Saturday, 20 July 2013

Stepping back in time: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour, Belize

Located about an hour away from the town of San Ignacio by the Belize - Guatemalan border is the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or ATM cave for short. In English it translates to 'Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre' and locals know it as Xibalba, or for the uninitiated, Hell. This can possibly be attributed to the fact that it was a holy place for the Mayans and only the most important members of society, royalty for example, or those ready to face death and their fears could enter.

The cave was mainly used to make sacrifices to the Gods, with animal and human remains found among the pottery and stoneware. As a result of the pristine condition of some of the artifacts, the fact that everything is in such good condition and nothing else like this exists in the country or anywhere else for that matter, it is only a matter of time before this place is off limits to the public. Steps are already in place to ensure this happens so best make it down here quickly.

In Belize, if you have your own means of transport, most places can be visited without the aid of a guide but given the nature of this UNESCO World Heritage Site you can only visit on a tour with a registered guide with groups not allowed to exceed more than eight, excluding the guide. This allows for a more intimate tour and also ensures safety.

Once at the park entrance you have a 45 minute walk through the jungle where you cross streams but beyond that it isn't too taxing. At the rest stop you drop off your bags and head to the cave entrance, you don't need anything else with you at this stage. Cameras are banned from the tour now for two reasons: firstly, when in the cave many tourists were too preoccupied with taking photos and weren't looking where they were going which resulted in accidents, and secondly, last November someone dropped their camera onto a relic and broke it, nice one. As a result, no cameras are allowed, so the photos below are from past tours.

From the entrance you have to swim across to the other side and from here you are walking through the cave, checking out the giant stalactites and stalagmites, squeezing through tiny gaps, swimming through passages and making your way deeper into the cave. Around 45% of the tour is in water so expect to get a little cold. A helmet and flashlight are provided and sometimes the guide will tell you to switch off your lights: one, to show you just how dark it is in the cave, and two, to cast shadows with his own light where he would show us where the Mayans had carved into the stalagmites to create shadows which would have looked freaky back in the day with nothing but a torch to light the way.

After a short climb you enter the main chamber known as 'The Cathedral' where there are sacrificial alters and pottery at the beginning, the deeper you go you come across bones and skulls along with calcified pottery remains. Right at the back in an alcove lie the calcified remains of what is believed to have been a teenage girl who was sacrificed, she is known as 'The Crystal Maiden' and is one of the best preserved skeletons from the Mayan late period. She was also the last of 16 found bodies to have been sacrificed here and is also located in one of the most sacred spots which leads archaeologists to believe that she was someone important and that her sacrifice was a last ditch effort to appease the Gods. It is likely that it was drought that was these Mayans' downfall and not long after the caves were abandoned.

There are plenty of caves in the Cayo District in Belize, too many to see in one trip but if you get the chance to ever come here and the ATM cave is still open for business, I would strongly recommend going. I thought it was a little pricey at $90 (US this time) but definitely felt the experience was well worth it, after all, who doesn't like a bit of spelunking and steping back in time to a place even the Mayans were scared of?

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