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Actun Tunichil Muknal - Maya Caves of Belize

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posted on Nov, 10 2009 @ 11:37 AM
This past July, I was fortunate enough to visit Central America and take in a few of the sites. The beaches of Belize, the ruins at Tikal, the lakeside in Flores...all very beautiful. However, the site that I will probably remember the most was Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), a Mayan ceremonial cave in southwestern Belize.

I arrived in San Ignacio as dusk began to turn to night. What was normally a sleepy little town tucked away in the Cayo district of Belize a handful of miles from the Guatemalan border, seemed to be jumping with a palpable excitement in the air this night. The Cayo football squad was embroiled in a battle with their rivals from up north, Orange Walk, and emerged victorious in a shootout. The fans were in the streets celebrating and it felt like my arrival was well timed. I checked into the hotel and quickly went to grab some food, a little Marie Sharp's hot sauce, and a Beliken beer. It was a muggy night in July, so one beer quickly turned into two, which inevitably turned into three. I knew I had to watch myself, as I had a long day ahead of me.

I rose from bed to a brisk 7am breeze. Fry jacks, eggs, beans and some grapefruit juice and I was on my way. The ATM tour started with a 45 minute drive from San Ignacio. You go down the highway lined with lush greenery and onto a side road where your stomach is put to the test. As you continue down the rocky road, the slight nausea from the drive is swiftly forgotten in the vast expanse of the rain forest. After nearly an hour in the car, you are only half-way there. The remainder of the distance to the caves must be done on foot. Luckily, the canopy of the jungle provides shade throughout the trek. Although there is only one river in the immediate vicinity, you will have to cross it several times to get to the mouth of the cave, but the waist deep water provides a cool reprieve from the hot and humid Belizean sun.

And there she is...Actun Tunichil Muknal

The ATM ("Cave of the Stone Sepulchre") caves were discovered in 1989 and opened to the public in 1998. It is believed the the Maya first visited the caves sometime mid-1st millennium, with the in depth exploration and ceremonies occurring in the late classic period, 700AD-900AD. The Maya believed that caves represented entrances to Xibalba ("Place of Fear"), the underworld. These caves held great importance and only the religious elite were allowed to enter.

When you first glance at the mouth of the cave, it almost seems surreal, like a movie set. The blueish-green of the water is almost too perfect. The entrance requires a quick swim through water about 7 feet deep onto the rocks within the cave. Once inside, it is a quarter mile journey through water that ranges from ankle high to chest deep. The cave is pitch black, so your trusty helmet light is put to good use. There are a number of fish nipping at your legs and an assortment of spiders, bats and even freshwater crab in the caves. Xibalba translates to Place of Fear, and imagining what it must have been like for the Mayan priests entering the cave with only a torch makes me feel that the name could not have been more fitting.

After some time, you reach the dry area, the cathedral, the Stone Sepulchre. You are required to remove your shoes, but not your socks. The oils from the skin of your sole could cause unwanted effects on the delicate surfaces of the cathedral, so you keep them on. The dry area is HUGE. My camera and it's flash could not take a clear picture of the cave due to the size, but the Cathedral is NOT a misnomer. You are treated to a variety of sites.

Crystalline (calcite) formations:

An assortment of natural columns (this one was at least 25 feet tall, floor to ceiling):

Sacrificial pottery, believed to contain water in an effort to bring rain and food in attempts to please the gods and their ancestors. One should note that the majority of these pots were broken, as the Maya believed that in order for the sacrifice to make it to their deceased ancestors, they would have to essentially "kill" the pots by breaking them in order to release the soul/spirit of the sacrifice:

This one is the most famous pieces of pottery, with a monkey emblem near the brim of the pot:

And of course, the infamous human remains, believed to be sacrifices:

It is to be noted that as time passed and the Maya civilization began to suffer, the religious elite would go deeper into the caves and there was in increase in the number and types of sacrifices made as they became more desperate to please their ancestors and gods.

The final stop on the tour requires some climbing and crawling into a closed off area of the main chamber, which houses the Crystal Maiden:

It is believed that she was a young woman, in her teens to early twenties, sacrificed by the Mayan priests. After over a millennium of rest, calcite deposits have formed a glittering crystalline shell over her remains, giving her an eerie glow as the light from your helmet shines on her.

Our guide said that there are several more miles to the cave with an assortment of archaeological remains, but this was as far as we were allowed to go.

It is quite an amazing experience being in ATM. Part of you is excited to have experienced it, but another part of you feels a little guilty for entering such a sacred place. Only a number of government approved agencies are allowed to bring people into the cave in an effort to preserve the fragile history hidden within. If you are ever in Belize, I highly recommend this tour, but please show respect and extreme care not only for your own safety, but also for the safety of the history of the site.


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