I pulled the bike into the courtyard in the back of Bella's hostel, and was immediately accosted by a tiny puppy, no more than a few weeks old by the looks of him. I talked a bit to the woman at the desk, and she let me know about the tours they could set up, and they covered all of the things I'd wanted to see around the area. Afterwards as it got dark I headed upstairs to the outdoor lounge where there was a guitar just sitting on the couch.
The hostel was looking pretty good already.
There were also a few people upstairs, and after asking and finding out the guitar wasn't theirs, I picked it up and gave it a strum - horribly out of tune. A few minutes had it all the way in tune except the A-string, and a cursory inspection showed that the tuner gear had been stripped flat on one side. A pair of pliers from the bike helped seat the gear back in place, and fortunately that was enough to get it in tune, so I sat and played a little bit.
As I played, I talked with the three that were up there, who were all from Belgium. One guy from the Dutch part spoke good English, and the two girls from the French part spoke passable English and almost no English between the two of them. I tried to speak some French and was immediately reminded that in my head, I'd replaced my "other language" slot with Spanish. Every time I tried to put together a sentence in French, Spanish words would just pop out of my mouth randomly.
I ended up spending the night up there drinking the beers I'd picked up from the corner store and eating Funyuns (another thing that's impossible to find in Mexico but was available in Belize) and talking with them. I taught Dan the four chords to the beginning of Wonderwall and helped him practice them a bit, and we discussed travels and where we were headed. I had booked a tour of the caves the next day, but we promised to meet up the next evening and hang out again, and eventually called it a night after plenty of beers.
The next day I headed to Actun Tunichil Muknal, a tour through an underground river that I'd heard about. It was $95 for the day, by far the most expensive "tourist" thing I'd done on the trip so far, eclipsing the 500 pesos ($30) I'd paid for a tour in Palenque by a significant margin. But it included transportation, a lunch, a guide, and all the equipment for the cave, so I decided it was worth it.
And worth it, it was. After about an hour drive, Francisco (our guide and driver) took us down a rocky road and parked next to a couple other vans, and we unloaded. I took my camelbak with some water, snacks, and bug spray and left my dry change of clothes in the car, took the helmet and headlamp from Francisco, and headed down the trail.
Forty-five minutes and three chest-deep river crossings later, we reached the mouth of the cave. There we left all of our things behind, climbed down into the river once again, and this time headed into the mouth of the cave with only the headlamps to light our way.
The cave was amazing. Alternating between walking on rough rocks and wading through water that ranged from ankle deep to neck deep, we made our way deeper and deeper into the darkness. After an hour or so of slow trekking, we climbed up a rock slope off to the side of the river where we removed our shoes - but kept our socks on, to prevent the oils on our feet from affecting the rocks.
There we found... almost exactly what the explorers found in 1989. The original explorers, and now the government agency that takes care of the caves, decided to leave everything exactly as they found it, rather than digging up the bones and pieces of pottery to study them. The cave is popular enough that you're not going to be the only group in there (though groups are limited to 8 people per guide, so it stays pretty small), but you still get a little bit of the feeling that you're one of the first people in there, finding the long abandoned Mayan site.
Headlights sweeping around as we all looked for another piece of pottery or bone, we made our way up into the area that they believe was used for Mayan sacrifices and religious practices. They showed us the altar where, if you were to light a fire, the nearby rock structure that appears very similar to an old woman's face would cast a dancing shadow on the ceiling. Nearby were a pair of skulls, deformed by the Mayan practice of strapping boards tightly to their head to flatten out their foreheads. And at the end of the cave: the Crystal Maiden, a skeleton that had been calcified by the minerals in the water dripping from the ceiling, which made the bones seem to sparkle.
They also showed us a hole in one of the skulls, and asked what we thought it might be from. Maybe the person was killed by being hit in the head, we guessed. No - that was from the camera that someone dropped on the skull a few years back, which was why none of us were allowed to bring cameras into the cave. The tour agency did take my email and send me their official pictures, though, so I'll toss those at the end of the post here.
After wading our way an hour back to the entrance of the cave and hiking forty-five minutes back down the trail, we got some lunch and then got back in the van to drive back, all pretty exhausted (and pretty bit up from the mosquitoes as well). I headed back to the hostel with a few beers from the store again, and spent the evening talking with the Belgians and a few other hostel guests who had shown up that day, and the Belgians and I ended up exchanging information since we were heading the same direction. Little did I know how fortunate that would be.