I recently returned from a one week trip to Placencia in Belize with my husband and 12 other friends. We stayed on a private island with our own 7 villas, a pool, volleyball court, outdoor living and dining room. Everyday, we drank, ate and laughed to our heart’s content and wondered how we got so lucky. When we weren’t lounging by the pool or dipping our toes in the Caribbean Sea, we explored Belize. What an incredible country! One day, we snorkelled with nurse sharks, sting rays and turtles, and the next, we explored murky waters and jungle for crocodiles and howler monkeys. However, without question, our day exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal (the “ATM” caves) was one of the most extraordinary experiences that I have ever had.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Actun Tunichil Muknal is a 5.3 km cave system near San Ignacio, almost in the centre of Belize. It contains some of the most well-preserved examples of pre-classical Mayan culture (around 700 – 900 AD), including skeletal remains of human sacrifices, Maya pottery, tools and other ceremonial objects.
Actun Tunichil Muknal was discovered in 1992 and opened to the public in 2000. Incredibly, the skeletons and Maya artifacts are still in the exact same position as they were when the ATM cave was first discovered and explored. Actun Tunichil Muknal is, in effect, a living museum. The National Geographic Society proclaimed it the number one sacred cave in the world.
Why human remains at Actun Tunichil Muknal?
So far, 14 skeletal remains have been found, including children. Most have been found with blunt force trauma to their skull, believed to be the way they were killed. However, there were more grisly finds. For example, one child was discovered with both legs and arms broken, left kneeling in prayer, and most likely left alive to die.
Maya legends identify caves as a gateway to hell. Accordingly, Archaeologists believe that the Maya priests considered Actun Tunichil Muknal an important ceremonial site as a nexus between the world of humans and the underworld of the gods.
Currently, there are two theories for why Maya priests sacrificed humans. First, as a desperate effort to appease the rain god during times of drought. Second, as a means to cleanse those with mental illness. They hoped to trap their unclean spirits in the cave. For now, we have to be satisfied with these theories and our imagination.
Details Of Our Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour
In this section, I will discuss each part of our experience exploring the ATM cave. At the end, I will provide a list of my recommendations, tips and warnings for everyone, including parents who might be wondering whether this is an appropriate activity for their child.
Transportation to Actun Tunichil Muknal
As mentioned earlier, we stayed in Placencia during our holiday in Belize. Unfortunately, that meant we were 180 km (112 miles) or approximately 3 hours drive away from the ATM cave. Although none of us was keen to sit in a car for 6 hours round trip, we wanted to see the caves, the skeletons and the Maya artifacts.
I booked our ATM cave tour with Untame Belize. They provided a large van capable of seating our group and a driver, Jimmy, who drove us both ways. He picked us up at 6:30 am and we arrived back in Placencia at 7:00 pm.
Our driver was friendly and accommodating, spoke good English and for a lot of the trip he provided interesting information about Belize and the ATM cave. However, the van was terrible and quite frankly, dangerous. Many seat belts did not work and head rests were missing. Further, the tires did not fit the van (too small) and there was little to no suspension. To make matters worst, Jimmy drove like a maniac. And as fate would have it, on our drive home, our van broke down and we lost about 45 minutes while Jimmy fixed it.
Start of the Actun Tunichil Muknal tour
Once we arrived in the parking lot of the ATM cave, we met our two guides, Renaud and Basilio.
In order to tour Actun Tunichil Muknal, you must hire a licensed guide that is specifically authorized to tour the ATM cave. Currently, there are only a handful of guides with this authorization. In addition, they must follow strict rules and regulations meant to protect the sanctity of the caves and the Maya artifacts, or risk losing their license. Actun Tunichil Muknal is the number one tourist attraction in Belize. Further, the cave and its contents are viewed as sacred and an important part of Belize’s cultural heritage.
We were divided into two groups, as each guide is only allowed to take a maximum of 8 people at a time. We were provided with a helmet and a headlamp, and instructed to leave everything else behind in the van, including cameras and cell phones. Initially, we were allowed to bring a bottle of water. However, even that was not actually allowed in the ATM cave. Once we hiked through the jungle to the mouth of the cave, we had to leave our water outside.
Hike through the jungle to the ATM cave
We walked 2.5 km (1.5 miles) through the jungle to Actun Tunichil Muknal. This took approximately 45 minutes.
By and large, the hike was easy. The path was large, relatively flat, and level. In addition, the scenery was beautiful. We were surrounded by jungle, rivers and in the distance, mountains. The rivers were pristine and the shores around them were filled with pretty trees and vegetation. The water was very clear. However, on three separate occasions, we had to cross a river. This is where things got a bit interesting.
The water level in two of the crossings was between ankle to knee deep high. Below us were small to medium sized rocks that were slippery. The current was fast, but manageable. A rope was strewn from one side of the river to another and it provided some stability as we walked across. Once I found my balance, these two crossings were very manageable, although I slipped and tripped a couple of times.
The third crossing was in a full blown river where we had to swim across. In fact, when we were there, this was the very first thing that we had to do after walking 3 minutes from the parking lot. Welcome to the adventure that is Actun Tunichil Muknal! The water was cool but not cold and there was a current. However once again, there was a rope across it which allowed me to quickly pull myself across. Once I got over the shock of the water and the concept that my first task on this adventure was to swim in a river in the middle of a Belizean jungle, I have to say I loved it. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
Exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal
The actual tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal starts with descending into a dark pool of water that quickly reaches over your head, and a swim deep into darkness through the mouth of a cave. You blindly follow your guide, a man that you barely met, into a dark abyss and you trust that everything is going to be ok.
My heart was pounding. I didn’t know what I was going to find when we swam around the corner but I was beyond excited to find out. I couldn’t even fathom what we would be doing on the rest of the tour when we had already crossed three rivers and now, we were slowly swimming into a dark cave.
The cave system
For approximately 1 1/2 hours, we walked, climbed, scampered, crawled and swam in a dozen chambers, slowly making our way 1 km (0.6 miles) into its depths. Sometimes, a chamber was huge and I felt very small walking within it. Other times, we were squeezing and climbing our way through rocks, in and out of water. In most chambers, we saw enormous stalagmites and stalactites (icicle-shaped formations that grow from the ground or hang from the ceiling of a cave caused by drips of water) in stunning shapes and colours that were thousands of years old.
In between each chamber, our guide sat us down and lectured to us. He switched his discussions between Maya history and culture, and the geological wonders that surrounded us. I was astounded at how exceptionally knowledgable our guide was about everything to do with the ATM caves. However, the lectures were long. Sometimes, I found it difficult to stay focused on what he was saying when all I wanted to do was keep exploring!
I loved every step I took. As corny as it sounds (and as I read this back, it definitely is corny), I felt like an intrepid adventurer on a quest to find unburied treasures. We spent most of the time in darkness, with only our lamps lighting our way. The light created magical scenes as it bounced off water or shimmered against the crystals lodged in the walls of the cave. I wanted to explore for hours.
After 1 1/2 hours, we started to ascend up to the “Cathedral”, away from the water below, to where the sacrificial ceremonies took place. The actual ascent included climbing up steep slippery rocks in crazy formations. Sometimes, it was quite challenging finding a proper hold as we scaled higher and higher above the ground. There was absolutely nothing protecting us from a fall. I tried not to think about what a careless step would yield.
Thankfully, we all reached the top without incident. We took off our shoes and for the next hour, we explored in our socks.
The Cathedral was an enormous chamber with very high ceilings, enormous white stalagmites and stalactites, and an undulating floor that resembled the top of a lemon meringue pie. It was stunningly beautiful in there. Scattered around were Maya pots and tools. Some were protruding from the ground, seemingly stuck in mid-use. Others were cast on their side, suggesting that some one would be returning soon to right them. A human’s skull and bones lay carelessly nearby, given no more significance than the pottery.
Unbelievably, there was nothing between us and the Maya artifacts in this chamber except for the occasional red tape lying along the floor. We walked very carefully, avoided anything near the red tape, and made sure to only step on hard rock. Anything soft and sandy could hold more Maya artifacts or human remains just below the surface.
Finally, we walked to the end of the chamber where a 20 foot ladder rested against the wall. Each of us climbed it, again without any extra safety precautions. Once at the top, we walked around 5 minutes and found the intact human skeleton and other human remains.
It was startling to see a real human skeleton an arms’ reach away. In many ways it was very beautiful. It was bleached white and it sparkled when our lamps glanced its way. But, of course, knowing his or her fate more than dampened the vision. He or she was sacrificed and it must have been a horrific scene.
Leaving Actun Tunichil Muknal
For the next hour, we retraced our steps back to the entrance. By now, we were very tired, hungry and a little cold. Once we left, we started our 2.5 km hike back to the parking lot. My adventurous spirit was depleted. I couldn’t wait to change into dry clothes and eat.
Important Tips For A Visit To Actun Tunichil Muknal
Before the tour
- Only a limited number of people are allowed in Actun Tunichil Muknal each day. Currently, it ranges between 170-250 people. Accordingly, if you are interested in exploring the ATM cave, I would book this excursion as soon as possible.
- In some respects, it doesn’t matter with which tour operator or hotel you book your excursion in terms of ensuring the quality of the actual tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Every tour operator or hotel must contract with one of the handful of highly regulated licensed tour guides authorized to tour the cave. Rather, you should be more concerned about and research the quality of other facets of your excursion, such as your transportation and driver.
- Before you arrive, have a LARGE breakfast full of protein. In addition, make sure you bring a snack that you can eat just before you start your tour. The tour is long and physically demanding.
- You are not allowed to bring ANYTHING into the cave, other than the clothes that you are wearing, the helmet and headlamp, a life jacket (if needed).
Important considerations before booking the tour
- You must be physically fit. This is a long day of walking, climbing and swimming. Our tour lasted five hours.
- Do not take this tour if you have an injury or a persistent weakness in your knees, hips, or your shoulders. On several occasions, you will be climbing and will have to be able to put your full weight on one knee, one hip, or one shoulder.
- You should be fine if you have claustrophobia, depending on its degree. I have claustrophobia and I never felt uncomfortable. At no point did we climb into a small dark tunnel in which we barely fit. On the contrary, on the few occasions that we had to shimmy our way through a tight set of rocks, I could always see the exit and the large space that awaited me.
- A fear of heights is a slightly different thing. My friend has a fear of heights and she managed to complete the tour with only a couple of anxious moments. However, there were two significant times where we had climb high (and of course, ultimately go back down), without any safety harnesses. Depending on the severity of your phobia, you many find this too much.
- If you have a fear of the dark, you should also be fine. Although the tour was almost exclusively underground without any natural or man-made light, the collective glare of all of the head lamps almost fully lit up each chamber in which we were.
What to wear
- You must be prepared to get wet and stay wet for most of the tour.
- You should not wear a revealing bathing suit or anything disrespectful. The cave is considered sacred. However, you should wear a bathing suit underneath shorts or leggings, and a short or long sleeve shirt depending on your preference.
- Do not wear cotton or fleece. You should only wear nylon or any quick drying material. You will be in and out of water constantly.
- Make sure that you wear water proof sandals or rock shoes that allow you to walk comfortably on land and through water for a total of 7 km (4.35 miles).
- Don’t forget socks. I thought socks would be a nuisance, except when we had to walk without shoes. However, that was incorrect. I had lots of small rocks in and out of my sandals throughout the whole tour. In the end, I really appreciated how socks protected my feet not only when we explored the Cathedral shoeless, but also throughout the whole experience.
- Bring a towel and a warm change of clothes for after the tour.
Other important tips
- Clean toilets, change rooms and cold showers were offered at the start (and end) of the tour next to the parking lot. After that, there were no other bathroom facilities.
- Life jackets are mandatory if the water levels are high in the rivers in and out of the caves and optional at all other times. We did not use life jackets and felt safe.
- The cave was absolutely full of hard and/or sharp surfaces, and instances where one misstep could have led to serious injury. Accordingly, if you are a little clumsy, I would consider carefully whether this tour would be appropriate for you. If so, I would recommend wearing full length pants/leggings and a long sleeve top to minimize injury.
Is Actun Tunichil Muknal an appropriate tour for children?
Unbelievably, there was no age restriction for children. The only requirement was that a child had to be a minimum of 40″ (101 cm) tall.
I would be very hesitant to bring most children under the age of 10 into the ATM cave. Further, I would also carefully consider the physical abilities, and mental toughness of any child, even teenagers, before allowing them on this tour.
My youngest daughter is 15 years old. She would tell you that she is a little clumsy and prone to accidents. She would have also become a little anxious in certain of the situations in which we found ourselves. In the middle of our tour, both my husband and I turned to each other and said she would not have done well on this excursion.
Beyond the other considerations described above, I would also highlight a couple more issues when trying to decide whether your child is ready for Actun Tunichil Muknal.
- I was absolutely starving towards the end of the tour. I could only imagine how hungry a child could become with a 5 hour physically demanding tour without being able to snack.
- Surprisingly, I did not feel cold in the caves even after swimming. I normally feel the cold quite easily. However, I would anticipate that a child with less body fat would feel the cold a lot more and there would not be anything that you could do.
- There is a lot of exploring but also a lot of sitting or standing around while the guides lecture. Depending on your child, they could get bored, become antsy or want to leave.
- With the lack of food and warmth, I felt very tired towards the end of the tour. Again, I would suspect that this reaction would be a lot stronger in a child.
Our tour in Actun Tunichil Muknal was extraordinary. The ATM cave was exceptionally beautiful and it was mesmerizing walking and swimming beneath the stunning stalagmites and stalactites that surrounded us. I loved the challenge of crawling and climbing through different rock formations when moving from chamber to chamber. We learnt a phenomenal amount about Maya history and culture, and about the caves themselves. Finally, walking amongst the Maya artifacts and human remains was astonishing. I feel incredibly lucky to have had all of these moments.
Other Articles About Central America
A few months before our trip to Belize and our excursion to Actun Tunichil Muknal, we spent two weeks exploring Guatemala. This was an amazing trip. As a result, I wrote several articles about our time in Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, and around Lake Peten. I will provide a list of these articles below. However, of particular note, was our time exploring Tikal National Park.
Tikal is considered one of the largest Maya ruins in the world. It is located within Tikal National Park which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The best part – from the ATM cave, it is only a 3 hour drive!
For a description of our time in Tikal, plus my other articles on Guatemala, please see the list below:
- Tikal Guatemala Day Trip: The Best or Worst Idea?
- Antigua Guatemala With Teens: 8 Reasons Why They Will Love It!;
- Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: An Incredible Journey Worth Every Step;
- Lake Atitlan Guatemala: A Guide To How To Plan Your Stay;
- Lake Atitlan Activities in Guatemala: 10 Of My Favourites;
- Chichicastenango Market: Was It Worth?
- Lake Peten Guatemala: An Easy Going Three Day Itinerary
- 10 Day Guatemala Itinerary: A Spectacular Trip With Teens
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