• Sylvie Novotny

The Secrets of Actun Tunichil Muknal

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

If you’re a fan of history or just want to see something bone chilling (get it?), Actun Tunichil Muknal may be what you’ve been searching for. Known as ATM, this cave may be one of the most adventurous things you do in Belize. The National Geographic Society has declared ATM as the single most important sacred cave in the world. ATM is a natural wonder that has partially preserved the Mayan tradition of sacrifice. Yes, it’s a cave where the Mayans would go to make sacrifices to the gods. And before you make your own pilgrimage to the sacred site, there are some things you should know.

Actun Tunichil Muknal in Cayo Belize. Cave entrance has such clear water
Crystal clear water welcomes you to the sacred Mayan site of Actun Tunichil Muknal

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones

ATM is not an easy location to get to. There is a somewhat long path through the jungle to the cave. It had recently rained when I journeyed to the cave and we saw a huge jaguar print in the path’s mud! You also cross two rivers while holding on to a rope and the strength of the current will vary based on the amount of recent rainfall. From there, you will enter through an opening in the cave. This is when it starts to get really adventurous. You’ll avoid boulders, swim in clear cave waters, and rely only on your headlamp for light. Once you are at the location, it’s unassisted rock climbing for you to ascend to the sacred location.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave formations
Cave formations in the "Cathedral"

Artifacts are Everywhere

Be careful where you step! The floor of the cave is littered with broken pottery, obsidian blades and calcified bones of sacrificial martyrs. The cave itself is an artifact too; the ancient Mayans carved stories of their gods and symbols into the cave formations.

You’ll need socks

To preserve the floor of the cave from our natural oils, the Belize government has requested that tourists wear socks and take off their shoes.

Tourism is limited

Only certified guides can take you into the cave, so you can’t just drive up to the site. This is to preserve the location, keep tourists and guides safe, and limit the amount of people going to the cave. The Tour guides had months of training in the history of the cave as well as some first aid and less than thirty guides practice today. Tour guides can only bring in a limited amount of people per group and the park will only accept a certain amount per day. That being said, the space in the cave, known as the “Cathedral” is small and can feel crowded even with these limitations.

Off Season is a Good Time to Go, Sort of

To avoid crowds and get that lone adventurer feeling, you may want to consider traveling during the wet season if you can when there are less tourists. That being said, those rivers you cross can be treacherous after heavy rains and it may cause the site to close. Book your trip to ATM for the beginning of your stay in the Cayo district and prepare to be flexible just in case your plans have to change.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Mayan Sacrificial victim
This sacrificial victim was in better shape before the influx of tourism.

Leave your Camera at Home It’s not because of improper hygiene that some skulls are missing teeth. Tourists have dropped their cameras on the bones so many times that they finally banned cameras from the site to protect the integrity of the remains. 

Make Sure You’re Up for It

Tour guides can’t leave you behind, so be sure that you feel physically good enough to go. It’s not hard to climb into the Cathedral, but if sliding between slim pieces of stone or the idea of dark caves may intimidate you this trip may not be for you.

What to Bring:

· Durable clothes · Swim suit · Change of clothes · Socks · Water shoes that are good for some walking as well

Much thanks to Vanilla Hills Lodge for providing these photos. Our stay at the lodge was outstanding and the food was out of this world. It's one of the few hotels I've seen with a perfect score on TripAdvisor. If you want to feel immersed in the sounds of nature as you fall asleep in a beautiful cabin, book your room with Claudia and Franklin. You can contact them via the site linked above or find them on any major booking website. Claudia booked us great tours around Cayo with very knowledgeable guides. However you book, remember to tell them Sylvie sent you! 

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