Journey The Mayan Underworld In Belize: Actun Tunichil Muknal by:Brad Keller
Imagine yourself and family; traveling over rugged jeep trails, hiking through deep lush jungle, fording a river a few times, swimming into and scrambling hundreds of yards through an ancient cave, and finally arriving at a massive chamber filled with skulls, human bones, and pottery.
There are no lights hanging from the cave ceiling or walls. You'll find no sidewalks or bridges. You'll see the site as the archeologists did when they entered it for the first time. It is the stuff dreams are made of. Well, at least for the adventuresome.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave) is a ritual human sacrifice cave. It's locates at the foothills of the Maya Mountains about 8 miles south of the Western Highway west between Belmopan and San Ignacio in Cayo District. Although archeologists cringe and groan at the thought, it's probably the premier tour in all Belize. If not it's highly debatable. By the way, this is not a self guided tour.
Despite the above I still consider this a family style tour and if I were you I'd start with a really large breakfast. The drive to the national park can be from one to two hours depending on where you start. Once you turn south off the Western Highway it's all gravel road and jeep trail heading south eight miles through fields, orchards, jungle, and rivers. You won't be able to drive yourself since the cave is heavily protected and rightly so.
Once at the parking area, you and your group will change clothes, use the restrooms, and prep for the hike. Leave an extra set of clothes with the driver for ride home. The guides usually offer to carry electronics in their dry bag to prevent damage.
The hike is less than a mile over fairly level ground covered in some lush jungle canopy following a clear cool river the entire way, very nice. The group crosses the river three times. It's never very deep and only goes up to your waist a couple of times. The guides are well educated and offer assistance all along the way.
You'll leave your personal items, packs, and lunch under a group palapa in front of the cave. I recommend taking a camera/camcorder into the cave. You'll swim in so make sure your electronics are waterproof or safe from water. Maybe a waterproof point and shoot camera is best. Now it gets fun! Put on your caving helmet and turn on the light.
The journey into the cave truly is a journey back in time. You'll see and experience what the ancient Mayan saw many centuries ago while going to the sacrificial areas way in the back. Don't be too worried about the caving here. It's not too bad for most folks. You'll be in and out of water and scramble between and through some rocks but there's never a squeeze that will freak out the truly claustrophobic.
After about 45 minutes, you find yourself taking off your shoes on a wide ledge over the cave stream and moving up a small hill in your socks. Yes, just your socks. So take your crummiest pair with you. It's done to prevent/minimize the damage (tracks or body oils) we do while moving through the site. This is a real archeological site not some staged circus side show. This is a good place to get your camera/camcorder back from the guide.
You'll move from artifact to artifact as the guide educates you on Mayan history. The guides really are very well trained for Mayan history. You are in good hands. The beauty of this site is that you can get up and personal with artifacts (skulls, bones, pottery, and etcetera) that are normally behind glass and fences in museums. I think this is probably the true value of the tour.
You, your wife, and children can experience Mayan history on your Belize vacation instead of just seeing it in on television. I've gotten nose to nose with the skull of a Mayan that passed away as a sacrifice a thousand years ago.
You can inspect skulls, bones, sacrifices of all types, and pottery up close and personal. I have a hard time describing the experience and words can't do it justice. I do need to point out that you can NEVER touch anything. It's a big fine. Don't test the guide and don't think you can be the exception to the rule. Keep your kids in check and show respect.
I'm a caver. I've been in probably 800+ different caves in my life throughout the United States, Mexico, and Central America. I've seen pottery, pottery cracked in half, pottery with holes (sacrificial), skulls, bones, wells of bones, and more. I'd be hard pressed to tell you of a place with this quantity and quality of artifacts in it. I can't think of another place where the public can access and experience history in this manner. It's truly very unique.
The tour culminates with the inspection of the Crystal Maiden. It is the only area that is protected by thin black wire due to an unruly guest that insisted on touching. The Crystal Maiden is thought to be an unwilling sacrifice to some of the gods of old. She died as she laid and you can view the results of time. Maybe she's the Crystal Maiden since there's a fine layer of calcite over her that glitters when passing light over here. She's quite impressive.
The travel out of the cave is about and good as the journey in. I usually see people eat under the palapa after exiting the cave. The tour is about 3-4 hours in length. There's also usually some time to wander around a bit while people finish lunch. The stream exiting the cave does make a good swim. There are also some nice big rocks to in the creek there that make a good couple shot for your photo album.
So far, I've never heard anyone upset or disappointed. Most are grateful for the experience. For the vast majority, it's chance to experience the life of another (cave, archeologist, ancient mayan), a gift in and of itself. Enjoy yourself.
About the author
Brad Keller is a chronic traveler and now resident of Belize. Born and raised in the United States, Brad enjoys writing and is a contributing writer for Travel Informed. Travel Informed is an "in country travel specialist" for your Belize vacation package. http://www.travel-informed.com