Journey to the ancient underworld of the Maya in one of Belize’s most decorated cave systems filled with relics from the past and remains of actual human sacrifices. If you love adventure, excitement and mystery Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) delivers the goods!
An early morning start takes you through the village of Teakettle in the Cayo District of Belize to the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. The drive lasts about 45 minutes passing through remote ethnic settlements, beautiful farmlands filled with corn and orange orchards that leaves you thinking, what in the world is the entrance to the Maya underworld doing in such a beautiful place?
Upon arriving at the vehicle parking area your guide prepares you for the short 30 minute hike to the cave’s entrance. It is advisable to wear an excellent pair of hiking shoes and a nice pair of socks that you don’t mind getting dirty to ensure your comfort along with comfortable clothes such as a T-shirt and shorts. You will be warned to leave all cameras, cell-phones and picture taking devices behind as they have been banned due to past incidents involving damaging of artefacts. Although this is disappointing, I guarantee what you will see in the cave will remain in your memories forever!
The hike snakes along under the canopy of the trees that affords you glimpses of wildlife in their natural habitats and even takes you through ankle deep stream crossings to cool your feet off, all the while your guide explaining the history of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
You will arrive at a camping/lunch area where your guide will ready the gear to enter the cave. Ensure that your hiking shoes are tied tight, your helmet is comfortable on your head and that your headlight is bright and in excellent working condition. If everything is in order you proceed to find one of the most breathtaking sights you will ever see- The entrance to Maya Underworld!
Beautiful is an understatement! From the crystal clear blue waters of the natural pool, the hour-glassed shaped curve of the rocks, to the incredible canopy of the trees up above, it resembles an oasis from your wildest imaginations. Still, it does not prepare you for what you will meet inside!
To enter the cave you must swim through the pool where you will be immediately plunged into darkness upon immerging from the cold waters (If you cannot swim ask your guide for a life-vest so you can float across the pool). Turn on your headlights and start taking in the natural architecture of the cave’s interior. You have now entered Xibalba (Maya name for underworld)!
Your guide then takes you through the cave where you will have to wade through water, climb over rocks and squeeze through tight places. It leaves you wondering why would the Maya go to all this trouble to leave these relics behind? Their beliefs in leaving sacrifices and performing rituals for their Gods were always for a great purpose. Whether it was praying for rain or calling on the spirits for aid, the deeper the Maya travelled into the cave to perform these rituals, the greater the problem they wanted to solve.
After snaking your way over and through the rocks you will climb up to a cavern called The Cathedral, filled with Mayan artefacts and even human remains. Here, you have to take off your shoes and walk around in your socks (or barefoot if you don’t want to dirty your socks) to prevent damaging the cave’s interior and most importantly the artefacts that litter the floor.
The interior of The Cathedral leaves you lost for words. It is better to witness it for yourself than to explain everything there is to see.
Your guide will explain what archaeologists thought was the purpose of each ritual. Depending on who your guide is, you may get an anthropological analysis as well. The Maya were very meticulous on where they placed their artefacts. Some were placed to mirror various star constellations or at the foot of huge boulders and rock formations believed the be the throne of the deity they were praying to. Everything again, done for a specific purpose.
The last thing you will see is of course, the human remains of the “Crystal Maiden” a young girl sacrificed for some great cause over a thousand years ago. Spotting your light on her reveals a sparkling glow due to calcification, leaving the impression that she is almost frozen in time.
After hearing a brief explanation about the “Crystal Maiden” you then trek back through the cave the way you came in. Your guide has left one last little adventure for you, that is, if your heart is up to it. After climbing back down from The Cathedral you will once again wade through the stream and weave your way through the rocks. After entering a small cavern he will ask if you would like to take the next 300 or so feet of the journey in complete darkness.
The experience, if you decide to walk in complete darkness, will be amazing. The guide of course, knows his way like the back of his hand and will steer you every step of the way to ensure your safety. It is a completely flat walk so you don’t have to worry about climbing over or through any rock formations. But being in the darkness heightens your other senses and you might experience things you never did while coming in the first time. After the short walk your guide will tell you to turn on your lights and continue the journey back out of the underworld. You will then have time to eat lunch and rest a little before hiking back to parking area and making your way back to civilization.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave is probably the most exciting and mysterious cave tour you will experience here in Belize. If you love culture and learning the ways of the ancient Maya you will appreciate this experience . It is a must-do tour in the beautiful country of Belize.
Details and Tips
Departure: 8:00 am
Duration: Full day
Fitness: Moderate to good. Some flexibility a plus.
Attire – T-Shirt or Long sleeved shirt, shorts, comfortable socks and a sturdy pair of hiking shoes (not necessarily boots).
What To Bring Along:
Extra pair of clothes, water, insect repellent. Lunch provided.
Children under 10 are not allowed to do this tour.
No cameras allowed in the cave!