My Journey into the Mayan Underworld in Belize's Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
The journey into the Mayan underworld in the Cayo District is not for the weak-kneed or gutless, but if you're going to Belize, you won't want to miss a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as the "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre" — or simply the ATM cave tour as the locals call it.
This gem, tucked into the jungle in the middle of Belize in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, has been deemed the #1 Sacred Cave in the world by National Geographic. With its crystalline stalactites and stalagmites, the ATM cave is stunning to behold. Contained within are Mayan artifacts and the final resting place of the "Crystal Maiden" (more on her later) and other victims of the Mayans' ceremonial human sacrifices. The cave is home to thirteen men, women, and children, all left more or less as they were discovered in by explorers 1989. The remains are calcified, giving them a sparkly (and somewhat eerie) appearance.
But don't expect a cushy, air-conditioned tour bus to drop you off for a quick look around the place. If you want to see what's contained within, you're going to have to work for it. And maybe risk life and limb.
The Decision to Try and Conquer the ATM Cave Tour
A year ago my husband and I took our first trip to Belize. It was sort of a last-minute thing—we bought a package deal on Travelocity and didn't spend a lot of time researching the area we'd be visiting. We ended up at Jaguar Reef Resort, a charming place in Hopkins Village in the Stann Creek District. Even though it was October (the offseason in Belize) and the place was nearly deserted, they offered a wide array of off-site activities and tours every day. The ATM cave tour really intrigued us. Staff at the resort and others we met during our week there told us it was something we absolutely should not miss. We learned it involved a hike through the jungle, crossing the river multiple times, then a grueling trek through the cave. It sounded kind of cool, but some inner sense of good judgment got the best of us and we decided not to attempt it, given that we didn't really have the right shoes or clothing for such an adventure, not to mention our reservations about our lack of fitness for something so physically challenging, being in our early 50s.
A year later we were back in Belize—and prepared for the challenge. I should back up to about three weeks before our trip, when I began to panic a little, concerned that I wasn't fit enough to take this tour. Some reviewers on Trip Advisor warned that it was extremely grueling and said not to attempt it unless you're physically fit. So my darling husband bought me an elliptical at a yard sale and I went to work. (In three weeks I only managed to get up to five minutes on the blasted thing, which only increased my trepidation about the ATM cave tour.)
Getting to the ATM Cave
We arrived in Belize the first week and October, which is a wonderful time to visit there. The weather is usually fabulous (the upper 80s most days) and because it's the offseason, there aren't many tourists. The day of our ATM cave tour, we met our driver at our hotel for the van ride north on Belize's stunningly beautiful Hummingbird Highway to the Cayo District. After a quick stop at a small grocery store near the entrance to the park, we headed down a long dirt road. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a clearing in the rainforest where we were given the opportunity to use the modern(ish) restroom and changing facilities. We suited up with headlamps and life jackets and then it was time to begin our trek to the cave.
The government of Belize only allows a small number of approved tour guides to lead groups through the cave and you have to make reservations with one ahead of time. No walk-ins allowed. Groups are limited to eight, but there were only four of us (plus the guide) on the day of our tour. An adorable newlywed couple from Georgia joined our group. They were much younger than my husband and me (she was in her 20s and he in his early 30s). I determined at the outset that I was not going to be the one slowing our group down (even though I was the eldest).
The Jungle Hike
First there was a fairly easy 45-minute hike along a dirt path through the rainforest. It had been just two months since Hurricane Earl struck Belize, and the jungle showed some damage from the Category 1 storm. Trees had been sheared off and much of the path through the forest was bathed in sunlight rather than shade because of the missing trees. The easy hike was broken up by three river crossings. The water was at times neck deep, but a guide line stretched across the river helped to keep us upright. The coolness of the river felt refreshing on the humid 88-degree day. Before arriving at the entrance of the cave we stopped at a clearing in the woods to rest, guzzle some water, and down some granola bars.
Finally, we arrived at our destination! The mouth of the ATM cave was tucked into the side of a hill with a deep pool guarding the entrance. We tumbled down a massive rock into ice cold water that was flowing out of the cave and swam about 15 feet until we found our footing on some river rocks just inside the cave.
Inside the ATM Cave
Just a few feet in it started to get very dark and we were glad to have our headlamps. I was also thankful that I had decided to wear a long-sleeved spandex shirt and pants because it was very chilly inside the cave. The right shoes are essential for this trip because you'll be climbing rocks, wading and swimming through the rivers, and hiking through the jungle. My husband wore toe shoes and I wore an old pair of lightweight Sketchers, which ended up being perfect. Socks are required in order to minimize potential damage to the cave floor. Our guide kept our socks in his dry bag and distributed them when we got to the place we were required to remove our shoes.
Next came the most grueling part of the trip, the long slog into the deepest recesses of the cave, which took more than an hour. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed, thanks to a French tourist who dropped his camera on a skull and shattered it a few years ago, but it was probably for the best because I needed my hands free to keep my balance as we ventured through the treacherous cave. This hike also required me to use every ounce of concentration I could muster to keep from getting killed in the cave (I'm not really exaggerating). At one point I asked our guide what would happen if someone broke a leg inside the cave. He said that the one time it happened (that he knew of) it took them 15 hours to extract the guy from the cave. I have no doubt he was telling the truth.
The first thing you notice when you enter the ATM cave is the ice cold water rushing at you. We walked upstream the whole way in, shuffling through the murky water (neck-deep at times), or along the rocks, trying not to trip on the rocky floor of the cave. Did I mention that it's pitch black in there? There are bats flying around your head and who-knows-what in that murky water. We walked in a single-file line, following in the footsteps of our guide. At times he would say something like "there's a 15-foot drop off right here, so watch your step." The person behind him would repeat the instructions to the next person in line until everyone had received the message. We waded, swam, and crawled through the cave, at times squeezing through crevices that were so narrow we had to turn sideways. The men in the group (who were larger than the girls) had to take off their life jackets in order to squeeze through a couple of the openings.
I'm not claustrophobic, but between the utter darkness and the cramped quarters, I admit I was a little unnerved. Maybe even slightly panicked at times. At one point the thought crossed my mind that in the event of an earthquake we would all become archeological relics. Something about being in utter darkness tends to send the mind off in dark directions. I also couldn't help thinking how awful it would be to break a leg (or worse). And believe me, a catastrophic injury was a very real possibility. If this had been in the U.S. there would have been safety upgrades and strict rules to ensure visitors don't kill themselves. But the ATM cave has been left au naturel, and you hike at your own risk (with one of the goals being "don't get killed"). The rocks underfoot were slippery and uneven and at times we were required to scale waist-high boulders in one step. About 20 minutes in, my right hip began to ache with every step. But I was determined not to slow the group down and refused to ask to stop and rest.
The Mayan Sacrifices
After about 45 minutes (honestly, I completely lost track of time, so it could have been 45 hours for all I knew) we arrived at a massive boulder — at least 10-feet tall. Our guide showed us where to place our feet so we could make it to the top. Once there, we were required to leave our shoes behind for the rest of the trip and continued on in our stocking feet. The floor of the cave was mostly smooth at this point, but there were rocks every few steps that cut into my feet, even through my socks. Nevermind. I was more determined to conquer this thing with every painful step. We eventually arrived in a large "cathedral room" that was about half the size of a high school gym. Our guide explained that it was used for large gatherings as the Mayans dragged their victims (likely wearing neck irons) to their death.
This is where things began to get seriously creepy. The floor of the room was littered with skulls and partial skeletons that lay exactly where they had been discovered. Again, if this had been in the U.S. they would have been protected by glass and visitors would have been kept from getting too close by railings or barriers. But this is Belize, so the only barriers were pieces of tape on the ground showing us where to walk. We were close enough to touch the remains, but everyone in our group was respectful and just looked.
After leaving that area, we scrambled up a 15-foot wall and arrived at a large aluminum ladder. It was completely out of place in this setting and I marveled that they were able to get that thing this deep into the cave.
The Crystal Maiden
Still in our stocking feet, we climbed the ladder and arrived at our destination: the burial chamber for the famed "crystal maiden," a nearly intact complete skeleton. As it turns out, DNA tests revealed that "she" is actually a "he." This area was tiny, perhaps six feet wide and 15 feet deep. Next to the crystal maiden, we saw the skull of a young child who likely suffered from hydrocephaly or another brain disorder that resulted in an enlarged skull. That's when the horror of what we were looking at really hit me. These were living, breathing human beings who were dragged into the deepest recesses of the cave to appease the Mayan gods. I imagined the terror they must have felt knowing the fate that awaited them at the end of the ATM cave and got a chill up my spine.
Journey out of the ATM Cave
Finally, it was time to turn back. We reversed our course and headed out of the ATM cave and back to civilization. The trip out was quicker because the gushing water was behind us rather than fighting us from the front. We were nearly to the point of exhaustion, but we had to muscle through because the only other option was to die there and become part of the display. When we got back to the mouth of the cave the sunlight was blinding after having spent two hours in the darkness. We swam back to the shore and climbed up the same rock we had scrambled down at the outset. I was completely exhausted at this point and the prospect of the hike back through the steamy jungle was daunting. Somehow I managed to stay on my feet and the walk (despite the now searing pain in my hip) wasn't as difficult as I had feared. We arrived back at the changing area 45 minutes later and after changing were treated to a barbecue — Belize style — of chicken, beans and rice. There was also fresh fruit and (of course) rum punch. At some point, we walked back to the van, but I don't remember much after that. The next day everything hurt. Muscles I didn't know I had ached. But I had no regrets. The ATM cave tour was truly the adventure of a lifetime. (And I didn't die!) If you go to Belize, trust me when I say, don't miss this.
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