Actun Tunichil Muknal, or Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, is a cave in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve of the Cayo region of
Belize. Belize is known to have an extensive cave system.
Actun Tunichil Muknal was discovered in 1989 by a Canadian geologist. Archaeologists believe that it holds evidence of the Classic Maya religion as practiced in AD 200s – 900s. These are supposed to be sacred rituals to the rain god, Chaak, rituals that included bloodletting. The remains of 14 people, believed to have been sacrificied, can be found here in addition to various pottery and other artifacts.
ATM is now a national park and a major tourist attraction that opened to the public in 1998 but word on the street is that it may not be open to tourists much longer in order to preserve the site. In either case, since becoming a tourist site, only a few people have been given permission to serve as guides here so there has been no looting and everything is as it was in 1989. National Geographic considers it to be the #1 sacred cave in the world.
We explored ATM with Pacz Tours. I cannot begin to describe what the experience was like but I’m going to try my best. Spiritual! Amazing! Exhilarating! Awe-inspiring! These are just a few words that jump to mind. It started out as a ~ one hour drive from San Ignacio to the cave. Along the way our guide pointed out pointed “mountains” that were in fact Mayan ruins not yet excavated We then hiked, briskly I may add, through a muddy forest (it was raining) and crossed a winding river three times. It was knee high cold water with slippery rocks underneath. After that ~ 45 minute trek, our group of eight elected to eat lunch (provided) before heading into the cave.
Once inside the cave, darkness encompassed us. Any light that was generated came from our headlights. Twice we turned them off and it was black as tar. It was also very surreal. At this point we waded through the river system maneuvering boulders, rocks, and tight crevices. I think, you seriously have to be in good shape for this tour. It was INTENSE! We were required to be in a single file and pass on instructions to the next person. Place your right hand here, left foot there, don’t touch the coral formation. Wow! We did this through varying levels of water. Sometimes I had to be on my tiptoes to keep my head out of the water but twice I had to swim a couple seconds to propel myself forward. This went on for about two hours. Beautiful stalactites and stalagmites were pointed out to us.
When we got to the dry chamber, we took off our shoes, and walked around in socks as this was sacred ground. There was a vast amount of Mayan pottery and several skeletal remains. The highlight here was the “Crystal Maiden”, a sacrificed person whose skeleton gives off a fairy-dust appearance. All the artifacts and skeletons are believed to be about a thousand years old.
Our tour guide, Francisco, had over 10 years experience in this cave. He was quite knowledgeable and funny. But he was also quite impatient and I could see that he could easily get frustrated though our group gave him no worries. He played several practical jokes on us and if any of us were real Type A personalities, that may not have been appreciated. As it was, we all enjoyed our experience.
1) What a privilege to have this amazing look into a living museum to discover the Mayan spirituality
(2) Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!