The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, popularly known as ATM Cave, is one of the best-preserved ancient Maya sites in the world. Abandoned by the Maya more than 1,000 years ago, the ATM Cave lay undisturbed and forgotten until it was accidentally rediscovered in the 1980s.
It’s easy to see why this magnificent underground site was never defiled by European colonizers. The only way to get inside the cave is by hiking through the dense jungle and then swimming across a spring-fed pool. Once inside, visitors will have to wade through a subterranean creek for several hundred feet before reaching the first chamber.
Once inside the cave proper, the space opens up into a magnificent underground cathedral complete with gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, some of them elaborately carved by ancient Maya priests. There are a number of artifacts on display, including ceramic pots, obsidian weapons, and other religious items.
But there’s far more that awaits the intrepid traveler far to the rear of the cave. After an extensive hike and a climb up to a ledge nearly hidden from site, visitors will arrive at a strange chamber where bones litter the floor. In the local Mayan tongue, “Actun Tunichil Muknal” means “Cave of the Crystal Maiden,” so named because of the remains of a young woman whose bones have fused with minerals in the cave that eerily glitter in the flickering light of a headlamp.
The Crystal Maiden is just one of the dozens of people who were sacrificed by ancient Maya priests in order to satisfy Chaac, the bloodthirsty Maya god of rain, during one of the most troubled times in their civilization’s history. Children as young as infants and several adults were apparently sacrificed by blunt clubs as part of the ancient rituals. Nearby are several ceramic vessels that still contain the remains of food offerings.
In order to preserve this important historical site, visitors to ATM Cave can only visit the area with a licensed tour guide. Cameras and video recording equipment are strictly forbidden. Visitors must also remove their shoes before entering the final chamber in order to prevent damaging the fragile bones and artifacts.
If you’re interested in exploring the mysterious ATM Cave, be sure to book your tour with Untame Belize. Untame Belize also offers great day trips from Placencia like ATV tours of the jungle and visits to ancient Maya sites like Cahal Pech and Xunantunich.