I made a special trip into the Belizean jungle this week to visit ATM. No, not where you withdraw cash, but an extensive cave system winding underneath the jungle just outside of Belmopan, Belize. This particular cave, truly named Actun Tunichil Muknal, was used by the Maya elite thousands of years ago to make offerings and sacrifices to the Gods in the underworld (Xibalba), where they believe all the Gods reside. Most notably, the cave holds the remains of ‘The Crystal Maiden’, a teenage skeleton that is calcified to the point that it sparkles like quartz.
Not being my first trip to Belize, I had heard many good things about ATM and had almost gone on more than one occasion but it just never worked out. So since I was in Belize to dive and visit the islands, I was determined not to miss it again.
I should have gone years before. By the time I made it to ATM this week, tourism had fully discovered this amazing Mayan Cave underworld and has begun to impact the ancient relics found inside.
Only two months prior, the Belizean authority responsible for preserving the cave finalized the long discussed decision to no longer allow cameras into the cave after a tourist dropped theirs onto an ancient skull that had previously been preserved in a crystallized form for thousands of years. So with that said, I won’t be able to show you this wondrous cave system via my pictures but through the pictures of others (thank you Justin and Maddy at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge!).
I had a mental picture of what entering and exploring ATM would be like, sort of like you assign a certain look to people you talk to over the phone but have never met. Not dissimilarly, ATM was nothing like my expectations. It far exceeded them in fact. I had envisioned a large round cave opening with a flat long tunnel that would eventually lead to the ancient pottery and human remains I’d be told about. That vision was about as far from the truth as you could get.
The journey began with a 30-45 minute hike into the jungle, wading across 3 rivers along the way with waist deep water at times. The cave entrance is shaped like an hour glass with an underground spring flowing from its mouth. To enter the cave we first had to walk up the creek balancing on slippery rocks and then ultimately take a plunge to swim into the cave. I’m not sure how deep the pool at the entrance of the cave is but I’m sure I couldn’t touch at my 5 foot 9 height. The water is ice cold, especially when you have just hiked through a steamy jungle. I would love to be able to tell you it felt good to jump in but it was more of a shock to the system at first.
After a short swim, only 20-30 feet or so, we could pull up onto a bank of rock along the cave wall. It’s at this point we were fitted with our lights for the trip into the depths of the cave and my vision of a flat stroll through the cave was put to rest. For the better part of the next two hours we were professional spelunkers weaving in between giant boulders, stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. At times the spaces we passed through were small enough it required twisting just right and you’d still feel the squeeze of the rocks on both sides of your body. The most memorable probably being a crevice that required you to slide your head through a space barely big enough for your neck to slide by the rugged rock face.
As bats hung and flew overhead we were wading in the chilly water with depths between ankle and neck deep. We passed rock formations that were altered by the Mayans thousands of years before to make shadows take the shape of jaguars and other animals. Imagining walking through the cave by torch light rather than flashlight, you can envision how the shapes would appear to move and dance across the cave walls.
Each time I thought we were done with the deep sections of water, we’d climb over a rock and be faced with another pool to lower ourselves into. If I learned anything during the day, it was that waterproof shoes are the worst kind of shoes to wear after submerging them in water.
Just when I was started to worry about the numbness in my toes, we began to see other flashlights in the distance above us as we reached dry rock beneath us. We had arrived at the section of cave that we had come all this way to see. To climb into this cave branch, our ‘stairs’ were a large creviced boulder that rose around 7 feet from the cave floor toward a slippery ledge above our heads. We watched as another tour group climbed down ahead of us. Crazy that they don’t really tell the tourists the extent of the climbing and truly physical fitness needed to see ATM. I knew I’d be fine climbing up. I’m always fine climbing up, its climbing down that is the kicker.
I was the first up the rock and it went easily enough until I needed to pull myself onto the ledge and throw my leg over it. At that angle gravity is pulling you backwards and I reached for the guide to be totally sure I moved in the right direction. One by one the 7 others in the tour group ascended our natural staircase as I continued to climb up the slippery ledge another 40-50 feet. Once everyone joined me, this is where we were asked to remove our shoes and walk in socked feet for the remainder of the exploration.
The rocks were still less than smooth, poking the pads of our feet with each step. As we walked forward and started to see the first remnants of pottery, the discomfort of our feet quickly faded with the awe of what we were looking at. The only modern protection for the hundreds or maybe thousands of pieces of pottery in the cave was the kind of orange tape you might see at a construction site. It simply marked the location of each artifact to ensure we were careful about each step we took.
When archeologists excavated the cave system, they labored over whether to take the painstaking effort to remove each artifact from the calcification that had happened to them over the thousand years or so they had resided in their cave tomb. Ultimately it was decided that no museum could better display the items then the one we were standing in.
We passed through a cave room known as the cathedral which is an obvious name since its bigger than most hotel banquet rooms rising multiple stories above our heads and could easily house hundreds of people. It’s amazing to be below ground but standing in an overwhelmingly large space.
We learned that the pottery was brought this cave thousands of years before full of prepared food as offerings to the Gods. Usually these offerings were meant to ensure good crop seasons and an abundance of rain. The pots were placed in spots all along the cave system, many in ceremonial positions on their sides or even upside down. One special piece of pottery displays a small animal, resembling a monkey, just under the rim of the pot. It is known as the monkey pot and is one of just four found in Central America.
We also saw the skeletal remnants of those believed to have been sacrificed. In many cases there were only piles of bones and in others partial skeletons remained together. Though these people were sacrificed, in Mayan culture, being sacrificed to the Gods had benefits for you and your family. If you were sacrificed it was believed that of the 12 levels of heaven in the afterlife, you would automatically earn a spot at the top and your family would be moved forward and possibly even earn greater social position in their current lives.
The last and star attraction is known as ‘The Crystal Maiden’ because it is the full skeletal remnants thought to be a teenage girl that over the years has calcified in a way that it sparkles. Our guide shared that in the last year, the sex of the remains has been questioned and ultimately changed. Now the remains are believed to be that of a teenage boy. I’m guessing they’ll have to change The Crystal Maiden’s name now!
So after 4 years and at least two missed opportunities I finally saw ATM and like I said, it was far more than I expected. If you’re going to Belize and have the spirit for adventure, this is one archeological site you just can’t miss. Even National Geographic recently recognized Actun Tunichil Maknal as the number one of the most sacred caves in the world. It’s also one you should see soon as I could envision it not being as accessible as it is now forever.