Special Note: The activity is challenging, so a good level of physical fitness is needed. A little swimming required, to get into the entrance of the cave. If you do not know how to swim, please inform your guide - so you can be assisted into the cave.
"THINGS TO DO"
The ATM Cave is 1 hour 20 minutes from Belize City. The hike includes three dream crossing and passes through 6,700 acres of Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
Because of this passage through this cave is known to only a few guides, who have permission from the Belize Department of Archaeology to take visitors to this special cave. To this day, the cave has not been looted and nearly all the cultural artifacts have remained in place as they were originally found in 1989.
INCLUDED: Park fees, lunch, private guide, and transportation to and from the plane or water terminal to the site. Transportation to and from the Ambergris Caye to the mainland, not included. Alcoholic beverages are not included.
WHAT TO BRING: No open toed or loose sandals, you can risk losing them in the water at the entrance of the cave. There is some light swimming involved to get to the cave itself, we recommend aqua or swim shoes. For the actual cave tour itself, we recommend comfortable walking shoes (preferably tennis or hiking shoes), sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, camera, bathing suit, towel, dry change of clothes, socks for walking inside the cave, pocket money for tipping your guide (we recommend 15%).
DEPARTURE TIME & LOCATION: Boat leaves Ambergris Caye at 6:00 a.m./plane leaves at 7:00 a.m. and you return on either the 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. boat or plane back to Ambergris Caye.
Tours are booked independently through licensed tour guides, with the Belize Tourism Board. We do not sell tours.
Actun Tunichil Muknal, which means "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher," is located in the Roaring Creek Valley in the Cayo District. Like most caves in Belize, Tunichil Muknal was formed over several hundred thousand years by water erosion along the karstic limestone foothills which encircle the Mayan Mountains.
Archaeological research in the Roaring Creek Valley has recorded numerous cave sites, the remains of a large town known as Cahal Witz Na, and hundreds of small settlements along both sides of the river. Investigations in the caves also indicate that the ancient Maya first began to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal during the Early Classic period (AD 300-600). During this time the Maya primarily utilized the entrance to the cave or most of their ritual activities. Not until much later, during the Late to Terminal Classic period (A:D 700-900), did they begin to penetrate deeper into the cavern to conduct their ceremonies. By this time at least four major sections of the cave were used for ceremonial activities.
These locations included the "Entrance Chamber," the "Sink-hole Entrance," the "Stelae Chamber" and the "Main Chamber." Of these four areas, the last two produced the most intriguing information on ancient Maya vace utilization. It is also here that visitors have the unique opportunity to travel into the past and to share the netherworld experience of the ancient Mayan who have preceded us.
Actun Tunichil Muknal is approximately five kilometres in length and has a perennially active stream which flows through the major cave passage. The cave has four entrances. From north to south these include the Main and Upper Entrances, the Sinkhole Entrance and the South Entrance. The Main (or downstream) Entrance resembles a double Gothic archway with a deep blue pool below, and serves as the primary access into the cavern. The South Entrance is located at the other end of the cave, at the point where the stream enters the cave from the Mountain Pine Ridge. The two areas of major archaeological interest is Tunichil Muknal are the Stelae Chamber and the Main Chamber.
Overlooking a picturesque section of the stream passage, the Stelae Chamber contained two slate staelate, gragments of several ceramic vessels, a carved slate tablet and two obsidian prismatic blades. The stlate stelae are held in an upright position by several large speleothems (stalagmites and stalactities), and were carved in the form of a stingray spine and a pointed obsidian blade. Both stingray spines and prismatic blades were used by the Maya as implements for blooletting rituals. Among the ceramic vessels was a molded-carved vase with a band of hieroglyphs on the rim of the vessel, and two intricately carved panels on its walls. The tranlsated hieroglyphs record that the vase was the cacao drinking vessel of an important lord. The first decorated panel depict the presentation of a cative to an elite individual, and the second panel portrays the same elite person dressed in full ceremonial regalla. Four of the other ceramic vessels include reware dishes that were found around the two stelae. The two obsidian bloodletters were discovered at the base of the monuments. What was the purpose of the artifacts? There is little doubt that the obsidian blades were used for bloodletting rituals that were performed in front of the monuments and that the dishes were used as the receptacles for the blood offering. The presence of the intricately carved vase, and the artwork portrayed on its panels, further suggest that rituals in the Stelae Chamber were conducted by high status individuals who entered Tunichil Muknal to offer their blood in sacrifice to the gods who resided in caves.
Located approximately one kilometre from the entrance, the Main Chamber contains the skeletal remains of 14 individuals, approximately one hundred and fifty ceramic vessels, several grinding stone artifacts and a variety of animal remains. Of the 14 individuals, six are in fact under the age of three years, one is a child of roughly seven years of age, and the remaining sevne are adults ranging in age from their early 20's to approximately 40 years old. One of the adults, possibly a female, lies encrusted in sparkling travertine deposits in the deepest section of the Main Chamber. The skulls of at least five adults, and the chld, have evidence of cranial modification. Interestingly, the child and all of the infants also show evidence of trauma to their crania. This suggests that their deaths may have been caused by blows to their heads. Nearly all the skeletons were located in natural depressions and travertine pools which occasionally flood during the height of the rainy season. None of the 14 individuals, however were buried. Instead, they represent individuals that were sacrificed as part of agricultural fertility rituals in the caves.
More than 80 percent of the ceramic vessels in Tunichil Muknal are large pots and bowls, and almost all the pots are broken or ceremonially killed. We know from other sites in the region that these vessels very likely contained plant remains. In caves where the preservation of organic remains is excellent, archaeologists have discovered corn, chili pepper, cacao, and copal incense inside of ceramic vessels. Other ceramic artifacts included ocarinas in the form of dogs. These were likely used as musical instruments during cave ceremonies.
The stone tools in the cave include two basic types, grinding stones, known as manos and metates, were used for processing corn. The hoes were used to till the soil. Both of these implements are associated with food production and lend support to the argument that most cave rituals focused on themes of agricultural fertility.
Tunichil Muknal was first reported in 1989 by geomorphologist Tom Miller. Impressed by the cave's natural beauty and its unique cultural remains, National Geographic Exploerer Television produced a documentary, Journey through th Underworld, on the site in 1992. The following year (1993) Jaime Awe and his Western Belize Regional Cave Project began intensive archaeological research at the site. The WBRCP continued for eight years and was finally completed in 2000. Today Actun Tunichil Muknal is a national park under the protection of the Instittue of Archaeology and the Belize Audubon Society.