We took a day off on Thursday this week and went exploring a cave on the other side of San Ignacio that’s off the tourist track. We went with a friend who has been in the cave before, and it was fascinating both geologically and archeologically. They’ve found signs that the cave was used not only by the Mayans, but also by the Paleo-Indians, which is about 3000 years ago. The cave layout is also very interesting, because it has three main chambers, and you have to do some pretty serious climbing to get between the chambers. The first two chambers are huge, and are basically formed of cave formations in the rock. The third is an ancient underground river bed, and huge doesn’t even begin to describe it. The walking is easy in this part because the river bed is just hills of dirt, and the walls are so far apart an army could walk through and not worry about running into the walls. I can’t even estimate how high this chamber is, but our fairly good LED headlamps on the brightest setting only barely illuminated it when we directed them towards the top. It seems to go on forever, and ends, for hikers at least, where the river is still flowing and the cave becomes just an underground river.
Archeologically, we saw lots of Mayan artifacts, and there are places where we could tell that torches had been mounted in niches on the walls because the charcoal from the torches was still there. The Paleo-Indian artifacts are carvings, and we had a little trouble seeing them. The problem wasn’t actually seeing the form of the carving, it was not seeing things that weren’t there. For example, we looked at one formation that was two small pillars, maybe 18 inches high, with a larger formation in the middle. We were looking at the formation on the left, and could definitely see a warrior head in a headdress. However, I glanced at the formation on the right, and I could vividly see that it was a carving of…Santa Claus, complete with the folded over stocking cap, smiling eyes and jolly round cheeks, and a fluffy beard. Somehow I don’t think the Paleo-Indians were making carvings of Santa three thousand years ago, so it makes me question whether or not we were looking at anything real in the other carvings, or just using our imaginations to make shapes in the rocks, cracks in the rocks, and limestone formations.
This was by far the biggest cave Tom and I have been in, so we played a few interesting games in the dark. The cave is utterly black when the lights are out, and all you can hear is the occasional drip of water from the tip of a stalactite. We got a small taste of being totally blind, and were trying to figure out if we could “feel” how big the chambers were since besides the three large chambers, we went into a number of smaller rooms. It seems that you can, but then again we don’t know if we’re really feeling the size of the chamber, or if we’re just remembering how big or small it was from what we saw when our lights were on.
At one point we were in the riverbed chamber. We left our packs on the top of a little hill, and walked probably about 50 yards down into a little valley to wash our hands because we were going to eat lunch. After we washed our hands, our friend had us turn off our lights to see how close we could get to the packs if we walked over the riverbed in the dark. Tom and I immediately crashed into a small ditch, so then we grabbed hands and made a chain with our friend leading, and when he stopped he said our packs would be just to our left, and they were. It's either a really good party trick, or he's spent enough time in caves that he's adjusted to not using his eyes all the time. Or, it occurred to us later, he knew he was going to do the trick so he took better bearings than we did – but still, we were remarkably close. As we found in other caves we’ve been in, the trip out was a whole lot quicker than the trip in, partly because we knew the way and weren’t taking any unnecessary detours, and partly because we weren’t stopping to look at things.
I think it’s sort of funny that when we first visited Belize, I was hesitant to go inside caves. I’m a little claustrophobic, and don’t like airplanes and elevators and places like that, and I figured I’d be really uncomfortable being in a cave. But, I actually enjoy it, and remarked at one point that I was having more fun than grownups should be allowed to have, climbing over rocks, exploring, seeing everything there is to see in a cave, and finding our way. It’s sort of addictive, and I now have a better understanding of why so many people’s eyes around here light up when they hear about a cave to be explored.