Although many travelers come to Belize in order to scuba dive or snorkel on the offshore reef or hike through the magnificent jungles and rainforests on the mainland, one of Belize’s greatest treasures lies deep underground.
Formally known as Actun Tunichik Muknal (ATM) Cave, this huge subterranean labyrinth was only rediscovered in 1989 by accident after having lain undisturbed for more than a millennia. ATM Cave is located deep within the recesses of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve about an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, however getting to the entrance of the cave requires an hour’s hike through the jungle as well as swimming across a spring-fed pool that guards the cave’s entrance.
In the local Maya dialect, Actun Tunichil Muknal means “The Cave Of The Stone Sepulcher,” named for the cave’s most spectacular inhabitant. Visitors to the cave must make their way deep into an underground labyrinth and climb up to a narrow platform in order to see the Crystal Maiden, actually the calcified bones of a young Maya woman that have acquired a glittery sheen after more than 1,000 years of resting in the cave.
Archeologists now believe that this deep recess at the end of the cave was where more than a dozen people, most of them very young children, were sacrificed by ancient priests during one of the most contentious and strife-filled periods of the Maya civilization. Despite having created one of the most advanced civilizations on the planet, the ancient Maya culture largely collapsed around the year 900 AD for reasons still debated by archeologists but suspected to be caused by a combination of a changing climate and widespread internecine warfare.
Visitors to the ATM Cave, after swimming across the cave entrance and walking around half a mile (one kilometer) upstream through a shallow creek will enter a large space now known as The Cathedral. Numerous ancient artifacts can be seen here, including an altar elaborately carved from a stalagmite. It’s only much further beyond that visitors will reach the sacrificial chamber where infants, teenagers, and adults were bound at their wrists and ankles before being ritually murdered by ancient Maya priests.