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.