Actun Tunichil Muknal: Journey to the Maya Underworld
Traveler, Elizabeth Coughlan, shares some of her experiences exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) cave in Belize. Learn a little about the logistics, the how-tos and what to expect. I can tell you from personal experience, you can prepare all you want for this tour, but there is no way to predict what the journey to this archaeological treasure will mean to you. I'll try and avoid sentimentality, but the ATM cave is exceptional and dramatic. It pulses with energy -- its intriguing history is easily rivaled by its surprising beauty. I had the privilege to explore ATM in 2005, and it is still stands out as one of the most memorable experiences I have ever encountered in my travels.
By Elizabeth Coughlan
Our tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize was a truly amazing experience, and not for the faint-hearted! Although you don't have to be an experienced rock climber to explore the cave, you do need to be in good shape to cope with the ruggedness of the terrain. But we wouldn't have missed it for anything!
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (Cave of the Stone Sepulcher) was, and is, a sacred place for the Mayas. They possibly thought that caves led to the underworld (Xibalba), and were places of sacrifice and religious ceremonies to the gods there. The site was excavated between 1996 and 2000 and about 200 pottery pieces and 14 skeletons were discovered. Many of these remain in the cave today, and excavation continue, making it a living museum.
The ATM cave is located in Belize's 6,700-acre Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, and due to its historical significance and fragility, only a few tour companies are licensed to take trips there. We were advised to wear shorts and T-shirts with socks and closed-toe shoes or boots and to take extra clothing to change into at the end of the tour. You're going to get wet on this adventure. Swim suits are not necessary, but quick-dry clothing is recommended. It was also impressed upon us that, for our own safety, we had to comply with the guide's instructions and keep with the group at all times.
We left San Ignacio at 8:30 a.m. and drove for about 45 minutes, until we arrived at the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Once there, Carlos and Jaime, our guides, gave us helmets, dry bags and lunch packs in preparation for our trek through the jungle. Our trek took us over three lots of river, through knee-deep water and over slippery rocks, but it wasn't really hard going. As we hiked, Jaime and Carlos told us about various plants on the way, accompanied by the all-too-human screeches of the howler monkeys. Apparently, there also tapir, jaguar, silky anteaters and white-tailed deer in the jungle, but, unsurprisingly, we didn't see anything as we crashed about on the uneven ground. We did see lots of termites though, and some of our party even ate some, at Jaime's prompting. Yuk!
After about an hour, we arrived at the encampment, in front of the entrance to the cave, where we ate lunch and divested ourselves of everything but our cameras and the clothes we were wearing. The hourglass-shaped entrance to the cave is filled with blue-green water, shimmering among the moss-covered rocks and lush jungle foliage. We divided into two groups and, helmets on and cameras in the dry bags, we ventured into the water and the darkness of the cave. After the heat of the jungle, it was refreshing, although rather eerie as only our headlamps lit our way ahead. Tiny fish nibbled at our legs and suddenly there was a great fluttering of wings as our shrieks disturbed the bats from their sleep; we were grateful for the helmets!
After the short swim, we climbed out onto dry land and clambered up over the rocks. Our headlamps flashed around the cave as we ducked and dove, picking out the stalactites and stalagmites and white flowstone hanging like drapes. For about 2 hours, we slithered in and out of water as we slowly progressed through the cave, until we reached a large dry cathedral-like cavern. Here, we had to take off our shoes and carry on in our socks to preserve the floor of the cave from damage by the oil in our skin and because, for the local people, this is still a sacred place.
This was the ancient place of sacrifice for the Mayas. Bits of broken pottery, dating back a thousand years, littered the floor. In the light from our headlamps, we glimpsed the occasional skull and the remains of 6 of the 14 skeletons already discovered by archaeologists. Jaime then led us up a rickety ladder to a separate cavern where the skeleton of the "Cristal Lady" lay, so-called because the dripping calcite has coated her bones. She is sprawled on the floor, with one leg akimbo, and is believed to have been about 16 to 19 years of age at her death. Hers is the only female skeleton - all the others are male. Archaeologists believe that she was sacrificed to Chac, a god of the underworld, to ask him for rain during a time of drought.
By this time, we were quite cold and tired and still had the return journey to do. There was no other way out, however, and the journey back I was grateful for the time to reflect. Everyone was quiet and thoughtful. We had seen something quite extraordinary. We finished our adventure exhausted and with a few acquired minor scrapes and bruises, but we had loved every minute. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat!