Thursday, March 28, 2013

Belize Adventures (Part 2) - with Lauren

The Belize cave tour: Actun Tunichil Muknal 
In Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve 

We departed Cahal Pech Resort en route to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, said to be one of the oldest Mayan ruins in Belize. "Ac-tun" can be translated "cave" in Maya language. The indigenous people believed caves to be a portal between the human world and the realm of Mayan Gods--In what is referred to as "Xibalba" (Chi-bal-ba). This particular cave served as a sacred chamber for rituals and even dwelling for some. Ancients would use torches to light up the passageways. We arrived to the site, Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, and were greeted by our tour guide and instructed to choose a well fitted helmet and a light attachment. Little did I know, I was about to partake in one of the most thrilling explorations of my life-- we began our trek through the overgrown jungle, our guide thrashing at overhanging bushes with a machete.We sloshed through muddy waters in a single file line , trampling over moss covered stones and literally swung from vines like crazy jungle folk.

Credit: Chaa Creek Photo

We approached the mouth of the cave, a beautiful sight, with iridescent blue water and long stems of moss hanging from the rim. As a safety precaution, our group leader assigned us to smaller groups, so we did not loose anyone on the way. My group of 4 members and I submerged the waters and  swam through the entrance--the water was icy and it began to get pitch dark , our chatter and laughing from  growing excitement turned to muddled, echoing sounds that were hard to make out. After a long swim, we reached the base of the cave and pulled one another out of the water. Once everyone arrived back on land, we switched on our lights. Stalactites and stalagmites were protruding out from all sides of the cavernous room, sparkling deposits shining from the reflection of our flashlights. We proceeded to walk through a meter deep pool of water, single file, through a narrow rock passage, slightly scraping the sides of the wall with our shoulders. Our group leader asked that we shut off our lights (*gasp*) and let our eyes adjust to the darkness.  This was a trip--the narrow passage we were passing through opened up to a HUGE camber-with vaulted 'ceilings' and a smooth platform upon which we were standing. We collected as a group to talk about some of the history within the cave and to be aware of ancient pottery fragments left untouched through out the cave. I was not at all claustrophobic,  nor fearful of the dark--but fully at ease, overcome with a sense of wonderment.

We navigated through more twisted, subterranean obstacles; at one point we had to climb through a hole in the wall then had to climb a ladder  (which was left from a past exploration) up to get up on top of an enormous rock ledge.  As we continued into the dark abyss of the cave, my inner-compass was thrown off a bit--as I wasn't sure if were  descending into the earth or gaining elevation. We entered a smaller chamber that contained the skeleton of young-girl, possibly a sacrifice victim, whom was calcified to the base of an upper passage chamber, known as "The Crystal Maiden". Surrounding the skull, were ceramics marked with enigmatic "kill holes" thought to represent one's passageway to the afterlife.
The Crystal Maiden

It was time to exit the cave, which meant backtracking the way we came. Thank goodness for the long life-span of our flashlight batteries. We followed the tour guide back through the maze, weaving our sweaty, exhausted selves back to the entrance. I was so relieved to have reached the waterway route, the last stretch to the opening of the cave. I began to see fragments of natural light on the cave walls and knew we had finally made it! The exploration was an ultimate test of my strength, courage and endurance. I also gained a deep respect for those souls in the past that bravely entered the cave with just a torch and a trusting relationship with undiscovered earth. 

If you would be interested in experiencing this cave exploration, visit this website for more information:

Adventure girls: Alyssa, Myself and Julia! 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Belize Adventures (Part 1) with Lauren

Our flight landed in San Ignacio Airport in Central Belize. The airport was quaint, located in an area with barren surroundings. I had just arrived in Central America for my first time and was accompanied by 15 other American students from Santa Monica College. We grabbed our hefty roller bags and Jansport backpacks off the rusty baggage turnstile and waited for a big white van to come pick us up and take us to our first destination. I was somewhat relieved to hear the humming chatter of English from the locals working at the airport-English surprisingly being the national language of the country. 
The bus had come to pick us up; locals had grouped up around us volunteering to load our baggage in the van. I was completely blinded to the fact that these people were actually not actually employees of the airport-but rather locals selflessly offering a helping hand in exchange for a generous tip. Our professor, who was overseeing our trip, told them to scram in a harsh tone, and later explained that we would experience this sort of thing, well often. 
I situated myself on the van, which was really a retired yellow school bus. Open windows allowed for the warm, humid breeze to pass through. Cameras out and ready to snap pictures of the passing images from the other side of the window pane. We are en route to Cahal Peche Village resort-where we would be spending the nights in palms roofed cabanas, swinging in hammocks on our outdoor private porches, and listening to the tropical thunder hit the valley floor of San Ignacio. 
Gazing out of the bus window, I noticed colorful, rickety homes perched on stilts-later it was told to us that this was to prevent flooding during rainy seasons.

Store fronts with painted Coca-Cola signs and advertisements for the local beer, Belikin (delicious, crisp and served in a cute green bottle) were sparsely located off the main road- people, hanging out on their porches; it was a lovely sight to see. The bus was indeed a vessel that carried us from point A to point B, but to me it served as transportation from my chaotic, materialistic world to a place with simple living, and deep rooted cultural values that never ceased to fascinate me the entire trip. 
After being greeted by the gracious resort staff, we nestled into our cabanas, and headed up the hill to for an orientation and lunch of beans, rice and plantains. We were handed out itineraries, as well as syllabi for the classes we would be simultaneously studying for while touring around, and lastly, a printed text of the “Popul Vuh”, the ancient doctrine of the Mayan religion, its context containing stories about the origins of Life. After our group talk up in the outdoor dining tables, we were set loose --we raced to our cabanas to change into swim suits, ordered our first blended iced mango margaritas and hit the pool area. 
One of our first planned for the next day was the outdoor expedition of the ATM, Aunichil Muknal cave. We would head out from the resort to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve early the next morning. 

Spring 2013 Intern Intro

Lauren Merar
Spring 13' Intern for Stela 9

Myself pictured on R, Walking down to the town of San Ignacio
In recent years,  I have had the fortune to travel around Europe, Israel and Central America, and looking back on it all, one of my most memorable trips was my trek to Belize and Guatemala in the Summer 2009. I plan on returning as soon as I can-but in the meantime, I get to share some of the most exciting parts of the trip on the Stela 9 blog! In addition to being a travel junkie, I love to create art, tool leather, wire-wrap jewelry, and cut fabric and old t-shirts! Can't get enough of it.


“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard