Actun Tunichil Muknal or the Belize ATM Cave Tour is one of the most popular adventure tours in Belize. The cave tour can best be described as an “Indiana Jones” type experience and visitors have the opportunity to view impressive stalactites and stalagmites inside the cave along with Maya pottery that have been undisturbed for hundreds of years.
Your ATM Cave Guide will reveal ancient passage ways and will share stories of Maya Gods and evidence of a Mayan princess burial scene.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour Highlights
Actun Tunichil Muknal, called ATM Cave for short, is a large underground system that is a popular tourist attraction due to the large number of Maya artifacts that were discovered in situ by archeologists. Over 1,400 objects from the ancient Maya culture have been catalogued, including tools, weapons, pottery objects, and water vessels. It is believed that the Maya used the ATM Cave as a religious site to perform bloody sacrifices in an attempt to appear the gods during times of war. ATM also features a stone altar carved from stalactites with a stingray spine centerpiece. The Maya name (Actun Tunichil Muknal) for the cave translates to “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” because of this unique altar.
Beyond the first area containing the most artifacts lies a zone where the remains of sacrificial victims have been discovered. Just beyond that is a grotto where archeologists discovered a huge cache of artifacts that looked as if they were thrown away or discarded. Due to the fragile nature of this important historical site, only special guides licensed by the Department of Archeology can bring tourists into the cave to view these undisturbed relics of the Ancient Maya.
ATM is often referred to as the “Cave of the Crystal Maiden” due to a unique skeleton discovered in its depths. Originally thought to be a young woman, the bones of the sacrificial victim have calcified over the years, giving the skeleton a shimmery crystal appearance. To view the “Crystal Maiden”, visitors must climb a ladder to access a recessed ledge. In addition to the “Crystal Maiden”, 14 different other skeletons have been discovered in ATM, including seven children whom archeologists have determined were under the age of 5.
ATM is also home to large numbers of clay pots as well as shattered clay potsherds that were used to hold food sacrificed to the gods. One interesting pot that archaeologists discovered has a detailed image of a monkey drawn near its rim. Other objects that have been discovered include obsidian knives placed in the area where the sacrificial victims were discovered, believed to have been used as part of the bloody religious ceremonies. Forensic archaeologists have uncovered evidence that some of the victims were both bound and tortured, allowing visitors today to marvel at the piles of bone fragments that are all that remain.
By carbon dating the artifacts, archaeologists have determined that the ATM Cave was used throughout the end of the Classical Period (800 to 1000 AD), a time when much of Belize was suffering from drought. Rediscovered in the modern era in 1989, ATM is a valuable historical site because its contents have lain undisturbed for approximately 1,000 years. After careful exploration and documentation, the government of Belize opened ATM Cave to restricted public visitation in 1998.
ATM Cave is part of a larger cave system that is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve approximately a half-hour drive from Roaring Creek Village via the Western Highway. Visitors who wish to visit ATM must be accompanied by guides licensed by the Department of Archeology. To reach the cave, visitors must follow a path through the jungle and then cross the Roaring Creek River. At the entrance of the cave, visitors must then swim approximately 30 feet (10 meters) to get to a large rock. Visitors must then make their way along a creek bed, stopping occasionally to swim across additional pools of water before reaching the location of the artifacts and remains of sacrificial victims.
ATM Cave Testimonials
“My husband Scott and I spent our honeymoon at the Cahal Pech Village Resort in Cayo last year. The staff at the resort told us about the ATM cave and so we signed up for a tour. Oh my goodness! I was expecting a short walk down a dank, slimy cavern but the labyrinth inside was truly enormous. After swimming and climbing our way deep into its interior, we got the rare chance to see all the ancient religious Maya stuff that our guide told us hadn’t been disturbed for more than a thousand years. It truly was like visiting another world.”
-Elizabeth Ordway, Cabot, Vermont
“We went to Belize partly as a way to connect as a family and partly to help broaden our three children’s education. The staff at Cahal Pech told us about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (ATM cave) and so we went on their tour. At first, our kids were moaning about the heat, but once we got in there, I could see their eyes grow wide with amazement. To call it a cave is a serious understatement. It’s like entering a giant hall of enormous stalactites, and when you get to the place where the bones of the Crystal Maiden lie, you can really feel that you’re in a special place. When we got back to the resort, our youngest son Willy told us he wants to be an archeologist when he grows up!”
-The Daniels family of Baltimore, Maryland
“I’ve been clambering in and out of caves my whole life, so I was very curious to see what the ATM cave would offer. The staff at Cahal Pech told me that only a small group of authorized guides could take me to the ATM cave, so I signed up for the tour. I’ve done spelunking in some pretty cool places but the ATM cave had me right at the entrance, a deep pool of cool water that you have to swim across before you even get IN there. The stone sepulcher is amazing, and seeing all those Maya artifacts lying around just as the ancient priests left them there was truly a breathtaking experience. Loved it and can’t wait to go see it again.”
-Sharon Butler, Louisburg, North Carolina
Further Reading on Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave:
More than 1,000 years ago, high priests of the Maya empire descended into what is now known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in a desperate effort to appease the gods by performing human sacrifices. After the Maya empire collapsed, ATM cave was forgotten, lying undisturbed for more than a millenia before it was accidentally rediscovered in 1989.
Following a careful survey, archeologists discovered ceramics, stoneware, obsidian blades, ritual objects, an enormous stone sepulcher and the intact remains of several human victims, including those of young children. One skeleton in particular, originally thought to be of a young adult woman, has become infused with the minerals of the cave, known locally as the Crystal Maiden.
ATM cave is currently situated in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in Belize’s western Cayo District, about an hour’s drive from the town of San Ignacio. In order to preserve the integrity of the site, only authorized tour guides are allowed to bring visitors into the cave.
In order to enter the cave, visitors must first hike through the jungle for about an hour, occasionally fording shallow rivers. The cave’s entrance is guarded by a spring-fed pool, obligating visitors to swim in and then wade up a subterranean river for approximately one kilometer (half a mile).
After passing through a series of enormous boulders, visitors enter several large caverns, including one known as the “Cathedral” where a number of undisturbed Maya artifacts are visible, including a soaring altar carved from the native stone. One of the cave’s sobriquets is “The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” due to this magnificent piece of religious artistry. Although the original name (if any) for the cave is unknown, the current name of Actun Tunichil Muknal is a Maya term that translates to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher”.
From there, participants must make their way up a slippery ledge in order to reach the sacred labyrinths where ancient Maya priests performed their grisly rituals. Visitors can see the intact skeletons of children and young adults whose lives were sacrified in a desperate effort to appease the gods during one of the most turbulent and difficult times in Maya history.
The youngest individual whose remains lie in the deep interior of ATM cave is estimated to be just 1 year old. Archaeologists have determined that the majority of the victims were killed by blunt force trauma, resulting in their skulls becoming crushed. Near the skeletons, visitors can see a collection of pottery, including ritual vessels containing food and other offerings for the gods. The Crystal Maiden lies at the rear of this section, and archeologists have dated her death at just over 1,000 years ago. Other interesting artifacts include carvings of faces and animals.
Archeologists are still working to discover exactly why these children and young adults were sacrificed and left unburied. The current theory is that their lives were offered to appease the rain god Chac or perhaps the victims were suffering from some sort of mental ailment, the Maya priests wanting their unclean spirits to be trapped in the cave.
Although the cave is protected by the Belize Institute of Culture and History, visitors can expect to encounter a few of the country’s more interesting wildlife in the cave, including several series of predatory spiders like the Amblypygi, commonly known as a “whip spider”, freshwater crabs, catfish, and tropical fish.
Archeologists believe that caves like ATM were important ceremonial sites because the ancient Maya believed that they were a nexus between the world of humans and the underworld of the gods. Maya legends refer to caves as a gateway to a kind of hell where 12 maleficent deities with names like “Skull Staff” and “Stabbing Demon” ruled.
Visitors to the cave must be careful not to disturb the sanctity of the site, as none of the pottery, artifacts, or skeletons are roped off. Exploring the cave is usually a full-day activity, so be prepared for an early morning start in order to properly appreciate the unique atmosphere of the cave. Photography is prohibited, but visiting the site is sure to create truly special memories as the cave is one of the few Maya sites that escaped the ravages of time.