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.)