Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
For the fit and adventurous this is hands down the most talked about cave in Belize. Discovered in 1989 and open to the general public since 1998, the ATM cave is a full five kilometres deep. After a 45 minute hike in the cool tropical rainforest and across three streams you enter its hourglass-shaped mouth for a 10 meters swim in water at most 5 metres deep, to land on a rock shelf. The next 600+ meters is a journey of well over a half hour filled with many sharp & slippery edges, water depth alternates from just covering your toes to portions where only the tallest won’t need to swim. Along the way you pass many calcite formations, a few which have undergone minor sculpting (purpose unknown), by the Maya. After this distance, you ascend 2 or 3 meters to a shelf above the river. From this point forward is shallowed ground, where you walk barefoot (with socks only).
What Lies Beneath
As you go forward you encounter increasing amounts of pottery of all sizes, their condition from near intact to completely shattered. Catalogued within the cave are over 1400 artefacts - pottery, tools, and ceremonial items dating from 1 to 1000 AD - including over 200 vessels. While over half of all the items appear in plain sight in small pools, they are also tucked away between stalagmites, on small, high shelves or other unusual places. The artwork found in Actun Uayazba Kab in unmatched when compared to any other site.
The deeper in the cave you go, the more recent the activities of the Mayas were. Use of the cave by the Mayas of the Late Preclassic (1 to 250 AD), tended to stay near the mouth of the cave, whereas later generations moved further into the cave, perhaps believing that this would bring them closer to the lords of Xibalba. The closer to the gods, the better the chance the ceremonies would be answered. Pottery of all sizes and styles lay within the cave, all broken to release the spirits contained within.
A not-so-common artefact are human remains. So far, remains from fourteen individuals have been found; 7 adults & 7 children, all under the age of 5. These are not the ceremonial burials found in the other two caves in the area, but are sacrificial victims. They were all likely sacrificed in the hopes of appeasing the gods and bringing rain. Young victims, particularly females, were important for rituals to be “zuhui” - pure & uncontaminated in the eyes of the gods. The Crystal Maiden was a young woman of about 20 years old whose complete remains lie at the back of the cave. It is believed that she was clubbed and left for dead, and with the passing of time she has been cemented to the floor in a layer of brown calcite. (To reach her final resting place, you must climb aluminium ladders mounted on a sheer rock face!) Don’t choose this tour if you are not an extreme adventure lover, it is not for the faint hearted!
- Experienced Guide
- Entrance Fees