The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave

In Belize, I went on a tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, which I had seen mentioned on a crazyguy blog. I was shocked at the price, $100US, especially after having come from Mexico, but I did it anyway because of the rave reviews on trip adviser.

After a short walk on a well beaten path through the jungle we, a group of 8, arrived at an area with some palapas and firepits. Then we went down to the river which was flowing out of the cave. It was a bit cold in the water, and after the entrances, totally dark. It is limestone and has formed all sorts of interesting formations. In some parts it sparkles, I think with quartz.

After a while we climbed up to a dry part of the cave. Here there are many pieces of Mayan pottery, and bones. It seems they conducted ceremonies here, probably to ask gods for help in times of need. They believe caves are a gateway to the afterlife.

The grand finale of the tour is the skeleton called the Crystal Maiden. It has been fused with the floor by the limestone, and it sparkles.

Crystal Maiden, ATM Cave

I think I liked seeing the cave itself more than any of the archaeology in particular. The rock formations were very varied, interesting and impressive. Of course, because this was a tour group we were not really experiencing any of this at its best.

The right way to visit this cave would be to go with some friends, probably at night, not that it matters inside, and experience it, not be told about it. It is not a place for talking, it is a place to feel. It should be a place to explore your mind and soul. It would be enhanced greatly by finding some local psychedelic - possibly consult a shaman or priest if such a person still exists around there, and by fire. They don’t allow fire now to preserve the cave, but I feel like it is very important. This could be a life changing experience, and you would see it as the Mayans did.

I said before it was cold in the cave, but not just physically. It is a deep, dark place of the dead, or the never alive, or wondering if you are or not, and of time disappearing.

I found it reassuring that there were some women in our group. I think because they seemed alive, and can make new life. I was relived when I exited the cave and could see the sun again and feel the warmth. The world was still there. Exiting this cave is like being born again, or knowing you are alive again.

There was some life in the cave. A tiny green shoot with one leave was growing in a corner of a passage. The guide thought it lived on the light from our headlamps.

Aside, on Conservation

I was considering the balance beetween conservation and use. The best way to conserve it is to let noone in, but then there is no point. If noone sees it, it makes no difference if it is destroyed or not. I don’t think use of this cave should be stopped now - our civilisation may even benefit from it more than the Maya. Study it thoroughly, then allow people to use it. This won’t happen as long as someone is making a lot of money from controlling access, though.