Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave: What You NEED TO KNOW

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave

The ATM Cave in Belize is one of the world’s most mysterious and awe-inspiring tourist destinations. It is a historical landmark that gives us a glimpse into the advanced Mayan civilization that seeped into the supernatural. But what exactly is it that draws the most adventurous of tourists to the cave?

ATM Cave, or “Actun Tunichil Muknal”, is a sacred cave believed to have been a sacred place of worship for the Mayans from 700 to 900 A.D. The site held immense significance to Mayans as a portal to the underworld. Ancient relics and remains of human sacrifices can still be seen there today.

The rich historical and cultural significance of ATM Cave is only one aspect of this unique tourist destination. It certainly is one that will enrich our understanding of the ancient Mayan civilization and elevate our appreciation for the wonders of nature. Let’s explore this one-of-a-kind cave further.

History of Actun Tunichil Muknal

The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is undeniably a historical landmark that gives us a peek into the way of life and beliefs of the ancient Mayans who first settled in Belize. Despite the unfortunate looting that decimated the cave’s artifacts, it remains one of a few caves in the world with many ancient relics.

The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Entrance

The ancient Mayans are believed to have first explored the cave anywhere from 250 to 300 A.D. However, it was not until 700 A.D. that they started using its chambers to perform religious rites and ceremonies.

The name Actun Tunichil Muknal literally translates to “The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher”. This name gives some insight into what you’ll find within the cave. The Mayans created stone altars or sepulchers from the stalagmites that are abundant inside the cave.

On these altars, the Mayans worshiped their gods and even tried to appease them in times of trouble.

Interestingly, the Mayans also believed that caves were portals to the underworld where their gods reside. So performing their religious rituals in the ATM cave was thought to be equivalent to knocking on the gods’ door, so their requests and petitions could quickly be heard and, hopefully, answered.

Another name that locals call the cave is “Xibalba,” which literally means “Underworld”.

The Crystal Maiden

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Crystal Maiden

The journey to the cave is said by many to be an excursion to the land of the dead. Within the cave lie ancient remains; evidence of aged Mayan rituals from centuries ago. To some they are horrendous, but to others, they are simply part of a rich history and one of the few leftover indicators we have of Mayan culture.

One of the ways that the Mayans worshiped their gods and tried to earn their favor was to sacrifice humans on sacred altars. It is believed that they bound human sacrifices, killed them with a blunt object, and bled them to death.

In fact, one of the highlights of the ATM Cave tour is the Stelae Chamber, where the remains of human skeletons can be found. There are 14 skeletons in this chamber, but one of them stands out: That of the Crystal Maiden.

The Crystal Maiden is a complete and well-preserved skeleton of some believed to have been a human sacrifice. Over the course of thousands of years, the skeleton has been calcified, acquiring a crystal-like sheen that gives it both an eerie and otherworldly appearance.

While the popular belief is that the Crystal Maiden is the remains of a young female adult because of its small size, some believe the victim to be male. In fact, some local guides even refer to the skeleton as “The Crystal Prince”.

Human Sacrifices

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Pottery

Perhaps the darkest discovery about the ancient Mayan civilization is the practice of human sacrifice. These sacrifices paid no respect to age or gender with some of the youngest remains discovered belonging to children as young as a year old.

Experts believe that the Mayans sacrificed children because they were perceived as pure and more pleasing to their gods. It is unclear, however, why exactly the Mayans resorted to this practice. But it is generally believed that it was out of great hardship (such that they believed their gods cursed their crops or did not send rain).

However, another theory behind the practice is that the victims were believed to be witches that needed to be purged from society.

Regardless of the reason behind this practice, Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe believes that it came about as a result of a great deal of hardship or suffering and that it “contributed to their own demise.”

What To Expect and Interesting Facts

The journey to the ATM Cave is certainly not a breeze. It’s not an adventure that everyone can go on. As a matter of fact, if you want to go, you should be physically fit, a confident swimmer, and an experienced hiker.

If you’re planning to see the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, here’s what you should expect:

  • No shoes are allowed inside. The insides of the cave have limestone floors that need to be protected from human impact, hence this rule. Shoes are perfectly okay (and a must!) on the way, but once in the dry chamber, your shoes must come off.
  • Taking photos and videos is prohibited. The cave is still considered a sacred place and is to be thus treated with respect. So if you’re planning to go, expect that you are not going to be allowed to bring a camera or a phone with you to take photos.
  • Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe first discovered the cave in 1989. Having explored the cave and discovered its massive archaeological importance, Jaime Awe conducted the Western Belize Regional Cave Project that shed light on the cave’s cultural and historical significance.
  • ATM Cave was opened to the public in 1998. It took several years before the cave was finally opened to the public after its first modern discovery by archaeologist Jaime Awe.
  • You will see stalactites and stalagmites. Inside the cave is an abundance of stalactites and stalagmites. The ancient Mayans also used stalagmites to create the religious altars that they sacrificed humans on.
  • A licensed tour guide is required to accompany visitors. Because the cave is a sacred site with a deep cultural and historical significance, tourists are not allowed to go in without being accompanied by a licensed guide. Visits must also be scheduled ahead of time, and no walk-ins are allowed.
  • Getting to the cave is physically demanding. The journey to the cave and the experience of exploring the cave itself are pretty physically demanding. It involves a hike, swimming to and inside the cave, and squeezing through tight spaces.
  • You might find it uncomfortable if you’re claustrophobic. If you’re afraid of tight spaces or of the dark, you might find the cave a frightening place to be in.
  • Reconsider your trip if you have serious medical conditions. Because it’s an intense journey, those with heart problems or other serious medical concerns are advised not to go ahead with this adventure. It can be too taxing, which can lead to accidents or unwanted medical emergencies.
  • The trip is not all about adventure. Yes, the cave is a unique adventure that most thrill-seekers find themselves drawn to. But the cave is supposed to be more than just a thrill; visitors are expected to come not solely to have fun but to show respect for the sacred place.

Before you even schedule a trip, make sure that you’re fully ready for the adventure mentally and physically to ensure a fun and exciting experience.

What To Wear and Bring

A big part of the preparation is knowing what to wear and bring for the adventure. Going to the ATM cave involves hiking, swimming, and crossing several rivers. Plus, the entire trip (back and forth) can take up to eight hours. When you go, ensure you’re equipped and ready.

Here is a list of things that you should wear and bring:

  • Hiking shoes. These will get wet, so it’s best to wear hiking shoes that are designed to be waterproof or water-resistant and quick drying. Another tip is to wear ones that you’ve broken into, as this will be a long hike.
  • Socks. When you get to the dry chamber, you will be asked to remove your shoes, but you will be allowed to keep your socks on. Also, socks can give you better footing, so you don’t slip.
  • Extra dry footwear. Your shoes will be soaking wet by the time you get to the inside of the cave. So if you want to have dry shoes on the way back, you can bring a pair of slippers along or an extra pair of shoes (as long as they’re not too bulky or heavy).
  • Water bottle. The trip will be long, so make sure you bring enough water with you. Make sure that it’s not too heavy, though, so it doesn’t impede your movement.
  • Light snacks. Bring along a sandwich or a few packs of biscuits to munch on so you don’t get hungry.
  • Small backpack. Carry all your necessities in a small backpack. A 10L hiking backpack that fits snugly on your back is ideal as it’s small enough that it doesn’t bother you but spacious enough for all necessary items.
  • Swimming clothes. The water can be pretty deep inside the cave, so you might want to pack swimming clothes. You will also cross a few rivers, so you can stop to take a dip.
  • Change of clothes. Bring along a change of dry clothes for your way back.
  • Insect repellent. Don’t let the bugs ruin the trip for you.

ATM Cave Tour

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Tight Squeeze

Excited to go on the ATM Cave tour? No matter how much you prepare for the trip, being on the tour itself and actually being inside the cave is a totally different and awe-inspiring experience. But just to give you an idea, here’s what to expect from the tour:

Book Your Visit With a Licensed Guide

You won’t be allowed inside the cave unless you book a tour with a licensed guide. These tours are scheduled ahead of time and are done only with licensed guides for the protection of the place and the safety of the tourists.

The guides are also knowledgeable not only about the cave itself but also about the wildlife of Belize, the flora and fauna in the area, and its history and cultural significance. Listening to the guide during your trip can deepen your appreciation and give you a better understanding of the cave.

Hike From Tapir Mountain Reserve

When you embark on this journey, your first stop will be the Tapir Mountain Reserve. From here, you will go on a 45-minute hike through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. This is also where you should be given protective helmets to put on with the help of your guide.

You will pass through three streams during this hike, but don’t worry, as they are typically only knee-deep and should not be difficult to cross.

Swim Through the Mouth of ATM Cave

Once you have completed your hike, you will have reached the entrance of the cave. Here, you will have to go on a quick swim to go inside. And when you’re in, you will see a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

Explore the Cave’s Chambers and Tunnels

You will now proceed to explore the cave’s tunnels and chambers, which will mean passing through tight spaces and climbing on rocks. It’s important to maintain your balance at all times by using your arms and legs to keep your position secure.

Exploring the cave will not require serious rock climbing, though, so if you don’t have experience with that, you’re still good to go.

Get To “The Cathedral”

The highlight of the exploration of the cave is the dry chamber that’s often referred to as “The Cathedral”. This is where you will find human skeletons, sacrificial altars, and ancient Mayan tools. You will also see ceramic pots that were used for their religious rituals or offerings.

The famous “Crystal Maiden” can also be found here.

Can I Visit the ATM Cave while Exploring Belize Islands?

Yes, you can still visit the ATM Cave while exploring the top 10 Belize islands. Although the cave is inland, it’s a popular day trip from many of the islands. Just take a short boat ride to the mainland and arrange a tour to this famous archaeological site.

Final Thoughts

Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM Cave is one of the most important archaeological sites in Belize. It gives adventure-seekers and history buffs a rare glimpse into what life was like for the ancient Mayans who settled in Belize thousands of years ago and left an indelible mark that reminds us of their once-great civilization.

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