Looking for a unique adventure in this exciting Central America destination? Here’s how to blend history, culture, and adventure with an unforgettable trip to Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave.
If several hours swimming, climbing, and exploring an underground cave filled with Mayan artifacts sounds up your alley, then you might want to book a ticket to Belize to embark on a fascinating tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred cave near San Ignacio in the country’s rugged Cayo District.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulcher)—more commonly referred to simply as ATM—is much more than just a cave. Recently rated the number one sacred cave destination in the world by National Geographic, ATM is a natural museum offering a peek into the past and the world the Maya. The history and culture of caving made it stand out to me amongst the many adventure travel activities in Belize, including hiking, kayaking, and zip lining through the jungle.
To Cave or Not to Cave
I had been backpacking at an easy pace through Belize, and wanted to get a bit more active. I was onboard with hiking and kayaking, but I was hesitant at the thought of voluntarily traveling deep into the mouth of a cave with only a headlamp to light my way. Confined spaces have never been comfortable for me, so the decision to put my anxieties aside and dive right in (quite literally) was not one that I made lightly. But how often do you get a chance to see ancient artifacts outside the walls of a museum in such a unique setting? Although this was an adventure that pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone, it was one that was well worth any trepidation I felt before packing my bag and getting ready to go.
San Ignacio is located about two and half hours from Belize City by bus. I settled in the small but bustling town for a few days of active travel in Belize. The local caving tour company—MayaWalk Tours—has led countless groups into the cave, from government officials to teams from National Geographicand the Discovery Channel—so I felt like I was in good hands.
The adventure officially began in the Tapir Mountain National Reserve, which is about an hour drive from San Ignacio. We started with a 45-minute hike through the jungle to the entrance of the cave, crossing three streams along the way. (On that note: Steer clear of heavy hiking boots in favor of sturdy sport sandals or something that will dry quickly and not weight you down, and bring a packing organizer to store your wet and dirty shoes afterwards.) The hike is pleasant and moderately paced, which was perfect for taking in the scenery and snapping a few photos.
Toward the end of the hike, the entrance to the cave loomed large. As we got closer, my nerves started to kick in, but before I know it, I was given a helmet with a headlamp and coaxed into the dark, subtly shimmering water, jumping into which is the only access the cave. From here, we waded, swam, climbed, and twisted our way through a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways where at times water is chest-deep. At one point, the guide had us turn off our headlamps, leaving us in total darkness as he shared some of the cave’s history and what it likely meant to the people who used it.
Sacred Sight Worth the Trip
The last part of the tour had us climbing up a 16-foot boulder on our way to the dry chamber, where we removed our shoes so as to not damage any artifacts, including stoneware, ceramics, and shards of pottery. All of that hiking, wading, and underwater swimming eventually led to a Maya sacrificial site within the cave—nearly a mile underground—which was home to resting place of the “crystal maiden,” a complete female skeleton of a young sacrificial victim who has laid in that spot for over 1000 years. It’s an eerie sight, as the skeleton looks to be sparkling in the dim light of headlamps, an effect caused by centuries of calcification
In total, we spent around three hours in the cave, transfixed by the stalagmites and stalactites and in awe of this sacred site that offers such a well-preserved look into the world of the Maya. I left exhilarated, exhausted, and thankful for the chance to have such a unique experience in Belize.
Find more adventure travel inspiration here!
Global Companion 40L
National Geographic Guide Series Guide Travel Pack 65L
Pack-It Original™ Shoe Sac Set
Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):
5 Things to Know Before Embarking on Adventure Travel
Go Spelunking! The World’s Coolest Caves
Going on a Kayaking Trip? Here’s What to Pack