If you’re planning to travel to Belize, you shouldn’t miss the incredible Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (often abbreviated as the ATM Cave) in the Cayo District, not far from the tourist hub of San Ignacio.
One part natural wonder with stalagmites and stalactites and crystals glittering everywhere, one part archaeological site with the remains of human sacrifices and broken bits of pottery, the ATM Cave offers something for everyone – at least, for those who aren’t too claustrophobic or squeamish to discover it for themselves!
This gorgeous cave is considered by National Geographic to be one of the most sacred caves in the world due to its past as an important Mayan religious site.
As visiting the cave independently is dangerous to both yourself and the cave, you must go with a guided ATM cave tour, who will explain the historical significance of the cave to the Mayans and its dozen-plus human sacrifices that have been found here, as well as keep you safe during the tour.
To get to the ATM Cave is no easy feat, which involves a 45-minute long walk through the jungle with multiple river crossings, some with water as deep as your waist (there is a rope to help you along and the current is not very strong).
You are asked not to wear any sunscreen or bug spray, as this is a very sensitive ecological and archaeological site.
However, once you reach the mouth of the cave, that’s when the adventure truly begins, as your group (no more than 8 people led by a certified guide) must swim into the darkness of the cave with nothing but your headlamps as a beacon.
There are many narrow slips in the cave that you must navigate by angling or contorting your body and several stretches where you must swim in near total darkness.
All in all, you have to maneuver roughly 700 meters into the cave until you reach the larger inner chambers where the archaeological site begins.
You’ll have to climb up a slippery rock to the upper level of the cave, where a natural atrium of sorts opens up, where the minerals and crystals glitter in the beacon of your headlamps.
Here is where you’ll find the pottery shards, which have been broken on purpose in a death rite, as the Mayans believed that by breaking the pottery you could free the soul to go onto the afterlife.
You’ll also find the remains of several human sacrifices, who were often members of the nobility – or even children – as the Mayans considered being sacrificed a great honor.
You’ll be able to see bone fragments and skulls from some of the remains, and at the end of the tour you’ll see one of the most impressively preserved skeletons of all: the so-called “Crystal Maiden” (whom archaeologists now believe was actually a male), a nearly full skeleton completely encased in glittering crystals which have accumulated from minerals in the water over the centuries.
It’s an impressive sight, and well worth the whole caving adventure for – a true can’t-miss adventure trip of a lifetime.
Written by Allison from Eternal Arrival