Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – The Sacrificial Caves

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Entrance

**This is the 2nd part of a two-part series covering the Actun Tunichil Munkal Cave tour.  Don’t miss part one [here]***

Actun Tunichil Muknal

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

We received a brief safety lecture, a quick warning not to get our headlamps wet, and a reminder that we’d be getting wet before moving towards the entrance to the cave. At the lead, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been told I’d need to swim across the cave mouth, but was skeptical. I’m 6’4″ – over a foot taller than most of the Mayans. It couldn’t be that deep, could it?

The 78 degree water prickled up my legs. Cold enough for a quick intake of breath, but not quite cold enough to be truly unpleasant. The water was mineral rich, and as a result a murky green. I slowly made my way forward as the bottom gave out beneath me.  I quickly found myself swimming, camera in hand, across a portal into another world.

Once across, I crawled my way up onto a flat area, before stepping aside to watch as the rest of the group followed in my footsteps. Once we’d all gathered, it was once again time to pause for a brief history of the 5+km deep cave. It is believed that the Mayans used the cave in some form or another for over 1,000 years before eventually abandoning it around 1000AD.  After which it sat dormant and unexplored until the 1980s when early explorers re-discovered the ancient Mayan site.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

Chomping at the bit, we quickly began to make our way into the cave, carefully – albeit usually quite clumsily – stumbling over rocks, tripping on submerged ledges, and relying heavily on hand holds. Every so often our guide would issue a word of warning. Step here, don’t touch that. Be careful, it gets deep, etc. – messages which we then transferred dutifully down the line to ensure everyone was kept in the loop.

The cave hasn’t been stabilized in any way, shape or form which makes for an, at times, delightfully perilous trip. The only light we had available came in one of two forms: The seldom used, hand-held spotlight our guide had and our smaller hard-hat based LED headlamps.

Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize

The going was slow, but stunning. We were almost always in water, though the depth of that water ranged widely. Most of the time it ran waist deep, though it regularly plunged far deeper, leaving me walking in chest/neck-deep water or carefully clinging to the side of the cave wall as I scooted along seeking slightly shallower ledges. Unfortunately, my digital camera was locked away in a waterproof bag, however I did shoot video (attached above) on my waterproof flip.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

As we wound more than half a kilometer into the cave system we paused regularly to examine stunning rock formations. At times they consisted of odd circular holes carved into the ceiling, other times it was large crystalline sheets which caught, and reflected the glow of our headlamps sparkling like a thousand tiny stars. All the while the roof ranged from mere inches above my head to large cavernous expanses decorated by stalactites and beautiful, folded, begemmed – almost sheet like – rock pillars.

Eventually we reached a long, narrow cavern with a large, jagged, water worn rock. The rock rested next to a sheer, overhanging ledge which stood some 10-15 feet above water level. The distance between the rock and the ledge was some 2.5 feet up, and 1.5 feet out. Just manageable if you were careful, used your height and managed to swallow the sizable lump in your throat that inevitably formed.

One-by-one we made the climb, bridged the small gap, and then scaled another 15-20 feet up along a steep, but manageable rock wall, before settling into a small alcove at the top. There we were instructed to remove our shoes, and don our socks in preparation for the dry leg of the cave.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - a Tight Squeeze

We set off once again, this time through a tiny, narrow crevice that left me bent nearly in two, as I hop-walked my way through, periodically bouncing my head or shoulder off the rock ceiling.  Once up and out things opened up in a large open area.  The ground was a mixture between slightly water warn rock, and much smoother/softer sandstone.

In the larger open areas the ground was a unique mixture of small depressions where water would normally pool and natural retainer walls which were often semi-circle in nature.  The ground looked in many ways like it was dried and hardened mud sediment, left during mild flooding over hundreds of years.  We quickly learned that the sandstone’s delicate nature was the reason we’d been asked to remove our shoes.  Our guide also pointed to several small pieces of red tape laid out on the ground.  He cautioned that those marked artifacts and pleaded with us to be careful.

Mayan Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal the ATM cave

As we carefully made our way from chamber to chamber – often through narrow/tight/difficult pathways that left me feeling very grateful I wasn’t 6’6″ or 50 pounds heavier – we passed a plethora of old Mayan artifacts before eventually arriving at the first skeletal remains.  Each step we took required total attention.  Constantly on the look out for the red tape that market artifacts, we quickly realized that the tape only marked major artifacts. This forced us to vigilantly navigate between smaller pieces of pottery.  All the while, we carefully avoided stepping in depressions, walking instead along the ridges left between small areas where water had pooled in years past.  These were raised and tended to be more durable than the depressions which also potentially contained submerged/undiscovered pottery or skeletal remains encased in the soft sediment.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour

As we paused our guide told us a bit about the skull that rested, badly battered but largely intact at our feet. He shared the individual’s approximate age, sex, and what little had been discovered about the person’s life and social status.  The chamber stretched out to either side, with a largely smooth floor, before slipping up into beautiful stalactites that decorated the cavern’s walls.  The stalactites themselves looked like melted wax, leaving me to ponder the incredible beauty of the place.  I can only image the mystical ambiance the cavern would have held in the dim, wavering light of a hand held torch or small fire.  It’s easy to see how the ancient Mayans – who had somehow navigated nearly a kilometer into the cave, relying only on torches and gusto – would have envisioned the place as a magical portal into the underworld and afterlife.

Alex Berger in Actun Tunichil Muknal

With stories of Mayan nobles and religious leaders, heavily reliant on hallucinogenic drugs, celebrating bloody rituals racing through our minds we continued to wind further into the cave system.  Past small depressions which held skeletal remains.  Small platforms which supported old pottery.  Turtle shells, various other artifacts and incredible stalactites. Eventually we paused in the main gallery to snap a few photos and enjoy the sheer scope of the cavern we were in.  There our guide explained that every single piece of pottery found in the cave had been damaged by the Mayans.  Apparently, after each use they Mayans would leave the pottery as a gift for the dead, punching a hole, or damaging it in some way to free the item’s spirit.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour in Belize

From there it was up, through another series of tight, jagged passages that left us muttering soft curses as we carefully picked our way over, through, between and under sharp rocks and small broken stalactites. Eventually we came to a near dead-end: A 10-15 foot set of large boulders.    The boulders had an old aluminum roof latter set up against them, and stabilized with a small rope at the top.  Its wobbly, frail looking nature, especially set in the dimly lit light of the cave definitely added to the sense of adventure.

The Crystal Maiden in Actun Tunichil Muknal

We paused briefly, listening all the while to our guide as he told us what to expect: The Crystal Maiden. A fully intact female skeleton, left as she’d died over a thousand years previous.  Near her feet in a small depression, easily overlooked was a second, small/collapsed skeleton.  Unlike the maiden who appeared laid out, the 2nd skeleton was in a position that left us all wondering if it hadn’t died with its hands and legs bound.  Sacrifice?  Honored burial for respected elders?  Ritual self-sacrifice?  It’s hard to know.

The Ladder in Actun Tunichil Muknal

Eyes glinting in the harsh light cast by our head lamps we paused and reflected before slowly making our way back to the metal latter.   It looked every bit as intimidating as I expected it to…with a resigned sigh, I swung my body weight out over empty nothingness, slowly stabilizing myself against the rocks, before slowly making my way towards the ground, foot by foot, wobbly rung by wobbly rung.

Our Guide during the ATM cave tour in Belize

From there it was back through the winding warren of small tunnels and large chambers to the ledge where we’d left our shoes.  Smiles on our faces and small goose bumps on our arms we donned our shoes and made the difficult descent back over the small gap, down the large rock formation and into the water.  Hours had passed since we’d entered the cave and though we didn’t know it yet, the sun had already slid below the horizon.

Bats began to migrate over our heads, typically staying well clear of us.  From time to time, however, we’d find ourselves started by a gray blur, as it spend past our heads often narrowly missing us and leaving us to start at the quick wash of moving air that tugged at our hair.

The water itself held its own mysteries. As the last three tours in the cave, things were stone quiet.  The air was still, and the animal life was slowly returning to reclaim its territory.  Before long we spotted small catfish, crayfish and even several fist sized freshwater crabs.   An entertaining addition to our group as we waded, swam, and walked back down through the flooded hallways, past ancient stalactites and stalagmites towards the entrance.

Eventually, wet, and slightly cold we reached the mouth of the cave…pausing briefly to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, our guide pointed to two glowing points along the sheer walls of the cave near the entrance.  The first thing to catch our attention was the stunningly beautiful reflection of eyes – star-like in nature.   Then, as our eyes adjusted, the outlines of massive spiders suddenly sprang into focus.

Eager and slightly anxious, I made my way once more into the deep pool at the mouth of the cave.  This time, careful to stay near the center of the chamber – hoping to stay as far away from the spiders as humanly possible.

Drenched, but thrilled I made my way back over the submerged rocks, dinging my shins every now and then, before scrambling out onto the moss slicked stones that marked the mouth of the cave.  There we spotted another large, freshwater crab, before carefully picking our way up the muddy embankment and back onto the main path.

It was dark.  Long past sunset, with a nearly full moon slowly climbing towards apex. It was stunning.  The sky and moon brilliantly outlined the jungle canopy as it stretched over our heads, allowing slight moonlight to filter down to the jungle floor.   After a quick pause we set off, back to the parking lot and our cars.  We had a 40 minute walk ahead of us, through the dark, in the middle of nowhere, down a small dirt path and across three large rivers.  THIS was the adventure i’d signed up for.

A glowing smile on my face, I began back towards the parking lot, pausing from time to time to let out a sign of amazement.  I mentioned previously that the spider’s eyes at the cave mouth had been impressive.  As it turns out, the jungle to either side of the path itself was home to thousands of spiders.  All of varying sizes, but sharing the same brilliantly reflective eyes.  As the light struck the path, I could not help but feel as though I was on a path through space, with stars to either side stretching out into space.

Careful not to stray off the path we wandered along for some 20 minutes before suddenly stopping dead in our tracks.  Sitting smack dab in the middle of the path was a giant toad.  No doubt feasting on the veritable spider smorgasbord. It stared at us briefly before lazily launching itself to the side of the path, and then off into the thick underbrush beyond.

About half way back to the parking lot my headlamp began to blink.  My battery was dieing.  Luckily, the moon was bright, I still had some battery left, and the other two members of the group still had battery power.

Nervously chuckling and wondering what other animal life was roaming the path, we set back to our trek, before eventually finding our way back to the parking lot where we donned warm clothes, piled into one of the guides’ trucks and set off for San Ignacio.

The trip, which had started out in what looked to be miserable disappointment ended up being one of my favorite experiences in Belize.

If you ever find yourself in Belize, make sure you track down a guide and explore Actun Tunichil Muknal – but hurry! People were not kidding when they said this site can’t last.  There’s simply too much exposure to the artifacts and remains.  The site needs something more than red electrical tape marking artifacts if there’s to be any hope of persevering it.  Add to that the rugged and dangerous nature of the tour and there’s no doubt in my mind that the government will end up shutting it down in the next couple of years.