Our alarm sounded at 6:45 am. It was difficult to get up. We packed our stuff, not forgetting my passport hidden under my mattress (separate from my pack in case of a mid-night robbery). Then checked out of the hotel. We headed across the street where the vans were picking us up. We were on time at 7 am and found that the van wasn’t coming till 7:30 so we quickly had some breakfast. Our guide introduced himself and said we were leaving soon. There was one other tourist going with us, a tall blond traveling alone on a world tour. We drove for 20 minutes and picked up our lunches at someone’s house (the guide’s sister?). Then stopped at an intersection where five more tourists joined our group, an older couple, a young American couple and a middle aged woman from the Midwest. The minivan had no space to spare.
The drive was nice through the countryside, orange farms, and forests. We even saw a toucan flying in the distance.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
At the park entrance, the van stopped to pay the park fee and continued to the parking lot. It was a rough dirt road and a bumpy ride. At the lot we saw the other tourist vans already parked and getting ready.
We pulled in, unloaded from the van and left our bags there taking our valuable in the provided lunch bags. Our guide was rushing to get us moving when suddenly, the midwestern woman headed for a last minute bathroom break… The 5 minutes we waited for her was enough time for the other (larger) tour groups to pass us and start on the trail. Our guide was clearly not happy.
The hike was a lot of fun. We walked through the forest and trudged rivers as we listened to the commentary of our knowledgeable Mayan guide. He showed us how the ants brought leaves to their nests, the feel of the rubber tree sap, the taste of tree leaves, and some weird pine seed that tasted like coconut. He also showed us the diversity of the stones in the area. Before he even finished explaining that the red stone grinding in his hand was clay, I already had my battle paint on. He was not amused.
Our group led the way. Unfortunately the Midwestern lady went about 5 feet forward before she started splashing around like a wounded seagull screaming for help. Bill pushed her against the wall where she could stand. Then the guide came back and led her around another way in which she didn’t have to go into the water. I don’t understand why she didn’t say something when the guide confirmed that everyone could swim…
Our total time in the cave was about 3 hours. During this time we swam, slipped, fell, bumped our shins against rock, climbed, jumped, and squeezed through tight openings. Some areas were so tight; you needed to position your body so that your neck would pass by the narrow point. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.
The stalactites and stalagmites were very impressive. All lit up by our headlamps. Our guide also showed us some interesting shadow displays from lighting up certain stalagmites. He also drummed out some Maya tunes on the stalactites!
I filmed and took plenty of pictures with my underwater camera. Towards the end, you are climbing almost vertically up into the cave then you take off your shoes to walk in the inner sanctum out of respect. Then we were given an informative tour of the different relics left in the cave. Our guide explained the meanings of the positioning and symbolism. He also explained how the sacrifices were most likely made. There were many skeletons, including a mass grave with about 15-16 sets of human remains. Most of the remains were well preserved due to being calcified by the water of the cave.
The showpiece of the tour is the “Crystal Maiden”, which is the skeleton of a female that was sacrificed… by snapping the spine. Sweet. This was when our guide revealed that Actun Tunichil Muknal meant “the cave of the stone tomb”.
Heading out of the cave was a lot faster, because we didn’t stop for any explanations. In fact, we didn’t stop for anything, just headed out.
At the entrance of the cave we had lunch and fed fish crumbs from our sandwiches. Then we packed up and hiked back to the van.
The return trip also seemed to be much faster. We made the same stops too, dropping off the first group with their van, dropping off our lunch packs, then arriving at the hotel. It was already 3 and we needed to get to Flores ideally in as much daylight as possible. This is the only area rated “Reconsider your need to travel” by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
So yeah, we wanted to get there early.
On the ride back we had a chance to ask some info from others who came from there. When we asked our guide about Guatemala, he just smiled and said “Oh, I don’t go there.” Uh… fortunately the guide’s assistant was from Flores so he was very helpful with some general knowledge and tips. He told us about costs and that there was a festival in Flores now. He also pointed out where the cabs were to get to the border. We stopped for a drink to hydrate and were asked to fill out surveys for our caving tour. I quickly filled it out and went to some stores looking for sandals since my sneakers were soaked. Bill was smart enough to bring sandals along.
Finally a store had them. It was an Indian store selling cheap made in china shoes. The asking price was over 4 or 5 times what it should have been. My bargaining chip was that I just came from China and I work in international trade so I know the pricing. “My people make them and your people sell them. Win win!” He laughed and then agreed to sell it only twice what they should have been. Great cause I was in a rush.
Dry feet and rehydrated, we were ready to go to Guatemala! All the taxis in front of the hostel area, asked for B$40 to get to the border. But thanks to our guide, we knew better! We walked across the street to the bus stop and a car came up and asked “taxi?” There was a white guy in the passenger seat who we thought might also be heading to the border. We jumped in (at B$10). The white guy was from the US, but living in San Ignacio. He started a hostel business and has lived in Belize for years. “It’s really nice if you are open-minded and could get use to some inconveniences.” We dropped him off first then picked up another lady who was also heading to the border. She seemed to be his friend and he was jokingly (we think) offering her to date Bill? They were friendly but spoke limited English so we couldn’t communicate very well. Twenty minutes later we were there.
The border was quite painless. No lines, but plenty of people waving wads of cash in our faces asking to change money. On the Belize side we had to pay the exit fee and got to use up the rest of our Belizean currency. Before even getting to the Guatemalan side a guy was asking where we were going and if we needed a ride. We said we’ll figure it out in a bit. At the Guatemalan checkpoint we walked right up to the counter, paid the entrance in US$ and got our stamp. When we got out, the same guy was still following us and pointing to a minivan that was “all foreigners”! It was already packed but they had 2 seats left. So we took the opportunity, which saved us dealing with public transportation. We figured it should be faster too which meant less time on the road at night.
The travelers in our van were a mix of young guys and girls who were mostly studying in Mexico in a university exchange program. They were Swiss, German, and an Australian. The road would randomly be unpaved in parts or have huge potholes, so it was a slow long ride. Bill and I were already on edge so the two girls watching a movie on their laptop, laughing and screaming in my ear, didn’t help.
Then it got dark. We saw a car perpendicular to the road. I thought Oh my god. It’s happening. A drug trafficking roadblock! We were all going to be robbed and killed! Our van slowed down. The driver beeped his horn and the car slowly pulled away.
It turned out to be just a guy pulling out of his driveway.
We read that the area was under military siege, which explained the convoys of military trucks full of grim armed soldiers. One even had a guy manning an M-60 mounted on the hood. They mean business.
Besides one stop for gas and one stop to realign his headlights, it was a straight drive. We arrived in Flores and stopped at this hostel mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Too bad we had so many people, the hostel only had room for two. So our driver was kind enough to take us to some other hotels. We settled for the first one we went in even though it was more “expensive” than the others. Expensive being $20. We dropped our packs and asked about the tour to Tikal. The receptionist’s English wasn’t great so we relied on Bill’s Spanish. He mentioned the tours they had available and the times they had. We decided on the 7 am departure so we could get an early start. Unfortunately from what we could understand, there were no buses to Honduras or the border town Chiquimula. We’ll figure it out.
Then we took a walk around the town and headed towards the music of the festival we heard about. We walked up to the center of town, which was on a hill. The streets were quite lively with families and their kids running around. In the center they had live music and some kids dressed like piñatas prancing around. Were we suppose to beat the candy out? The crowd on the bleachers cheered and laughed. There was a group of heavily armed police watching in the background. I admired their machine guns, but I didn’t want to stare for too long. For dinner, we picked up street barbecue chicken and beer. We sat next to the festival show and soaked in the local culture. After dinner we walked around and checked out the food stalls and shops. We tried some of the snacks like “orange with peanut sauce?” and also got more beer (2 for 1 deal!). As the festival was wrapping up, we headed to get some rest for the next day. Sleep is a very precious commodity on this trip.