Belize, part 2

I am sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio, Belize, eating an ice cream cone filled with homemade sweet corn ice cream. That’s what the locals eat here! It’s really quite good.

First, to ease any fears you may have about Hurricane Wilma, we are perfectly safe. The hurricane has passed Belize safely by, though the outer islands on the Belize Reef were evacuated inland. It made finding a hotel last night a little difficult, but that was the extend of Wilma’s effect on us. She has passed on to the north and will make landfall in the Mexican Yucutan later tonight.

TikalYesterday we went back to Tikal, the massive Mayan city in northern Guatemala. We explored some lesser pyramids, and found a deep tunnel beneath one pyramid that had 7 vampire bats living in it. We took some fantastic pictures of them and their little pointy teeth.

We watched sunset from the top of the Grand Pyramid, in a section of Tikal called “Mundo Perdido,” or “The Lost World.” I have never seen, and probably will never again see, a sunset like that. After the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, the entire jungle filled with an eerie greenish yellow light. It actually got BRIGHTER than it had been before the sun had set.

We were accompanied by two bright green parrots who were flying in circles around the pyramid and squawking, as well as a troup of howler monkeys in the trees below the pyramid who were shrieking so loudly it sounded like war.

Tikal SunsetThen the colors started to change. The wispy clouds which were strung across the sky turned green, then yellow, then pink, then red, then orange, and then purple. The pyramids sticking up out of the jungle reflected the changing colors against their white limestone. It was unreal. We walked the mile and a half back to the car through the dense jungle in almost total darkness.

That night we drove back across the northern Guatemalan jungle (occasionally swerving donkeys, pigs, dogs, and people sleeping in the road) and made it back here to San Ignacio around 9.

This morning we hired a guide to take us to Actun Tunichil Munkal (translated from the Maya as “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”). It is deep in the Belizian rainforest, and was featured several times by National Geographic as one of the richest sources of Mayan religious and death artifacts. Over 98% of the artifacts found after the cave was discovered in 1986 are STILL inside the cave!

The entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Wanna go in there?

The trip began with a hike for an hour through the steaming rainforest, and the crossing of the Roaring River three times. We arrived at the cave entrance, which was a massive, misty crack in the mountainside, with a deep green pool and river coming out of the entrance. We swam across the 20-foot-deep pool, and climbed out on the opposite shore inside the cave.

Actun Tunichil MuknalFor an hour we waded and swam through the river, upstream deep into the cave. Finally we arrived at a point where the guide had us scale the right-hand wall of the cave, and we reached a major side passage where we removed our shoes and continued in socks to protect the delicate flowstone formations inside the cave.

Pots in Actun Tunichil MuknalWe passed hundreds of Mayan pots, each more than a thousand years old, which were brought into the cave for religious rites.

We passed cave formations that put anything I’ve ever seen in American caves to shame. And I’ve been into a LOT of them.

Then we came to the skeletons.

Human Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal

This was once a human

Human skulls were embeded into the calcite crystals in the floor. More than 13 people had been sacrificed in religious rituals in the cave. Archaeologists classify the sacrifices as “willing” and “unwilling.” Which means that most of the people who were sacrificed in the cave had given themselves (or their families had given them) as sacrifices, and they had gone willingly.

A few were considered “unwilling” sacrifices, and were probably slaves captured in battle.

The sacrificial skeletons ranged in age from infants to early 40s.

The Crystal Skeleton of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Cave of the Crystal Skeleton...Indiana Jones, anyone?

The culmination of the trip was a peek into the chamber for which the cave got the name “stone sepulchre.” In a tiny chamber high above the main passage was a perfect human skeleton, a female in her 20s, which had been totally encrusted and preserved in calcite crystals. She was cemented to the floor in a perfect, restful position, her eye sockets staring emptily up at the ceiling. It was a supremely creepy place.

All in all, we were underground a little over 4 hours in the Mayan burial cave. It was probably the most intense cave I’ve ever visited, since 75% of the time we were in water up to chest deep.

Tomorrow we will drive the jungle road to Caracol, a vast Mayan city that is just now being excavated by archaeologists, with some stops at waterfalls and caves along the way.

I hope you all are well, and, again, don’t worry at all about Wilma’s effect on us! When we got back to the entrance of the cave and saw sunlight for the first time in four hours, a heavy rain was falling outside, and clouds of steam and mist were rising from the jungle. Incredibly beautiful! It was Wilma’s tiny little way of making our vacation better. Now she is up north, and won’t pose us any more threat…at least to us.

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