Wednesday, 5 February 2014


February 5th 2014 by Oscar Castaneda for Balaam Eco Adventures 

Actun Tunichil Muknal famously called ATM Cave is located deep in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve seven miles from the main highway at the village of Teakettle in the Cayo District. Ranked the number one sacred cave site in the world by National Geographic Society in 2012.  This  is one of the most fascinating caves and Actun Tunichil Muknal means the “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” named after the skeletal remains of a Mayan Princess was discovered in one of the chambers.  Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave) was first discovered in 1989. The cave was  investigated between 1993 and 1999 by a team of Belizean and North American Archaeologists under the direction of Dr.Jaime Awe a Belizean Archaeologist. This tour is a one hour drive from San Ignacio and upon arriving at the destination your guide will give you your helmet and head light for the tour.

During the last 15 years, the site has been featured in numerous, world-class television documentaries and magazines like National Geographic Explorer, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, BBC, NBC, Australian, Austrian, French, German, and Taiwanese television stations and it's the most visited cave site in the Mundo Maya.  Actun Tunichil Muknal is a living museum and is one of the few places in the Maya world where artifacts and victims of sacrifice that were left inside the cave more than a thousand years ago by the Mayas can still be viewed in their original contexts rather than in glass cases.

The tour takes you on a trail where you will cross the river three times and there is abundance of wildlife species as the cave is within a National Park.  The entrance to the cave has a natural double Gothic archway formation also resembling an hour glass.  You swim in the cool, refreshing water which has a deep-blue pool below to enter the cave and the remaining part of the tour is hiking, squeezing through rocks and exploring the cave.  This tour requires a level of physical fitness and is the most thrilling cave exploration experience in Belize!

Your guide will take you into ” Xibalba” the Mayan Hell or the Mayan Underworld.   Numerous ceramics and skeletal remains that you will see inside this cave are normally only seen in museums but here you have the first hand experience of seeing these artifacts and remains.  This Belize Adventure Tour is one of a life time making it very unique and one of the most popular tours in the Cayo Area and Belize.
Today the site is but one example of thousands of caves that have formed in Belize during the last several million years.  Archaeological research has determined that the prehistoric Maya first began to visit ATM around 300 to 600 A.D. During this time the Maya primarily utilised the entrance to the cave for most of their ritual activities. 
It wasn’t until between 700 and 900 A.D that the Mayas begun to venture deeper into caves to conduct their ceremonies. Four major sections of ATM Cave were used for cultural activities: Entrance Chamber, Sinkhole Entrance, Stelae Chamber and the Burial Chamber.  The last two produced the most intriguing information on ancient Maya Cave utilisation. Here that visitors have the unique opportunity to travel into the past, live and to share the experience of the Maya who utilised this magnificent cave more than a thousand years ago.

The most breathtaking and enchanting part of the site is the Main Chamber, adorned with sparkling stalactites and stalagmites, containing the skeletal remains of 14 individuals, 150 ceramic vessels and several ground stone artifacts. Of the 14 skeletons in the chamber, six are infants (under the age of three years), one is a child (seven years of age) and seven  adults (early twenties to 48 years old). One of the adults, a young male, lies encrusted in sparkling travertine deposits and provides a stunning example of the fragile nature of human existence.
The skulls of at least five adults and one child have evidence of cranial modification also called cultural modification.   The child and all of the infants also show evidence of trauma to their crania. Speculations suggests that their death may have been caused by blows to their heads. None of the 14 individuals were buried but were found lying on the cave floor strongly suggesting that all the individuals were most likely victims of human sacrifice to the Maya Gods.

With over 80% of the ceramic vessels being large jars and bowls and almost all the pots are broken, its speculated that these vessels may have contained food offerings. In cave sites where the preservation of organic remains is excellent Archaeologists have discovered corn, chilli pepper, cacao, and copal incense inside of ceramic vessels. The corn, pepper, and cacao were taken into the caves as offerings to the gods and to deceased ancestors. Copal incense was generally burnt during celebration of the cave rituals.  Stone tools found inside the cave were grinding stones and hoes (known as manos and metates with the grinding stones used for processing corn). Both of these implements are associated with food production and support to the theory that most cave rituals were focused on agricultural fertility.
According to the Maya Religion & Cosmology Caves are sacred and ritualistic.  Caves like ATM represents the portals to the underworld (“Xibalba”), places of origin, creation and were the home for important and powerful Gods of the Underworld. In the Popul Vuh, a sacred Maya book, it's the nine Underworld gods who are responsible for the creation of the world. These same gods are revered in Maya culture as deities that promote rain and as earth gods associated with fertility. The earth lords residing in caves beneath sacred mountains are the owners of the land, the forests and of all animals, Humans are expected to petition these gods for these resources by trading offerings for favours with burning copal to appease the gods.

For this reason the Maya journeyed into caves to communicate with their gods and ancestral spirits. They went to request that the rain god Chac nourish their crops, that the earth gods provide them luck in the hunt, and that their harvests be bountiful. As part of their rituals they would burn copal incense, give their blood in offering and in more desperate times, even provide sacrificial victims to ensure continued sustenance and agricultural fertility.  

Visitors have a rare opportunity to visit this truly breathtaking, beautiful and unique ATM cave. Caves like ATM are very fragile with sensitive environments and it’s our responsibility to protect them from destruction and to preserve them so that future generations can appreciate their beauty and splendour as you can do today.  By visiting ATM you are helping to educate visitors about our Ancient Maya History and keeping the Maya Culture alive.

                        Creating lifetime memories one vacation at a time.  


 "Exploring Nature With Expert Naturalist"

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