Deep in the jungle of western Belize, near the Guatemalan border, past flowing rivers and thick vegetation is the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, or ATM Cave.
ATM Cave is a Mayan archeological site with more than a dozen skeletal remains and many pottery artifacts, laid out just as the Mayans left them, for remarkably up-close viewing.
The cave is best known for the "The Crystal Maiden", the skeleton of an adolescent thought to be a sacrifice victim, whose bones have been calcified to a sparkling, crystallized appearance.
"The Crystal Maiden" was originally thought to be a teenage girl, now thought to be a teenage boy.
Yes, you are that close to the remains!
This was perhaps the most surreal experience for me in Belize.
When you enter the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave you are able to see the human remains and artifacts exactly as they were left by the Mayans thousands of years ago.
Items are not strategically placed in a museum to re-enact what life was like for the Mayans a thousand years ago. There is no artificial air conditioning, no metal ropes, no gift shop to detract from this experience. It's authentic.
Additionally, it's an adventure to reach the site. You must swim through rivers, hike through rough, tight and often scary cave terrain to the remains, making you feel like Indiana Jones!
I had the good fortune of participating the almost spiritual experience of ATM Cave with Maya Walk Tours.
I use the word spiritual because you feel completely connected to the environment, the culture, the history and the struggle of the Mayans. Your senses are tethered to the experience, the same (or similar) experience the Mayans had thousands of years ago when they entered the same cave. You feel the solid, rocky cave beneath your feet. You see the dense, moist are floating around you as if you're in outer space. It's sacred, pure magic.
Of the several tour agencies that can guide you through the cave, Maya Walk was by the far the most professional and knowledgeable. Additionally, they were kind enough to share their professional photos of the cave and jungle hike with me, taken before the photography ban* was set in place.
*Note: In 2012 a visitor dropped their camera on one of the remains, and therefore you cannot take any photography devices into the ATM cave. When traveling, please don't be that person. Be extremely mindful of yourself and your actions, and the affects they have on the world and people for years to come.
FUN FACT: National Geographic listed Actun Tunichil Muknal as #1 on their list of Top 10 Sacred Caves.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Experience
ATM Cave is a 16 mile drive from the nearest town of San Ignacio, the latter half of the drive is rather bumpy, traversing harrowing roads.
Once the shuttle has parked, you trek an additional 3 miles through the jungle, following the river. During the hike, you immediately enter the water, and continue to wade through the river two more times before you reach the mouth of the cave.
Exploring ruins of the Mayan underworld in Belize is not like visiting the ruins of France, Italy or Greece. The sites are in remote places, demanding stamina and agility.
You have to trek through dense jungle and rivers. You have to climb through narrow, rocky spaces, sometimes ascending massive tricky rock formations. You have to hold your breath and swim through tunnels. For these reasons, the sites remain authentic and feel immensely rewarding.
It's a lovely and mild walk in the jungle, surrounded by greenery and fascinating plants, like the give-and-take palm (Crysophila stauracantha).
This palm is given the name give and take because it offers many benefits, such as the ability to turn it's leaves into a functional broom. Additionally, it's prickly thorns were once used for cleaning teeth. However, it "takes away" if you touched the thorns you would be injured. Yet the sap from the thorn can also be used to heal, thus again giving you benefits.
Once you've reached the mouth of the cave, you swim in roughly 40 meters to land then continue to trek on land and through the water, spending approximately 3 hours inside of the cave.
The ATM cave is not only beautiful geologically, with its' stunning crystalline stalactites and stalagmites, but also historically, as the cave is a living natural museum of ancient Mayan artifacts, as well as a sacred burial place.
Mayans believed that caves were the homes of gods, particularly the fertility gods and rain gods. They believed that since caves are so full of rain or water (the substance of life), you can literally see the particles of water in the air, that the gods of these elements must reside here.
Sacrifices in the ATM Cave
The Mayans practiced blood letting rituals and sacrifices in the caves to appease the rain gods.
It is widely held that the reason for these rituals were a severe drought, threatening the survival of the Mayan populations.
Blood letting rituals were conducted with obsidian and stingray spines. Artifacts closely resembling obsidian and stingray spines were found at an alter inside the cave.
Mayans pierced their tongues, thumbs and even the foreskin of their penis' with obsidian and stingray spines. The blood from these wounds would drip onto parchment paper, then they would burn the paper. Their blood, their life force, would rise up to the gods with the smoke.
It is believed that the Mayans graduated to sacrifice when the drought did not end. First sacrificing men, then women, then children. You can see six of these sacrificed remains in the main chambers.
History of the ATM Cave
Mayans began to take hold of Central American around 2500 BC. In the tenth century, the Mayans collapsed.
The jungle swallowed the temples whole. The only way modern day peoples and archaeologists could discover the temples was to spot unusual mounds or hills.
Belize is the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization. Now home to roughly 300,000 people, making it one of the least densely population countries in the world, but was once home to one million people.
FUN FACT: There are more ancient buildings in Belize than modern houses.
It's still a mystery as to their demise. Some believe it was due to brutal warfare, others believe natural disasters like drought and earthquakes, and for some, the answer lie in the Mayan calendar. This calendar may have predicted their demise in the tenth century, and it ended in the year 2012. Many believed that 2012 would be the apocalypse, or perhaps it was just the end of an era in the precession of the equinox.
Spirit science aside, Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is surely not to be missed when you visit Belize.
Another very sincere thank you to Maya Walk for both the incredible tour of the ATM Cave and the rights to use their images as no one is allowed to bring any photography devices into the cave after the 2012 incident mentioned above.
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