Actun Tunichil Muknal (The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), most commonly known as the ATM cave in Belize, is an archaeological site known to Mayans, as the entrance to hell. Unfortunately, for the many sacrificed in the gigantic limestone cavern, the ATM cave really was the entrance to hell.
The ATM Cave is Located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Accessible only by trekking through the jungle, crossing the river twice, and then swimming into the cave itself, there’s little wonder as to why the Mayans thought this was a special place. The limestone cave itself is large and there are several chambers and cavernous spaces, some currently inaccessible.
Venturing into these caverns, you’ll first encounter pottery, ceramics and cave drawings. Items of particular interest that you’ll see include special ceramics marked with “kill holes,” and cave formations carved into the faces of animals and humans. When your light hits these carvings the shadows bounce off the cave walls displaying grotesque images and making you feel anything but alone. It’s possible the pottery, ceramics and other ritual evidence here in the outer caverns was the first attempt at pleasing the gods.
Speaking of pleasing their gods, the ATM cave was believed to be the entrance to the Mayan underworld- a place filled with scorpions, and running with rivers of blood. The rain god Chac, the death gods and twelve demon deities were said to have lived here and they would inflict chaos, illness, fear, pain and drought upon the Mayans. So scientists believe that in hard times the head elders of the Mayans would make the treacherous journey through the jungle, crossing the river and swimming into the cave caring their offerings in hopes of appeasing the gods. Sometimes this may have worked, but if it didn’t, they next would try sacrifice of their blood, as evidence by the obsidian blades found in a deeper cavern. If that still didn’t work, they would make the journey again, this time with a human sacrifice.
Journey past the pottery, past the obsidian blades, and you’ll start to discover skeletal remains from the sacrificed. There are many partial skeletons, some seemingly stuffed into small caverns, others scattered throughout the cave, but there are 7 complete skeletons left in the cave. These skeletons have been in large “cemented” to the floor due to the calcium carbonate crystalizing the bones onto the cave itself. Some of these skeletons have become the focus of scientists and historians. One such skeleton is that of a male teenager around fifteen years old. What’s unique about him is that he was tied to be sacrificed, clearly indicating that he was not a willing participant. There is also a seven year old, and a toddler. Both of these youngsters had the alien shaped head that indicated the practice of skull binding.
The Crystal Maiden
Most famous of all though, resting in a cavern known as the “Cathedral” is a skeleton called “The Crystal Maiden”.
The Crystal Maiden is the skeleton of an eighteen-year-old, just one of dozens sacrificed in the AMT cave, yet her death was considered to be more violent than most since two of her vertebrae are completely crushed. While it was common practice to crush the skulls of the scarified, to crush the vertebrae as well suggests abnormal force. What really makes The Crystal Maiden so famous though is that her bones have not only been “glued” to the cave floor, but they have been completely calcified. This complete calcification has left her bones looking “fat”, textured and a little sparkly.
It’s no surprise that with so many sacrifices, the ATM caves are rumored to be haunted by both locals and ghost hunting expeditions. It’s said people see shadows, hear voices and feel wind deep in the cave where wind doesn’t happen. The ATM caves were featured on an episode of Ghost Hunters International, yet the trip seemed to be a bust.
If you want to visit ATM, it is just an hour away San Ignacio, Belize, and another hour walk through the jungle and across shallow rivers. The best way to experience ATM is by hiring a private guide to take you there as early as 7am before you encounter bigger groups. Arrangements for your licensed guide should be made in advance. Inside the cave there are strict rules to follow: No photography, cameras and mobile phones are allowed, backpacks and food are also prohibited.