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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Belize: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave

Really, how could I resist? The chance to explore a remote flooded cave system, stuffed with ancient Mayan artefacts and the skeletons of sacrificed women and children, deep in the rainforest... isn't that what everyone dreams of? Of being Indiana Jones for day?

Into the Forest

You have to take a tour if you want to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal (which is Mayan for 'Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre'). This is not only because it's a delicate archaeological site that would be trampled into oblivion by unfettered tourism, but also because it's a hell of a trek to get to the archaeology in the first place. When you sign up for a tour there are some simple rules: first, no cameras are allowed anywhere in the nature reserve that contains the cave, ever since a tourist dropped his camera on a 1000-year-old skull and smashed a hole in it; second, you need to bring a set of clothes that you don't mind getting completely wet (though not beach gear, as that wouldn't be respectful enough for this sacred site); and third, you need to bring a pair of socks, so you can walk around the archaeology without stomping it into pieces with your shoes, or leaving oils from your feet that will mess with the natural flow of water over the delicate surfaces.

Crystal Skeletons

There are no guide ropes, no ladders, no man-made hand-holds or steps in Actun Tunichil Muknal; there's nothing modern at all save for some red tape on the ground that shows where the artefacts are, so climbing the almost vertical wall of slippery rock into the upper caves is no mean feat. You're wet, you're slippery, you're cold and you're tired, but you have to put your right foot here, your left hand there, swing your left foot round here, twist your body through 90 degrees, and pull yourself up with your hands to get onto the small ledge at the top. It's amazing that more people don't slip and injure themselves seriously; one rather suspects that it's only a matter of time before the cave claims its first modern victims, but for now it's all about the ancient victims in the caves above, and they're definitely worth the risk.

Into the Light

Of course, you now have to go back out the way you came in, and climbing down the slippery rocks is even harder than climbing up. Luckily you're going with the river flow this time, so the river sections aren't so bad, and it isn't long before the daylight blinks in your eyes and you have to swim back across to the cave entrance. Oh, and you then have to do the 45-minute trek again, wading across Roaring Creek three more times before collapsing into a juddering bus that shakes all the cave water out of your ears before dumping you back in San Ignacio for a well-earned bottle of stout.