I rolled up into San Ignacio, Belize in a dilapidated old school bus without much of a plan, as I often do.  This was the second half of my Belize adventure.  The first half was a sun-soaked few days on the islands, but now I was in the jungle, where the real adventure is.  I was itching to find something unique and exciting to do, so shortly after checking into my hotel I went on a mission to find what there was to do in this remote little city.

As I walked out of my hotel I heard a call “Hey buddy, you looking for a tour? Jungle? River tubing? Mayan ruins?”  Well that didn’t take very long, did it?  Now normally I can’t stand these guys.  I realize that they’re just trying to make an honest buck, but when I pass by every day for a week and they don’t get any less pushy I start to get pretty annoyed very quickly.  This time was different though – I was eager for something to do and these guys were throwing opportunities at me.

“Ok, so what do you got?”

After debating what seemed to be dozens of available options I settled on a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as the ATM Cave.  It featured a jungle hike, cave exploration and an ancient Mayan sacrificial site, all lead by an experienced guide.  Not bad for my first venture into the jungles of Belize.

The day of the tour started at dawn.  I met up with my tour group and crammed into the back of the rickety van, coffee-deprived and groggy, and we took off into the jungle.  I’m not sure how long it took us to get there (I tend to sleep a lot in cars) but when I woke up we were rocketing down a very bumpy road, clearly no longer anywhere near civilization.  We began the next part of our journey on foot, following a fairly easy trail taking us even deeper into the jungle.

Crossing a stream on the way to the ATM cave in Belize

Heading to the ATM cave. Yes, those are zip-off pants. I am not a bright man.

The trees parted up ahead as we approached a river leading into none other than Actun Tunichil Muknal itself.  Ok, so I guess there’s going to be some swimming involved in this because there’s no way we’re getting into that cave without getting wet.  A few photos by the entrance and everybody in the pool!

The entrance to the ATM cave

The ominous entrance to the ATM cave

Wow, the water was cold though.  And a lot deeper than it looked at first.  “Now, it’s going to get dark and there are some tight spaces up ahead.  You all have headlamps but that doesn’t mean that you can wander off!”  Great, tight spaces and water, what could go wrong?  Now I wouldn’t call myself claustrophobic, but being stuck in tight spaces while deep underground is not what most sane people consider fun.  Well, there was no turning back now, so it was onwards into the cave.  The next couple hours  were mostly spent swimming and scrambling over rocks with the grace of drowned rats as we made our way deeper into the caves.  Beautiful rock formations and chambers would open up before us.  Just as quickly they would close off , forcing us to squeeze through the narrowest crevasses to continue on our way.

Rock formations in the ATM cave

As we approached the finale of our cave adventure, our guide began to explain in more detail the uses of the cave by the Mayans as a sacrificial site.  “You’ll see some ceramics and some human remains and as we go farther back into the cave the remains become more and more recent.”  Ok, well I don’t recall having seen a whole lot of preserved human remains before, this should be kind of interesting.  We passed by the pottery which was, in all honestly, a little bit underwhelming.  Although I’m sure they have very important archaeological significance.  A little further into the cave and suddenly they were right there – people who had been forcefully tied and sacrificed to the Mayan gods.  This was no pile of dust and dog bones but a truly impressive archaeological site.  Combine the skulls scattered before us with the chill calm of the cave and the bats flying overhead and you get a creepiness scale that’s through the roof.

Fun with Pots

A skull on the ground of the ATM cave

The most impressive of the skeletons is known as “The Crystal Maiden”.  Her bones are entirely calcified to give them a sparkling, crystallized look.

The Crystal Maiden of the ATM Cave

The Crystal Maiden

When I visited Belize in 2011 the tour guide told me that I should visit the ATM cave while I could because there was some serious discussion going on about closing it down to tourists.  Now, he was trying to sell me a tour, so take that how you will, but with the sensitive archaeological site being completely open for hundreds of clumsy tourists to walk around I can definitely see why there would be a push to shut it down.  More recently there was an incident where a tourist dropped a camera, shattering a 1000-year-old Mayan skull.  Sadly, but understandably, they don’t allow cameras to be brought into the cave anymore.  If you do choose to check out the ATM cave in Belize (or really anywhere containing irreplaceable priceless artifacts without any protection)please be sure to be very, very careful and aware of what you’re doing.

I found that Belize surprised me in being a very underrated country and Actun Tunichil Muknal was my favorite Belize experience.  If you’re ever in the west-central part of Belize then it absolutely cannot be missed!  I can’t recommend it enough!