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A visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal

Sharyn Brinker - Friday, September 13, 2013

A visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, the “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher”, is an absolutely “must-do” for the physically-fit, nonclaustrophobic Belize adventure traveler who seeks unusual experiences. 


Year ago, I approached my first ATM venture with trepidation. My wonderful guide held my hand as I awkwardly traversed a river three times during the 45-minute hike to the cave entrance.  When I saw the large rocks blocking the entrance, I said, “I have to do what before I start swimming into the cave?”  Assured by my confident guide that I could do this, I proceeded to place my feet wherever he told me and climb over the rocks until I reached the cool water. 


After a short swim, I could wade, then walk.  My confidence built as we progressed slowly into the cave with stops to view awesome limestone formations and learn about the Maya priests who had exclusive access to this precious ceremonial cave.  We travelled quite a distance before reaching the chamber with relics, ranging from pottery shards to pieces almost intact.  It is unlikely we’ll find a piece of perfect pottery.  The Maya believed the spirit of its owner resided in the pot and must be released if its owner leaves. If a piece isn’t cracked, it will have at least a small “kill hole”, intended to allow the spirit to escape. 

Human skulls and bones rest amid the pottery relics, left in situ by the archaeologists who discovered and inventoried the site.  Moving past this chamber, we were led to a sheer rock that elicited my earlier reaction.  “I have to do what?”  I still can’t believe I’ve navigated that rock several times.  The reward was astounding.


We were led to an inner chamber where we climbed up an uncomfortable metal ladder, the only convenience or safety device installed by modern man, to view the cave’s piece de resistance.  The “Crystal Maiden”, a complete skeleton that sparkles as a result of crystal calcification.  She was believed to be a young human sacrifice.  We learned recently that “she” was actually a “he.”  I doubt he rested well with his epithet of “Crystal Maiden” and have not yet learned if he is renamed.


The skeleton provided a dramatic finish for the trip into the Cave.  Then we retraced our steps and strokes for the swim out.  The return trip was great.  My apprehension was replaced by confidence.  I was able to focus more on the exquisite surroundings and reflect on the spiritual nature of the place.  Imagine, priestly rituals and sacrifices actually occurred right there.  And physical residuals remain to be seen.


A great ATM phenomenon:  it gets better each time I return and observe a little bit more.  To me, adventure tourism just doesn’t get better than this.