. I was even offered the chance to visit a sacred forest and witness some rituals in West Africa when I was in the Peace Corps but declined out of respect for the tradition. After this excursion, I was okay with what I had done. The guides were respectful and encouraged respect and decency when in the chamber, and I appreciated that. I didn't feel that I was intruding, and I was impressed with this trip. It was physically demanding, something I enjoyed, and very educational. Was it the \"coolest thing I had ever done?\" I donâ€™t think so. Was it great? Yes.
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