Unraveling the Maya Mysteries of Belize’s ATM Cave
As I headed east in Belize after a few sun-drenched days on the island of Caye Caulker, there was one acronym on everyone’s lips: ATM. And, no, they weren’t seeking the closest cash machine. Actun Tunichil Muknal, the ATM Cave, was touted as the thing to see when visiting San Ignacio and inland Belize. Would it be worth the hype?
The region stretching from southeastern Mexico, through Belize and Guatemala, and to El Salvador and Honduras, was once home to the Maya civilization, which ruled the region as far back as 2600 B.C. Travel through this part of Central America, and you’ll see the Maya influence alive and well in the architecture, ruins, names, and people. But in an area laden with history, the ATM Cave is arguably one of the most important Maya archaeological sites.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (try saying that one five times fast) translates to the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre, so it turns out that “ATM Cave” is just as redundant as “ATM machine.” Nitpicking aside, National Geographic ranked the ATM Cave the top sacred cave in the world, so it’s no wonder visitors flock to explore its hidden wonders. This limestone cave wasn’t explored in-depth until 1996, and archaeologists and tourists alike are fascinated by its intact artifacts and unexplained mysteries.
Today, visitors can explore the cave only with a licensed tour guide, and several agencies in San Ignacio compete for tourists’ attention. After researching my options, I chose to a tour with Carlos the Caveman. We met in town the night before our adventure to discuss what I should bring (shoes and clothes that can get soaked are the most essential), and, the following morning, he picked me up at my hostel to begin our day. Our van transported the tour group across narrow, bumpy roads and deep into rural Belize until we eventually arrived at our trailhead.
Visitors are required to leave their cameras behind, which I learned is a restriction that was put into place, sadly, when a tourist dropped a camera and shattered an ancient skull. So, unfortunately, I can’t share many of my own photos of the adventure, but I have to admit: I love that I didn’t spend the entire visit stressing about getting the perfect shot.
It’s no surprise archaeologists didn’t discover the ATM Cave until relatively recently: it’s no easy trek getting there. Once we exited the van, we were in for an hour-long hike in the pouring rain, slipping and sliding along mud paths and swimming across streams until we finally reached the cave entrance.
But things didn’t get easier there! I’ve visited my fair share of caves in my travels, some of which have been fitted with concrete walkways, railings, and complex lighting systems. The ATM Cave, however, remains just about as natural as it gets. As soon as you enter, you’ll find yourself submerged in water. As you explore the caverns, you swim through dark, narrow passageways, scamper over jagged rock formations, climb rope ladders, and twist your way through openings barely wider than your shoulders.
In a word: amazing. I’ve experienced few things as uniquely adventurous in all my travels, and I felt like a true Indiana Jones as I made my way through the caves. If you don’t consider yourself daring, don’t worry: it all felt incredibly safe and didn’t require significant physical prowess – just the right amount to feel like a total badass.
Snaking through the caverns, Carlos shared with us the history of the region, the Mayas, the ancient cave-dwellers, and the archaeologists who excavated it. No one is exactly sure what the cave was used for or what happened to the people who once inhabited the region, but most believe the cave once hosted rituals or burials because the Mayas spiritually valued being deep beneath the earth.
The cave then opened into a massive chamber, the main cavern, known as the cathedral. This was the ATM Cave’s pièce de résistance, the main archaeological attraction, where ritual vessels, pottery, shards, human remains, and other ancient artifacts can be seen everywhere you turn – and that’s after many have been excavated and removed for study. Most famous of all is a skeleton at the end of the cavern, known as the Crystal Maiden. This skeleton belonged to a young Maya woman who lived about a thousand years ago, although her purpose and significance are unclear.
As we crawled our way back out of the cave and returned to daylight, I found myself in awe of the stark contrast between the life ancient people once lived within the caves and the world to which I was returning. Carlos was a warm, knowledgeable guide who brought the Mayas’ stories to life and instilled in the entire group a deep sense of wonder about Actun Tunichil Muknal.
It’s hard to believe that most countries would allow tourists to embark on such an adventure, with as few restrictions, and get that close to a working archaeological site. Visiting the ATM Cave is a truly unique experience that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Central America or Belize in particular. Carlos the Caveman is a total delight, and the cost of the tour is worth every penny.
May your travels always make you feel like a badass Indiana Jones!