Actun Tunichil Muknal: the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre

After leaving the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala and in order to arrive at the Mayan riviera in Mexico, it is almost mandatory to pass through Belize. And since you’re there… why not stop and visit a bit? While the most famous attractions of the country are probably its beautiful coast and islands, along the way to Mexico you can also stop to visit the area around San Ignacio to discover its Mayan past.

We decided to focus our very brief visit on one thing only: the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as ATM.

The trail to the cave 

The ATM cave is a Mayan archaeological site, including several potteries and remains of human sacrifices. You can only access it with a guide and cannot bring with you any camera or phone. We thought it was out of respect of the victims, the skeletons of which are visible along the tour. The real reason is much more practical: previous tourists broke some of these bones by dropping a camera, or stepping on them. For these reasons, all the photos in this post are gracefully donated by the Maya Walk Tours agency.

The visit started early in the morning, when we met with our guide JC at the Maya Walk Tours office. They can offer you a pair of shoes to use in the water. Even so, we would suggest for you to bring a pair since the choice of size is limited. 

A short drive, just the time to get to know the few other people in our group, and we arrived at the beginning of the trail that leads to the cave. It’s a simple and short trail, but the fun part is that you need to pass a river three times! The water is never too deep and you do not actually have to swim, but the jungle setting gives an air of adventure to the whole walk. Although the situation might be different during the rainy season. As a matter of facts, the access to the cave might actually be restricted if the water level raises too much. During the walk JC, being the awesome guide that he is, gave us a lot of information about the past and present of the region.

The trail to the cave… Prepare to get wet!

Actun Tunichil Muknal

The very same river we crossed is actually passing through the cave! Once there, we put our helmet on and swam in. The next kilometer is a sequence of walking and swimming, with just a taste of climbing. We also moved a bit in complete darkness, just to feel how the Mayans might have felt when entering to perform the ceremonies. 

ATM entrance
Entering into the cave! Don’t worry: if you can’t swim you can ask for a life jacket.

When the lights came back on, the shadows projected from the stalagmites were becoming faces, monsters, and animals. 

After big halls and narrow passages, we arrived at the proper archaeological sites. We walked around ceremonial ceramics and bones. The ceramics were all crushed, and not because of the passing of time but as a result of the sacrifices. Most of the remains have been moved by floodings, so the number of complete remains is really low.

The best preserved skeleton is called the Crystal Maiden: an eighteen-year-old girl sacrificed a thousand years ago. Her bones have been completely calcified and covered in crystals, hence its name.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Crystal Maiden
The crystallized skeleton of a young girl, probably died because of a big fall: the crystal maiden.

The visit was made even better by our loneliness in the cave. Maya Walk usually starts early in the morning so they don’t have to share the space with other groups. Not only is it nice to be alone, it is also a matter of convenience. Some passages are indeed quite narrow and a queue can form quite quickly if several groups are there at once. In addition, the big halls resonate quite a bit: having to listen to some explanation while other guides talk at the same time would not be really nice. Luckily, we only crossed a couple of groups when we were exiting the cave. 

At the end of the visit, at the beginning of the trail there was a nice lunch waiting for us. All this exploring makes you very hungry!

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