One of the greatest known ceremonial caves in the entire world, ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal), is unquestionably the hottest spot for Western Belize tourism today. In fact, National Geographic Magazine recently dubbed ATM Cave the #1 sacred cave to visit in the world!
ATM Cave is also known as Cave of the Stone Sepulcher (burial vault) because of the 14 known partial skeletal remains found inside. Nearly 1-km beyond the entrance of the cave sits the main attraction, a fully intact skeleton of a teenage girl, with fully calcified bones that sparkle from the light of your headlamp.
Dubbed “The Crystal Maiden”, the bones have preserved for 1,400 years due to the the same processes (water dripping through the limestone) that forms the many beautiful stalactites and stalagmites to be seen and photographed inside ATM cave on the tour.
Archaeologists believe this Maya cave was likely used in spiritual practices by shamans and royalty because of the human remains found, but also because of pottery with “kill holes”. These perfectly made ceramic pots were broken in order to release the spirit Mayans believed lived within as part of a ritual sacrifice to the Gods.
Archaeologists hypothesize that many of the pots found inside ATM Cave near water sources were broken to appease the Mayan Water God Chac. There are literally hundreds of ceramic bowls, pots, and shards that can be easily photographed from up close. The most unique example shows a monkey glyph easily photographed near the rim. Found, only in one other known location, this Mayan glyph will surely lead to further investigations when archaeologists continue their excavations at ATM Cave in the future.
Further into the cave, it is believed the Mayans modified cave formations to worship the Maya Goddess of birth and medicine Ixchel. The lights from your headlamp show the silhouette of her face perfectly against the cave backdrop.
The one thing the guide from PACZ tours tried to get across was the Maya connection between caves and the underworld. To the Mayans, caves were the passageway to Xibalba, or roughly “place of fear”. The Earth was only the middle plane holding together the heavens and hell. To the Maya, sacred caves like ATM were the origin of the sacred Cieba Tree’s root system (really stalactites). Meanwhile, the Ceiba Tree symbolically connected the people to their God’s above and below.
Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts and skeletal remains within the cave, it is
required that tourists take off their shoes during the last leg of the trip. This is to ensure no contaminants are brought into the delicate area surrounding the Mayan remains. This adds to the adventure, and also requires a bit of balance not to step on the pots and skulls inches from your feet!
It is important to understand the high level of difficulty that ATM cave presents Belize travelers. This is a serious adventure, and not for the weak, or unsure. From the van drop-off, there is a brisk 35 minute hike through the jungle to reach the cave entrance. Near the entrance is a rest area with an outhouse, where overnight ATM Cave tours camp, and daytime tours eat lunch provided in the cost of the tour.
To enter the cave, you must first cross the stream that is running out of the cave entrance to reach a dry, narrow, passage. This is the point where it hits you that the ATM Cave tour is no walk in the park. Every step presents a different hazard, and requires constant awareness, as to not disturb cave formations, preserve the skin on your legs, and not crack your head or unprotected back on the ceiling.
The first 3/4s of the cave trip is though the same running stream you cross when hiking in. At no point is it really required to swim, however, being up to your neck in running water is a definite possibility. Because of the tight squeezes, and the rushing water, ATM Cave closes when water levels are high, but this occurs only a couple of times per year. Tell your guide before you leave if you are not a comfortable swimmer and he/she will equip you with a floating vest to wear. They will also be close at your side for any difficulties you might have when in the water.
The tour requires moderate upper body strength to lift yourself over rock ledges. More so it requires agility, balance, and flexibility, similar to rock climbing. The largest challenge is searching for footholds and safe places to hold your weight while climbing on slippery rock surfaces. It is probably worse to be scared of heights than swimming, because there is a point that requires tourists to push themselves over a ledge without a safety harness. However, the same people afraid of heights would find Tikal’s staircases worse than the ATM Cave experience.
The last leg of the trip is a great finish to an exhilarating day. Over the last 200 yards of the cave, the group is instructed to turn their headlights off and travel hand in hand to the light of the exit. It is a totally blind experience, and a true team building activity. Once you see the light at the end of the tunnel, comfort sets in, as you reflect on one of the coolest things you will ever do or see in your life. The finishing touch is a deserved cannon ball into the blue waters of the stream as you swim back out into nature.
Special note, request your guide to show you the stone altar, which not all guides will do unless asked. It is one of the largest carved stone pieces ever found in the Maya world, and worth the extra effort to see. Unfortunately, our camera was packed away in the waterproof bag our guide was carrying. Otherwise, we would have been able to get a great photograph.
From Lower Dover Jungle Lodge it is only 30 mintues to ATM Cave. That means an extra hour or more of sleep compared to visiting ATM Cave from most Belize jungle lodges near San Ignacio. This also means being the first to be dropped off on the way back! More time to check out the large un-excavated Mayan site named Lower Dover in the afternoon.