The morning after we met Quick and Fiyah Blaze in San Ignacio we arose early for the infamous ATM tour. Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, is a cave outside of San Ignacio that is an active Maya archaeological site. The site is open to a few certified tours groups that lead visitors through an intense caving adventure to see the artifacts hidden deep inside. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed in the cave; you’ll have to take my word for how incredible this experience was.
ATM was a sacred cave to the Ancient Mayans in the area; they used the space mostly to conduct religious rituals and sacrifices. The artifacts inside include ceremonial pots and ceramics, fire pits, and dozens of human remains. As a result of the natural processes of the cave, most of these artifacts are calcified and preserved in near-perfect condition.
Add this fascinating history to a trip involving hiking, swimming, climbing, squeezing, and sliding through a cave and you’ve got yourself a bona-fide Indiana Jones expedition.
Needless to say, I was EXTREMELY excited about this tour.
I had researched the handful of certified ATM tour groups and decided on RiverRat Expeditions, a small Belizean-owned operation. This was perhaps the best decision of our trip. Our tour guide was Gonzo, a cave enthusiast and active archaeologist at the site whose knowledge of ATM and the Ancient Mayans was extraordinary.
Into the Cave
After gearing up with helmets and headlights in the parking lot, we started out on an easy 45 minute hike through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. We left everything we owned in the van as instructed; everything we took with us would be soaked through and dirty by the time we returned.
When we reached the mouth of the cave, we slid down into the river and swam into the dark opening. With only our headlamps to guide the way, we started out by climbing over and around enormous fallen boulders called the “break down.” At some points the only way onward was to swim sideways through crevices the width of our shoulders; at others we had to climb straight upwards through the pitch black.
We progressed this way for nearly a mile into the darkness. During some of the calmer portions, Gonzo would stop us to talk about the natural formations of the cave and how the Mayans interpreted them spiritually. As he did this, many other tour groups and their silent guides passed us by.
After an hour or two of exhilarating caving, we arrived at a landing where several other groups had gathered. When we reached them, we realized what the bottleneck was: a single metal ladder leaning up against the wall of the cave. Twenty feet above us, the tours continued into another “level” of the cave.
The Archaeological Site
We waited patiently as everybody conquered the ladder. At the top, Gonzo instructed us to take our shoes off and leave our socks on: the area we were about to traverse was a sensitive archaeological zone.
Gonzo led us forward through a large cavern, again stopping and talking at various points that other tour guides ignored. He explained how the ceramics and pottery were formed, brought into the cave, and used in ceremonies. We tred carefully around long-cold firepits and human bones. Gonzo pointed out the shapes of unexcavated human fingers and skulls in the floor–the cave is still a work in progress for archaeologists.
Eventually we found ourselves to be the only group remaining in the main cavern. We padded forward in our socks to see the main attraction: the “Crystal Maiden.”
The Crystal Maiden is a full skeleton of a sacrificial victim calcified in incredible condition in the far reaches of the cave.
Check it out — the internet is flooded with pictures of the Crystal Maiden used for marketing the tour. Seeing it in real life was both stunning and strange. We stood and stared at the hauntingly familiar remains for quite a while.
When we finally left the “Crystal Maiden”, Gonzo led us on further into a much less visited part of the cave. This part of the trip was the most strenuous and it was clear to us that not all visitors made it this far.
At the back of another cavern, he showed us something far more disquieting than the Crystal Maiden: the tiny, fragile skeleton of a baby. He turned off our headlamps and asked us to imagine being a child left to die in the utter blackness of the cave.
Understanding the Site
Obviously these experiences brought up a lot of questions. Gonzo answered all our questions and more, explaining some of the different theories about the artifacts. One of his best traits as a tour guide was an ability to involve us emotionally and spiritually in the mysteries of the cave.
He was not there to mock, exemplify, or scandalize the Mayan culture; instead, he continually compared their beliefs to modern religions and prompted us to consider the likenesses. Instead of inducing shock by telling us inflated horror stories of sacrifices, he explained the intellectual problems with comparing cultures.
Under his tutelage we began to understand the uncertainty of the site and all archaeological evidence. Nobody can be sure why or how the artifacts ended up there.
Were these people brought into the cave alive or dead? Were they sacrificed involuntarily or by choice? Nobody knows for sure, and understanding that increased my wonder at the mysteries of the cave and the Ancient Mayans.
The Return to Daylight
Thoroughly rattled, excited, and educated, we made the trek back through the cave. The way back, at times, was even more intense than the way in. There was one moment where we had to slide down a rock slide into an extremely strong current.
I did something wrong and my head was forced underwater — I panicked and I flailed — I resurfaced with the walls and ceiling within inches of my head — AHHHHHH!!!!
A few seconds later I was around the corner and out of the situation, my heart pounding with fear.
Flooded with adrenaline, I continued onward with the group. The experience just added to the adventure. It was unbelievable to imagine the effort that Ancient Mayans put in to reach the sacred spaces of this cave. And they did it all by firelight!
Finally out of the cave, we dragged our soaking and starving bodies back along the hike to the parking lot. We were the last group from the day to exit the cave — that’s how much extra time and information Gonzo gave us than the average tour.
Back at the van we were greeted by showers, lunch, and beers. We all hung around discussing our favorite parts of the tour and expressing our admiration for Gonzo. Although any trip to ATM would be an amazing experience, there was no doubt in our minds that Gonzo was the ATM tour guide.
I will never ever forget our trip through the cave — it was completely unlike anything I had ever done before. If you have the opportunity, you absolutely must do it! The ATM tour is one of the most incredible experiences you can have in Belize.
Note — the featured image belongs to RiverRat Expeditions, as we were not allowed to have cameras on the ATM tour!