On Wednesday I took a guided tour through the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (more easily known as the ATM cave). It took about 30 minutes to hike to the mouth of the cave and we spent about 3 1/2 hours inside the cave. It was more interesting due to the fact that a river runs through the cave meaning we did pretty much everything: squeeze through tight spots, climb up dry rocks, wade through knee-deep water, swim, and any intermediate option you can think of. The cave was gorgeous! It had stalactites, stalagmites, full columns, other neat rock formations I don’t know the names of, lots of fish near the mouth of the cave, adorable little bats, a couple of crickets, and one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen in person. And the icing on the cake was that about half a mile into the cave it suddenly turns into an archaeological site with hundreds of pottery shards, some of which were nearly complete, and about half a dozen skulls and skeletons. Although the site was amazing and I’m glad I was able to see it, I was astonished by the fact that so many amazing artifacts were just lying around in the open of what has essentially become a tourist trap. The most barriers I ever saw were a few bright pieces of tape on the ground surrounding the more complete ceramics and all of the skeletons, but this in no way stops any of the artifacts from being damaged and the majority or artifacts had no barriers surrounding them at all. The particular tour guide I ended up with had been doing this for about 8 years and he pointed out numerous items throughout the tour that tourists had damaged over the years. There was even a quarter sized hole in one of the skulls from a tourist accidentally dropping something on it. While I understand the difficulties of excavating inside a cave, I find it surprising that so much information and history are being allowed to get destroyed like they are. I’ve read about issues involving tourism at ancient sites before and the damage it causes vs. the money the country receives from the tourism but seeing it up close and in person for the first time definitely adds a whole new perspective. I think it’s totally senseless to let such damage occur, but I understand why it happens and I also think the public deserves to see such amazing pieces of history. I only wish I had a quick fix for such a complicated dilemma. Any ideas? I guess for now all I can do is enjoy what I was able to see and make sure that I don’t contribute to any of that tourist damage when I see Xunantunich tomorrow.

Have a good weekend everyone!

-Sara Pitts

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