Jose, better known as “Mingo”, escorted us up the side of a waterfall that led to the mouth of the cave. He lit our candles, issued brief instructions, and then entered the dark cave. I followed closely behind Mingo as we waded into the cold cave water with our candlelight, which provided enough vision for just a few steps forward. After walking about 50 feet into the cave, Mingo applied “war paint” to our faces, during what felt like an initiation rite. The war paint was a nice touch, even though Mingo gave the Gringo the standard American Football eye black look, while the girls had some extra flare with their design. No worries, I’d look like a poor man’s Rambo by the end of the day anyway.
We waded in the cave water until it became too deep, which required us to swim with one arm while holding the candle above the water in our other hand. The caves were an extensive maze that most certainly required a guide. After swimming a bit further, we reached what seemed to be an impasse. Mingo asked for my candle and disappeared into a narrow crevice beneath a small waterfall. Five minutes or so passed before our guide returned without my candle and led me through the narrow cave opening, revealing a 15 to 20 foot waterfall. “Do you want to climb the waterfall or take the ladder?”, yelled Mingo over the thundering roar of the water pounding beneath us. “I’ll climb it!”, I replied. I ascended the waterfall with the assistance of a rope, and found my candle at the summit. Mingo told me not to go beyond the light, but I couldn’t resist. With the rest of the group behind me preparing to scale the falls or climb the ladder, I took advantage of the solitude and crept a little further into the dark cave, exploring and imagining my nearby surroundings for a few moments before the rest of the group caught up to me. “Are there bats in these caves? Snakes? Undiscovered Mayan relics?” Before I could ponder and wander any further, my group made it to the peak. Mingo reassumed his position at the helm, and returned my candle.
Several minutes later, Mingo scaled a rock before doing a cannon ball into the water from about 15 feet above us. Initially, I figured he was going for style points with the cannon ball. However, Mingo informed us that the water wasn’t very deep, and it was the best way to avoid hitting the bottom. “But don’t worry, it’s just sand down there.” That wasn’t very reassuring to some people in the group. I climbed the cave rocks and was welcomed to the jumping spot with Mingo’s countdown of 3..2..1..Upon which I blasted off with my best jackknife/cannon ball hybrid into the cave water. The crowd cheered and awarded me a few sixes and sevens for my efforts, though one girl who fancied me threw up a perfect ten, which I knew was overly generous and undeserved. She thought I looked like Orlando Bloom ;). Better yet, my back only barely touched the bottom, which I considered a success.
We waded and swam a bit more, before reaching one of our final obstacles. At this point, I was towards the back of the group and couldn’t see where Mingo was leading my comrades in the front. Initially, I could only hear Mingo yelling directions up ahead, competing with a roaring cascade for supremacy. Then, as I inched closer, I continued to hear incomprehensible directions, and noticed one of my teammates protesting the obstacle at hand. Mingo hadn’t led us astray yet, but we just met the 22-year old today, and they don’t exactly make you sign a waiver in Guatemala. No refunds, and participate at your own risk. This was the ultimate trust fall. For all we knew, it could have been a rock slide or a fifty foot free fall. There was no visibility, and it wasn’t exactly comforting that Mingo would yell down, “Is everyone okay?!”, after each person disappeared into the sinkhole. The sheepish protester was a broad-shouldered man and had trouble fitting his wide frame into the small opening. I thought he may have been stuck for a minute. Though he wasn’t physically stuck, he had a difficult time overcoming the psychological hurdle of dropping into the unknown. It reminded me of the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie is holding up the line at the Mall Santa. As far as I could tell, the man didn’t have any Christmas requests for Mingo, but he wanted answers, and eventually we had to keep the line moving. I was one of the last people to go. Mingo told me how to situate my body and said “go down slowly”. I lowered myself down with my arms to discover that the drop was only a few feet, though I did bump my head on a couple of rocks on the way down. Mingo handed me the candles and I confirmed that everyone was okay. Shortly afterwards, we swam until we saw light beaming from an opening in the cave, signaling the end of our caving adventure.
The rest of the day consisted of tubing down the river, jumping off a bridge & rope swing, hiking to an overlook of the pools of Semuc Champey, and swimming in its tranquil, turquoise waters.
After the long, adventurous day, we bussed back the same way we had come, packed together like sardines in the back of a pickup truck that traversed the bumpy mountain roads from Semuc Champey to Lanquin, Guatemala. The beautiful views more than made up for the less than comfortable ride.
Upon arrival back at the hostel, we were rewarded with a barbecue buffet. I attacked the food like a wild man, with my war paint still on.
Postscript: I showered soon after and returned to my civility. There’s just something about war paint…
Other recent highlights include: swimming with whale sharks at Isla Holbox and eating ceviche on the boat, exploring several cenotes in Homun, experiencing the street festivities in Merida, snorkeling with sea turtles at Akumal beach, relaxing at the Caribbean beaches of Tulum, sailing in Bacalar Lagoon, sleeping in the tower at a hostel in Bacalar, not being stuck in Belize City after missing my bus, visiting the mystical rainforests at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, buffet dinners at the hostel in Lanquin, and the overnight hike to the summit of Volcano Acatanengo, near Antigua.