Actun Tunichil Muknal - Cave of the Stone Sepulchre

Roaring Creek Travel Blog

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Sun 23 Nov 2008

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) trip – I had been looking forward to the ATM trip for quite a while. It is highly recommended by travelers. Bethany, Alissa, Alissa’s friend Holly and I went together, getting a discount just before high season rolled in. Our guide, Ted, has been in Belize for 13 years, but is originally from the U.K. He’s very opinionated, informative and cautious.


The van dropped 9 travelers and 2 guides off at the side of a river. We immediately got wet, walking knee deep across the river. On the other side was a jeep. We had broken up into two groups and got separate rides to the entrance. From there, we started our approach to the cave. It was an easy hike, yet we crossed the river about three more times. Ted and myself were the only ones wearing pants. I didn’t want to get more mosquito bites walking through the jungle. I also wore long sleeves, which worked out well since it was a bit cool out. At some points we were waist deep in water.


Along the way, Ted pointed out a few things. We didn’t have many questions for him because we didn’t really know what to ask. The hike had been a bit off from the start when we asked if we needed to put insect repellent on (after all, it was on the Items to Bring list) and he rejected its use for its poisonous toxins that are bad for the environment as well as our own skin. He told us not to touch any of the plants we passed, because we would do more harm than good. And if we didn’t know what something was, best to just leave it be.


Then, we came to the picnic area. We were told to put our cameras in one dry bag and our valuables in another dry bag. Since I don’t like other people carrying my valuables, I kept them on my person. Ted seemed annoyed, telling us that travelers always lost or ruined things in the caves because they left them in their pockets. Well, I had my GPS (which I thought I would use on the hike but didn’t) and credit card and since those were waterproof and my pants had zippers, I thought I was fine (which I was), though Ted continued to be critical.


We ate a bit of our lunch. (It was 10:30AM). Then, I went to the outhouse and nearly fell in. That was a scare. The ground is falling through and there’s gaps large enough for a leg to get through. After my brief scare of falling in mounds of piss and shit, I jogged back to the picnic area. We hiked a short distance before arriving at the mouth of the cave. Another group was just ahead of us, so we waited while Ted shared with us some historical information. Then, we went for it.


We climbed down some slippery rocks and plunged into the frigid water. The swim was only about 15 yards, but it was strange being fully clothed. We climbed up on the rock and continued our journey into the cave, slightly weighed down by our wet clothes. We each wore helmets and headlamps, while Ted carried a huge floatable army bag of gear.


As we walked through the cave, we climbed on rocks (they weren’t slippery, but some were very point and easy to scrap yourself against) and walked either ankle, knee, or waist high in water. At this point we were really used to being in the water. Ted guided us through, being extremely cautious and telling us exactly where to step or what to touch. On some walls the oils from our hands would kill that part of the wall of the cave. We came to part of the cave where the Mayans believed to have had ceremonies. We could barely make out some Mayan formations in the light. The Mayans believed the caves were a very holy place and their connection to the underworld. They carried in torches and pottery into the caves. They gave human sacrifices to the gods and performed blood-letting rituals. As they walked through the cave, they were very weak due to empty stomachs from fasting and blood dripping from underneath their arms. On top of that, some of them carried in the human sacrifices and pottery.


The cave is very large but we only went as far as the Mayan were believed to have gone. Then, we climbed up were most of the pottery and human remains are located. At the very top, we were instructed to take our shoes off and put our socks on (if they weren’t on already). Wearing socks helps preserve the cave. We had to be extremely careful where we walked. Usually in a cave you’re supposed to walk in the pools, but here it was the opposite. In a lot of the pools, there are Mayan artifacts, and you have to keep a watchful eye out, being careful not to step on anything. Some of the pottery is remarkably unbroken. Inside the cave, there are 14 human remains, mostly infants or young children. We scoped out 4 of them. A couple you could just barely identify the part. One of the child skulls has a hole in the forehead which was caused by falling rock just a few months ago.  Another head had it’s teeth broken off when someone accidentally hit it with his camera.  The most fascinating of the remains is the entire body of a woman. It is the only area roped off. All the other skeletal remains and hard to see pottery areas are marked with neon tape. Ted explained her significance and how she was left to die alone. A water level mark appears on her skull.


After the guided tour, we walked back out the way we came. It was an awesome experience and definitely worth the money.  Very entertaining, engaging, active and informative!

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