Travel Destinations

Monday, July 22, 2013

Exploring Belize’s Underworld Actun Tunichil Muknal

Hiking through the jungle to Actun Tunnichil Muknal, Belize
Hiking through the jungle on the way to Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Trekking through Actun Tunichil Muknal (“ATM”), also known as Xibalba and the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, is one of the more memorable experiences we have had while traveling.  Belize has a wealth of ancient Mayan sites as well as adventure activities.  Belize’s ATM cave tour is a combination of both!

The caves can only be visited with specially licensed tour companies.  We chose Mayawalk Tours, the first company ever to lead tours through the ATM caves. Tour groups are small, consisting of six to eight people.

Crossing Water on Hike to Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
The hike hasn't even started and we're getting wet. 
This adventure involves hiking, swimming, and caving.
We were picked up at our hotel in San Ignacio in the morning and driven to the Tapir Mountain Reserve.  The drive included some off-roading in the small school bus.  The adventure started with a long hike through the jungle which included fording the river four times.  We then arrived at the cave entrance.  There is a deep pool of water at the entrance which we had to swim across to enter the cave.

Cave Entrance, Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
Cave Entrance - Our Guide Rolando of Mayawalk Tours - Fish in the Clear Water
Once in the cave, we walked over a mile, always in water varying in depth from ankle deep to armpit deep.  There were beautiful stalagmite formations that looked as if they were covered in glitter.  We saw small bats in the cave and tiny fish in the water.  In addition to trudging through water, there were small crevices to slide through and rocks to climb.

Trekking through Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
Examples of what is involved trekking through the ATM caves.
These pictures were kindly provided to us by another couple from our tour.
At one point we all turned off our headlamps and just stood for minutes in pitch blackness in the center of the earth.  We had a wonderful guide, Rolando, who was very passionate about his Mayan heritage and the history of the cave.  Rolando explained to us that the Mayans believed the stalactites were tree roots and the cave was the underworld.  It was thought when someone died they had to go through the steps of the underworld to get to heaven; they had to go through the roots of the tree to the top.  The Mayans used the cave as a place of worship.  It was fascinating to imagine the Mayans traveling through the caves.  We were worming our way through in hiking shoes and wearing headlamps.  The Mayans walked through these caves holding torches, carrying babies and large earthenware pots with offerings and transporting animals to sacrifice.

Artifacts in the Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
Calcified Artifacts
Broken Pottery in Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
Broken Pottery
Pottery in Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
A beautiful example of pottery in the Main Chamber.
We reached our final destination, the Main Chamber, the location of the Crystal Maiden.  We had to take off our shoes and climb up 60 feet of rock in our socks.  In the Main Chamber, broken pottery is littered across the floor, embedded.  There are also scattered skulls and bones.  We were able to walk amongst the artifacts.  At the back of the chamber, roped off, was the Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a teenage girl whose bones sparkle from calcification. 

Belize Actun Tunichil Muknal Crystal Maiden, Skulls, Bones
Crystal Maiden and Other Bones and Skulls in the Main Chamber
When visiting the Main Chamber, be respectful.  It is remarkable to be allowed into the cave and so close to ancient artifacts.  This would never be allowed in the United States.  But this great privilege is accompanied by great responsibility.  There are artifacts and bones all over the floor that must be carefully navigated.  In fact, as of May 4, 2012, visitors are no longer allowed to bring cameras into the cave without special permission.   This is because a visitor to the cave accidentally dropped their camera on one of the skulls, causing a small section to be broken.  I am sure this was completely accidental and that the individual is horrified that it happened.   But visitors need to ensure no more unfortunate incidents occur so the cave does not become closed off to visitors completely.

Speaking of respectful visitors, I’d like to share a story from our day of just the opposite.  Have you ever been on a group tour that had that one guy?  You know the one I’m talking about.  Everyone in our small group was fantastic except one person.  He was traveling alone and could not stop bragging about how awesome he was and all of the amazing skydiving things he had done.  First he was supposed to meet our group at a certain time but was late, making us all wait.  He was picked up by a guide at the airport, late, and insisted on being taken to a rental car place immediately for no apparent reason.  Then he needed a food break and later a bathroom break.  Then when he finally met up with us he was yelling at the man who had picked him up.  At the beginning of the trail he needed to use the bathroom again, and then took his sweet time getting ready for the hike.  He talked about himself so much he even wore out this nice Canadian couple in our group.  He also had absolutely no respect.  As we walked carefully through the cave, Rolando requested we all be watchful and follow his footsteps and not roam around the cave.  This man would not listen, even after being politely reminded repeatedly.  He disregarded Rolando and hopped around the cave over precious artifacts. Don’t be that guy.   
Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize
It's so sparkly in the Main Chamber!
Mayawalk Tours is a family owned and Eco-friendly company. We booked two different tours with them and loved both.  The Actun Tunichil Muknal tour takes a full day and is moderately strenuous.   We were told to bring hiking boots, bug spray, an extra pair of socks for entering the Main Chamber, a change of clothing and shoes for the drive back, a liter of water, snacks, a backpack, swimsuit, and camera.  There is an area near the cave where we stored our backpacks, and Rolando had a waterproof bag to hold everyone’s cameras.

Travel the World: An unforgettable experience when traveling to Belize is trekking through Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize’s ATM cave tour.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.