Note: Bringing cameras into this cave is strictly forbidden so I have exactly zero photos from this excursion because a tourist dropped one on an ancient skull. That being said, I have used the power of google to provide you some snapshots of the trip to the cave (sources provided, of course).

A couple years ago, my wife and I got a chance to go to Belize. There’s a lot to share about the experience (why we chose Belize, what we did in the jungle, what we did on shore, etc. and I’ll touch on these topics later), but I wanted to focus in on one particular day when we visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.

As one of the top things to do in Belize (and one of the most sacred caves in the world), I made sure we allocated an entire day (as suggested) to explore this cave. I found out that you can only enter this cave with a licensed cave guide and the tour goes from 8am until 5pm. Each guide can bring in up to 8 guests and there are only 20 or so guides, so I called a couple weeks before we got into Belize to reserve a spot for my wife and me. The good news: Belize was a British colony, and consequently, their official language is English. The bad news: the culture in Belize doesn’t believe in planning. That’s right. Planning is not part of their lifestyle. When I first called, our conversation went something like this:

A couple years ago, my wife and I got a chance to go to Belize. There’s a lot to share about the experience (why we chose Belize, what we did in the jungle, what we did on shore, etc. and I’ll touch on these topics later), but I wanted to focus in on one particular day when we visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.

As one of the top things to do in Belize (and one of the most sacred caves in the world), I made sure we allocated an entire day (as suggested) to explore this cave. I found out that you can only enter this cave with a licensed cave guide and the tour goes from 8am until 5pm. Each guide can bring in up to 8 guests and there are only 20 or so guides, so I called a couple weeks before we got into Belize to reserve a spot for my wife and me. The good news: Belize was a British colony, and consequently, their official language is English. The bad news: the culture in Belize doesn’t believe in planning. That’s right. Planning is not part of their lifestyle. When I first called, our conversation went something like this:

Me: Can I reserve a spot to go to the ATM cave on [this date]?

Guide: Yea, just give me a call the night before.

Me: Well, I wanted to make sure I could reserve a spot so I don’t spend a day doing nothing.

Guide: Yea, just give me a call the night before.

Me: But… I’m trying to plan out my trip …

Guide: Yea, just give me a call the night before.

Me: Sure. Okay. I’ll give you a call then.

Not being able to get through to the guy, I left it at that. (Later I found out that there are companies that specifically cater to Americans that need everything planned. The cost is usually 1.5x of what you would pay if you just talk to your hotel).

After not having planned anything other than a place to sleep (as a obsessive planner, this made me incredibly uncomfortable), we landed in Belize and got to our hotel in San Ignacio by late afternoon. On our way in, the hotel front desk (if you could call it that) asked if we needed to book any tours during our stay. I jump on it and say we want to go to the ATM cave and hope its not to late to sign up. Without missing a beat, she picks up her phone, calls some guy, and then tells me he will be here at the hotel tomorrow at 8am to pick us up. (Hotel charges us 80 USD per person; compare that with $110 or $125).

The next morning, my wife and I are ready and waiting. A guy shows up in a jeep and introduces himself as Luis. As I get into his car, I can’t help but notice there is not a single sign that this guy is legit. I can’t find a company logo; I can’t even find a simple identification (the ones you would typically find in the backseat of a cab). In contrast, in our walk around town the night before, we saw plenty of tour companies that appeal to the American crowd (some semblance of a company, a number of people working the desks, a bunch of brochures, etc.). Anyway, its a bit too late to complain (what would I even say), and plus, this guy is real friendly (which should never be a reason not to be suspicious).

We hop in his car and he’s chatting us up, telling us about the history of the country and his town. Occasionally, he will pick up the phone and add clients to his tour group. At 8am, we were his only clients for the day. By the time we get to the park where the cave is located, he’s gotten a group of 8.

We meet up with the others (if I recall correctly, I believe there were 4 groups making up a total count of 8) and start heading over to the cave. It’s a mile or two to hike up the mountain and while we’re going, I realize our tour guide doesn’t have his shoes on. Turns out, he forgot to pack it this morning and decided just to go barefoot. Now, this trail is not what you would expect in the US: it isn’t paved; it isn’t clean; at times, it isn’t even clear where to keep going. And this guy is just bare-footing it through an entire mile hike, plus all the spelunking, and then an entire mile hike back.

Anyway, we wade across three rivers (actually its one big river that crisscrosses down the mountain). Each time you cross it, there’s a big rope you can hold onto for balance (moss is super slippery) and you go about waist deep in the water. Despite all of us trying our best not to get wet, we later find out getting wet is just part of the deal. After an hour hiking at a leisurely pace, we arrive at the entrance of the cave.

Before we venture into the cave, the guide launches into the historical significance of caves in the Ancient Mayan Culture. It was believed that there were 13 layers of the upper level (what we would call heaven), 1 layer of the middle level (our physical realm), and 9 layers of the lower level (i.e. hell). The caves were the entrance to the underworld. Before reaching the heavens after their death, they believed they had to endure the 9 layers of the underworld to become pure.

Getting into the cave can be difficult if you don’t know how to swim, as you’re expected to swim through the mouth of the cave.

Once we get in, its clear that if you’re not capable of getting through a simple obstacle course, you won’t be making it in the cave. For instance, there are a lot of slippery surfaces you need to traverse, crevices you need to squeeze through, and ledges you need to climb over.

The first potion of the cave, we’re walking mostly in knee-deep water and the views to see are largely limited to stalactites, which are a type of speleothem seen only in limestone caves. There are some Mayan artifacts here and there, but these are only remnants of what used to be because during the rainy seasons, the bottom portion of the cave would often get flooded.

During this portion, we are instructed to be very careful for a number of reasons. First, since the rocks are slippery and there could be crevices you could get stuck, we had to make sure to watch our step. In fact, Luis told us the previous major injury was due to a person being reckless and jumping off a small ledge only to slip and break his ankle. Second, the minute amount of oils on our hands can easily disturb the natural process of rock formation. We were asked not touch any of the rocks (unlike this woman in the photo!).

We also had to swim through a number of crevices that would make any claustrophobic cringe.

As we dive deeper and deeper into the cave, we were told that from the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. While the reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, scholars have developed several competing theories having to do with a mixture of overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare, and drought. Whatever the case was, it seems the more desperate the civilization became, the more they sacrificed to the gods. The deeper you traverse into the cave, the more extreme the rituals seem to become.

After about an hour of wading through the water, we hit the end of the wet chamber and arrive at the dry chamber, where we climb up a rock (looks like a frozen waterfall) and into an upper shelf of the cave.

At the top of the ledge, we are required to take our shoes off to help preserve the artifacts found in the upper portion of the cave.

Once in the upper portions, we started seeing more and more Mayan sacrificial artifacts. Given the only recent discovery of this cave (early 1990s), these artifacts were found the way they were left hundreds of years ago. The most common artifacts were pots (mostly broken) filled with offerings such as corn. These pots were all broken, supposedly to release the spirit.

As we continue to climb through the cave, we started to see skeletal remains. A total of 14 skeletons have been discovered – 7 adults and 7 children. While there is no certainty, our guide suggested most of these remains were once willing folks sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the Mayan civilization.

Even though we were in the upper chamber of the cave, this part of the cave had gone through several floods, evident by the way the skeletal remains now lie on the ground. There were also some other distinct ways the skeletons lie that gave us clues as to how the bodies ended up there; for instance, one of these remains seemed to have been decapitated at one point, given the distance between the rest of the body and the skull. We also saw a skull that had two missing front teeth and was told that was the skull onto which a tourist dropped his camera.

When we reached the end of the tunnel, we got to see the famous Crystal Maiden (now thought to be a teenage boy) who has been perfectly preserved because of her position high up in the cave where her room was only partially flooded. Because it has been only partially flooded her bones have never separated, but instead calcified over the years, making her sparkly.

After seeing the famous Crystal Maiden, we slowly worked our way back out the cave and back down the hiking trail to the car. We changed into some dry clothes and was escorted back to our hotel in San Ignacio for a well earned rest.

Picture Sources

Hike to the cave: Source
Entrance to ATM Cave: Source
ATM Entrance Swimming: Source
Wading through the cave: Source
ATM Big Cave Hall: Source
Wading through the cave: Source
Squeezing through the rocks: Source
Climbing through the cave: Source
No shoes: Source
Mayan Artifacts: Source
Crystal Maiden: Source


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