Women praying for fertility would give up their first born? I don't get it. If they had a baby, they were fertile.
The infertile women would PROMISE to sacrifice their first born if they were granted fertility. Many cultures had sacrifical fertiity rites. Fertility of the earth to provide abundance of food for the season. Historically, (even in the Christian myth) the first born is required for the ritual. A first born is usually first in line for inheritance of wealth, kingdoms, etc. To offer such a valuable offering guarantees (if that's possible!)favor of the gods. They were basing all their hopes on the theory, if they can have one child, they would be able to have more.
Words have power. Speak it into existence.
#450635 - 11/08/1204:45 PMRe: Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)
Actun Tunichil Muknal makes another top 10 list, this time it's on the 'eeriest' list. They get the translation wrong - cave of the stone sepulchre - but it still sounds good.
"The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre is found in Belize and houses the skeletal remains and archeological artefacts of the Maya. The most fascinating resident is the Crystal Maiden – a young girl who was the victim of human sacrifice calcified bones glitter like crystal making her all the more spooky than your average skeleton."
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.
Katie Couric Agrees Belize’s Sacred Cave is “Incredible”
American journalist and author Katie Couric joined the growing number of Actun Tunichil Muknal fans last week and is expected to be in the forefront of a wave of visitors to one of Belize’s most fascinating natural and cultural attractions, the Lodge at Chaa Creek’s marketing administrator Larry Waight said today 8 January 2013.
Mr Waight said that Ms Couric’s popular tweets will no doubt add to the growing interest in Belize’s network of ancient Maya ceremonial caves, of which Actun Tunichil Muknal, known locally as ATM, is the most highly recognised.
“ATM is a relative newcomer to Belize’s Maya attractions, but word of mouth has steadily increased interest in it in recent years,” Mr Waight said, “It’s certainly one of the most captivating things I’ve experienced anywhere, and without exception our guests return from excursions to the cave completely amazed. It’s an experience that’s difficult to put into words,” he said.
Ms Couric spent the 2013 New Year’s in Belize where she tweeted about the country’s many attractions, including the famous nurse sharks of the Belize Great Barrier Reef and her exploration of the ATM.
“Last day in Belize!! Went spelunking in the incredible ATM Cave! Wish I could have taken pics-Mayan pots, skeletons from human sacrifices!!” Ms Couric tweeted.
Mr Waight said that Ms Couric’s reaction was not uncommon. “Everybody, and I mean everybody, is blown away by the ATM. It’s impossible not to be affected by the sheer physical beauty, the ancient Maya altars and the number of ancient Maya artefacts such as jade axe heads, pottery and sacrificial instruments scattered around.
“And then, after exploring the various chambers and cathedral- like ceremonial areas, you come across the Crystal Maiden – the complete skeleton of a young woman that has over the years been crystallised so that it sparkles in the flashlight beams. Most people describe it as breathtaking, and I’d have to agree,” Mr Waight said.
The ancient Maya of Belize used Belize’s extensive network of caves, which they believed to be portals to the underworld, for worship and ceremonies, including human sacrifices. The ATM, also called “Xibalba” in Mayan and “The Cave of the Crystal maiden” was discovered by geologists and after being catalogued by archaeologists was open to the public in the late 1990s.
Due to its historical significance and fragility, entry is strictly controlled by the Belize government and it can only be accessed by specially licensed guides.
Mr Waight said that Chaa Creek’s tours to ATM are carefully organised to give visitors a comprehensive experience while preserving the site’s integrity.
“Chaa Creek owner Mick Fleming was one of the earlier visitors to the ATM, and since then he has been active in preserving the site and ensuring that all tours are very carefully conducted to make sure it remains pristine for future generations. We’re very lucky that people are allowed to access it at all, and that’s only because of the efforts of the Belize Institute of Archaeology to manage it in a responsible manner,” Mr Waight said, adding that Chaa Creek conducts special tours to the ATM and includes visits to the cave in some of the resort’s all-inclusive Belize vacation packages.
“Sometime people think I’m exaggerating when I describe the ATM, and then they go and return back even more enthusiastic than I am. So I wasn’t surprised that even someone with extensive experience like Ms Couric had the reaction she did. It’s that kind of place,” he added.
Just got done with post processing this assignment. It takes my back to my roots in adventure and travel. I did a lot of caving when I was a bit younger. ATM Cave was an absolute pleasure to photograph. I have to give a really, really, big thanks to Jamaal Crawford at PACZ Tours for inviting me and Jaime Awe at NICH for making this possible. What a great way to start off the new year!
Ali Carr Troxell visits the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, a noted Maya archeological site. Read about her trip here and then check out her list of 10 must-have pieces of gear for a perfect Belizean expedition.
The skies are gray when we arrive in Belize—the season lingering somewhere between wet and dry, the only two seasons this country knows. It’s mid-January and a group of us—journalists from all types of publications: New York fashion blogs, outdoor adventure magazines—are here to test the latest products from Helly Hansen, Cascade Designs, Quiksilver, and, surprisingly, Microsoft. As a professional gear tester, it goes without saying that I’ve also brought a spectrum of previously received samples to test so that I can take advantage of the spring-like weather while it snows back home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We’re here to explore the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or the ATM cave as it’s known to the locals, who guide tourists on multiple trips a day. We arrive by bus to a parking lot after a long, bumpy ride down an unmarked dirt road from the town of San Ignacio. We’ve been staying at Ka’ana, a collection of modern, tropical bungalows with pathways lit by candles at night. From the bus windows, the vegetation is so thick on either side, it makes me think of what it must be like to bushwhack through the Amazon like in the recent New York Times bestseller Lost City of Z.
From the parking lot, we are asked to leave all cameras behind and wear clothes we are willing to get wet. We have an hour-long hike ahead of us but stream-crossing here means fording a waist-deep river. We hike through the jungle, trees forming a canopy overhead—I’m expecting to see a monkey en route but we don’t. At one point, we stop to watch a line of cutter ants carrying chunks of leaves larger than themselves along an ant highway. Smaller ants are riding the leaves their bigger relatives—or so we imagine—are carrying. We start to piece together a fantasy ant world. “Faster, dad, faster,” the little ant prods its larger, leaf-carrying parent, we say.
The entrance to the cave is straight out of Indiana Jones. Deep turquoise water pools into the cave; ferns, fronds, and other fauna decorate the entrance from the outside; and a peek inside reveals Disneyland-size boulders clinging to the ceiling, looking ready to drop. Our guide prompts us to swim across the first pool to a ledge about 10 feet into the cave where we’ll turn on our headlamps. From there, the water level ranges from ankle deep to full-submersion as we work our way deeper into the cave. For the most part, it’s largely open, cavernous, and the only times it gets hairy are when giant boulders have created blockades. In instances like this, our guide leads us through sometimes neck-size passages, telling us which way to turn our bodies. It’s exhilarating. Shimmering stalactites hang from the ceiling and coat certain walls. Bats huddle in tiny alcoves. Again, I’m brought back to Disney and am ready for a mechanical, gold-toothed Johnny Depp to start singing “Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate’s life for me!” around the next corner. It’s depressing that that’s what I’m thinking about.
Eventually, we scramble up a rock face on one side of the cave and walk into a ballroom-sized cavern with a stalactite for a chandelier. Our guide tells us this is where the Maya people performed sacrificial ceremonies and as our eyes start to scan the ground, there are clay pots—mostly in pieces—everywhere. Many of them are turning to dust and becoming one with the ground; others are bloated and white with calcification from water flowing over them time and time again. Our guide explains that these were the vessels, filled with blood, the Maya would offer to the gods of the underworld—where, in their spiritual beliefs, the Maya would pass before their version of heaven. We move through the ballroom, past more clay pots—terra cotta-colored, dark brown, black—until we come to the first of three skulls. The skulls are unusually shaped—pancaked across the forehead, the crown reaching taller than normal. They’re oddly reminiscent of the shape you would imagine when asked to picture an alien—the iconic, guitar pick head. Beyond the third skull, which has a giant hole in the forehead thanks to a camera-toting tourist (thus the no camera rule), is a complete skeleton. It lays on the ground undisturbed—skull, neck, shoulders, arms, ribs, spine, pelvis, thighs, shins, ankles, and feet in perfect, museum-like preservation.
Our guide tells us that experts have been through here and come up with theory after theory about this 1,100-year-old complete skeleton. The most popular is that she is an 18-year-old girl, her bones calcified with a shimmer earning her the nickname the “Crystal Maiden.” But they are just theories. No one will ever know for sure.
Looking around, I feel blessed to have seen this pocket of history and its relics. They won’t be here for long, their physical remnants quickly returning to their original state: sand and dust. They’re too fragile to be moved for preservation’s sake. They would simply blow away in the wind. It’s crazy to think about them not existing in years to come. I’m also grateful for countries like Belize, without safety regulations like the United States. Had this been on our soil, there would be a handrail along the entire cave, floodlights, a paved walkway even. The mystery would be lost to some degree.
We exit the cave the same way we came in, through neck-size openings, swimming at parts and walking at others. When we reach the mouth, kelly green ferns fringe its edges, framed against a backlit sky. We take turns jumping off the ledge into the deep pool at the entrance over and over, tiny silver fish winking at us in the daylight. None of us want to leave.
Hiking through the jungle on the way to Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Trekking through Actun Tunichil Muknal (“ATM”), also known
as Xibalba and the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, is one of the more memorable
experiences we have had while traveling.Belize has a wealth of ancient Mayan sites as well as adventure activities.Belize’s ATM cave tour is a combination of
The caves can only be visited with specially licensed tour companies.We chose Mayawalk Tours, the first company
ever to lead tours through the ATM caves. Tour groups are small, consisting of
six to eight people.
The hike hasn't even started and we're getting wet. This adventure involves hiking, swimming, and caving.
We were picked up at our hotel in San Ignacio in the morning
and driven to the Tapir Mountain Reserve.The drive included some off-roading in the small school bus.The adventure started with a long hike
through the jungle which included fording the river four times.We then arrived at the cave entrance.There is a deep pool of water at the entrance
which we had to swim across to enter the cave.
Cave Entrance - Our Guide Rolando of Mayawalk Tours - Fish in the Clear Water
Once in the cave, we walked over a mile, always in water
varying in depth from ankle deep to armpit deep.There were beautiful stalagmite formations
that looked as if they were covered in glitter.We saw small bats in the cave and tiny fish in the water.In addition to trudging through water, there
were small crevices to slide through and rocks to climb.
Examples of what is involved trekking through the ATM caves. These pictures were kindly provided to us by another couple from our tour.
At one point we all turned off our headlamps and just stood
for minutes in pitch blackness in the center of the earth.We had a wonderful guide, Rolando, who was
very passionate about his Mayan heritage and the history of the cave.Rolando explained to us that the Mayans
believed the stalactites were tree roots and the cave was the underworld.It was thought when someone died they had to
go through the steps of the underworld to get to heaven; they had to go through
the roots of the tree to the top.The
Mayans used the cave as a place of worship.It was fascinating to imagine the Mayans traveling through the
caves.We were worming our way through
in hiking shoes and wearing headlamps.The Mayans walked through these caves holding torches, carrying babies
and large earthenware pots with offerings and transporting animals to sacrifice.
A beautiful example of pottery in the Main Chamber.
We reached our final destination, the Main Chamber, the
location of the Crystal Maiden.We had
to take off our shoes and climb up 60 feet of rock in our socks.In the Main Chamber, broken pottery is
littered across the floor, embedded.There are also scattered skulls and bones.We were able to walk amongst the
artifacts.At the back of the chamber,
roped off, was the Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a teenage girl whose bones
sparkle from calcification.
Crystal Maiden and Other Bones and Skulls in the Main Chamber
When visiting the Main Chamber, be respectful.It is remarkable to be allowed into the cave
and so close to ancient artifacts.This
would never be allowed in the United States.But this great privilege is accompanied by great responsibility.There are artifacts and bones all over the
floor that must be carefully navigated.In
fact, as of May 4, 2012, visitors are no longer allowed to bring cameras into
the cave without special permission.This is because a visitor to the cave accidentally dropped their camera
on one of the skulls, causing a small section to be broken.I am sure this was completely accidental and that
the individual is horrified that it happened.But visitors need to ensure no more unfortunate incidents occur so the
cave does not become closed off to visitors completely.
Speaking of respectful visitors, I’d like to share a story
from our day of just the opposite.Have
you ever been on a group tour that had that one guy?You know the one I’m talking about.Everyone in our small group was fantastic
except one person.He was traveling
alone and could not stop bragging about how awesome he was and all of the
amazing skydiving things he had done.First
he was supposed to meet our group at a certain time but was late, making us all
wait.He was picked up by a guide at the
airport, late, and insisted on being taken to a rental car place immediately
for no apparent reason.Then he needed a
food break and later a bathroom break.Then when he finally met up with us he was yelling at the man who had
picked him up.At the beginning of the
trail he needed to use the bathroom again, and then took his sweet time getting
ready for the hike.He talked about
himself so much he even wore out this nice Canadian couple in our
group.He also had absolutely no
respect.As we walked carefully through
the cave, Rolando requested we all be watchful and follow his footsteps and not
roam around the cave.This man would not
listen, even after being politely reminded repeatedly.He disregarded Rolando and hopped around the cave
over precious artifacts. Don’t be that guy.
It's so sparkly in the Main Chamber!
Mayawalk Tours is a family owned and Eco-friendly
company. We booked two different tours with them and loved both.The Actun Tunichil Muknal tour takes a full
day and is moderately strenuous.We
were told to bring hiking boots, bug spray, an extra pair of socks for entering
the Main Chamber, a change of clothing and shoes for the drive back, a liter of
water, snacks, a backpack, swimsuit, and camera. There is an area near the cave where we stored
our backpacks, and Rolando had a waterproof bag to hold everyone’s cameras.