Some tours are so hyped it’s suspicious. Can they really be as good as the chatter about them claims? In the case of Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave the answer is yes. Ancient Mayan ceremonies and superstitions, human remains, a virtually unpronounceable name, narrow water-filled passages and more.
It all starts out reasonably enough. After an early morning start with your tour operator in San Ignacio and a bumpy 45 minute ride you hike along a mellow, flat, scenic and mostly-shaded trail through the jungle for about 30 minutes until you reach the mouth of the cave. More precisely, you reach a rudimentary camping area at the mouth of the cave (tour companies offer an overnight trip to the cave with camping here) where you scarf down some lunch before entering the cave–a place the Mayan considered both terrifying and powerful.
The mouth of the culturally and geologically dramatic Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
The mouth of the cave is beautiful–like a mysterious indoor/outdoor pool. The whole cave system is filled with crystal-clear water and the deepest section on the tour is right at the beginning. The only way in is to swim. Once inside it was nice to discover that the ATM cave doesn’t suffer from a gross bat guano smell.
Karen swimming into the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
After the initial swim the water never gets much more than knee deep but the trail through the cave is wet and rocky the entire way as you slowly move deeper into what the Mayans called Xibalba, or the underworld. This is where they believed the dead went before working their way back up through various levels to reach a better place.
Xibalba was both feared and revered. Archaeologists believe that only a select few of the living Mayans ever entered caves and they did so only when necessary to perform rituals and ceremonies designed to solve problems.
The bigger the problem, the deeper they went into the underworld.
The entire route through the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize is covered in crystal clear water--from ankle-deep to many feet deep.
Mayan ceremonial sites inside the ATM cave (and other ceremonial caves) exist on natural shelves in the interior cave system. Here the Mayans built fires, burned incense and lit torches which cast shadows in the shapes of various gods (some carved out of natural stone pillars in the cave). They also brought in special ceremonial pots.
At the end of the ceremony, each pot was ruined in some way–cracked or punctured with what’s called a “kill hole” to release its inner spirit and render the vessel useless. The deeper we traveled into the ATM the more we could relate to the feelings of power and mystery that must have lead the Mayans to believe that they could talk to their gods here. It really was like entering another world.
A cave in created this skylight in the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize, a rare source of light in the otherwise pitch black underworld.
After about an hour of walking through the cave you reach a big boulder on the cave floor. Everyone in our group scrambled to the top of it and then hopped onto a lip in the cave wall–a journey many Mayans had made before us. The expansive area on this huge ledge is called The Cathedral and it’s an ancient offering site that’s literally littered with dramatic artifacts.
Ancient Mayan fire pits and ceremonial pottery in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
The cave is thought to be about three miles long but you only have to travel about a mile in to reach The Cathedral area. The artifacts (and the cave environment) here are so fragile here that you have to take your shoes off and proceed with just socks on. This is, in part, because the soles of your shoes damage the cave. More important is the fact that we all pay more attention to where we’re walking when we’re barefoot and the trail through this section of the cave literally winds around the fire sites and ritually-arranged pots.
Some guides have managed to lay pitiful strips of glow in the dark tape around particularly vulnerable artifacts, but it still requires full attention to your footsteps to keep from stepping on the fragile remains of the Mayans’ ceremonies.
Ritually-arranged ceremonial pottery at a Mayan offering site inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
The most dramatic artifacts are, of course, the human remains. Bones from 14 different bodies were discovered here including some children.
Yes, that's a human skull. The remains of 14 bodies have been found in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
All of the remains belong to male victims except for the so-called Crystal Maiden (below) which is also the only intact skeleton found in The Cathedral. Nobody knows exactly how or why these people were killed inside the cave.
The "Crystal Maiden" gets her name because she's the only female found inside The Cathedral area of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. Her intact skeleton has become covered in sparkling mineral deposits over the years.
Let our video, below, take you inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave without getting wet.
Water, rock and time combine to create gorgeous natural formations inside Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.
We exited Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave the same way we came in--with a swim.
Don’t forget to bring along an old pair of socks to wear in The Cathedral where you must remove your shoes.
Don’t wear just a bathing suit. Yes, you’ll be wet for the entire tour but you’ll also need to climb and scramble over rocks and through smallish spaces (nothing too tight) and up into The Cathedral area and having shorts and a t-shirt on make it more comfortable. It’s also quite possible to get cold inside the cave.
Because of the fragile nature of the cave and the Mayan artifacts it houses the Belizean government has licensed less than 30 guides to enter the cave. Most of them are working for tour companies in San Ignacio who will all bid hard for your business (we saw ATM tours for between US$60 and US$80 per person). No matter who you choose here are some crucial issues to address:
-Make sure you’re sent in with people with similar fitness levels. We got paired with a family headed by grandparents who had serious trouble balancing and making their way through the cave so our tour crawled along and lasted at least 30% longer than it should have. We were cold and frustrated by the time we emerged.
-Make sure the guide goes in with rescue gear and the tour company is fully insured. Accidents do happen.
-Ask if it’s a “cruise ship day” when the ATM cave can get to its maximum capacity.
And one last tip….
The ATM cave experience is all the more dramatic because these amazing artifacts are still in their original positions. However, damage is being done. A woman in our group blindly stepped on some pottery during our tour and one of the skulls in The Cathedral has a big hole in it where a visitor’s camera landed on it years ago. Local guides and others are saying it’s only a matter of time before the Belizean government closes the cave and/or moves the artifacts to a more protective museum setting.
“Everything has a story, a beginning, and an end. Even the most insignificant things in life…”
This is how Martin, my guide from Mayawalk, introduced me for the second time to Actun Tunichil Muknal – also known as ATM Caves.
That statement is very well the truth, and he had no better place to demonstrate it than inside the caves.
Xibalba, the sacred realm of the underworld where the Mayas ceremoniously pleased their gods with offerings and sacrifices, is the place where a dark history has been imprinted along its dripping walls, its muddy floors, and its calcified artifacts. Xibalba was both feared and revered. It was only for the select few who were worthy enough to enter and communicate with their gods.
ATM Caves is one of the most adventurous tours near San Ignacio in the Cayo District, and probably all of Belize. Not only it combines the adrenaline of going deep inside a moderately challenging wet cave, but it is also one of the best-preserved archeological sites in Belize. Inside the caves, you can see over 1400 artifacts, mostly pottery, that the ancient Mayas used in their rituals and offerings to their gods. In addition, human remains of 14 individuals lay scattered throughout the great chamber known as The Cathedral, including the only full human skeleton of a Maya found to date inside a cave.
The best way to experience ATM is by understanding the real procession the Mayas went through when they entered the world of Xibalba. The Mayas believed there were 13 layers of heaven and 9 layers of the underworld, with caves being the entrance to the underworld. Before reaching the heavens after their death, they believed they had to endure the 9 layers of the underworld to become pure.
These caves are ancient temples, and that’s how they should be perceived.
A hike of about 45 minutes, including three river crossings, precedes the entrance of the underworld. At the mouth of the cave, you can see the crystal blue water flowing out of the dark chambers and the undulating cave walls penetrating deep inside the space until fading into darkness.
A short swim in the cold crystal clear water is the threshold between the world of light and life, and the world of darkness. The caves are about three miles long, but only a mile is open for exploration. The deeper you go in, the more sacred it feels, the more intimate it gets, and the better you can understand the relationship the Mayas had with these caves.
Martin did a phenomenal job recreating a sensorial processional walk inside the cave – pitch black. We walked surrounded by nothingness, feeling only the water on our legs, breathing the dense humid air, smelling the delicate scent of lime (that Martin created by crushing leaves from a lime tree) and listening to the gentle sound of the water flowing. As we walked, Martin shared in a soft voice a story that was spiritually connected to the cave. To conclude the story, he chanted the word XIBALBAAA… AA… AA… echoing in the empty chambers, just before turning on the headlamp to see beautiful cave formations in front of us. Not sure if it was the chanted word or if I was just cold, but as soon as I heard the deep tone of that word a strong chilled energy ran trough my body, heightening my sensorial perception and almost making me feel like I could see inside the cave, even when it was in total darkness.
Deep in the caves, the Mayans modified several cave formations. In some instances they created altars for the offerings, in other they created silhouettes of faces and animals, and in other they just created shadow projections into the cave walls.
About a mile in, we climb a big boulder to get out of the flowing water and into the most important chamber in the cave: The Cathedral. This is where most of the pottery and human remains can be seen. The reason why it is so deep in the caves is because the Mayas believed that the deeper they went, the more layers of the underworld they crossed, the purer they became, and the more meaningful their offering would be.
This is the place where many stories are told without even saying a single word. The rock carvings, the pots, the human remains, the cave; they all tell a story. There is power, there is mystery, there is suffering, there is fear, there is respect, and there is death.
The Cathedral’s floor is fully sprinklered with broken ceramic pots and vases. No single ceramic piece is intact. Why? They were all used in ceremonial offerings. At the end of the ceremony, each ceramic piece was broken by either cracking it or by creating a “kill hole”. This released the inner spirit of the vessel and rendered it useless.
Just imagine how that space must have felt when the Mayas built fires, burned incense, and lit torches to cast moving shadows in the shapes of their gods – aided by their carvings and even some mushrooms. That must have been some heightened religious experience.
There are several skeletal remains in this chamber, with the most notables being the two adult male skulls and scattered bones, and the young child skull. By the end of the chamber, the most precious skeletal remain becomes visible. It is The Crystal Maiden, the calcified skeleton of a teenage girl, sacrificed, and placed in a dancing-like position. Due to the calcium carbonate cover the water has created over the years, the skeleton sparkles eerily when lit with the headlamps.
It is not sure why she was sacrificed, but she was probably the sacrificial offering to a serious prayer or request to one of the gods. Maybe to the rain god, Chac, during the biggest drought that brought down the Maya civilization by the end of the 800s AD?
It is believed the Mayas considered being sacrificed an honor that would push them to the cosmos or heaven.
As for me, I was honored to be able to wander through Xibalba, but I was fine reaching “the light” by just waking back out of the underworld, into the middle world.
VIDEO: Getting to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
Belize Tours and Travel: Follow us as we lead the way to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in the Cayo district of Belize! We hike through the rain forest, wade through the river, climb into the mouth, and squeeze in through the rocks!
This Belize travel video was sent to us by Adventure Life travelers, Kate Perry and Max Cardenas.
#430739 - 02/17/1210:14 AMRe: Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
One of the greatest known ceremonial caves in the entire world, ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal), is unquestionably the hottest spot for Western Belize tourism today. In fact, National Geographic Magazine recently dubbed ATM Cave the #1 sacred cave to visit in the world!
Mayan Skull in ATM Cave - Cayo, District - Belize
ATM Cave is also known as Cave of the Stone Sepulcher (burial vault) because of the 14 known partial skeletal remains found inside. Nearly 1-km beyond the entrance of the cave sits the main attraction, a fully intact skeleton of a teenage girl, with fully calcified bones that sparkle from the light of your headlamp.
The Crystal Maiden - ATM Cave Day Tour from Lower Dover Jungle Lodge
Dubbed “The Crystal Maiden”, the bones have preserved for 1,400 years due to the the same processes (water dripping through the limestone) that forms the many beautiful stalactites and stalagmites to be seen and photographed inside ATM cave on the tour.
Limestone Cave Column with PACZ Tours guide Francisco
Amazing cave formations
ATM Cave Adventure in Belize
Dad trying to look like a stalagmite. Notice the full column on the left and stalactites above.
Archaeologists believe this Maya cave was likely used in spiritual practices by shamans and royalty because of the human remains found, but also because of pottery with “kill holes”. These perfectly made ceramic pots were broken in order to release the spirit Mayans believed lived within as part of a ritual sacrifice to the Gods.
Broken Maya Ceramic found in ATM Cave
Mayan Pottery Offerings to the Water God Chac
Archaeologists hypothesize that many of the pots found inside ATM Cave near water sources were broken to appease the Mayan Water God Chac. There are literally hundreds of ceramic bowls, pots, and shards that can be easily photographed from up close. The most unique example shows a monkey glyph easily photographed near the rim. Found, only in one other known location, this Mayan glyph will surely lead to further investigations when archaeologists continue their excavations at ATM Cave in the future.
Maya monkey glyph on ceramic pottery found in ATM Cave
Further into the cave, it is believed the Mayans modified cave formations to worship the Maya Goddess of birth and medicine Ixchel. The lights from your headlamp show the silhouette of her face perfectly against the cave backdrop.
Ixchel Mayan Goddess at ATM Cave in Belize
The one thing the guide from PACZ tours tried to get across was the Maya connection between caves and the underworld. To the Mayans, caves were the passageway to Xibalba, or roughly “place of fear”. The Earth was only the middle plane holding together the heavens and hell. To the Maya, sacred caves like ATM were the origin of the sacred Cieba Tree’s root system (really stalactites). Meanwhile, the Ceiba Tree symbolically connected the people to their God’s above and below.
Large Ceiba Tree at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge Belize
Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts and skeletal remains within the cave, it is
required that tourists take off their shoes during the last leg of the trip. This is to ensure no contaminants are brought into the delicate area surrounding the Mayan remains. This adds to the adventure, and also requires a bit of balance not to step on the pots and skulls inches from your feet!
Only socks and so close to everything!
It is important to understand the high level of difficulty that ATM cave presents Belize travelers. This is a serious adventure, and not for the weak, or unsure. From the van drop-off, there is a brisk 35 minute hike through the jungle to reach the cave entrance. Near the entrance is a rest area with an outhouse, where overnight ATM Cave tours camp, and daytime tours eat lunch provided in the cost of the tour.
Jungle Hiking to ATM Cave
You must cross the stream twice in preperation for a hardcore adventure
To enter the cave, you must first cross the stream that is running out of the cave entrance to reach a dry, narrow, passage. This is the point where it hits you that the ATM Cave tour is no walk in the park. Every step presents a different hazard, and requires constant awareness, as to not disturb cave formations, preserve the skin on your legs, and not crack your head or unprotected back on the ceiling.
One of the few dry passages at ATM Cave is the side entrance
The first 3/4s of the cave trip is though the same running stream you cross when hiking in. At no point is it really required to swim, however, being up to your neck in running water is a definite possibility. Because of the tight squeezes, and the rushing water, ATM Cave closes when water levels are high, but this occurs only a couple of times per year. Tell your guide before you leave if you are not a comfortable swimmer and he/she will equip you with a floating vest to wear. They will also be close at your side for any difficulties you might have when in the water.
Walking in Chest Deep Water - ATM Cave Belize
The tour requires moderate upper body strength to lift yourself over rock ledges. More so it requires agility, balance, and flexibility, similar to rock climbing. The largest challenge is searching for footholds and safe places to hold your weight while climbing on slippery rock surfaces. It is probably worse to be scared of heights than swimming, because there is a point that requires tourists to push themselves over a ledge without a safety harness. However, the same people afraid of heights would find Tikal’s staircases worse than the ATM Cave experience.
Stairs at Tikal National Park
The last leg of the trip is a great finish to an exhilarating day. Over the last 200 yards of the cave, the group is instructed to turn their headlights off and travel hand in hand to the light of the exit. It is a totally blind experience, and a true team building activity. Once you see the light at the end of the tunnel, comfort sets in, as you reflect on one of the coolest things you will ever do or see in your life. The finishing touch is a deserved cannon ball into the blue waters of the stream as you swim back out into nature.
Swimming near ATM Cave Entrance
Special note, request your guide to show you the stone altar, which not all guides will do unless asked. It is one of the largest carved stone pieces ever found in the Maya world, and worth the extra effort to see. Unfortunately, our camera was packed away in the waterproof bag our guide was carrying. Otherwise, we would have been able to get a great photograph.
Today was my second and my Mom’s first visit to ATM. It was tied for my favorite things to do in Belize when I visited in December 2010. Today I wasn’t sure what to expect…would it be exactly the same?…would it be completely different?…what would be different?
I was definitely not let down. We had an absolutely amazing day with Francisco from Pacz Tours. The hike there was EXCELLENT. It was pouring rain and I just love playing in the mud. The best part was we saw Jaguar tracks!!! One of the things I’ve been dying to see in Belize is a Jaguar in the wild. I know that my chances are slim to none given that many people have lived here their entire lives and not seen one in the wild (our guide included), but a girl can have dreams…right? To me seeing the tracks was the next best thing. Francisco wasn’t too surprised because he had seen a dog up in the area the day before and assumed that the Jaguar was hunting.
Last time I went to ATM, the waters were really high due to rainfall. This time, even though it had been raining off and on for several days, the water levels were much lower. To get to ATM you have to cross Roaring Creek River three times. Don’t let the word ‘creek’ foul you. It’s not overly difficult, but it’s not easy either. Once at the cave entrance we had to swim in (you don’t have to dive under the water…the water is just too deep to walk in that area). Then you hike approximately one kilometer while in the cave. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s all upstream while submerged ankle to chest deep.
So, what’s worth all of this? ATM is a cave that Mayans used for years to perform rituals and offerings. There are a lot of clay pots. None are without damage, as the Mayans broke them during the rituals, but some are pretty close. One is called the Monkey Pot because of a marking on it. Our guide said that only eight pots have been found with similar markings. There have also been fourteen skeletons discovered in this cave, but they know there are many more still buried within. The most intact is a skeleton of a young woman called the Crystal Maiden (her bones have calcified and now glimmer in the light). We also got to see an interesting shadow from one of the rock formations…imagine being a Mayan in a dark cave with just a torch…wouldn’t this look like something evil?
Just being in the cave gives me a feeling of honor…walking in the same footsteps of the Mayans from so many years ago.
On the way out our guide gave us a special treat (something I did not experience that last time I was there). We had the opportunity to go through some pretty tight spaces and challenging obstacles, but it was amazing. To top off the experience the guide had us all hold the hand of the person next to us and then turn off our headlamps. Then he slowly guided us through a section of the cave in complete darkness. No words can describe. You have to look at some of the pictures to understand what fun we had. I would definitely go again. It seems that each time will be a new experience.
Note: These pictures were taken with my Olympus Tough 8010 camera (shockproof and waterproof). Highly recommended for this adventure. It was submerged all day and it hit many walls as I tried to squeeze through some tight places.
Another Note: If you are leery about the tight spaces, there are other options. Please GO…it’s worth it and the tour can be adjusted to a lot of different physical abilities.
FANTASTIC PHOTOS by brain soup lust: The Entrance to the Mayan Underworld Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize is where the Mayan's made ceramic, stoneware, and human sacrifices to honor and appease their gods. They believed that it was the entrance to the Underworld, and would wade through it's chest-deep waters for almost two miles, sometimes under the influence of hallucinogenic plants, to reach the summit of dry cave bed where they would make their sacrifices.
VIDEO: Ghost Hunters International - The Crystal Maiden
The team travels to Belize in order to investigate the Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves, where a maiden's spirit is believed to be trapped; in Queaux, France, a chateau is said to contain the spirit of a girl who haunts the women who stay there.
#433436 - 03/19/1207:49 AMRe: Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
Our guide, Gonzo, drives us deep into the tropical forest. At the end of the road he parks his 4 x 4, grabs his massive flashlight and tells us from here we have to hike.
We, my husband Rob and two daughters 10 and 12, are in Belize and dressed in our worse clothes for a three-hour tour of the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve close to San Ignacio. It’s famous for it’s Mayan sacrificial chambers. Rob and I know we are about to see broken pottery and some human remains deep in the cave and that we have to swim to enter the cave but know nothing else and we have kept it a surprise from the children. All they know at this point is that they are hiking into the tropical forest.
Cave entry with deep pool
Once we get to the cave entry Gonzo gives us a small briefing and that’s when the kids find out they are going to have to enter a cave by swimming in and then be in it in their damp clothes for three hours. They look at us with disbelief but seem excited about the adventure. We all make our way to the edge of the pool and swim across into the darkness to a big rock where Gonzo waits for us.
Negotiating the underwater path in a small triangular tunnel
The next hour or so is spent negotiating tight tunnels, boulders, ascents and descents, deep pools and streams. I have to say, I have NO IDEA how the guides can remember the way through this cave. It’s a long way and my sense of direction is gone in the first 50 feet. I also have to tell you that I’m claustrophobic but I have never had so much fun in a tight dark place in my life.
Intriguing cave formations
Eventually we reach our goal, a large gallery filled with pottery and human remains, but to get there we have to climb a steep section up from the river we’ve been following. We help each other get up and sit on a small ledge at the top to remove our shoes. Everyone must walk with socks on only from here to protect the floor of the gallery.
In the gallery
Gonzo is an excellent guide and takes much time talking about the history of his people and all the articfacts we see strewn on the floor of the galleries we are visiting. He is also the envy of the other guides with his massive flashlight which has a Calgary connection. A friend of ours in Calgary sells a variety of specialized flashlights and When Gonzo contacted him from Belize for a large flashlight our friend felt that he had to go visit this cave where the flashlight was to be used, which is how we found Gonzo when we decided to go.
Gonzo Gonzales, Mayan guide
Throughout we see remains of some children and adults, all seem to have been killed with blunt force to the skull. The ‘highlight’ of the tour is the Crystal Maiden, for which the cave is named, the skeleton of a young woman about 18 years old covered in calcites which sparkle in the little light there is. We all have to take turns to see her as the opening to her little cell is narrow. I feel pity for her to have such a horrible death and try not to think of how claustrophobic this small ‘room’ must have been in the dark.
Eventually the tour of the gallery comes to an end. There are only two other groups in the cave with us. We head back over the ledge to find our shoes and make our way back out slowly throught the twisting tunnels. This has been a most amazing experience and culturally, we come away with a lot of insight in how the Mayans lived and their beliefs.
Getting there: Gonzo can be reached through River Rat Expeditions. Only a handful of guides are certified and licenced for ATM and there’s a checkpoint on the way to the cave where guides have to check in. San Ignacio is a great base to visit ATM from as well as other Maya ruins in the area and Tikal in Guatamala.
My spelunking career aspirations were squashed early on, after an unexpected and very harrowing moment for my 11-year-old self. I was midway through the fox hole of a cave in Rockwood Conservation Area, ignoring a rapid heartbeat and clammy hands in pursuit of raw adventure. After emerging from the fox hole we were promised the awe of a chamber that would allow us to all sit semi-upright and experience the void that is the 1000% darkness of a cave.
We were slick with muck, jittery from anxiousness, knees and elbows soggy from contorting through the narrow passages. The fox hole required us to crawl on our bellies through an opening that would surely make me hyperventilate today.
My age 11 whippet-thin body was not naive to my summer camp BFF’s discomfort that day. She was a husky girl, and clearly, husky foxes did not exist in these parts. Husky foxes did not use fox holes of this size. Crawling behind me with an increasingly heavy wheeze, Cheryl came to a dead stop in the middle of the fox hole. She was stuck. Ahead of her, shivery in the silent, wet depths, I was now stuck as well. The only way out was where Cheryl lie prone, psychologically paralyzed. I imagined a hundred long and dark deaths in the cave with Greg, our semi-fearless leader, and Cheryl, stuck in the fox hole.
It was immensely terrifying and in no way enlightening. It was simply a terrible thing that I still can’t fathom when I imagine myself in Cheryl’s skin. It seemed like days that she was immobile, heaving with tears, wailing with worry. I’m not sure what I did besides breathe equally as heavy and contemplate my own sorry fate.
Of course, as you may have surmised from this post, we got the hell out of that cave with the lubricant of confidence and Greg talking Cheryl off the ledge, so to speak.
In my hurry to be upright and feel sunlight on my shoulders again, and get out of the cave that I almost perished in, I split my head open on the top of the cave in my scramble out. The dull thud of skull on rock vibrated in each of my 206 bones. Everything felt thick and in soupy slow motion. Greg kept asking me who the prime minister was (which isn’t really a fair question to ask a kid. In fact, it’s not even the best question to ask me nowadays either).
The camp counsellors plied me with charred marshmallows by the fire, and pestered with quiz-like questions all night, fully aware that I may have conked myself into a concussion. I ate the marshmallows and rolled my eyes at all the political talk and was apparently fine. Fine enough to still be excited by the allure of caves and to poke around bigger ones (with standing room only) in Tennessee and Kentucky when I was a teenager.
As Kim and I read intensively about Belize pre-departure, clearly, caves were a dynamic draw for Central American travellers. We had already booked a recreationally lazy tube ride through the Caves Branch system (stalactites taken in at the comfortable speed of a gentle river’s slow flow). We asked other travelers about the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave with more trepidation. Kim was keen on the challenge after our tube time while I was experiencing minor Cheryl-stuck-in-the-fox-hole flashbacks.
This WikiTravel ATM cave description made me sweat and pace a little: “The cave can be exited through a tight squeeze ending in a giant sink hole collapse in the jungle.” The main cave system at ATM is three miles long. Tight squeeze. Three miles seemed like a dreadfully long time to be in the dark. Again, tight squeeze.
Lonely Planet touted ATM as “undoubtedly one of the most incredible and adventurous tours you can take in Belize.” I thought our kamikaze boat ride to the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef to see the red-footed boobies was, but…Kim and I have a relationship that thrives on balance. She was a willing and enthusiastic participant in a back-breaking wave-smacking two hour trip to see birds with red feet. Surely I could suck up some old and dusty latent fears and poke around this cave at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
The part that made me scull back Belikin beer more quickly than usual? “Follow your guide into the cave starting with a frosty plunge into a 20-foot deep pool.”
We knew we’d have wet feet all day (with three river crossings en route to the cave opening), but to be completely wet up to my bangs—and frosty—for maybe three miles inside the cave? Insert groan and goosebumps here.
The 45-minute hike in was painless. The jungle was flat and moist. Bird shrills pulled our attention in all directions, massive morpho butterflies the size of Frisbees glided past, leaf-cutter ants led processions wherever they pleased. We paused to eat some live termites with encouragement from our guide who insisted they were minty. Indeed, they were. The African variety I had eaten in previous years had more of a scrambled egg aftertaste. The second jungle snack he introduced us to was a leaf with anti-venom properties that tasted like mouse shit, Vegemite, Buckley’s and death. Which meant, right before entering the cave, I felt like barfing from the bitter film of anti-venom leaf on my tongue with not a stupid venomy snake in sight.
Fast forward. We get the cave primer from our sturdy and sinewy guide and the plunge is totally frosty as promised. We have to swim 20 glacial meters to the cave shore and I already feel like I’ve entered an igloo.
But, wow. We are surrounded by a world that hums with the spirit of the Mayan people. Stalactites reach towards phallic stalagmites, thousands of years from ever meeting. The calcium-carbonate glistens as though the entire belly of the cave has been massaged with oil. We train our headlamps on the ceiling of the chamber to see massive jellyfish-like bodies of rock and shimmery chandeliers.
We become well acquainted with the river that winds through the cave. Sometimes we are knee-deep, at other times (more frequently), up to our collarbones with rocks pressing into our ribcages and unsuspecting knee caps. We scramble, heave, wade and swim deeper into the belly, in gentle pursuit of the Crystal Maiden.
Actun Tunichil Muknal translates into “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher,” and among the shards and intact pottery vessels that dot the chamber, we are on a strategic route to the calcite-encrusted remains of the Crystal Maiden. She keeps company with fourteen others that are visible. I begin to believe that more than 14 ancestral eyes are watching us.
In 1993, National Geographic filmed scenes in the ATM cave for a series entitled ‘Journey to the Underworld.’ ATM was also featured in the magazine’s July/August 2001 edition which boosted curiousity and foot traffic in the cave that only opened to the public in 1998. A Belizean archaeologist named Jaime Awe began exhaustive research into the ATM caves in the early nineties, and, to protect the area’s fragility, Awe personally trained two tour operators from Pacz Tours and Mayawalk Tours (six guides). To this day, only licensed operators are allowed to lead visitors inside the caves. The route is rigorous and a high level of fitness is paramount. You are sopping wet the entire time and in order to see the Crystal Maiden nearly half a mile inside the cave, you must remove your footwear and scramble up slick boulders and eventually mount a ladder to reach the uppermost chamber, in socks.
There is an eerie silence and historical pulse in that dry chamber. The depth of the darkness is liquid, calming and, if your mind permits, a bit anxiety-inducing. You are sharing breathing space with skeletons and troubling echoes of sacrificial cries.
Did I mention the squeeze where you have to angle your head and neck just-so? Yeah, with water up to your collarbones? That passage, tinier than a mouse fart, is a game changer. With walls like a vice grip, barely shoulder-wide, one must turn sideways, slide through the narrow neck allowance and heave up and out of the well. (Enter five pages of self-talk and mild cursing and palpitations here).
The guides spend around three hours inside the cave. The Crystal Maiden and the sacrificial grounds are the dramatic end point (where you can temporarily pull on a dry shirt from dry-sacs provided). Disclaimer: You must retrace your calculated steps back the same route and take that same frosty plunge to exit the cave.
National Geographic Society deems it one of the Top 10 Caves in the World for formidable reasons. The red-footed boobies are still awarded my Best Belize Moment, but if you want to wildly shake up your adrenalin stores into champagne fizz, submerge yourself into the world of 300 A.D. The ATM is taxing, exhausting and exhilarating. Our quad muscles groaned the next day from precarious toe-holds and careful foot placements in the riverbed.
When you click through photos that capture the heavy-breathing, chill and wonder, the reward is palpable. And the swallowed fear and hesitation is appreciated ten-fold weeks later in the safety of my Toronto apartment with a glass of wine and dry clothes.
The Nitty Gritty Insider Tips:
Most tour operators depart from San Ignacio (one hour to site, 20 minutes of which is spine-crunching bumpy). It’s a relatively easy 45 minute hike/amble to the mouth of the cave with periodic stops to learn about local flora & fauna and to enjoy termite pick-me-ups. It’s three shiver-inducing hours inside the cave, mostly submerged, but not completely. Lunch is provided by tour operators (a satisfying fix of grilled chicken, rice, curried squash and zucchini, grapefruit and granola bars).
There is a crude outhouse before the cave entrance where a pit stop is made for last minute nerve emissions and some carb-fueling for others. Helmets and headlamps are provided (they are Black Diamonds with fully charged batteries, not dim budget variety). You must be able to dog paddle at least 20 meters and be agreeable with water up to your chest in a few spots, be able to climb a 15-foot ladder and be comfortable in not-so-comfortable spaces. The tightest squish is the one displayed in the photo stream above. No flip flops or sandals are allowed, for good reason. The riverbed is rocky, silty and the the cave surface is often slick. Underwater cameras are best, although the guide carries several dry packs for cameras, money and dry shirts. Your feet will be wet the entire day and socks are essential for the dry chamber area. There is a small and primitive changeroom/washroom facility where you can change into dry clothing at the end. Bring your flip flops for the ride back to San Ignacio so you can slip out of everything that is soggy and be able to enjoy a cold Belikin or rummy drink in the downtown upon your return.
$85 US each, cash preferred. Half-payment on Visa allowed.
Now listen very carefully. A wrong move on your part could cause an injury; and you are far from proper medical facilities. The guide, at the front of our single-file line of roughly 10 spelunking museum goers, gave very clear, and very precise instructions. I was right behind him, so there could be no misunderstandings... "With your left hand, grasp this edge of rock," as our guide patted the protuberance. Then, "Place your left foot here on this rock..." he said as he pointed the beam from his headlamp at a rock shimmering about one foot beneath the surface of the crisp clear water. "Then with your right foot stretch across to here," indicating the rounded point on a rock perched upon a submerged boulder, a few feet away. "And then shift your weight to your right foot as you pull yourself forward and grasp that larger boulder over there... like this..." as he quickly demonstrated, the splashing water sounding eery in the hollow sounding chamber. He then moved along further up the stream, deep within a cave, deep within the remote western jungle of Belize. But wait! Before you can go, turn around and tell the person directly behind you the instructions, and then send off a silent prayer for that unlucky one at the back of the line. A mistake here, in this "whisper down the lane" real life game, can cost you some skin or worse.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, is one of the most well known ceremonial caves in the entire world. It has been voted by National Geographic to be the #1 sacred cave to visit, and is a big draw for tourism in Western Belize. Caves were considered to be very spiritual places to the ancient Maya. As an entrance to the underworld, the Mayans would often hold ceremony and prepare offerings to their Gods, and occasionally ritual sacrifice. Deep within the ATM cave is a cavernous series of dry chambers that hold the remains of hundreds of ceramic bowls, pots, and shards which have essentially calcified over the years by the natural drippings of limestone. Rather than remove the items, the government of Belize decided to leave them in their positions, and to make the cave, and its contents, the museum. Guides must also be certified as museum curators; and clean socks are packed into the cave to be worn when you reach the inner chambers.
But this day long adventure is not an easy task. First you must be transported from your lodge, picking up other tourists and a picnic lunch along the way, and maneuver along another interminable road of packed dirt sprinkled with random gullies and holes. After arriving at a trail head you hike for about 45 mins... wait, I can just show you with pictures!
A 45 min jungle hike crosses the river 3 times,
to reach the mouth of the ATM cave.
You must be prepared to swim, and use a headlamp.
After jumping into the cool refreshing water,
you follow your guides careful lead.
The way can be tight and tricky,
and include plenty of climbing.
After about an hour we ascended to the dry upper chamber,
and were shown many calcified artifacts in our newly donned socks.
There were human sacrifices,
amidst wonderous formations.
In places the cave sparkled,
and stalagmites grew.
It was very beautiful.
1,400 years ago this teenage girl was sacrificed. She is now called the "crystal maiden".
And this is a sacrificed child.
But when times were better, it was much more common to make offerings to their Gods within pottery.
By the time you retrace your careful steps out of the cave, hike to the van, and drive back to your lodge it is time for dinner. What a magnificent day that was; and uniquely one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.