Adoration 4 Adventure’s recommendations for exploring the ATM Caves in Belize, Central America by A4A guest writer, Darrell Whaley.
One of the must do things when traveling through San Ignacio, Belize is the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Caves. These sacred caves give a feeling of stepping back in time to the Mayan world, experiencing first hand what would have been routine in the lives of the Mayans.
The only way to visit these caves is by going with a guide, and we were very grateful we did. When we arrived in town, we were connected with PACZ Tours, one of the few companies who are allowed to conduct tours of the ATM Caves by the Belize Tourism Board and the Institute of Archaeology. Our leader, Oscar, knew everything and anything there is to know about the ATM Caves, to the point that we were the first group going into the park and ended up being the last out, all because of the amazing historical information and cave secrets Oscar shared with us.
Starting our trek
Walking from the park entrance to the cave entrance is a good 35-40 minute hike, while crossing 3 rivers. Yet, this is the driest point of the tour as inside the cave, there are points where you must swim across to reach the final destination. Along this path we begin to learn about the ATM Caves and its unique situation. The ATM Caves are conserved by the Institute of Archaeology, who try to limit entrance into the caves to 120 people per day, so the environment is preserved as much as possible. These same people are the ones who uphold the local’s wishes that the site not be excavated. In fact, everything within the site is still in place and practically the same as its initial finding.
Upon entering the hourglass shaped entrance of the cave, one of the first sights to behold is the outline of Chaak, the Mayan Rain God. It is believed the Mayans would alter the rocks to make shapes or outlines of the Gods they are praying specifically to. As caves are the entrance to the Underworld in Mayan culture, and a way to reach closer to the Gods, it is believed the ATM Caves were used primarily in a time of drought and need of rain, hence the sight of Chaak.
Inside the Cave
Along the way towards the main chamber is the sight of shimmering quartz taking different shapes like jellyfish and mushrooms, additional rock formations in the shapes of jaguars and knives, and other signs of Mayan life left behind. Once we climbed up to the main chamber, we were able to see real, physical Mayan artifacts left behind from pots that were used to prepare food for the Gods. Each of these pots were unable to be used again according to their practices, in which they would break them in some fashion as an offering to the Gods.
As we moved further up into the chamber, we began to see obsidian blades, which is a sign of blood letting or blood sacrifices. Near here we saw the first human remains. According to Mayan history, it was common to go from food offerings, to blood sacrifice, to human sacrifice, depending on how desperate the tribe was.
We finally arrived at the very top chamber where we saw the Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a teenager who was thought to have been a sacrifice to Chaak. At times of the year, the Crystal Maiden is completely underwater, which has given a crystallized look to the remains. After this somber view into the past, we began to head back out of the caves.
Much to our group’s surprise, the water had risen over a foot during our time in the chamber. We had to climb, jump, and squeeze through small spaces to make it back to the hourglass entrance. In some parts, our guide Oscar had us experience going through the caves as the Mayans would have, in complete darkness. This journey in the darkness would have caused even the toughest person cause for hesitation.
What we took away
These caves are a completely unique experience. Usually any historic site is immediately excavated and artifacts are taken away for carbon dating and testing, but this is a rarity in that it still intact. Of course this can be a hazard, because many people are not careful when around such history. There have been three instances where people have caused damage to the human remains and one where a camera was dropped on a skull that is estimated to be over 1,000 years old. Because of carelessness, all cameras are now banned inside the cave and there is even a movement to close the cave for a time. There is now much more caution taken by the Belize Tourism Board and guides in preserving this historic wonder so it can be seen by people from all over the world.
This tour would have not been the same without our amazing guide Oscar, with PACZ Tours. The love that he has for his job and the ATM Caves shines through his every word and piece of knowledge he shares.
PACZ Tours took care of everything, from transport to and from the caves (nearly an hour each way), a personal guide for the entirety of the tour, lunch, and even an informative briefing on the dos and don’ts of the cave (definitely do not wear flip flops).
PACZ Tours, San Ignacio
PACZ Tours leads daily tours to all of the known sites and quite a few unknowns ones as well. To see all the tours they offer check out their Adventure Tour options.
Location: PACZ Tours, Burns Avenue, San Ignacio, Belize.
Adoration 4 Adventure were complimentary guests of PACZ Tours, however our opinions are our own and will always remain unbiased in order to provide the best recommendations to our readers. All photos in this article are the property of PACZ Tours.
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