Yesterday after the ATM cave, I immediately set about figuring out the plan for today. Apparently I’m not that great at staying still. I’d liked the clambering parts of ATM, so when I found a tour labelled “HARD! CHALLENGING!”, I got a little curious and competitive. With Brother’s consent, I signed us up for the Crystal Cave (Mountain Cow Cave).
Now, admittedly, I’m a circus artist. My idea of hard and a Muggle’s version of hard will probably not be quite the same.
We booked through Maya Walk Tours and I hesitated because it wasn’t a ruin (and I wanted to see more pyramids and there are SO MANY RUINS around San Ignacio) and also it was rather expensive in USD. But I did, and I’m glad.
We met up with our tour guide, C, at 8am and once we got on our way, stopping once to pick up some more snacks. Once we got to the park (which is actually a chain of caves), we parked, donned helmets & lights, and set off; just C, Brother, and me.
Our journey started with a hike through jungle. It seemed innocent enough; a wide, cleared, mowed path with the jungle healing over to create a nearly hedge-like wall of green.
Birds sang, the sun blazed. The insects buzzed and bit, but all the same, it was fairly tame. After a few minutes walking, C grabs a thin stem of a vine, strips it, and crouches down to a hole, where he uses the stem to reach in and tickle or entice something out.
“A tarantula!” C explains as we watch in confusion and then (well, for me) dawning terror. It’s not much of a secret, but I’m not a fan of spiders. Yes, they play an important role in our ecological systems. Yes, they can create beautiful webs and are fascinating and realistically, as a New Englander, I have no reason to fear most spiders. And I’m not afraid of much! Heights only occasionally bother me, snakes, mice, rats, centi- or millipedes are fine, commitment is nearly my middle name, darkness, people, and fear itself don’t stress me out much.
Anyway, so here I am, staring with huge eyes at a squashed-baseball sized hole under a root as my brother crouches down with a quiet cackle and his camera and some apparently insane guy tries to lure out a huge-
Something is moving.
But it’s okay! You’re brave and they are harmless (I think?*) and it’s just another bug and-
oh god a fuzzy leg
-no but I can do this, I am a strong woman who was just yesterday referred to as a warrior by a stranger I can do this-
C dances out of its way (wait, that’s not a good sign) and drops his sheathed machete to cover its hole and prevent its retreat.
Instead, he accidentally catches the tarantula squarely under the 12+ inch machete and it’s unharmed, but briefly pinned in place.
nope nope nope nope nope
I can feel my teeth I’m so scared. Like, I’m aware of my teeth in my skull. How is that a beneficial fear response, body? Not “run!”, not “scare it away!”, not “get extra strong to fight it off!”. Just “hey. Here’s what your molars feel like. Let’s think about that intensely for a few moments.”
Anyway, that part all ended** and so ended the scariest part of the trip. Now for a quick five hour sojourn into the bowels of a cave where we’re deep underground in pitch darkness, able to survive only because our guide is one out of 8 (yeah….8) people who are licensed to take people down there.
We continued, and saw a beautiful rainbow lizard, as well as others including, a basilisk (without frill or helmet!)
Now, at this point I’m just going to do a quick pause because while writing this all out in my journal, I straight up just fell asleep. I was so tired and realized I was falling asleep and literally scribbled bullet points to remind myself as my eyes were firmly falling closed. So the narrative gets a little interrupted by taking rather illegible notes to myself, just so you know how tired I was.
Where were we? Ah yes, the hike in. So we’re on a lovely, wide, fairly flat path.
It pretty quickly became a tangle of roots, and while I was looking down at them to watch my footing, the path leapt up into a steep climb.
After just a few moments, all 3 of us were panting and sweating profusely. A rive poured down my nose, and my arms were drenched. Between the climb (stairs, basically, and occasionally literally) and the unforgivable humidity, I was already understanding the “hard” label.
But then we arrived at the mouth of the cave. I looked up (why up? apparently I’d forgotten how caves work) and saw and expansive rock face, dripping with vines.
Then I looked down.
And then I couldn’t see any farther.
So. That’s ya know. A pretty big hole. (Granted, the picture doesn’t look like much, but where the path looks like it slopes in, it’s actually a shear drop down about 8 or 9 feet, and then you head into the dark part.)
C had us pull on our helmets, and then he ver purposefully sat down on the lip of the cave and talked us through the specific handholds and technique to get down. This happened several times over the next few hours. C would sit, pat this rock with his right hand, that rock with his left, put his heel here, turn around, and climb down backward. (Or variations on that theme.)
Over the next few hours, we saw incredible things. We saw ancient pottery and were able tog et close enough to see the detail in the carvings. We saw stalactites that looked like huge truck-sized chandeliers shimmering in the light from our headlamps. We quickly climbed in far enough that no light could reach us, and we sat in the thick blackness where Cisco regaled us with the history of Mayan sacrifices. (I’ll admit, I got spooked enough to be grateful when we turned our lights back on.)
Every so often, Cisco would check in on us to see how we were doing (and presumably to gauge the length of our climb based on energy/interest). He’d mentioned a “back room” called Wonderland and Brother and I agreed it’d be cool to check it out. This became relevant later, as it turns out. As we continued on our way, we followed a taped out path. I’d assumed -as was the case in the ATM cave- that it was a signifier not to cross the boundary. Instead, we found out that it was a training tool for new guides to learn the path. When they were confident and knew the safest route, then the tape would be slowly removed. No boundaries were needed, as pottery was scattered, perched, and sometimes placed from a crevasse to a more visible ledge by the archeologists.
One thing that was a clear sign of others (in spite of how we were the only ones in the cave that day) was the mud. It’s a pretty muddy climb, and we got pretty well covered in the brown clay. Our shoes, butts, legs, arms, and hands all showed the evidence of using 3, 4, or 5 points of contact. Of course, once there is mud or clay on your hands, it’s on everything you touch. Your bag, your water, your face, your brother’s face (because you’re a little obnoxious) and the gleaming white stalagmites that offer surprisingly stable hand holds. For the most part, it was just a fact of the climb. At other points, C would instruct us “Don’t touch these walls here. See look, damage.”
A few moments involved some pretty epic wedging. I’m quite flexible and strong, and I’m not a terribly large person , but there were definitely some tight squeezes.
Eventually we entered a smaller crawl space and came upon some wire that was set up as a barrier. Right beyond it, a skull lay in the dirt. It had been smashed in on the top of the head, but C explained that he saw it happen when a lizard perched on it. It turns out that it’s quite fragile!
This skull belonged to a 35-40 year old male, though there wasn’t a lot more information about him, unfortunately.
We climbed more, scrambled, slid, and clawed, and then came to a pretty open, relatively flat space where we sat, drank water (thankfully C brought an extra liter since Brother and I had pretty well demolished the 1.5 liters we’d brought) and ate some snacks. After the rest, C had us take off our shoes and we entered Wonderland in our socks to prevent tracking in extra mud. This was incredible. There were incredible formations that glittered and were almost overwhelming in their size and quantity.
C encouraged me to climb up onto these beautiful perches for photos, and we all enjoyed playing some impromptu music on the formations.
At one point, we all turned off our headlamps and out of the darkness -flick!- C’s lighter illuminated the walls, setting off more dancing shadows and glittering formations. When he pointed a laser at them, we suddenly became three people sitting in the world’s quietest rave, as lights bounced off all the walls. I learned from Cisco’s lighter that every cave breathes; some inhale and others exhale. Our inhales, so by following away from the flame’s lean, we knew we were heading out in the correct direction. (Well, that and C’s been working in this cave for well over a decade.)
Climbing into view of daylight was both exciting and disappointing. I was exhausted, hot, dirty, hungry, thirsty , and eagerly awaiting the promise of a visit to the Blue Hole swimming spot just down the road (not to be mistaken with the Blue Hole which is a geological formation in the ocean).
Daylight was not quite blinding, but was a little shocking. We all got out safely with no mishaps other than Brother’s unexpected sacrificial auto blood letting, compliments of a lightly scraped knee, elbow, and knuckle.
On the hike down, we saw two howler monkeys (a male & female) lounging and grooming in a tree overhead!
Right as we pulled up to the Blue Hole, Brother found a huge “soldier” leaf cutter ant on his shoe. C grabbed it and asked me to hold out my shirt. He held the ant’s body and explained that the Mayans used them as stitches when they were injured. They’d hold the skin of their wound together, put the ant head first at the cut -here the touched the ant to a proffered fold in my shirt- and then -SNAP!- in one smooth movement, the ant grabbed hold with its huge, sharp pincers, and C tore the body away, leaving the head embedded in my shirt and the legs kicking wildly as though searching for their head.
They’d leave the heads on, and I gotta say, it was on TIGHTLY. I couldn’t pull it off without tearing my shirt, though I did manage to finally wiggle the fabric out of its pincers.
The water at Blue Hole was PERFECT. Exhibit A.
Needless to say, after quite a while swimming hard and climbing up those walls, it was a fairly early night and I slept like a rock.
*I did some fact checking: “In the face of a threat or a perceived threat, a typical American tarantula has two lines of defense. It can use its fangs to inflict a bite (all tarantulas are venomous), or it can use its urticating (barbed and mildly venomous) abdominal hairs to cause soft tissue or eye irritation. Fortunately, while painful and aggravating, the tarantula’s fangs or or hairs appear to cause no long term damage in most cases.”
WAIT, ITS HAIR??
“If a tarantula should cast its hairs into your face or inner arm – should you get too close, especially to a surly spider – it will cause redness and itching of your skin for a couple of days and irritation of your lips, tongue and eyes. A tarantula’s urticating hairs can produce allergic reactions, including significant skin rashes, swelling and breathing problems, calling for medical attention.”
……eugh somehow that’s worse….
**and the nightmares have almost ended, too! Hahaha I kid…sorta.