THE PLACE THAT BREATHES BIODIVERSITY
- One -
A Lifelong Desire Turns Real for Three Traveling Kids and Two Grownups
"Losing all sense of reality, my poor brain could no longer conceptualize the passage of time."
There was a moment when I began to doubt the very existence of an external world. Functionally, it became impossible for me to know whether my eyes were open or shut. With not a single wayward photon hitting my retina, my optic nerve had stopped sending signals to my brain. Losing all sense of reality, my impoverished brain could no longer conceptualize the passage of time.
It was the long, hard experiment our family had volunteered for, to let the dark abyss sink inside our souls. It might have lasted for just a few seconds. Or a few minutes. Which, my puzzled brain couldn’t tell.
HOWLER MONKEY ENCOUNTER
We were inside a cave with the tongue-twistingly peculiar name of Actun Tunichil Muknal, situated in the western part of Belize in what’s called the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve at the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Entry to the cave was strictly monitored, and allowed with only licensed guides, so here we were, with our guide Antonio, who seemed to enjoy nothing more than the simple pleasure of showing us what it feels like to live inside this black abyss.
“There! See how it shines?” Antonio had just flipped on the powerful stroboscopic light he was holding in his right hand as he deftly maneuvered his canoe through the dangerously narrow space between two jagged walls that, for all I knew, might have continued to rise up to the heavens. With a firm grip of his left hand he was holding on to the end of a second canoe upon which I remained uncomfortably seated, rather deliberately clutching between my legs my three-year-old daughter, camera in hand, pointed at what I couldn’t see.
"The light beam catapulted from a stalactite to a stalagmite, then again back to another stalactite, ultimately homing in on to a structure whose rounded arch leading up to a pair of socket holes belied the true nature of the light’s target."
The GeoBeetles Experience
Limestone caves are like that – damp, humid, and eerie, I told myself, more to shrug off the ethereal feeling that had descended on us than anything else. Still, somehow this cave seemed to be especially spooky. Back in those days, my definition of a Belize family vacation hardly included the level of uneasiness I was experiencing here. I wondered aloud whether the children were doing okay in the pitch-dark cave, miles from the sunny entrance that had belied what lay inside. All three of them, as well as my wife, appeared visibly ecstatic. Silently, I cherished how lucky we were not to have to swim inside the cave, but instead only ride as a family on two canoes inside its dark underbelly.
What I had mistaken as drizzle turned out to be water dripping from the ceiling, which was so high I couldn’t make out its faintest boundary. Pillars of massive stalactites racing down from the ceiling stood sentry, forcing us to curtly move our heads away from their piercing ends as we navigated further inside. Stalagmites rose out from the water like lighthouses, sometimes touching their stalactite creators, sometimes not.
I waited for my pupils to adjust, simultaneously allowing for the kinetic energy from our bobbing canoes to dissipate into the dark waters. Antonio was still shining the beam, and the light catapulted from a stalactite to a stalagmite, then again back to another stalactite. Ultimately, it homed in on to a structure whose rounded arch leading up to a pair of socket holes belied the true nature of the light’s target.
There, in the bizarre emptiness of that bat-filled cave was the skull of a juvenile girl, sacrificed to the gods by the Maya many centuries ago. Several bone fragments lay strewn beside her.
“They call her Crystal Maiden,” exclaimed Antonio.
I didn’t speak, at once uncomfortable at the sight of her remains while thankful I could reach out across the millennium that separated us to meet her in person.
- Two -
Grimace or Grin: Lessons of Survival from the World’s Slowest Mammal
"With their habitats being destroyed at an alarming pace by human activities, their facial geometry might in fact be interpreted in the sloth society as nothing more than a disdainful frown."
Just days later, in the backyard of another hotel we were staying in Manuel Antonio, hugging on to a tree branch we found a three-toed sloth. Again, sights such as these typically greet a family traveling to Costa Rica. This guy chose to remain immobile doing what sloths do best. Sleeping. And it probably slept all night. And perhaps all day yesterday.
Most sloth species are common across much of Central and South America, but that doesn’t make them any less cute or shaggy. And if you’re practicing becoming a wildlife photographer, as the slowest mammal in the world, they can lend you some excitement at your skill.
This is an animal that, like the howlers, your children will fall in love with. They have an odd-shaped mouth that to us humans look as though they’re perpetually smiling. I wonder if the truth is just the opposite. With their habitats being destroyed at an alarming pace by human activities, their facial geometry might in fact be interpreted in the sloth society as nothing more than a disdainful frown.
The Crystal Maiden
If you ever wished you could play the role of the protagonist in the Indiana Jones franchise – meaning, Indiana Jones himself, then this is your golden, uh, crystal opportunity. Actun Tunichil Muknal, the three-mile deep cave of which visitors are allowed to explore only the first two, literally means “The Stone Sepulcher Cave.” Adventure-loving tourists should be delighted to be able to swim, climb, and explore the several chambers inside the cave for many hours.
Among the artifacts that will greet you inside will be stoneware and ceramic pots left behind by the Maya. And skeletons, at least a dozen of them. But remember, to see these, you’ll need to be ready to wade across deep water, both inside and outside the cave.
The crystal maiden has made headlines around the world, and you’ll find her, a dazzling, calcite-covered skeleton of an eighteen-year-old Mayan girl, at the farthest reaches of the upper chambers. With her pair of crushed vertebrae cemented to the ground, she would look nothing like any celebrity you’ve seen in your life. Unfortunately, it seems that these days a mental image is all you can capture of her, after a strict ban on carrying cameras or video equipment was imposed. And for the story behind her, you’ll have to delve a little deeper.
The 1,000 Years Celebrity
The truth is that the Maya regarded the cave as an entrance to the underworld, and so were quite fearful of this place themselves. If you ask me, this calls for not only an Indiana Jones, but even a Lord of the Rings franchise to quickly happen.
Archaeologists disagree somewhat about the facts behind the calcified remains of the hapless Mayan souls found inside. Their artifacts, which have been dated between 250–900 AD, make it clear that even the most recent ones are over a thousand years old.
The Mayas sought to appease the rain gods who they believed to be living underneath the cave. During times of discord and diminished agriculture, this is the place they turned to for their deeply ritualistic sacrifices. Cut with the sharp slate “blades” that are in full display in the chambers, they offered their own blood to pacify their angry gods.
The girl who is now known as crystal maiden was likely sacrificed because in early Mayan beliefs, young folks and children, especially women, were considered to be unblemished and pure, a distinct advantage in the eyes of their gods.
Still, if you’d like to truly spice up your Belize family vacation time, know that your children will likely love the ghostly atmosphere and the plain excitement this place exudes. To me, this is way richer and much more natural than a visit to the House of Horrors at the Universal Studios could ever be.