The Mayan Underworld: ATM cave in Belize

Actun Tunichil Muknal, an ancient cave buried deep within the Belizean jungle, has a serendipitous acronym: ATM. Wading through waist-deep river water, I’m not wearing non-swimwear. I’ve been trekking through the overgrown terrain for nearly an hour and I still have one more river to cross. The ATM cave’s name is often a joking matter in Belize (Hey man, if you’re going into the ATM cave, bring me back some money, eh?), but it seems as though there may be more to these acronymic parallels drawn than just a joke. The hike alone has shown me that an ATM visitor invests the time and energy into the trip in an effort to reap an enriching experience. And so here I am, depositing my time, my energy, and my muscle mass into an adventure that prefaces the cave itself: getting to the cave to begin with.

%Gallery-128327%In order to get to ATM’s wide open entrance mouth, I had to follow an unchangeable series of steps.

1. I flew to Belize City.
2. I traveled to San Ignacio with a driver and my photographer, where I stayed for the night.
3. In the morning, we were driven for nearly an hour before turning off on a dirt road, where we drove for another 40 minutes or so. The road was flooded in one area, but the vehicle we were riding in was ready and able to make it through the water.
4. I hiked about an hour through the thick and sticky jungle, crossing the river three separate times.
5. Finally, we arrived to the cave’s entrance. We ate lunch before beginning the ATM voyage.

The mouth of ATM opens like a keyhole amid the fanning jungle leaves that surround it; thriving in every viable square inch like mold. It not only allows the river to flow seamlessly through it, but swimming through that river is how you enter. Our guide tells us that for those incapable of swimming who wind up at the cave’s entrance, there’s an inconvenient alternate route. Swimming in chilling water while wearing hiking shoes and a helmet isn’t my best skill, but I’m glad I didn’t have to take the alternate route.

Our clothes and shoes immediately sponge up the chilly water. The sunlight trickling in from where we entered becomes less visible. The blackness within the cave is like tar; thick and all-encompassing. We swim. We wade. We scale the slippery, shiny walls. We stop at every glistening turn to relish in the silence, while my brain is simultaneously beholden to deafening thoughts–imaginings of what it would have been like to be a Mayan, exploring this damp and dark cave by torchlight. Every time my brain follows this thinking path, I cling to it vigorously. I want my journey through this cave to be a reflective one–one in which I follow the same footsteps as those before me, with their footsteps echoing in my mind. I especially want to hear the footsteps of the doomed.

They might not have considered themselves doomed, the humans who were sacrificed and marched through this cave. Some of them, like the adults whose skeletons are still holding their dusted over pose, might have said that sacrification was a privilege, that the ultimate honor is to give one’s self to the gods. Others, like the children whose skeletons are also still in the cave, might not have known what was going on, but they were likely frightened. And still others, like the prisoners of war or criminals who were potentially sacrificed here, may have considered their fate one of doom. I keep all of them in mind as I walk, only wearing socks now in order to protect the artifacts, through the elevated space with cathedral ceilings (The Cathedral) where most of the artifacts in ATM can be found.

The Mayans would travel deep within the cave, combating the forces of mysterious, dark water, in order to be closer to Chac. Chac is the Mayan God of Rain and it is said that the Mayans in this region of Belize believed that he could be found dwelling deep within the underworld, within this watery cave.

Extreme drought, a weapon believed to be used by Chac, aided in the fall of the Mayan Empire. When things got bad and weren’t getting any better, the agriculture in the area suffered. When the Mayan agriculture suffered, the people could not be fed.

The Mayans initiated sacrifices made in the honor of Chac right inside of ATM. Regular sacrifices included pottery (much of it meant to hold blood), which is shattered all over ATM, and blood from excruciating blood-letting ceremonies (Typically, women let blood out by way of their tongue and men let blood out by way of their genitals). Human sacrifices were made inside of ATM, as well. Although the bones cannot always give us clues to exactly how a human sacrifice was carried out, they were frequently done by extracting the heart. A still-beating heart would be accessed through a cut, ripped out, and the blood would be smeared in honor of the god for whom the sacrifice was made. The god the Mayans needed was Chac; they believed his favor could be bargained through sacrifice.

I gained the clearest view of sacrifice when we arrived at the Crystal Maiden. Found at the end of the public’s path in ATM, she is a fully-in-tact skeleton of a teenage girl. Her bones have been thoroughly calcified by the cave and because of this, they sparkle. We make our way back out, leaving with a feeling for which there are no words.

ATM spans from Belize to Guatemala, but its depths are still largely unknown. While puzzle pieces of artifacts help archeologists put the big picture together, the cave is filled with many more questions than it is answers.

Visit Belize

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Parisian teenagers flash, steal cash

Let’s start with the lesson first: if you’re going to Paris, take out all the cash you need at home. There’s a new scam at work … using the oldest trick in the book.

Think about the last time you went to a gentlemen’s club. As breasts went bare, men parted with their money. It’s utterly predictable. Now, assume you have two girls who can’t dance – and aren’t old enough to become strippers. How could they employ this technique for financial gain?

Two 14-year-olds in Paris figured out a way.

In the Sixth Arrondissement, the duo set out to distract ATM users and swipe their cash. After waving a newspaper at one person, according to a Reuters report, one of the criminal masterminds “allegedly opened her shirt and grabbed his [the user's] genital area, while her accomplice took the 300 euros (about $385) that the machine spit out.”

And this isn’t the first time they used the technique. They did the same thing to lift 500 euros from a female ATM user. Taking the scam to a new low, however, they enlisted the help of an even younger accomplice.

While USA Today offers a handful of tips for avoiding ATM-related theft in Europe, here’s a good one: keep your eyes off the jailbait.

[photo by jonklinger via Flickr]

Use a prepaid travel card – International travel tip

Everyone knows about taking traveler’s checks when they travel, but what about taking prepaid travel cards? They’re easy and convenient to use, and many major credit card companies offer them now, like Visa and MasterCard.

They work just like debit cards, and you can use them the same way you use an ATM card. They also offer the same security as traveler’s checks without having to exchange them every time you go out.

Bonus: you can easily keep your expenses in check by putting a predetermined amount on the cards.