Swimming into History
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Number Three in the Wet and Wild Inland Belize series
As part of our Wet and Wild Inland Belize series, we immersed readers in the majestic Macal River and the refreshing Rio On polls, further debunking the myth that you need to be on Belize’s Caribbean coast, cayes or barrier reef to have fun getting wet.
And now, as promised, we explore another watery adventure in Belize’s Cayo District – The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, otherwise known as ATM, and one of most impressive day trips to be had anywhere.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that cave exploration belongs more in the spelunking than the watersport category, but trust us, you will get wet exploring ATM. Delightfully, invigoratingly, adventurously wet. Sort of like a squelchy Indiana Jones.
Your first wet encounter, depending on how much rain there’s been recently, will be in wading across the streams during the hike in. The original ATM explorers, recognising the potential for looting this artefact-rich underground treasure, did what they could to keep the trail in as hidden as possible, and today’s path still follows a circuitous route through the forest and across the streams. There’s even a swimming hole on the way that some hikers take advantage of to cool off in before carrying on to the big adventure.
When you arrive at the entrance it quickly becomes apparent why the cave remained a secret for so long. From a distance it looks like a cluster of rock and bush on the other side of a pool. It’s only after you get closer that the entrance is revealed, and then you need to slide in and swim over to the other side to see that this is indeed, as the ancient Maya put it, a portal to the underworld.
And what a world it is.
Depending on the time of year and the amount of water flowing through, you’re either wading or swimming deeper and deeper into the earth, surrounded by the usual stalactites and other rock formations found in caves. But then you’ll notice a piece of pottery. And then another piece until the place seems littered with these remnants of the past.
Ladders take you out of the water and up into ceremonial areas, complete with altars, jade axe heads, ceramics, more pottery and other artefacts. A series of chambers are connected by narrow corridors, including the vast “cathedral” where you’ll notice skulls and skeletons of sacrificial victims, from adult members of the elite to, as the Maya became increasingly desperate to appease the gods with the purest of sacrifices, infants.
And finally, deep into ATM, you come across the famous Crystal Maiden, a young woman who earned the name due to years of calcium carbonate deposits giving her skeleton an eerie, shimmering appearance when illuminated with the beam of a torch.
It’s hard to put into words the effect of being surrounded by so many artefacts and so much rich history. Suffice to say that being in the ATM is an extraordinary experience that you’ll be thinking and talking about for a long while. We’ve seen the most experienced travellers and even seasoned archaeologists absolutely awestruck by the time they’ve reached the Crystal Maiden. There’s just something about it…
All this excitement kept you warm, so it’s a bit of a shock to hit the water again after descending back down the ladders and beginning the wade back to the entrance. And now that you’re feeling more confident, this is often the time for slipping or losing balance and taking an unplanned plunge.
But no worries; soon enough you’re back at the cave mouth and enjoying the swim back out.
After drying off, having a brief rest with some refreshment and the obligatory “That was soo amazing! Did you notice…?” conversations with fellow spelunkers, you’re ready to head back with that satisfied fatigue that comes after a big adventure.
Of course, if you’re staying at Chaa Creek, more aquatic fun awaits, as there’s nothing like a nice swim in the infinity pool to stretch out after the drive and finish honing the appetite for dinner.
Who’d a thought that combining ancient Maya culture and cave exploration would be such a wet and wild treat?