Yesterday (May 22nd) was a super start to our mini weekend. We spent it in transition from Turf to Surf, and did a few fun things along the way. No amphibians (or sponges) were spotted today because we were mostly in the cave or in the sun–two environments where neither of those are found.
After a bittersweet goodbye to Las Cuevas and the staff, we hopped on a plane and headed east for 3 hours. Then we reached the ATM Cave–its English translation is “The Cave of the Stone Tomb.” There was a 45 minute swim/wade in to the cave then we climbed barefoot.
The most interesting thing we saw was a nearly intact skeleton of a 16-18 year old–the namesake for the cave. Likely, this person was a human sacrifice for when the Maya civilization was in trouble, and they were desperate to please their gods.
Then we made our way to the Tropical Education Center, our home for the night. They put us in the adorable forest cabanas and fed us a lovely meal.
That night, we got the opportunity to get a night tour of The Belize Zoo! Of course, I LOVED it. There were so many species and wonderful nocturnal life. The highlight for me: Meeting Indy the Tapir.
We fed him carrots and watched his little nose trunk. He was SO CUTE!!!! What a great end to our night.
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.
Sitting on the station’s porch, I was able to see a crested guan (Penelope purpurascens), a relative of a turkey, perched in a tree. Only the bird’s silhouette was seeable to the naked eye; a spotting scope was needed to see the fire-red jowl and dynamic white and dark spotted pattern on the breast.
My class and I explored the two outermost chambers of Las Cuevas cave. The opening of the cave was enormous, taking up my entire field of vision. The front chamber was decorated with mud and guano from the bats in the ceiling. Light filled the front of the chamber but weakened in a gradient to the back of the chamber. The second chamber was almost completely dark.
Leaving the cave, we encountered an unidentifiable species of snake slithering up about six feet of the cave’s wall and then concealing itself behind a crag. Having such a clear view of the snake and watching it engage in such uncommon behavior was certainly a sight to see.
We later embarked on a hike to Las Cuevas’ bird tower. On the trail, we passed a Brazilian fern tree (Schizolobium parahyba) covered in moss and growing sideways across the path. The higher the elevation we hiked, the more Trumpet trees (Cecropiaobtusifolia) we encountered. Trumpet tree leaves were not very dense, but took up quite a bit of space due to their high-surface-area design. The trees shed some of these leaves, which shriveled into gray bundles on the ground.
Upon reaching the top of a large hill, we climbed to the top of the bird tower to be rewarded with an unparalleled view of the forest. From this elevated vantage point, you could see rolling hills abundant with green, gently integrating into the mist in the distance. The sky was a sharp shade of blue, and the color grew sharper and warmer as the sun set. The clouds were backlit, appearing a warm golden color. Time passed, and the sky grew warmer and warmer but then effortless transitioned to a cool indigo when the sun hid behind the horizon.
We walked back from the sight in the dark of night. Only the contents of glowing projections from our headlamps were visible. The views were restricted but still allowed us to encounter the scorpions, spiders, crickets, and cockroaches that emerge only in the darkness.
From the magnified view from the spotting scope to the partially-illuminated view within the cave to the all-seeing view from the bird tower to the insular view of the headlamp’s contents, today’s views were as diverse as the rainforest’s wildlife itself. Diversifying not only what I see but also how I see it has allowed me to gain appreciation for the rich content of the rainforest, at all different scales.
DAY 9 – The main event of today, a visit to the ATM cave, exceeded my expectations. We left TEC around 8:00 am after a sad goodbye to Adrienne. She will be missed.
Nelson drove us skillfully down the bumpy gravel roads to Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) Archaeological Reserve. The trail through the forest to the entrance of the cave started off strong: we all waded across water up to our necks, which left us refreshed for the hike ahead.
Along the path, our guide showed us the destruction that remained from a hurricane last August. He pointed out some debris about 12 feet off the ground where the water reached. We waded across more sections of the river, finally arriving at the cool, dark opening of the cave.
The cave is formed mostly from limestone, some dolomite, and has lots of calcite deposits. We walked/waded through various depths of (chilly) water, surrounded by beautiful rock formations. There were plenty of stalagmites, stalactites, and curtain formations to go around. I was shocked at how extensive the cave was; I could have walked around and explored all day.
Our guide told us a lot about the ancient Mayan people who had used the cave between 700 and 950 AD. Mayans believed caves were connected to the underworld, and so very few people actually entered the caves. Priests and their entourage would go into the cave to perform sacrifices, including blood-letting. The Mayan people would cut themselves with obsidian blades or sting ray barbs and drip their blood onto paper to be burned. In order to appease the gods, or to ask for their favor, various sacrificial acts would be performed. In some cases, human sacrifice was performed inside the caves. We saw remains from 5 bodies in the cave, the last of which has been dated back to 950 AD, right before the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Sacrifice was seen as an honor, and those who were sacrificed to the gods skipped the nine trials of the underworld and went straight to the upper world.
In the big, cavernous rooms of the underground cave, there was also lots of scattered ceramic pieces. There were boards for grinding corn and cacao, lots of vessels, and remnants of fire pits. It’s crazy that the artifacts survived for so long. According to our guides, they are most likely exactly as the Mayans left them.
I could go on and on about the cave, but I want this blog post to be brief and I also have bees to talk about!
As we emerged from the cave, it began to pour in the forest, which was really cool. We were already soaked from the cave water and river water, so more water couldn’t hurt us at all.
We ate lunch and drove to San Ignacio, where we walked around a little bit. Sarah and I found a bathroom (for free!) thanks to a nice waiter at a restaurant in the city. I also tried an apple banana, courtesy of Scott. It was a tiny little bugger, and really sweet.
Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the bee. We drove from San Ignacio to Crystal Palace Eco-lodge where I saw my first confirmed sweat bee. There were three in total, walking around on the table. They are in the Halictini tribe, and are small and black all over.
We head into the rainforest tomorrow! Wish us luck!
Today was the first full day away from Glover’s and it has been a bit of an adjustment. Adrienne said it best when she compared the transition to the terrestrial portion of this course to the first amphibians transitioning to life on land. I wasn’t ready for hot, muggy air untempered by the ocean breeze. Bugs were flying into me while walking and falling into my dessert at dinner. But besides the small impracticalities, today has been incredible.
After a brief hike during which I struggled to doggy paddle through a cold river and slipped on algae covered rocks, I finally got to the mouth of the first cave I would ever traverse: the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. The experience was etherial. The cold, clear, bluish-grey water of the cave shocked my senses and the crystals sparkling in the formations of the cave entranced me. I wish I could have taken a picture, but the images in my mind will have to do.
Besides just the structure of the cave itself, the contents it held were remarkable. The Mayan ceramics and especially the skeletal remains sent chills down my spine. It was a bit concerning, however, that the last and most complete skeleton was my height exactly.
I didn’t see too many ants today because of all the rain, but I did manage to see a male army ant (E. burchellii). I hope tomorrow I’ll have better luck with ant sightings and will have some interesting anecdotal information to include in my taxon briefing.
Note: The lack of photos in my blog post has been brought to you by the tourist who dropped his camera on an ancient Mayan skull.