Series – Belize Family Adventures 2015
Are you ready for some high adventure in Belize? Then boy, do I have an adventure for you! Deep within the Belize jungles is an epic destination that is both archeologically significant and an action-packed adventure. It’s name is Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, and it is an adventure well worth it’s challenges. This cave is ranked at the top of National Geographic’s Top Ten Sacred Caves, and is one experience not to be missed when in Belize.
Whether your Belize travel list includes antiquities and archeology, or action and adventures, Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave seems to have it all. So strap on your hardhats and headlamps and come along for the ride. It’s time to go underground at the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave for an incredible, almost indescribable, and definitely other-worldly, experience.
On The Trail To Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, also known as ATM Cave, doesn’t disappoint. Once an ancient Mayan ceremonial site, today this water-filled cave is an incredible rush of adventure into the underground world of the ancient Mayans. Artifacts from ancient sacred ceremonies can still be seen today, including ceramics, stoneware, and skeletal remains. Perhaps most famous is the Crystal Maiden, a near-complete skeleton who was most likely an ancient Mayan sacrifice.
Explorers of the ATM Cave will find themselves swimming through emerald green waters, manipulating themselves through narrow passages, and hiking into a labyrinth of caves, all in the quest for adventure and archeology. Yes, this adventure is probably not for everyone, but for those who descend into this ancient Mayan underworld, what awaits them along the way will make this adventure one that will long be remembered.
But I digress. Before any caving adventure begins, one must first arrive at the cave’s mouth. And there-in lies the beginning of an ATM caving experience. The ATM Cave is located deep within the Tapir Mountain Reserve. It’s parking lot is about 45 minutes by vehicle from the nearest town. It’s entrance is another 45 minute hike through the Reserve from the parking lot. Step onto the trailhead leading to ATM and let the adventure begin.
Hope you came prepared to get wet, because you will! Though the trail ahead may appear completely dry and relatively easy, don’t let that lull you into a sense of dryness and simplicity. Directly ahead are not one, not two, but three stream crossings, complete with tow ropes to help guide your way across the gently flowing waters. Watch out for slippery rocks beneath the water’s surface!
At long last! The mouth of the ATM Cave sits before us, beckoning us within, calling our names to enter and explore all it’s secrets contained deep inside this archeological treasure. Yep. It’s time for some underground action!
Inside Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Hard hats on and headlamps checked. We are ready to plunge forward into the cave. Jump on in! The chilly cave water is refreshing after the hike through the steamy jungle.
Darkness quickly descends upon all who venture past the cavernous mouth of ATM. Illumination of nearby cave walls results in sparkle and shine, as crystalline stalagmites and stalactites stretch towards each other. Listen closely to the drip drip drip of water as it falls from the ceiling down on top of the crystalline structures beneath.
Follow along further through the maze of chambers, each with it’s own significance to the Mayan underworld. Watch for pottery shards and stoneware representing moments of time long long ago. Oh, and the occasional human skeletal remains! Are these the remnants of ancient Mayan ceremonial sacrifices? Archeologists do believe they are.
Look closely at the nearly intact pottery containers for “kill holes” in the bottoms. Ancient Mayans drilled these holes as part of ceremonial offerings to their gods. Imagine their underground world as they might have seen it, bringing these huge ceramic pieces deep into the cave, much the same way we too are traversing these paths. Many of these pottery pieces and other artifacts have remained in place since their original owners initially left them.
Pottery shards aren’t the only artifacts found inside ATM! Several ancient skulls and human bones can be seen just beyond the paths. Most famous is this one, the Crystal Maiden. Most likely left for sacrifice, this nearly intact skeleton receives it’s moniker from the geologically sanded surface of the bones that give the skeletal remains a sparkly crystal-like appearance when light shines upon them. It’s almost as if the skeleton is covered in fairy dust!
The Crystal Maiden signals the end-point of this ATM cave adventure. It’s time to turn around and make our way back out of the cave in much the same fashion as we came in. At last, the cave’s mouth yawns wide over yonder, like a beacon of light guiding us back into the modern world. Wow! Those three hours sure went by fast! Oh what an adventure this has been.
Preparing for an ATM Cave Experience
Due to it’s archeological importance, one cannot enter ATM Cave without a specially licensed guide. There are a limited number of guides, so if ATM Cave is on your Belize must-do list, book your tour early. ATM tours often sell out, especially in peak season! Here are more tips to get the most out of your own ATM Cave adventure.
- Schedule your tour for as early in the day as possible.
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes or sandals that can get wet. Remember those river crossings!
- Don’t wear flip flops. It’s a jungle out there!
- Wear or bring a swimsuit. Changing rooms are available, but we wore ours beneath our hiking clothes.
- Bring a towel. Again, you will get wet!
- Bring a change of clothes for after the adventure. Unless you don’t mind being wet.
- Pack water, snacks or picnic lunch for afterwards. This adventure works up an appetite!
- Leave the camera behind. No photography is allowed past the cave’s entrance.
- Hard hats and headlamps are required inside the cave, and are usually provided by your tour guide.
ATM Cave can get congested, even with a controlled limit on the number of tours allowed per day. I’d highly recommend booking your tour for as early in the day as possible. You’ll be less likely to have to wait at certain points along the adventure due to groups in front of you.
The cave tour takes about 3 hours that includes several strenuous moments in close quarters. Like passing sideways through a very narrow chamber of neck-deep water, and climbing up and down ladders. But it’s worth every moment, every exertion along the way. Happy caving!
Have You Explored ATM Cave?
Exploring the ATM Cave quickly became the highlight of our stay in the Belizean jungle. Though certainly considered a high-adventure, and definitely has its physical challenges, it is an adventure that we are wont to do again. Perhaps one day, we shall!
How about you? Have you gone inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave? What did you think? Did you enjoy it as much as we did? Have you explored other watery caves with ancient artifacts that you’d recommend? Do share!
Check out the rest of our adventures during our Belize 2015 Family Vacation:
- Belize – 7 Adventures in 8 Days
- Tikal – Exploring Inside Ancient Mayan Ruins of Guatemala
- Caracol – A Photo Journey Through Mayan Ruins Not Ruined By Mass Tourism
- 7 Reasons You Will Love the Mystic River Resort, Belize
No photography is allowed once inside the ATM Cave. Inside-cave photos are via Wikipedia, BelizeTravel, BelizeTourism. Other photos are by C.Biederman.