Today started out even brighter and earlier than the rest of the days here. We had breakfast at 5am and headed out of the Chiquibul by 7am. Our first stop: ATM Cave. ATM stands for “Actun Tunichil Muknal,” which translates to “Stone Sepulcher” in an ancient Mayan dialect. You can guess what that means. The ancient Maya used this cave for ceremonies. It’s an incredible natural formation that requires a 30 minute hike, three river crossings, and a short climb down some limestone formations to reach the cave entrance from the parking area. It’s a wet cave, meaning that it is largely filled with water. The entrance lies just beyond a series of riverine pools filled with aquamarine waters and tiny darting fish. Sadly, no cameras have been allowed near the cave ever since a stupid tourist dropped their camera and damaged the remains of a human skull.
We had to jump into the frigid water and swim into the yawning mouth of the cave. Our guide, Gliss, led us through the treacherous terrain. That place was scary! I almost slipped and landed on my already bruised butt maybe ten times. We had to wade through water for maybe an hour and scramble on slick rocks and limestone for another to reach the end. It was the first time on this entire trip during which I actually felt mildly scared for my life – sharp rocks poked out from everywhere, and some of the crawls just barely fit my body. We were in good hands with Gliss, though.
Neither of the above images belongs to me. First photo is of the inside of the entrance to ATM Cave, taken from www.cahalpech.com. Second photo is the view of the cave entrance from the outside, taken from Belize Escape Artist.
At the end of the cave lies the reason for its name: human remains of 14 individuals who were ceremonially sacrificed. An almost complete female skeleton, nicknamed the Crystal Maiden, lay in the very farthest recesses of the cave. It was eerie…especially since my headlamp chose that exact moment to flicker out. I was ready to hightail it out of there by then.
This photo does not belong to me. It depicts the human skeleton found at the very back of the cave, and for which the cave is named. Photo from Cayo Island Expeditions.
After the cave, we drove the rest of the way to the Tropical Education Center, which is where we’re staying tonight. We were given a nighttime tour of the Belize zoo, which was both fascinating and disheartening.
I could go on and on about zoos and the many mixed feelings they give me. I appreciate them because they allow me to witness wild animals that I would never be able to encounter in real life. They also serve as ambassadors to the public regarding wild animals that may be surrounded by many misconceptions by humans. For that I am grateful. But my heart breaks every single time I enter one, because not a single animal in the zoo was built to live in an enclosure. The Belize Zoo is a rescue zoo that only takes in injured or confiscated animals that would not survive in the wild, but still. I found myself almost brought to tears when we saw a jaguar, an expertly honed hunter of the jungle, reduced to a tame pet that rolled over and did somersaults to receive chicken from the zookeepers. The Belize Zoo and others like it do important work, for sure. But not all zoos are rescue zoos – many obtain their animals from poachers – and I hate the fact that zoos are necessary in the first place.
We humans really need to take a look at ourselves and the way we treat our co-inhabitants of this planet.