Ever since my travels in Latin America began, in late 2013, in nearly every place that I have visited, I have tried to leave something undone. Belize was no exception. What I left undone in Belize turned out to be something fairly major. I just didn’t know it at the time.
According to everybody I’ve talked to, a visit to the cave complex of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) turned out to be the highlight of their trip to Belize. At nearly £75.00 ($95.00 USD) it’s not a cheap tour, which is the main reason why I didn’t do it when I visited Belize in 2017. I knew that one day I would return.
ATM takes you deep into the underworld that the ancient Maya knew as Xibalba. The entrance to the three-mile-long cave lies in the northern foothills of the Maya Mountains. The trip takes about 8 hours from San Ignacio, including a one-hour drive each way. It’s not a tour for the faint hearted. You spend much of the time wading through water and/or squeezing through narrow passageways.
At the wide, hourglass-shaped entrance to the cave, you don a life jacket and safety helmet – complete with headlamp. To reach the cave entrance, you start with a frosty swim across a deep pool (about 15ft across). From here, you follow a guide, walking, climbing, twisting and turning your way through the blackness of the cave for about an hour before reaching a huge chamber.
The many ceramics you see at the site are very significant, partly because they are marked with “kill holes”, which indicate that they were used for sacrificial purposes. Most of the pottery dates from between 700 and 900 AD, which is when the bodies found here were most likely sacrificed.
If you ever find yourself in Belize and want to leave something undone, leave out something other than the ATM tour. It’s an incredible adventure, and I highly recommend it.
MayaWalk Tours were the tour company that I went with.
For an interesting overview of what to expect, check out this You Tube video.
For in depth information about the history of the cave complex, check out this article from the website atlas obscura.
Next stage: Guatemala.