Princes of the underworld ~ Actun Tunichil Muknal ATM, Belize

Explore the mayan underworld in Belize’s cave system Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as ATM.


With a last click all light is gone. All around is plain, stone-cold blackness. A distant drop echoes through the stale air. One step further through the ankle high water, reaching out into the nothingness.

Every single hair on my arm raises in order to protect me when my hand finally finds the soggy shoulder. I move closer. Very close, not wanting to be left behind. The soft scent of the girl’s hair mixes into air that has been here for hundreds and thousands of years.

Green and purple streaks ghost around. Demons of the underworld.

The group starts moving deeper into the cold water, hands on shoulders, someone makes ‘Muuuaaahh!’ and a girl in front of the line chuckles.
The water creeps up our shivering legs while we wade cautiously. ‘To your left is a wall’, says Martin. Hesitant hands find cold, hard surface.
Our fingers move softly over the rock to our left, solid and scratchy. Which color it is, I ask myself.

Liquid ice touches bellybuttons as the group follows Martin trustfully.

Martin, who knows the way through the portal to the underworld Xibalba, who has been there and has returned. “The Maya know this entrance but never go there. Illness, death and disaster will come over those who dare to enter Xibalba, and over their families.”, Martin had warned before the world turned dark. “We ask the Gods today, to protect us as we come with pure heart and soul.”

How do we know that they’ve heard him? Why would they make an exception for us, we don’t even know their names!?

“I’ve got to pee, sorry!”, says a guy’s voice in the front, and all eight of us start laughing. The cave walls respond with chaos.

As the water reaches up to my chest I try not to speculate about what might live in it, observe us.
The shoulder under my hand turns left and I follow, around the wall’s corner, and suddenly the wall is gone. Quiet. Wet. Cold. Wrapped in a bare coat of blackness we move on and on. Finally the water level drops, we walk out of the water. Only the person in front is left. “We turn our lights on now”, Martin whispers, and eight headlights click alive.

Fingers of light stretch through a wide chamber with sugar colored teeth – sparkling stalagmites and stalactites. Petrified frosting dripping down from the cave’s canopy to grow glittering pillars from the ground. As if someone had stopped time after pouring mellow caramel syrup with ice crystals over a stony desert.

“Look at this! Pink Broccoli!” The girl, whose shoulder had been my only hold through the dark, points at a bunch of tubes hanging from the roof, cuddled together . Martin strolls over and gently taps  with the knuckle of his left index finger  one of the bigger tubes. The womb of the mountain responds with a rich, low tone which seems to come from everywhere but the tube. Martin knocks against one of the slender tubes. The soft, high answer comes from far away out of the cave’s depth. So here we are standing, pumping small clouds of warm breath into the cold air, hanging on Martin’s cavern melody on a pink Broccoli tube. The gods must have mercy upon us – pure hearts astonishment.

He guides us underneath a sparkling waterfall – frozen in time – and deeper and deeper into the cave system over a dry and sandy rock. ‘See how the ground is wave shaped. Step on the hard tops of the waves, the hollows are filled with sediment which the river brings during rain season. We don’t know what’s hidden in there.’ And he shows us a human skull in one hollow further away. ‘A 30-something year old Maya – sacrificed.’

Martin points at other skulls and broken pottery here and there. All brought here by the Maya for their ceremonies, to please the gods. Maybe in particular Chaac, the rain god, who could do a good part for the next harvest.

Martin shows us a scorpion-like-spider. Or it’s maybe a spider-like scorpion. The explanation went through my ears like a too-fast train that didn’t bother to stop in between. What an enormous scorpider!

Wading through deep darkness, climbing, squeezing feet forward through small rock holes, had brought our group to the chamber of ‘The Crystal Maiden’. At age 14 she was sacrificed to the Mayan gods. The calcified skeleton sparkles. She looks like she is dancing, alluringly one hand on her hip, the other behind her head.  Her human remains will stay in Xibalba for a little longer. But even if Museum of Natural History picks the skeleton up one day, the maiden’s soul dances with Chaac in the rain for eternity.



More about Actun Tunichil Muknal:

Mayawalk Tours: ATM Cave

GloboTreks: Actun Tunichil Muknal: A Story And An Adventure

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  2 comments for “Princes of the underworld ~ Actun Tunichil Muknal ATM, Belize

  1. April 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Such an interesting place…ATM Cave was closed (high water level) when I tried to visit years ago, I guess I’ll have to return one day!

    • April 23, 2012 at 11:12 pm

      Now that you mention it, I remember that Martin said, during rain season the cave is more like an underground river. If you get another chance one day, it’s definitely worth the trip.

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