The following is a first person account of one woman’s visit to explore the mysterious cave of the Maya underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal – also known as the ATM Cave. This attraction is located in the western part of the country and is one of the more interesting places to visit.
The ATM cave is a hiking and adventure experience with the added dimension of being an educational trip for those interested in archaeology. Here you will find Maya artifacts just the way they were left by the Mayas hundreds of years ago. The cave is ranked as one of the Top Ten Caves Of The World by the National Geographic Society. National Geographic and the Discovery Channels and History have done documentaries on this spectacular cave.
The ATM cave is located in an area known as the Mountain Tapir Reserve. This is tropical jungle, so your guides will prepare you with suitable jungle hiking gear. The ATM cave is about a 45 minute drive from the nearest population centers of San Ignacio – Santa Elena, or the City of Belmopan. From the ATM site’s parking lot, expect a refreshing 40 minute hike to the the cave entrance. It is best to start the tour early in the morning when it is still relatively cool. The entrance to the cave is through 12 feet of water and for this reason the site is government administered to ensure that only experience and licensed guides take in visitors.
Tour guides will brief visitors on the history of the cave where the Maya performed human sacrifices to their gods. This a “must see” attraction in Belize. As one visitor put it: “The best way to sum up this fabulous experience is that if you go to Guatemala you must see Tikal; if you visit Egypt you have to experience the Giza Pyramids or if you go to China you have to see the Great Wall. If you come to Belize you must include ATM Tour as your number one choice of destination.”
The following is an account by a Doctoral student who visited the ATM Cave:
As a student of life and Archaeology, I have been exposed to certain aspects of civilizations and cultures that many are not familiar with. The remnants of the past, as well as the ritualistic acts that occurred throughout history, have left artifacts in places that resume the role of a sacred place .
So, when I arrived at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, I knew there were certain steps I had to take before planting my feet firmly on the ground.
As a show of respect to the culture, I made my first stop at the Belize Tourism Board to find out which agent would be conducting tours of Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. Entrance to the cave is strictly limited to certain license holders in an attempt to preserve the foundation and its holdings. (Picture below: Preparing to enter the Belize ATM Cave).
Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, otherwise known as the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, was first entered by the Mayas in AD 300-600. It was not until the late AD 700-900 that the Mayas went deeper into the cave to perform their ceremonies. The cave was officially opened to the public in 1998.
The cave houses various types of artifacts from ceramics and stoneware to the remains of skeletons. The Mayas consider Actun Tunichil Muknal a highly sacred location, enclosing the famous “Crystal Maiden,” who was thought to be a sacrifice victim. After decades of weathering and natural processes, the surface of the skeleton appears to be covered with a geological sanded finish, which gives the maiden a somewhat magical fairy-dust appearance.
How To Get There – Be Prepared
I had to make sure I was properly attired for the hike, as well as prepared with a change of clothing. No flip-flops, ladies and gentlemen; this is the jungle, remember!
Hiking boots, heavy socks, cargo pants are great, tank tops or short sleeve shirts work well, a bathing suit underneath. Remember, you’re going to get wet; it’s inevitable.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is a short 45-minute trek through the jungle in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
You will cross three streams, learning about the surrounding vegetation and history along the way. When you arrive at the entrance of the cave, you will receive the necessary tools from your tour guide to make it through the cave safely. Just remember, you will be in the cave for close to 3 hours, so make sure you are comfortable, even if that requires you to change into dry clothing.
Tip: Actun Tunichil Muknal cave takes a lot of physical energy. Make sure you drink a lot of water the morning of your trip and stretch out for at least 15 minutes. Bring a change a clothing, as well as a backup pair of shoes. Picture Below: Inside the Belize ATM Cave.
What You Will See
The cave is a maze of chambers, along with a cathedral-like area for ceremonial sacrifices. In fact, I found some slate stele (Mayan cutting blades made of rock such as slate or obsidian), which by my research, were used by the leaders to cut away flesh, allowing their blood to be an offering to the gods.
Aside from the remains of different sacrifice victims, there is also an assortment of ceramics exhibiting “kill holes” (holes deliberately drilled into the bottom of pottery by the Mayas as part of ceremonial offering to their deities), which indicate they were used for ritualistic purposes.
The ceilings are dripping with stalactites, which are a type of speleothem seen only in limestone caves. As a archaeologist, I had to resist the temptation to touch them, as it takes so much time for them to develop. It’s a show of respect to the local culture; however some travelers still can’t resist the urge.
All of the artifacts that were used on a day-to-day basis were left as they were, making it an amazing experience, seeing ancient life come alive before your very eyes.
Actun Tunichil Muknal cave went beyond my expectations as a student of life. As for the sacred nature of the site, I found the experience both gratifying and educational. I would urge anyone that is traveling to Belize to explore this wonder of nature. – Contributed by Doctoral candidate L. Axelrod.
Video Of The ATM Cave
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