After a 45 minute trek through the Belizean jungle we spent 3 -4 hours wading, swimming, climbing and scrambling as we explored the amazing Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, a Maya archaeological site that contains stone pots, vases and skeletons!
This incredible experience was one of the absolute highlights of our travels this year and is one of the most exciting adventures we’ve ever had! And in terms of ‘stepping out of our comfort zones’… it’s right up there with Thailand Hill Tribe Trekking and staying with rice terrace farmers in the Philippines!
The cave entrance is a 45 minute trek through lush rainforest. Our guide led our small group of 7 through the jungle where within 5 minutes we were literally ‘jumping in at the deep end’ by having to swim (in clothes and hiking boots) across a river, the first of 3 river crossings.
At the cave entry we had to lower ourselves into a cave pool (top photo) and swim a short distance into the cave. There are no lights inside the cave but we were all provided with helmets and head torches.
Our guide led us in single file as we made our way through the cave streams with hidden underwater rocks and deep crevices, tight passageways and past beautiful and colourful stalactite and stalagmite formations some of which glistened like crystals when a torch was shone upon them.
The cave is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve near San Ignacio, Belize and was only re-discovered in 1986. The Belize Tourism Board decided to retain the Mayan artefacts as they were originally found. It is incredible to think that the artefacts we saw today have laid there so wonderfully preserved for over a 1000 years! What a privilege to have seen them in their natural place rather than in a museum.
When you arrive near the centre of the cave (where most of the Mayan artefacts are situated) you need to remove your footwear and wear socks. This enables you to step carefully through the cave chamber and prevent damage to the vases and pots which remain frozen in time.
The most fascinating part of the cave is the ‘Crystal Maiden’ which is nearly half a mile high up inside the cave. This is the skeleton of a teenager thought to have been sacrificed to the rain gods and which over the years has been calcified to create a shimmering crystal affect.
After very heavy rains the skeleton is almost completely covered by the cool, clear water except for the top part of the skull which remains un-calcified. It was a strange and somewhat eerie feeling being so close to the remains of someone who lived so long ago.
Following our Crystal Maiden encounter we made our way back to the cave entrance climbing and sliding down the slippery rocks. In one place we had to squeeze through a narrow gap whilst twisting our heads at just the right angle and while in shoulder high water…
Our adventure gave us a fascinating glimpse of the spiritual Mayan underworld much assisted by our guide (Oscar) who gave us detailed and extensive information throughout the day.
This was an excellent tour run by Pacztours and spent with a brilliant group of fellow travellers; a Dutch couple, a Canadian couple and a solo American.
Unfortunately cameras are banned from the cave so other than the two below we don’t have any of our own photos with which to illustrate this post. All cave photos have been sourced from the Internet and referenced appropriately.
San Pedro to San Ignacio
We travelled by Belize Express ferry from San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) to Belize City and then took a taxi from Belize City to San Ignacio. In hindsight we would have been far better off (in terms of cost) had we taken a bus from Belize City especially when we later discovered the bus could have stopped outside our hotel! It is also important to clarify whether the price agreed for the taxi journey is in Belize or US dollars.
Where the Belizean Cayes are excellent for relaxing, beaches, snorkelling and diving, many people stay in San Ignacio for action and adventure. As well as the ATM tour, there are several other tours and places of interest in this part of Belize.