Immaculate Tomb: Exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal
Slipping through time, nearly untouched, in a Belizean Cave
In the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve of Western Belize, late in 1989, Dr. Thomas Miller jumped into a tributary of the Roaring River and swam inside an unnamed cave’s vine-covered mouth. The American geologist wasn’t in pursuit of a lost Maya relic; he was there to study geomorphology: the formation of caves. What he found, however, led him to contact Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, who recorded his findings in 1992.
The cave’s twisting river, in places neck deep, wove underground to an elevated cavern filled with the skeletal remains of 16 human sacrifices, ranging from infants to mid-40-year-olds. And, in an upper, farther recess of the cave, a slender skeleton lay calcified to the cave floor amidst bat guano and predatory spiders.
“It struck me at my core. It was unlike anything I had seen before. We always want to think we’re immortal, but the human remains in this Maya ritual cave site reminded me how fragile we humans are,” Awe said. “I thought to myself, ‘Why should archaeologists be the only privileged people to see what happened here 1,100 years ago?’”
Awe took a self-described gamble and opened the cave five years later to the public with little to no regulations or infrastructure to preserve the relics inside. He hoped tourism would repel looters. To the surprise of international archaeologists, it’s been, for the most part, a raging success.
One of Actun Tunichil Muknal’s many sacrificial victims.
I first heard about the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in 2011. Heavily shadowed photographs of a complete adolescent skeleton — known falsely as the Crystal Maiden — coupled with descriptions of the narrow river that winds through pitch darkness to an open cavern led me to believe it was indeed a Maya ritual site undisturbed by the 21st century. Still, I assumed that like most ancient ruins in the United States and across Europe, the mystique of the cave would be tempered by preservation and safety regulations.
But Belize isn’t Europe. The country, home to 327,719 people, has the lowest population density in Central America. It wasn’t until 2003 that it experienced a significant increase in tourism — jumping from 199,521 to 220,574 overnight visitors per year. It has remained largely ignored by international travelers, history enthusiasts, and archaeologists. Awe estimates that only 10 percent of Belize’s caves and Maya ritual sites have been discovered and explored.
Ceremonial pottery litters the interior of the cave
This summer, I drove from Belize City’s Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport to Ka’ana Boutique Resort in west-central Belize on a narrow two-lane road stretching through cattle, horse and teak tree farms, past tiny rural homes perched on stilts with laundry fluttering in the wind, and through the quiet town of San Pedro to explore the ATM cave.
My tour driver, Edward Cano, a solemn middle-aged man, told earnest, fearful stories of the black-haired woman, La Llorona, who kills men if they dare to look upon her face, and Tata Duende, a jungle-dwelling man known to rip people’s thumbs off. My guide, Gliss Penados, a jovial naturalist and Yucatec Maya descendent, laughed at the stories; but he wouldn’t, however, fully deny their existence.
As we pulled into the dirt parking lot, Penados told me the ATM cave’s two biggest rules: no footwear and no cameras. In Awe’s attempt to provide tourists with an authentic and awe-inspiring tour, the cave has suffered irreparable damage. Upwards of 120 people enter the cave per day during peak tourist season. Today has the look of a full day. The parking lot is swarming with tourists.
In May 2012, a tourist dropped a camera onto one of the skulls, creating a perfect rectangular hole in the center of the its forehead. The incident, the latest in a series of clumsy tourist mishaps, has led locals to believe Awe will be forced to either close the cave to the public or install a metal walkway throughout the cave’s interior. For now, he’s contemplating cutting the visitor-to-guide ratio down from eight to one to six to one.
A trek through thick jungle brush and several river crossings is necessary to reach the cave.
We leave the parking lot behind and begin to walk down a narrow trail surrounded by dense jungle foliage. Within minutes, I feel the first bite. A nearly invisible horde of red fire ants is swarming my right foot. I take off running, simultaneously kicking my foot and slapping my hand against my leg. I stop 10 feet later, ant free and laughing. The first of three river crossings stretches before me.
We make our way, hiking and then wading across the thigh-high Roaring River two more times, until at last, the entrance to the ATM cave emerges unexpectedly from the rainforest. A small tributary pours from the cave’s cavernous mouth, which offers a poorly lit view of the cave’s interior pool and a small water-fed pathway that rises on the other side. I am suddenly both terrified and exhilarated. This entrance alone blows away my preconceived notions: There are no walkways, no guardrails, no signs of modern civilization.
At the mouth’s edge, I stand for a moment, shivering with anticipation. Then I leap into the water. The pool is deep and cold. I kick to the surface and swim with fast, concise strokes to the cave’s interior where I climb out of the pool and into the underground river. It’s near pitch black when I emerge soaking wet and shivering next to Penados.
In the twilight of our headlamps, the cave comes alive. Stalagmites jut up from the creek bed around me while stalactites hang from the ceiling and create ominous shadows that dance across the cave’s walls. Each guided tour times its descent into the caves far enough apart that the illusion of utter loneliness seems real.
I begin hiking through the waist-deep water, following Penados as he leads us through the tunnel system ahead. The river depth changes frequently, and I gasp the first time I take a step and my head nearly goes beneath the water before I realize I need to start swimming again. My guide, who is three inches shorter than me, had issued no warning. This is an experience that prides itself in not holding your hand — and I love it.
I stop and ask him to turn off his headlamp. In an instant, the cave becomes a shade of black so intense that it feels like it could swallow me whole. I’m blind, and all I can hear is our breath and the sound of rain. I turn on my headlamp and look up. Hundreds of bats hang from the ceiling. At my light, one flutters its wings. I force myself to hold my gaze; but, as another stirs, I look down only to see a freshwater crab scurry past my feet.
The so-called “Crystal Maiden”
It’s likely when Maya priests first lit torches to explore and utilize this cave for ritual sacrifices that a severe drought had transformed the chest-deep river into a mere trickle. It’s also likely that the resurgence of regular rainy seasons is what kept the cave from being looted during the ongoing 20-year surge of cave exploration in Belize.
At Boot Hill, the designated spot where we’re required to take off our shoes, Penados asks me to put on my socks so my feet won’t leach oil into the cavern floor. There, a descending group passes us, barefoot. I ask Awe afterward if the tour guide had blatantly ignored one of the cave’s few rules.
Awe said it doesn’t matter if you wear socks or go barefoot. The point is to be able to feel the pottery if you accidentally step on it. Still, twice a year, Awe and a team enters the cave to remove sock lint from its surface.
I free climb 30 feet up the slick rock face to the cavern above. It’s there that the real beauty and uniqueness of the ATM cave hits home. There are no lamps lighting up the entire cavern. There are no glass display cases or bars protecting every calcified skull and pottery shard. My only guideline — and the cave’s only source of protection — is to avoid the neon orange tape that outlines every relic.
Shadows track my progress as I slowly walk deeper into the cavern. There are skulls and bones everywhere. They’re strewn across the floor almost as if the Maya priests were running out of space to perform rituals. Penados beckons me forward. My headlamp sweeps the room and falls upon a rock with a large protruding slope. On the far wall, the face of a man appears.
I pause mid step, surprised. Before I ask, Penados tells me that it’s unknown whether the Maya carved the rock or whether its eerily face-like presence was one of the reasons they selected this cavern for ritual sacrifices. He beckons me farther into the cave, and I weave past skeletal heads and bones, including one with a sad rectangular hole in its forehead, in an effort to keep up.
He stops next to a rickety ladder tied with a rope to the alcove above it. As I grasp the ladder, it shifts and then settles into position again. The 18-foot climb to the upper level cavern is short but surprisingly nerve-wracking, the ladder rocking back and forth with every step. As I awkwardly climb onto the adjacent ledge above, I see him: the slender skeleton of a teenage boy who was likely killed for rain and bountiful crops. His delicate bones are almost feminine in appearance — a fact that led locals to initially dub him the Crystal Maiden.
The boy’s brutal death came in the midst of a drought so severe that Maya cities, spanning across much of Mesoamerica, were sacrificing humans at an unprecedented rate. It was here, inside this alcove, that Awe believes a Maya priest likely slit open the boy’s stomach, reached in and yanked out his heart to appease the gods.
He rests behind a wired barrier — a concession that Awe made in 2008 after he grew concerned that, given the cramped quarters, the skeleton’s preservation was at risk. The only visible sign of the fatal injury that likely befell the boy is the broken vertebra above his stomach.
I stand, soaking wet, above him and take in the cave’s entirety. I’ve explored castles, underground Roman ruins, and decommissioned prisons known for their brutality. I’ve tried so many times to feel connected to the past, but have always felt that pristine ruins, signage, and informational welcome videos have never done it justice.
Here, in western Belize, in the cave Awe saved for tourists, history is alive. The boy, with no known name or story, made the same dark passage as I made by torchlight to his final resting place. And, for the moment, he is not alone.