Saturday, April 18, 2009

No one here gets out alive. Just kidding, sort of.

0800 hours: arrival at Mayan Walk Tours complete
0801 hours: team debriefing.
0806 hours: rations distributed.
0811 hours: awaiting transportation to embarkation point.

Today was really not about fun. Our guides, Martin and Patrick, were not smiling and it had nothing to do with the early hour. Nope caving was serious business and as they handed out the safety equipment – hard hats and head lamps – they made sure we understood this.

Uh-Oh. I was starting to get worried. This sounded like hard work and not being the most physically fit person I wasn’t sure I’d be up for it. I had plenty of time to get rethink our plan during the hour-long ride to the base camp in Tapir Mountain Reserve that started off on a highway and ended on a dirt path.

There was even more time to reconsider during the 45 minute hike through the jungle that had us crossing a river three times. The guides pointed out different types of plants and their uses but I just wanted to get to the cave. By the time we arrived at the base camp, we were sweaty, dirty and wet and we had barely started. But the hike hadn’t been that hard so I figured maybe I was overreacting.

Although it was only 10:30 we were advised to eat some of our food. Adrian and I had a big breakfast before leaving but picked at our hearty portion of chicken and rice ‘n’ beans. We stowed our backpacks and Patrick packed up our cameras and socks in his dry bag before giving us our final instructions.

Then it was off to the cave. The cave opening was a deep pool of water (above) that we had to swim across. It was refreshing after the hike but soon I realized why we had the hard hats and head lamps. There was no light in the cave and as we walked further in it was soon pitch black which made climbing over the rocks even more difficult.

Patrick paused while I put my shoes on tight. And good thing because the rocks were sharp, slippery and required good footing to get over. They also required a lot of work to climb with Patrick being incredibly patient and a great teacher to a neophyte rock climber like me.

“Get small. Stand tall. Get on that booty God gave you.” These were the instructions he gave to me. And I was thankful that Adrian and I were in the small group with just two other guys and the guide. It meant there was no stress about hurrying or crowding in some of the small rock ledges. It was not just physically stressful but mentally as we had to constantly be aware of where are feet and hands needed to go so we wouldn’t go crashing to the sharp rocks below.

There were a couple of times when I thought I’d have to be left behind. But with determination and Patrick’s help I got through.

“Now it’s the easy part,” Patrick promised. Thank god. And it was a relatively flat section that gave us a chance to take in the amazing limestone ceilings and walls. Adrian thought they looked like stuff from a science fiction movie. The water had dripped down in waves that were called curtains or formed lumpy piles of crystal and rock that appeared in front of us. Sometime we saw bats hidden in crevices. Then we all turned off our headlamps and sat in the complete darkness of the cave. It was creepy and calming at the same time.

Then it was off again for another 45 minute hike. And the second half was not easy. We had climb up to a rock ledge that was 20 feet off the ground. And another one. Not high but when nothing but jagged rocks are down below and there’s no stairs, it’s plenty scary. I’m not sure if I was shaking because of exertion or because of fear. But I made it up.

Once up, Patrick announced that it was time to take off our shoes and put on our socks. I looked around at the rock floor. No shoes? This was going to be painful.

“Just think of it like reflexology on your feet.” Patrick suggested. Sure it’s like a massage, if the person giving it was muscle-bound sadistic torture artist with razors for fingers. Thankfully, I was distracted by the first Mayan remains.

There were ceremonial pots lying on the rock floor left there during the last thousand years as an offering to the gods. We could see soot marks left by ancient fires as well as crystals caused by cave environment. All Adrian and I could think of was how did they get here. Patrick pointed out where to walk so that we wouldn’t damage anything. Those Mayans must have been pretty determined or had an awesome guide like Patrick.

But there weren’t just pots. There were skulls of human sacrifices, crystallized like the post making it even spookier. At the back of the large cavern, there was a 12-foot ladder precariously leaning against the rock wall.

“Now we go up,” Patrick insisted.

It was terrifying but at least there were solid and smooth steps. The ladder led to another smaller cavern at the end of which lay a complete skeleton.

This was the end of the trip and my heart started racing. Not because the skeleton was scary but because I knew that we’d have to get back out of the cave. I was tired and not sure I’d be able to make it. But I did thanks to the patience and guidance of Patrick and Adrian’s knee which I required to get over some of the rocks that my short legs couldn’t reach.

I have to admit I was happier to jump into the pool at the mouth of the cave than I was to see the skeleton because it meant we were through with the cave.

“I’m really proud of you Liz,” Patrick said to me. “You did it. Congratulations. You should be proud” I guess he couldn’t see the anxiety in my eyes nor my shakey hands as I chain smoked back at the base camp. I was so stressed that I couldn’t finish the rest of my lunch and I gave it to Adrian.

Now I just wanted to get out of there. But hoped I had enough energy left for the hike back to the truck. On the way back, there was a reminder of what could have happened. We passed a group of rescue workers carrying a stretcher towards the cave. They were doing training exercises, not an actual rescue. It just reinforced the danger and increased my anxiety.

Once back at the truck. I couldn’t be bothered to change into my clothes and collapsed in my seat trying to relax after the hike. Some of the other hikers from Martin’s group talked about getting a drink afterwards but when we got off at the tour office, Adrian and I headed across the street to our room for a hot shower, clean clothes and a celebratory nap.

We’d survived ATM. I think.


Katey said...

Great write up thanks =)

A lot of people seem to rate the ATM tour as a highlight of their trip in Belize - would you agree with that?

My husband and I went to Belize a few years ago but were only there a short time and didn't make it to San Ignacio, however we plan to stop there on the long trip we are saving for.

liz and adrian said...

It was definitely the highlight of our trip. Mostly because it was a huge victory physically and mentally. So the sense of accomplishment was huge.

As for a highlight of Belize - we didn't get to do much because of Semana Santa. So I don't feel right passing too much judgement on Belize. But San Ignacio was the most backpacker-friendly with all the accommodation, tour companys, and backpackers around.

If I could go back in time I may have done the Raggamuffin cruise from Caye Calker to Placencia.
Also people I've met love Caye Calker and the ruins of Caracol and Lamanai. So those are other things we could have done.