Journey Into the Underworld: ATM Caves

The rains have stopped, the land is dry, crops have blown away and your people are starving to death. The Rain God is not playing the game but you know where he lives, you take pots to please him but still the soil is parched. You must take him something more precious, something pure and more valuable than any riches. You must take him the life of a child.

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A skull found inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave

I first saw the article about the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave when somebody shared a link on Facebook by National Geographic magazine and I thought “Wow, I have to see this”. The most spectacular sacred cave in the world rich in history and complete with sacrificial remains. One of the most fascinating things found was a full skeleton in perfect and complete form referred to as “The Crystal Maiden” due to the calcium deposit long settled and shimmering on top of the bones. When our little family dispersed and we were down to just the two of us again we made a beeline from the coast to the jungly town of San Ignacio.

All I knew was that I wanted to check out this cave. What I didn’t know that since the Nat Geo story, tourism in San Ignacio was booming and the ATM Cave was now the most visited cave in Belize, therefore my idea was far from original. Every tour company on the street was offering the tour and 627 people on tripadvisor had suggested it was “Excellent”. All the companies offered the same thing, leave at 8am, visit the cave, have lunch, head back to San Ignacio. We searched everywhere for someone that would leave earlier to put us ahead of the crowds but had left it too late to organise a private tour so we were stuck in the hoards. We ended up going with Maya Walk (who were the number one agency online) because they said they left at 7.30am and offered the use of their water shoes. Unfortunately they had a sick guide that morning so by the time a replacement was organised we ended up leaving at 8am anyway. We also stopped to pick up a couple of others on the way so ended up arriving at the beginning of the trail in the thick of all the other tour groups.

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The mouth of the cave

In spite of the hold up, our guides were really great right from the beginning. They did a fantastic job of illustrating the past onto the scenery unfolding outside the van windows. As we drove to the cave they explained that there had once been at least 1 million Mayan people living in Belize. Compared to its current population of only 330,000 this would have meant vast communities and massive clearance of land for firewood and to grow food crops. Our guides pointed out small hills which were likely temples or pyramids and we were able to visualise how life may have been and how hungrily mother nature had taken her rightful soil back.

Once we arrived at the trailhead we needed to hike for an hour along a well worn, flat and pleasant trail to get to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave.  It was a sunny day but 20 metres into the walk was a very fresh river crossing which took the heat straight out of my skin. The river was over my head, but luckily I had my geeky helmet and water shoes on so was able to channel some extra outdoorsy energy and plough across without using the safety rope. Before we got to the mouth of the cave we dumped our extra water bottles at a picnic shelter and were then invited to use “The Lavatrees” to do any last business before entering. The three hours in the cave is mostly spent in waist deep water, and with 100’s of tourists passing through each day it’s important to maintain the integrity of the place by using the bushes outside.

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Splashing through the cave

Once inside the cave we jumped straight into a deep ravine of crystal clear water and paddled across to the wall where I could touch the bottom. During certain times of the year the river is so high the tours are cancelled but this was not the case during Mayan times. The cave was utilised by by the Maya during the classic period (AD 250-909) as a place to communicate with their rain gods. Because mist would emerge from the mouth of the cave the Mayans took this to be breath of Chaak, their god of rain associated with crops and fertility. Scientific testing of the stalactites suggests there was a serious water shortage during the latter part of this time and testing of the lake sediment around the Yukatan backs this theory up suggesting a murderous 200 year drought from 800-1000AD. Therefore the cave was used to communicate with Chaak, to try and appease him by offering pots and making rituals. They would cut themselves with stingray barbs and obsidian blades, spilling their blood onto dry leaves and then burn them to release the blood vapour into the spirit world. As times got tougher and drier desperation became thicker as is evident in the remains of 14 people that have been found in the main chamber of the cave.

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The main chamber

The bodies were positioned in strategic locations to offer the gift of life to the exact places water had shown signs of flowing. When the drought finally ended, possibly long after the Mayans had disbanded the cave, these cascades dribbled back to life causing most of the skeletons to be displaced or covered with heavy sediment, with the exception of the perfectly preserved Crystal Maiden. As we splashed our way deeper into the bowels of the cave I started to let go of my annoyance at being one of a great herd being shepherded into an underground museum, and let my self appreciate the magic of the underworld. It’s no wonder this was thought to be the inside of the earth or the belly of some god. With its unusual formations one could easily feel like a masticated old piece of sandwich floating around inside a cold dark monster.

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The beautifully preserved Crystal Maiden

When we finally reached the Crystal Maiden I was completely enchanted. We had squeezed through tiny gaps, climbed ladders, swam through underground rivers and now before us lay the perfectly formed skeletal remains of… a little boy. Yup. Whoever named her got it wrong, the Crystal Maiden is actually a little dude with a very petite frame thought to have been bludgeoned to death. No clue as to who he was or why he was chosen just a perfect little skeleton forever crystallised and in some ways immortal. The journey we took to reach him was a lot of fun, however I would highly recommend getting in touch with Maya Walk or one of the other agencies in town to see if they could put you in touch with a private guide to leave early and have the cave to yourself. It definitely takes away an element of magic and mystery when you have a line of people nattering away behind you.

We booked through Maya Walk and paid $180 Belize dollars each. As usual all opinions good and bad are my own and I was not given any freebies for this story. You can find agencies offering the same tour slightly cheaper on the main street, but unless you were able to book a private tour and get there before the crowds on the whole we were very happy with Maya Walk. All photos in this post were courtesy of the agency as you are not allowed to take cameras into the cave (due to past incidences causing damage to some of the artefacts including a hole in one of the skulls and some crushed pots!).

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The ruins of Xunantunich were another highlight of visiting San Ignacio

While in San Ignacio I would also HIGHLY recommend a visit to the Xunantunich ruins. You can get there using a public bus from the main square, taking a free hand-cranked ferry across the river and then walking the last kilometre up a gentle slope. The ruins are in a beautiful location and by climbing to the top of the highest temple you will be rewarded with views as far as Guatemala. There are also little bats living inside which are very cool to watch.

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