Release your inner Indiana Jones at the ATM Cave18th Jan 2018
I wasn’t well rested. The neighbourhood dogs and cockerels saw to that. However, I was excited and hopeful. I’d been booked in to visit the ATM Cave in Belize for three days straight. However, each morning I’d arrived at Explore Inland Tours to be told that due to flooding, the caves were still shut. This morning though, after no further precipitation, I was certain they would be open. They had to be, I was due to leave for Guatemala tomorrow.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave is a Maya archaeological site near San Ignacio, Belize. Its nickname – “The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre” is an Indiana Jones film title in waiting. The numerous artefacts found here have been untouched by human hand for over a thousand years. But that is far from the only reason that a day exploring the ATM Cave is such an incredible experience.
Getting to the ATM Cave
With a scrumptious breakfast burrito from Mincho’s settling nicely in my belly, I was met at the tour company by the grinning owner Sergio. With a large smile on his face, he delightfully informed me that today the caves were open!
I met the rest of my group who all seemed to know each other and most looked like they hadn’t seen much (if any) sleep. I wondered if they were kept awake by the dogs and cockerels too? Ian, our tour guide (who bore more than a passing resemblance to Chris Kamara – I’ll call him Kammy from now on.) picked us up in a minivan. In no time we were hurtling down tiny roads on the 1hr drive to the caves in the Tapir Mountains.
I’d managed to shot-gun the front seat, my copious experience of minibus travelling in Mexico had taught me that seat selection was paramount to having a comfortable journey. Kammy did some introductions and prepared us for the day then we sat and listened to the conversations from behind us as the guys discussed the previous evenings’ events. It sounded like they’d had a lot of fun and I surmised it probably wasn’t dogs and cockerels that caused the lack of sleep.
We’d been briefed to wear sports gear and bring water bottles. Under no circumstances were we allowed to take cameras anywhere near the ATM Cave. The reason for this would become apparent as the tour progressed but it was definitely an initial disappointment.
Kammy was an absolute pro. On arrival, as we were donning our helmets and head torches he spotted a few other big groups. Gathering us round in a huddle he suggested we get our hustle on so we would be ahead of the crowd. This turned out to be awesome advice. It was about a 45-minute hike to the cave entrance with three river crossings. We all agreed with Kammy’s suggestion and after a quick pre-game photo, we were on our way.
Barely five minutes down the track Kammy ran from the front of the group and jumped straight into the river. It appeared that this was the site of our first crossing. He motioned for us to follow suit and use the tensioned rope to get ourselves across the river and slightly upstream. With the extra flow caused by the recent rains, it was a bit of a struggle but we all made it across safely without drinking too much of the murky water.
Any tiredness (me) or hangovers (everyone else) were now erased for good. We motored onwards, the next two river crossings were less dramatic with the water only knee-deep. Passing up an opportunity to eat termites we overtook a couple more groups to get us into pole position. It was a scorching hot day trekking through the jungle but we soon arrived at the picnic area by the mouth of the cave.
Entering the ATM Cave
We had one last pep-talk from Kammy before we stored our water bottles in a tree and then entered the Temple of Doom. We climbed across some rocks before diving into the water for a short swim across to a beach area inside. From there we walked through the underground river, climbed over huge boulders and made our way deeper into the ATM Cave. Within moments it was pitch black and we were reliant on our head torches. The heat of the day had been replaced by a dank darkness.
Kammy had correctly ascertained that we were a fairly nimble and brave group, so after a quick consultation, we decided to take the difficult but more exciting route. The first stage was to go through a gap between two boulders which, above water, was only just big enough for my head. We were told that if it was too tight around the chest then we should drop down lower. Right. Everyone ahead of me made it through without too much discomfort but it was too tight for me to squeeze through keeping my entire head out of the water. Thankfully I only had to dip my mouth and nose under momentarily as I moved through the 6ft long passage.
We spent time moving through the caves looking at stalagmites, stalactites, and all kinds of other cool rock structures. Exploring the total darkness by moving your head torch is an exciting experience and it seemed that everywhere you looked there was an incredible formation to look at. Creepy crawlies were also common which kept the senses heightened as we waded forwards against the flow of the underground river.
This was a proper adventure. It felt wild and dangerous and because we were in the lead there were no other groups within sight or sound of us. In that moment it felt like we were the first to explore this magical underworld. Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones.
Time for the Main Chamber
We climbed up to a small ledge, working as a team to make sure everyone arrived safely. After removing our shoes to help preserve the unique environment, one by one, we crawled through a tiny opening into the Main Chamber. This was the site for many Maya rituals including human sacrifices. Pots of all sizes were scattered everywhere. Broken pottery and a human skeleton indicted a sacrifice. Kammy told us all about the rituals and how the individuals were executed. The artefacts in this chamber have been left completely untouched for over 1000 years which is incredibly rare.
I attempted to put myself in the shoes of the first modern day Indie who discovered the ATM Cave and its secrets in 1989 but I found it impossible. The excitement and wonderment would have had me sprinting back to San Ignacio to tell someone immediately.
It was slippery underfoot and it was only possible to walk in certain places. Kammy was incredibly protective of the cave and its artefacts which we all thoroughly respected and did our best to leave no trace. There are only a handful of local guides that are licensed to take groups into the cave in an effort to protect this incredible window into the past.
We climbed up ladders and through small holes. Kammy would lead the way, passing on tips to the person behind him who would then traverse whatever obstacle was in the way and coach the next person along. There was definitely a risk of Chinese Whispers but no-one came to any harm.
We stopped at a piece of pottery that on first inspection seemed like many of the others in the cave. Kammy then pointed out the monkey emblem on its side and explained that this was one of only four pots of its type discovered in the whole Central American region. Our collective jaws dropped open.
Being careful where we stepped in the low light we moved onwards to the site of a human skull. This skull had a hole the size of a marble in its forehead. I was busy wondering how this poor individual had had their life ended when Kammy told us that the hole was in fact fairly recent and nothing to do with the sacrifice. It was caused when a tourist dropped their camera on it in 2012. In a separate incident, a front tooth was knocked out of a different skull at around the same time. Accidents happen but the ban on cameras seems to be a reasonable response to protect the remaining artefacts.
Kammy demonstrated how the hollow rock structures produced distinct tones when tapped. It’s thought the Mayas used these to make primitive music and percussive rhythms. We happily patted all the different sized rocks like demented drummers as we passed through the chambers.
The next revelation, if true, was probably the most impressive. During the initial explorations, plenty of photos were taken. Obviously, a flash was required to provide illumination. It was only when the film was developed that the archaeologists saw a distinct image of a person created by the shadows of rock formations on the cave walls. The archaeologists returned to the cave to try and recreate the image using flashlights. They discovered that not only did it exist but that a chipped rock was vital in shaping the person’s nose. It’s believed that the Mayas deliberately used firelight to create this shadow art.
But that wasn’t all, fire flickers. Kammy illustrated what flickering light would have looked like using his torch and the rocks created an amazing moving image of the man with the chipped rock nose stabbing another person through the chest. I don’t know whether this was really intended by the Mayas but the effect was real and due to our highly suggestible states we all made noises which would have been perfectly suitable for a New Years fireworks display.
Then we climbed into the Upper Chamber
If anything there were more artefacts here than in the chamber below. Pots of all sizes were calcified to the cave floor. I was so engrossed with the whole experience that I’d completely forgotten that the most prized artefact was still to come. Through a small gap in the rocks which allowed viewing for only two people, half covered in water was The Crystal Maiden. This perfectly preserved skeleton of a 20-year-old girl left laying exactly where she died was a deeply poignant sight. We took turns to head into the gap to observe the sparkling skeleton.
Sadly it was now time to head back. We’d noticed a few groups collecting behind us, but it was only as we headed further out, walking past group after group who were waiting to get to The Crystal Maiden did we realise how good Kammy’s advice at the outset had been.
TUNNOCKS’ TOP TIP
Do whatever you can to be first into The ATM Cave. I’m told it’s possible to hire a private guide which will allow you to set the start time. If that’s beyond your budget, relay this advice to the rest of your group and get your hustle on like we did. Not only does it save a whole lot of time, but more importantly it made the experience much more special.
We put our shoes back on and climbed back down out of the Main Chamber. It was easier to exit as we had the water flow with us but there were a few further options for us to consider. The first was a tall thin gap, slightly smaller than my shoulder width which the water was raging through. Kammy detailed the technique to use if you got dragged under the surface. Additionally, if you went too far down the gap, you’d get stuck as it narrows to a small hole. To avoid that we were told to turn right and head out a side channel. Kammy showed us how and then most of us had a go. You jump directly into the gap bolt upright and sideways, then just bump your way 15ft along the tiny passage. Fortunately, my size helped on this occasion, managing to keep myself wedged above the water level. I turned right at the appropriate time and scooted out the far side.
Down the toilet
The next ‘natural water park ride’ was the toilet. This wasn’t an actual toilet, but if you imagine what water disappearing down the loo looks like you’ll have a fair impression of what was ahead. From the outset, this one looked the most improbable to me. The gap looked tiny, it was filled with water and there was no sightline to the exit. This was an exercise in pure trust. But again, Kammy demonstrated and we were all, one by one, successfully flushed into the next compartment.
The Last Crusade was the one I came closest to not managing. Kammy had us lined up, looking at what appeared to be a solid wall of rock. He then pointed at this solid wall of rock and said: “That’s where we’re going through”. We made simultaneous noises of surprise, confusion and hilarity before someone asked: “Sorry, where?”. He directed us to a gap so small that I didn’t feel confident getting my arm through it let alone my whole body. But Kammy has a rule; if the backpack he brings on all expeditions can fit, then we can all fit. So, after pushing the backpack through the gap and following it himself he called us to join him. Wading through deep, still water I approached the gap. I tried to make it but my neck was actually wider than the available space. I gathered myself, checked the rock wasn’t sharp, relaxed as best I could and then literally squeezed myself through.
And before we knew it we were back to the beach area and swimming across to the ATM Cave entrance. The bright daytime sun assaulted our eyes but our smiles were wide and I think everyone knew we’d just experienced something extremely special.
Here’s what The Ultimate Travelist said:
“A 45-minute hike through tropical jungle bringing you to Actun Tunichil Muknal, the cave of the stone sepulchre. Donning a headlamp, you’ll swim across an icy pool guarding the entrance to the Mayan underworld, then you’ll walk, climb and crawl past dripping stalactites to the main chamber. Inside lies the calcite-encrusted remains of the maiden for whom the chamber is named. Be reverent. This is one of Belize’s – and the Mayas’ – most sacred spaces. “
Ultimate Travelist Challenge Sum up
The ATM Cave appears in the Ultimate Travelist Challenge at number 149. I think it thoroughly deserves to be in the book and at the time of writing, I would have it placed in the top 100. It is an incredible mix of culture, adventure and history and is very high on my list of all-time experiences.
Have you been to The ATM Cave? Do your experiences match mine or do you think it’s overrated? Do you think it is rightly in the Ultimate Travelists Top 500? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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