Caverns and skeletons and mysteries, Oh, My! Experience an underworld you must see to believe.
Unless you’re an archaeology buff with a vested interest in Central American societies like the ancient Maya, you’ve probably never heard the name Dr. Jaime Awe. This homegrown archaeologist has become something of a legend in his homeland Belize, having been the first to seriously explore the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in 1993.
Dr. Awe’s initial work so pleased the Belize government and authorities on primitive Mesoamerican societies, he was granted permission to helm the Western Belize Regional Cave Project between the years of 1993 and 2000. Today’s visitor can thank this archaeologist for the ground-breaking exploratory efforts he undertook at a sacred site that remains “a work in progress” to this day.
A short history of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave)
Radio carbon dating and other scientific tools have enabled scientists to pinpoint the earliest use of this deep, hidden Belize cave to the Classic Period, 250 to 909 AD. Speculation is that at first, the Maya people were reticent to go into this dank, dark underworld and the earliest attempts at exploration were likely hazardous and dangerous beyond the mouth of the cave entrance.
But there is nothing speculative about the deep belief system that impelled the Maya people to visit this particular cave and its environs despite the difficulty and danger associated with entering. According to Michigan State University’s Anthropology Department, theirs was a polytheist belief system that gave deference to 165+ human-like gods, each of whom was born, grew up and died. ATM was sanctified as a portal to a sacred underworld where gods and men spent their afterlives.
Having proclaimed this cave their portal to the next life, the Maya people occupied it for hundreds of years—up until these people simply disappeared, due to migration, domination by explorers or far-fetched speculation that ran the gamut from weather-related disasters to extra-terrestrial intervention. Over time, the mouth of ATM was hidden by plant overgrowth, thus all of the precious contents brought to the cave over time remained in place for hundreds of years until the first archaeologists stumbled into this artifact-filled underworld and began to explore it.
What you’ll see inside the ATM Cave
Visitors who are familiar with the word “labyrinth” find themselves within an environment that contains so many intersecting inner chambers, they often feel dwarfed by the sheer magnitude and drama they encounter. In fact, it’s easy to get lost while gazing across each expansive chamber. Tight corridors and total darkness can feel intimidating, but visitors wear headlamps to glimpse all of the natural and man-made sights they encounter.
Formidable stalactites and stalagmites hang suspended from ceilings and pop up from bedrock that are so huge and stunning, even geologists stop in their tracks to admire their size and beauty. It took tens of thousands of years for these icicle-shaped, mineral-filled structures to form. Can you imagine how the first Maya explorers felt when they encountered these formidable shapes? They likely stood in awe of their surroundings and it’s likely why they assumed that they had found the portal to the underworld that verified their religious beliefs.
What took place within the ATM cave chambers
Having designated this underworld a sacred place, Maya priests set about establishing practices within cave chambers. The faithful brought with them all manner of ritual and everyday items to sustain and support ceremonies that took place within these walls. More than 1400 artifacts, dating between 250 and 909 AD, still remain in place for visitors to see, but not touch. Pottery, tools, water vessels, artifacts and weapons tell the tale of a highly-sophisticated society with deep religious beliefs, many of which are viewed as barbaric and cruel today.
Prayers and tributes offered to the gods ran the gamut from food offerings to hand-crafted religious symbols, each purposely chosen to appeal to the gods for a specific need or desire: rain, fertile fields, women’s fertility and relief from any natural disaster that happened to strike this area of Belize over the centuries. Archaeologists believe that vessels were ceremonially broken in reverence to gods and both animal and human sacrifices were offered on alters when priests deemed ritual killings were demanded by the gods.
About the skeletons in the ATM Cave
While many historians insist that the Stelae Chamber is of the utmost archaeological interest because these lofty stone structures are purported to tell stories of how and why important members of the society and priests went through their ceremonial practices—and in fact, this is the site supplicants came to cut themselves with obsidian blades to offer their blood to the gods—it’s the skeletal remains that tend to get the most amount of attention.
Within the protective embrace of the ATM’s main chamber are the skeletal remains of 14 people sacrificed to appease the gods, some of them children under the age of five. Why children? Because they are pure and innocent, thus especially pleasing to the gods. The most high-profile skeleton is “The Crystal Maiden,” a woman in her 20s whose body deteriorated so uniformly over time within this sealed chamber, every bone in her body became encased in calcite. Her name comes from the fact that any light source makes her encrusted bones glitter like crystal.
For sacrificial victims, death within the cave did not come easily. The Maiden appears to have been clubbed to death, according to scientific studies conducted on the cave’s skeletons. Other remains indicate the bodies were subjected to rituals that included drilling “kill holes” into heads during extended periods of sustained torture. Each gruesome practice was performed in accordance with strict Maya religious practices.
Beyond the skeletons of the ATM Cave
Not every nook and cranny of the cave’s vast expanse contains symbols of this society’s sacrificial acts. For example, a highlight of a tour of ATM is the famous “monkey pot” that features iconography that is found only in three other items that have been discovered by archaeologists. This image is highly symbolic and typical of the sophisticated carvings and renderings that showcase craftsmanship found throughout the cave.
While there is no evidence of the sophisticated written language this society developed over time, a visit to the cave frequently instills in visitors a desire to see additional caves in the area. Finally, tourists should know that there is a vibrant eco-system thriving within this cave system that includes bats, tropical fish, crabs, crayfish and other creatures that are sustained by the river waterway that flows throughout the cave.
How to get to ATM Cave
This vast cave complex is located very close to the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo District, which makes San Ignacio a popular jumping off point for tourists. To spend the day at the cave, ask your resort host to obtain tickets for you, or go directly to the main office of the Institute of Archeology in Belmopan, which also serves as a ticketing venue. A memorandum of understanding between the Institute and the Belize Audubon Society has been in effect since 2004, which is why this agency sells tickets.
If you haven’t booked a formal tour that includes transport to and from ATM, but you have reserved your tickets, you can rent a car or book a shuttle that takes you south of Teakettle Village to mile marker 52 on George Price Highway to reach the monument. Wear practical clothing, shoes designed for adventure and bring along sunscreen and bottled water. Getting into the cave requires wading through water, thus travelers often bring a change of clothing along.
Getting from your transport to the ATM cave
Once you arrive at the edge of the tropical forest adjacent to the 455-acre Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, a skilled guide will orient you to the journey ahead, offering tips to keep you safe so you neither get hurt nor lose your way. You’ll hike through a tropical forest for around 45 minutes before you reach the Muknal stream. Time to wade into the water as you head toward the ATM cave opening that could be challenging for anyone who’s not physically fit.
The cave itself drops three miles down into the earth, but you will only be allowed to travel part of the way down for your safety, but not to worry. The first chambers you encounter won’t disappoint: You will enter a lost world via the hourglass-shaped opening that gives you access to the karstic limestone kingdom that exists just beyond the entrance. Prepare to be inspired.
Protocols to take seriously when visiting the ATM Cave
While the ATM Cave is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belize, it’s also a sacred place to indigenous peoples, a rare archaeological treasure and a symbol of the nation’s commitment to preserving the cultural heritage of the hemisphere’s first people. For these reasons and more, only guided tours are permitted to protect both the cave’s sanctity and the priceless treasures that await visitors inside.
Cameras are not allowed within the cave. This rule is no frivolous request: skeletons and artifacts can be damaged by taking photographs, so follow in the footsteps of awe-struck visitors who appreciated this rare opportunity to go back in time and leave everything exactly the way you found it.