The Mayan Underworld: ATM cave in Belize

Actun Tunichil Muknal, an ancient cave buried deep within the Belizean jungle, has a serendipitous acronym: ATM. Wading through waist-deep river water, I’m not wearing non-swimwear. I’ve been trekking through the overgrown terrain for nearly an hour and I still have one more river to cross. The ATM cave’s name is often a joking matter in Belize (Hey man, if you’re going into the ATM cave, bring me back some money, eh?), but it seems as though there may be more to these acronymic parallels drawn than just a joke. The hike alone has shown me that an ATM visitor invests the time and energy into the trip in an effort to reap an enriching experience. And so here I am, depositing my time, my energy, and my muscle mass into an adventure that prefaces the cave itself: getting to the cave to begin with.

%Gallery-128327%In order to get to ATM’s wide open entrance mouth, I had to follow an unchangeable series of steps.

1. I flew to Belize City.
2. I traveled to San Ignacio with a driver and my photographer, where I stayed for the night.
3. In the morning, we were driven for nearly an hour before turning off on a dirt road, where we drove for another 40 minutes or so. The road was flooded in one area, but the vehicle we were riding in was ready and able to make it through the water.
4. I hiked about an hour through the thick and sticky jungle, crossing the river three separate times.
5. Finally, we arrived to the cave’s entrance. We ate lunch before beginning the ATM voyage.

The mouth of ATM opens like a keyhole amid the fanning jungle leaves that surround it; thriving in every viable square inch like mold. It not only allows the river to flow seamlessly through it, but swimming through that river is how you enter. Our guide tells us that for those incapable of swimming who wind up at the cave’s entrance, there’s an inconvenient alternate route. Swimming in chilling water while wearing hiking shoes and a helmet isn’t my best skill, but I’m glad I didn’t have to take the alternate route.

Our clothes and shoes immediately sponge up the chilly water. The sunlight trickling in from where we entered becomes less visible. The blackness within the cave is like tar; thick and all-encompassing. We swim. We wade. We scale the slippery, shiny walls. We stop at every glistening turn to relish in the silence, while my brain is simultaneously beholden to deafening thoughts–imaginings of what it would have been like to be a Mayan, exploring this damp and dark cave by torchlight. Every time my brain follows this thinking path, I cling to it vigorously. I want my journey through this cave to be a reflective one–one in which I follow the same footsteps as those before me, with their footsteps echoing in my mind. I especially want to hear the footsteps of the doomed.

They might not have considered themselves doomed, the humans who were sacrificed and marched through this cave. Some of them, like the adults whose skeletons are still holding their dusted over pose, might have said that sacrification was a privilege, that the ultimate honor is to give one’s self to the gods. Others, like the children whose skeletons are also still in the cave, might not have known what was going on, but they were likely frightened. And still others, like the prisoners of war or criminals who were potentially sacrificed here, may have considered their fate one of doom. I keep all of them in mind as I walk, only wearing socks now in order to protect the artifacts, through the elevated space with cathedral ceilings (The Cathedral) where most of the artifacts in ATM can be found.

The Mayans would travel deep within the cave, combating the forces of mysterious, dark water, in order to be closer to Chac. Chac is the Mayan God of Rain and it is said that the Mayans in this region of Belize believed that he could be found dwelling deep within the underworld, within this watery cave.

Extreme drought, a weapon believed to be used by Chac, aided in the fall of the Mayan Empire. When things got bad and weren’t getting any better, the agriculture in the area suffered. When the Mayan agriculture suffered, the people could not be fed.

The Mayans initiated sacrifices made in the honor of Chac right inside of ATM. Regular sacrifices included pottery (much of it meant to hold blood), which is shattered all over ATM, and blood from excruciating blood-letting ceremonies (Typically, women let blood out by way of their tongue and men let blood out by way of their genitals). Human sacrifices were made inside of ATM, as well. Although the bones cannot always give us clues to exactly how a human sacrifice was carried out, they were frequently done by extracting the heart. A still-beating heart would be accessed through a cut, ripped out, and the blood would be smeared in honor of the god for whom the sacrifice was made. The god the Mayans needed was Chac; they believed his favor could be bargained through sacrifice.

I gained the clearest view of sacrifice when we arrived at the Crystal Maiden. Found at the end of the public’s path in ATM, she is a fully-in-tact skeleton of a teenage girl. Her bones have been thoroughly calcified by the cave and because of this, they sparkle. We make our way back out, leaving with a feeling for which there are no words.

ATM spans from Belize to Guatemala, but its depths are still largely unknown. While puzzle pieces of artifacts help archeologists put the big picture together, the cave is filled with many more questions than it is answers.

The part of Belize nobody sees: Five reasons not to miss the country’s other side

The Caribbean coast of Belize is known the world over for its spectacular scuba diving and snorkeling. In addition to the 180-mile barrier reef just off the coast and the famous dive spot known as the Blue Hole, the Belizean coast features the backpacker paradise of Caye Caulker, the more upscale San Pedro, and the laid-back one-horse town of Hopkins in the south.

But there’s more to Belize than scuba diving, snorkeling, and catching rays on the beach. Belize, Central America’s only English-speaking country, also has plenty to offer in its often-overlooked western half, including waterfalls and caves that pepper the highlands, ancient Mayan ruins just begging to be explored, and even a pretty, backpacker-friendly town or two.

Here are five reasons you shouldn’t miss the Cayo District, which makes up most of Belize’s other side:

5. Big Rock Falls Located in the heart of the wonderful Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Big Rock Falls (pictured above) is a 150-foot waterfall surrounded by, you guessed it, some pretty big rocks. As nice as the waterfall is to look at, it’s exponentially more fun to climb up to the 35-foot-high perch next to the falls, work up your courage, and take the epic plunge. For the less adventurous, like, um, myself, swim hard against the current to reach the spot where the water comes crashing down on you. It feels like getting punched in the head over and over, but, you know, in a good way.

4. Xunantunich Reached by a ferry crossing about 7 miles west of San Ignacio, Xunantunich (shoo-nahn-too-nich) is the site of Belize’s most impressive Mayan ruins. Though Belize is not usually known for its ruins, Xunantunich stacks up against most other Central American ruins not named Tikal or Copán.

Dating from the as early as the Third Century, these ruins, especially the imposing El Castillo (pictured), are a great place to stop and explore on your way to Guatemala.

3. San Ignacio A town that serves as a jumping-off point for the four other places on this list, San Ignacio is a quiet, backpacker-friendly town that comes alive, just enough, at night. A welcome respite from chaotic Belize City, and a welcome jolt after the tiny, somnolent capital of Belmopan, San Ignacio is home to several affordable hostels and hotels, some imaginative restaurants, and the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech. If you’re spending time in Western Belize to explore the highlands or on your way to Guatemala, San Ignacio makes a worthwhile stop for a few days or more.

The best way to explore Western Belize, incidentally, is by renting an SUV in San Ignacio. The cost is about $60 per day, and the rental agency is located at… well, just ask around– there’s only one.

2. Rio on Pools Small waterfalls flowing over massive granite rocks create dozens of natural waterslides at Rio on Pools. Located about 20 miles southeast of San Ignacio in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Rio on Pools is a great place to swim, slide, or just take in the natural beauty that surrounds you.

Side note: Swimming at Rio on Pools brought my girlfriend and I a special bonus– our first ever experience with leeches. A little gross, to be sure, but great for bringing you and that special someone closer together– there’s nothing like picking leeches off someone’s butt to create a unique and long-lasting bond.

1. Actun Tunichil Muknal Just because you can’t pronounce it doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. The cave system at Actun Tunichil Muknal (mercifully known as the ATM Cave) is reached only after an hour-long nature hike which includes three stream crossings. The hike is worth it, though, for the chance to see what the cave has to offer: ancient burial chambers which display Mayan artifacts and the calcified remains of the dead.

In order to preserve the site, only a few tour operators are allowed to offer tours to the ATM Cave. Though the tour (which is required) is not cheap at around US$75 for a full-day, the ATM Cave is an absolute can’t-miss.

There’s so much more to see and do in Western Belize than what I’ve listed above. If you’ve got a suggestion, question, or idea of your own about what to do in Belize’s lesser-known side, please leave it in the Comments.