December 24, 2013

on the trail of mayan ritual sacrifice

we arrived in the dark and left in the dark which ended up being a pattern on this trip. we were up way to early for me but i did not want to miss the early tour of the cave. there was no remote unlock button for the car so when i unlocked the car manually the alarm would sound until i put the key into the ignition. this happened the whole trip and it drove me crazy that i couldn't figure it out. the car alarm wakes up the security guard as well as a huge shepard that comes bounding toward me. i'd parked the car in the gated area of the hotel because crime is such an issue everywhere in Belize. on my second trip to the car it started to downpour so i started running and the shepard now thinking i'm stealing stuff is nipping roughly on my heels.  great way to start the day.

it takes an hour to drive to Pooks Hill in the dark on a rocky, muddy side road and it's hard to spot the signs because they aren't lighted. Pooks Hill was fully booked the night before so we weren't able to stay there but they accommodated my request to join them for their early tour of the cave. at Pooks Hill we meet up with the rest of the group going to the ATM Cave and meet Vickie who is our host while staying at Pooks Hill. Vickie is everything a resort owner/host should be – she stands about 5 feet tall and clearly enjoys talking with the guests – which I am sure involves answering the same questions over and over. we were greeted by name and hustled into the van for the last bit to the trail head. i slide into the front and Vickie jumps into the driver seat. for the next twenty minutes we chat nonstop about all things Pooks Hill and Belize as she expertly navigates the large van through puddles, rivers and muddy hills. she is absolutely delightful. 

at the forest entrance we meet our guide, cover ourselves in bug spray and start the trek into the cave. it takes about 45 minutes and we are moving slowly.  there are three river crossings, the first is chest high in slow moving water with a sandy bottom, the next two crossings are thigh high but faster moving with rocky bottoms. there's an eight year old with our group and she does as good or better than the adults. at the entrance to the cave there's open sided thatched hut where you can leave anything restricted from the cave.

the entrance is a spectacular lagoon with clear water and as i face the cave there's a tingling that's excitement and anticipation and foreboding that i will be walking where for hundreds of years the Maya went for their sacrificial rituals.

there's a very short swim [about 30 feet] through the entrance to reach a ledge inside the cave where we check lights and little one scrambles after the guide fearlessly. as i watch her i know if she can make it so will i.

from the entrance it's ¾ of a mile walking, swimming and spider crawling though all size caverns that are incredibly beautiful. we are the first ones into the cave and our guide, Patrick, takes time to acclimate us to the dark and talk about the Mayan history and geology of the cave. we scramble up one last set of boulders and are inside the main sacrificial chamber. the chamber is as big as a football field and filled with artifacts. 

what makes this an amazing experience is to see the artifacts in the context of which they were used rather than sitting on a shelf in a museum. Patrick, who has some Mayan blood, brings a solemnity to the chamber that respects the artifacts that remain here.  up a ladder and into the farthest part of the chamber is the crystal maiden which is so well preserved by the calcification that it is spooky. 

for me the chamber felt like a reverential and holy place and the journey in was amazing.  for hundreds of years this was a journey made by the maya for their rituals and to see it the way they left it is an exceptional experience.  for days afterwards i had dreams about the monkey pot.

on the way out we passed group after group of incoming tours that lit up the cave and were noisy. i was glad to have taken the advice and spent the time to find the early tour as it added another layer to the experience.

back at the trail head Vicki is waiting for us and instead of riding the long way back she points out a trail that is the back way to Pooks Hill. with directions that in their entirety included, cross the river – go left – walk up through the meadow, we were sure to get lost and we did. not actually lost but we wandered on multiple trails through the jungle until we located the meadow. Vicki had radioed the resort that we were walking so one of the staff met us in the meadow to show us the last trail in and make sure there was a cup of coffee for us.

when i loaded the car in the morning i didn't realize the top of the rum bottle was left unsecured so we ended up with an empty bottle of rum and reeking car. i opened the windows to air the car out, went to explore around the resort and ended up in main lodge where there are hammocks, hummingbird feeders and the bar.  
there is also an excavated archaeological site in the middle of the resort which was once the home for a Mayan family. it has a great lawn and Vicki has a croquet set put up for the guests to use the afternoon we are there but a big tropical rain plowed through and sent us all running for the main lodge.  it was only after the rain i remembered the open windows on the car. ooops

the evening was fantastic with a social hour, where we met loads of fantastic travelers and had a wonderful time swapping adventure stories. dinner was served buffet style in a dinning hall and the food was okay – just not spectacular. the cabana we stayed in was spectacular - a round, traditional thatched roof building with solid screens to keep the bugs out and plenty of windows for ventilation - absolutely delightful. 

this was our first full day in Belize and already i had an incredible experience. there's really no way to be fully prepared to visit this cave and for me the adventure was so much more intense because of the unknown.  this is not a shabbily run tour, the guides were capable, well trained and certified to take tours into the cave.  i left feeling the country of Belize has done an excellent job of immaculately preserving and maintaining the integrity of this holy site for generations of visitors to come.

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