A Step Back in Time: Belize’s Spectacular ATM Cave  

by McNab Editorial Team
ATM cave

Do caves fascinate you? There’s a reason they do, writes Sam Anderson in the UK publication “Independent”. But reading about them can’t compare to a visit-especially if that cave was the site of Maya sacrificial rites and rituals.

Your motive for wanting to go cave exploring could be as diverse as seeking inspiration, exploring ancient secrets or testing your bravery when you step into the dark recesses of an unknown world, notes Anderson. Caves are “totally alien landscape: barren, inhospitable and forbidden,” he adds. All the more reason to shore up your courage and visit Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave where a crystalized skeleton is just the start of your journey into the past.

Located within a jungle that is part of the Mountain Taper Reserve, it takes around 45 minutes by vehicle to reach this spot from either San Ignacio or Belize’s capital, Belmopan. You’ll need to dress appropriately (Indiana Jones-style hats are perfectly acceptable) so you’re comfortable making the trek to the cave. Suitable, waterproof hiking gear is necessary if you are to survive the trek to the ATM cave entrance!

Your first challenge?

Wading through 12-feet of water that awaits you at the end of the jungle hike. No worries about safety. The Belize government requires visitors to be accompanied by a licensed and experienced guide who knows everything there is to know about topics that range from Maya history to staying safe and comfortable within this forbidding cave.

Prepare to be inspired, amazed and dazzled. You’ll see artifacts, ritual items, and skeletal remains exactly where they were left when the last of the Maya people abandoned this sacred cave so long ago. Because all environs and the treasures left behind are rare and priceless, this site was declared one of 10 Top Caves of the World by the National Geographic Society, so you know you’re in for a unique experience.

A rich history of sacrifice and sacred traditions

Historically, ATM (also known as Cave of the Stone Sepulcher) was established as a holy chamber by the Maya circa 300-to-600 AD, but it took until 700-to-900 AD before it had been shaped and provisioned as a full-blown ceremonial center where everything from thanksgiving celebrations to sacrificial rituals took place.

The best-known remnant of this world remains the “Crystal Maiden,” the fully-formed skeleton of a girl who had been sacrificed to the gods and left exposed to the elements. Decades of weathering by water and minerals turned the bones into a relic that sparkles from head to toe, hence the name she has been given by those who behold her glittering remains.

Beyond the Crystal Maiden

The Crystal Maiden is just one of hundreds of items that were meticulously carried into the cave centuries ago. From ceramics and stoneware to slate stele tools, remnants of Maya life are dramatically displayed amid gigantic limestone stalactites gracing the interiors of the cave’s cathedral-like chambers. Opened to the public in 1998, this site has hosted visitors from around the world who find themselves fascinated by both the cave and its history.

Is there anything you can do to prepare for your cave adventure? Hit the library and find a book on Mayan history or just peruse this invaluable article before you arrive so you are ready to pepper your guide with questions as you move through the cave and gaze upon so many primitive wonders: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-crystal-maiden-of-the-actun-tunichil-muknal-cave-belize.

Intriguing. Breathtaking. ATM is a not-to-be-missed tour during your Belize visit. Just don’t forget to wear your hiking boots–and whatever you do, don’t leave your imagination at home!

Written by Larry Waight

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