Imagine a civilisation on the brink of collapse, so desperate to stop the demise of their world that they would go to increasingly frantic means to prevent the inevitable.
Picture ancient Mayan priests and their entourage venturing far into caves – what they believe to be the portal to the underworld, or Xibalba – with ceramic pots, incense, and offerings, hoping that this time, they’ll appease the gods.
They would have to swim, scramble, squeeze, and climb. But their desperation is such that they would do it all and more.
But the gods won’t listen. And the rains still won’t come. Cities continue to crumble. Populations keep declining.
And so the priests venture ever deeper into the caves, bringing with them live animals to sacrifice. It starts becoming common for one among their number to enter the cave with no intention of ever leaving – a human sacrifice.
In hindsight, we know that it was all for nothing. Around 900AD, the great Mayan civilisation was no more.
And that is what is so haunting about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour. You follow in the doomed footsteps of those ancient pilgrims. You swim through the same river, scale the same ledges, cross the same chambers as they did.
You can see with your own eyes the remnants of their desperate pleas to the gods – ceremonial pots, ancient weapons, and yes, even human skeletons.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour in Belize
“Bring clothing you don’t care about,” I was told. “You will get wet.”
Most people at my hostel were disconcerted by this advice. But I was thrilled.
This sounded like an adventure of Indiana Jones proportions. Jungle trekking, river crossings, and swimming into the mouth of a cave to reach a “Crystal Maiden”? C’mon.
Yet the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, more commonly just called the ATM cave, is as real as it gets.
The cave, near San Ignacio in Belize, is so archaeologically significant that you can only visit it with an authorized tour guide in a maximum group of eight people. And there are only 26 official tour guides in the whole of Belize who can take you.
Ian was our guide, a tall, lean man who spoke English with the classic Caribbean lilting I still had trouble understanding.
As he drove us to the caves from the Belizean border town of San Ignacio, he pointed out Mennonite settlements, and tea tree and mahogany farms. About 10km from the cave carpark, we veered off the freeway onto a bumpy, unpaved road.
“Be grateful guys,” he said. “This road used to be so bad that when these tours first started, we used to just drive until we couldn’t go any further and then walk the rest of the way. Guys, sometimes the tour would start at 6 in the morning and you wouldn’t get back until after dark.”
I counted my luck. When we drove into the cave carpark, we had a hike of just half an hour or so ahead of us.
It didn’t take long for us to enter adventure mode. Just two minutes into the trek, we reached our first river crossing. Sans bridge. A rope was strung up from one side of the river to the other. Besides that, there was nothing for it but to jump in and swim.
Thankfully it gets incredibly hot and muggy in Belize, so when we emerged as bedraggled rats on the other side, it actually was a pleasant kind of drowned look.
Two further river crossings, several sightings of brightly-coloured lizards and butterflies and absolutely no sighting of leopards later, we arrived at the mouth of the cave. I saw a beautiful aquamarine pool of water that disappeared into a keyhole-shaped cave entrance.
The ATM cave or “The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre”
There was only one way to get into the cave. I stumbled down into the water, and kicked out, swimming into the abyss.
In the dark, Ian got serious. He relayed instructions on how to squeeze through each passage and commanded me to pass the message onto the person behind me. You could hear the echoes of each direction pass down through the group: “don’t touch that stalactite”, “put your head in first and rotate your shoulders this way”.
Sometimes, like Chinese whispers, the instructions got muddled. “There’s a good hold here” quickly turned into “watch the hole”.
Our passage included everything from clinging to walls as we crept along thin ledges to wading in waist-deep water while ducking and squeezing through tight fits. I couldn’t be happier. I felt like I was made to do this.
All too soon, we had gone as far as we could go. Ian pointed up. It was time to leave the water and climb. We scaled a huge boulder and lifted ourselves onto a nearby platform.
There, we were instructed to remove our shoes as we were entering an area of archaeological significance. Basically, wherever we walked, chances were high there’d be ancient artefacts underneath the initial layer of dirt and rock.
Besocked and ready to go, we walked into a huge cavern called The Cathedral. After the narrow tunnels, this chamber was incredible, large enough to accommodate some 200 people.
The gallery itself would have been impressive on its own, with the ceiling towering above us. But we had eyes only for the floor, which was littered with ancient Mayan artefacts, abandoned where they’d last been used more than a millennia before.
There were estimated to be some 1,400 artefacts throughout the cave system, with a large part of them housed in this grotto. There were ceremonial water vessels, huge clay pots, and grinding stones.
None of them was lightweight and all of them would have been filled with grain or other offerings when they were carried in. I had to remind myself that people would have had to carry them here using the same passages we’d just stumbled our way through.
Although villagers always knew about the existence of this cave, it was only “discovered” by an archaeologist in 1989 and only opened to the public in 1998. In that time, no one had touched the artefacts, so that they had become a part of the caves themselves, cemented in place by calcite deposits.
It was considered the most artefact-rich cave in the world, and it was all on display for us. What a privilege.
The artefacts in the cave dated from about 250AD to 950AD, but we were in the deepest reaches of the cave system. Turn the headlamps off and it was pitch black – I know. We did it. Ian told us your eyes could never adjust to this.
Ian tiptoed delicately around the scattering of pots, pointing out how there wasn’t a single intact pot – every single one was smashed post-ceremony to release the energy and ensure no one else could ever re-assemble the pots completely.
He demonstrated how Mayans had chipped away at the rocks to cast god-like shadows on the walls that would have danced in their firelight (keep in mind, they also got high during ceremonies). The effect was creepy – it made me feel that there really was something otherworldly within these walls.
And then Ian started pointing out the skeletons. At first, it was just a bone here, a skull there. Then we scaled a creaking extension ladder to reach the piece-de-resistance: the “Crystal Maiden”. This was a full-blown, 1,200-year-old skeleton, arms and legs splayed.
Further in again, we saw the skeleton of a 14-year-old boy, hands and feet bound to suggest he was a prisoner rather than a willing sacrifice.
In all, 14 human bodies have been discovered in the cave ranging from children through to adults. Most of them can be dated to within the last two centuries of the first millennia AD.
It documents the increasing desperation of the priests as drought laid waste to the Mayan cities – food and animal sacrifices no longer cut it.
I’ll put this into context for you. The ATM cave is only a few hours’ drive from Tikal, a huge Mayan city complex in Guatemala. In 900AD, Tikal’s population plummeted from 90,000 to just 10,000. Yep, it was that bad.
After viewing these remains, it was time to return to the carpark. We retraced our steps, reluctantly entering the water again – it felt more chilly after having spent 2 hours in the dark cave.
I tried to imagine how the entourage of Mayans could have navigated these tight spaces carrying beachball-sized clay pots filled to the brim. How a chosen sacrifice would have felt about walking their way to their death. How a Mayan king would have dealt with watching the demise of his kingdom.
Ian was playful now. He encouraged me to take the lead as I squeezed through tight crevices and stumbled over rocks. But he knew the shortcuts and would always be waiting for me on the other side.
Just metres from the cave, we had one last hurdle – or rather, a slide. One by one, we had to glide down a small waterfall and swim along a narrow tunnel. As always, I went first.
“Oh, and watch out for the boulder!” Ian cried.
I groped my way through the tunnel, feeling out for impediments hidden beneath the water. When I emerged from the tunnel, I triumphantly pushed forward. And slammed my knee directly into that boulder. Yep, the same knee that had just recovered from my Acatenango volcano hike.
“Watch out for the boulder,” I grumbled as the next girl came through. And as I swam lame-legged towards the cave entrance, I could hear my directions echo through the group.
Was it worth it? Absolutely! The ATM cave tour was one of my best experiences in Central America. Check out some of my other escapades in Latin America today!
The ATM Cave Tour: Everything You Need to Know
I booked the ATM cave tour at my hostel, The Old House Hostel, in San Ignacio. The tour included:
I was picked up at 8am from my hostel and dropped off at around 2-3pm. Lunch included a meal of chicken, rice, and pasta salad with corn chips and salsa, plus water and Coca Cola.
For more information about the Mayan rituals and sacrifices in the cave and the Mayan drought, read this brilliant Discover Magazine article.
Where is the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave?
The cave system is located just over an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, Belize. San Ignacio is a border town only a short drive from Guatemala.
ATM cave tour difficulty
I didn’t find the tour particularly demanding. Sure, there are times when you might need to be a little bendy, but overall, the going is slow.
Having said that, there were three middle-aged people in our group who massively struggled. They just couldn’t seem to find their balance and had to be put at the front of the group for the guide to help them along.
This did slow the going down a bit, so just a warning if you end up with two families on your tour!
Actun Tunichil Muknal tour price
Costs do vary but I paid US$85 for mine, which I was told is a very reasonable price. I paid the tour guide directly in Belize dollars (BZ$170).
What to wear
Whatever you wear on your hike will get wet and dirty. So make sure you take old clothes. I wore a t-shirt I was happy to chuck out and some casual shorts, along with my bathers and socks.
Don’t wear your bathers alone. For a start, it seems kinda disrespectful when you’re dealing with a location so sacred to ancient Mayans. But also, you’re going to be sliding and slithering past rocks and you’ll be grateful for the extra padding.
My hostel kept a pile of discarded shoes in a box for any ATM tour-goers. So I got a brilliant pair of sneakers I rather wish I’d kept with me for the rest of the trip! The advantage to this was that my Merrell barefoot runners didn’t get sopping wet – they would never have dried in time for my next travel day.
Some people on the hike wore strappy hiking shoes but I’d advise against this as they were constantly having to stop to re-tighten the straps. Closed-toe shoes are best. Those chunky Keen sandals or water shoes would be equally suitable.
What to bring
Bring a spare change of clothes so you’re not dripping water all over the van on the ride home! There are bathrooms and even showers at the carpark once you’re done with your hike. Keep in mind that the water in the showers is just the same as the river water you’ve been swimming in!
I highly recommend bringing a change of shoes as well. It’s a good idea to carry a plastic bag to put your wet clothes into for the journey too.
I did take a water bottle with me on the hike since it lasts several hours. Admittedly it was hard to keep the bottle above water on the first river crossing, but it can get hot and sweaty on the hike. Everybody places their bottles in the thick leaves of palm trees before heading into the cave.
The guides request that you don’t put bug spray or sunscreen on as the lotions can damage the cave walls. The water you swim in is also used as drinking water in villages downstream. As someone who has had skin cancer, this was a tough call for me, but I admittedly kept with the sunscreen. A long-sleeved top might be a good option here.
CAMERAS ARE NOT ALLOWED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. The guides will sadly point out to you the skull a tourist cracked after accidentally dropping their camera on it. They’re very strict on this: no device with a camera is allowed on the hike. Just forget about it.
For that matter, it’s not necessary to bring anything with you on the hike at all – you can leave any bags or possessions in the van.
*Please note, as photography is forbidden, I have used stock images provided by MayaWalk Tours.