Entering Xibalba at the ATM Cave

Squeezing through the cave openings

Squeezing through the cave openings

By far, the coolest thing that I did in Belize was go caving at Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM cave). This cave was believed by the Maya to be the entrance to Xibalba, or the underworld. Since entering the underworld was so highly regarded, only royalty was allowed in the cave and would often bring human sacrifices in exchange for alleviation of some ailment of the Mayan city. Before entering the cave, numerous rituals were done, including taking hallucinogens orally and in enema form (yowza). So basically, all of the Maya people were tripping the entire time they were in these caves (which can explain some of the crazy things they reported seeing and worshiping in there)

Our cave adventure began with a 1 mile trek to the cave mouth, during which we stopped to hear about various plant and animal life along the way. Once we reached the cave, we had a quick lunch of rice, beans and curry chicken, and got geared up with hard hats and headlamps. In order to enter the cave, we had to swim across 15 ft freezing cold water to reach the first formation.  All of the water in the cave originates through the limestone rock and has never seen sunlight. So it was FREEZING!  And after our quick swim, our guides reminded us that we would be in the cave for 3 hours and be swimming and climbing through varying depths of water. All I could think about was how I was probably going to be the one to get hypothermia and have to get dragged out of the cave!

So as expected, we spent the next 3 hours wading through water, climbing up rock formations, and squeezing our bodies through tiny rock openings. Some of the rock formations were so tricky that you had to position your thick hard hat and stretch your neck in just the right way to keep from getting your hat stuck with your face under rushing water. One formation that was particularly scary was named the “guillotine” and forced you to pass by submerging in the water and slowly scraping your neck across a pointy rock formation jutting out from the side of the cave. Needless to say, I’ve never been happier that I’m so thin!

Along with climbing semi-advanced rock formations ( I’m pretty sure I can now consider myself a novice rock climber) we also spent quite a bit of time navigating the cave in the dark. In fact, I’d say we had our headlamps off just as much as we had them on. Every few meters or so, our guide would instruct us to form a single file line and hold one shoulder of the person in front of you. Then we would shuffle along in complete darkness for the next few meters. Talk about intense! I don’t think I’ve ever been in total darkness like that. But it was very cool and very spiritual to experience the cave a bit more similarly to the Maya.

After about 2 hours of wet mountain climbing, we arrived in the chamber that the Maya used for rituals and sacrifices. There we found tons of pottery fragments and skeleton remains. It was so awesome! In order to not disturb the artifacts, we were instructed to remove our shoes and continue the rest of the way in just socks. (So now I can add shoeless rock climbing to my resume as well) The formations that we saw in the ritual chamber were absolutely breathtaking.  HUGE stalagmites and stalagtites covered the ceiling and floor. And many were very oddly shaped and looked like years of wax had dripped down to form huge forests of them. After about an hour of shoeless climbing and toe stubbing, we reached the end of the chamber and had to climb up a tall rickety ladder that led to the final end of the chamber. Now, don’t get me wrong, climbing up 12 feet to see the end of the chamber was super cool, but how is this allowed?  If this cave was in the U.S., someone would have fallen and died off of that ladder within the first week of the cave being open to the public. Oh well – Only in Belize! So, the top of the chamber contained the most incredible artifact in the whole cave – a fully intact skeleton lying by itself. The skeleton is named “The Crystal Maiden” and is thought to be a female sacrifice. But our guide told us that they actually aren’t sure if the skeleton is a female or not. Evidently, it is hard to tell from the hip and face structure. So if any of you end up visiting the cave, perhaps the skeleton will be renamed “The Crystal Mister” by that point!

Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the cave (thanks to a stupid French guy that dropped his camera on a skull and shattered it), so I borrowed some images from Google to give you an idea of what we did. (Photo credits to all the random blogs I pulled these from)

The Crystal Maiden at the top of the ritual chamber

The Crystal Maiden at the top of the ritual chamber

You could tell that all the cave pottery was used for rituals because small "kill holes" were punctured into them.
You could tell that all the cave pottery was used for rituals because small “kill holes” were punctured into them.

Freezing cold cave swimming

Freezing cold cave swimming

The entrance to Xibalba

The entrance to Xibalba

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5 thoughts on “Entering Xibalba at the ATM Cave

  1. Incredible!! I would love to have been there, but afraid I would have been too concerned about “cave water critters” to enjoy myself. Truly enjoyed your details of the experience. Be safe!

  2. Pingback: Adventures in Xibalba | Class Blog

  3. Pingback: Belize: Actun Tunichil Muknal | Intentionally Erin

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