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Maya Underworld

Natural tropical setting at the Belize Zoo
Natural tropical setting at the Belize Zoo
We slept soundly in our thatched cabana, but woke long before our alarm clock was set to go off as the jungle sounds coming to life were a more effective way to wake. We were so excited for this day – ATM cave! We donned our sneakers and with a quick brush of the teeth and hair we were out the door. We met Hector who would be our guide for the day. Wearing a huge smile, Hector was compact, powerful, a lover of nature along with a good sense of humor, as we would soon discover.

A short drive out of Pooks property, we turned right on the road rather than left to return to the highway. We passed bean fields already being harvested in the early morning as Hector kept us entertained along the bumpy way. We soon pulled into the parking lot of the ATM cave – much to Hector’s pride we were the first ones there! After a quick stop at the odorous pit potties, we eagerly set off down the trail. We immediately hit the first of 3 wet crossings of the Roaring River and continued on the trail engulfed in thick jungle foliage all around. Hector was quick to point out wildlife along the way, and at one point we stopped and stared in awe as a flock of beautiful toucans flew over our heads and roosted in a tree overhead.

After about 30 minutes we arrived at the ATM picnic shelter. Hector quickly outfitted us in our helmets and headlamps and stashed our cameras in his dry bag while we hung our backpacks on nails to keep our packed lunches safe from the jungle residents. We clambered down the bank of the creek, and all of a sudden the mouth of ATM emerged from the jungle. Looking like something from an episode of LOST, we anxiously waited as Hector gave us safety instructions and started a continuous dialog about the significance and history of this major Mayan religious site. In the distance howler monkeys added their voices, giving the moment an even more eerie feeling.

Excitedly we plunged into the green water and swam the first yards into the mouth of the cave, small tetra fish nibbling at our skin. Beyond this first pool there was very little swimming on our voyage into Actun Tunichil Muknal – Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. For the next 4 hours we waded, climbed, slid and crawled. After scaling a huge boulder to an upper ledge, we removed our shoes and followed Hector through an incredible collection of pots, skeletal remains, and cave formations. The Maya believed that the caves were an entrance to the underworld, and would use ATM for religious ceremonies, sacrificing both material goods and also human sacrifices to the rain and fertility gods. After crossing through the large room dubbed the Cathedral, we picked our way across the “ouch zone” in our muddy socks to the climax of the cave – the Crystal Maiden. Once featured on the cover of National Geographic, a full skeleton of a young woman remains forever preserved in a cover of limestone. After pausing here for some time listening to Hectors immense knowledge of the Maya culture, we started our way back out of the cave.

Upon re-entering the Cathedral, we met the first group behind us. Having other voices and lights in these ancient spaces changed the dynamic so much. Yet another reason to be grateful for our terrific guide who valued the silence and solitude of the early morning passage. We climbed back down the boulder and reversed our watery trek back out of the cave, and when we reached the plunge pool at the entrance I sadly jumped in, realizing that our incredible ATM exploration had come to an end. Back at the picnic site, we sat in the warm sun and ate our lunch while we listened to the howler monkeys express their displeasure at interrupting their jungle. We hiked back to the van, this time enjoying every river crossing to help cool our sweating bodies.

Arriving back at the lodge, Dave met us wearing an Adventure Life hat and bearing cold drinks. We relaxed in the comfy chairs of the open-air lodge and discussed Belize politics and structure, quickly learning that Dave is a walking encyclopedia of all things Belize! Soon Vicki wandered through ready for a swim. Our fellow ATM explorers decided to take her up on it, but we decided a shower and nap were more our ticket. Pook’s Hill heats their water supply by burning cohune nuts, collected from the jungle floor. The “hot water heater” was putting off smoke, letting us know that hot showers were available, so we enjoyed a hot shower and nap before dinner. Dinner that night was a spread of fresh veggies, beef and rolls, and we again lingered over lantern-lit tables sharing tales of our daily adventures with the other guests in the lodge. The camaraderie of this small group of travelers was an unexpected highlight of our stay at Pook’s Hill.

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