Friday, February 14, 2014

Belize: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave


ATM cave is known world-wide as the cave of the Crystal Maiden. She was a sacrificial victim left deep in a cave by the Mayans near the village of Teakettle, Belize. The cave is a very popular attraction, and as such may be closed to the public in the next few years if damage to the artifacts continues.

You can visit it ONLY with a licensed guide and with a local tour company. We went with Destiny but PACZ is also highly recommended.

No photos allowed inside,
I took a pic of a tour poster
We also went to Tikal with Destiny. I loved Tikal, but didn’t care for the guide they gave us. He was smart, spoke English, and was well informed as to dates and the subject matter. The problem was that he had some kind of New Age Spirituality agenda that didn’t sit well with six scientific types. For instance Donelo said new studies show that all people in the world are descended from the Maya, that Mayan is the root of all languages in the world,  the Mayans first invented the number zero, and they introduced ideas of heaven and hell to the Vatican. He also talked a lot about higher spiritual planes, energy vortexes, and other new age ideas that may or may not have resonated with the ancient Mayans.

So I asked a perfectly legitimate question: If the Mayans had achieved such a high level of consciousness, why did they engage in human sacrifice? He said it had to do with the blood of Christ (who died quite some time before the first Mayan ceremonial city was built) but got very defensive when I pointed that out.  

All that sounds like a digression, but it leads to the fact that our guide for ATM, Danny, was not only knowledgeable, he offered an excellent reason for the sacrifices, especially when it involved children. And there was no new-age agenda.

The walk in to the cave took about an hour, slogging through slimy mud and muck. We forded the same river three times. Once at the staging area we ate our lunch and then swam into the pool of water at the entrance. The water was “refreshing” as the Belizeans put it. Damned cool, a shock to enter, but we were able to get used to it.

Immediately our headlamps revealed beautiful formations; draperies, stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone the likes of which I’d never seen. It was full of tiny crystals, and the water had formed little ridges making patterns of small triangular depressions that might fill with water during the rainy season. Danny asked us not to touch certain especially beautiful formations, but the rest of the cave we often needed to touch in order to steady ourselves.
Photos from PACZ tours, taken before the ban.

The river in the cave flowed by with a forceful current, though not strong enough to knock anyone off their feet. All day, until we were deep into the cave, we were at least knee-deep in water and often needed to swim for a few yards.

The rocks were not slippery. Algae doesn’t grow in the dark and that’s what usually makes rocks dangerous. Most of the time we walked on a sandy or pebbly bottom between largish rocks, easily seen with our headlamps. But sometimes the way was blocked by huge angular chunks of limestone that had fallen from the ceiling. Then we had to climb, or slip through very narrow passages that would have made a claustrophobic person scream and run back out the entrance.

One passage involved fitting your helmet through an opening between two giant rocks while turning the head so the neck slid between a flat surface and an angled one. There was plenty of room below for the body but anyone with an exceptionally thick neck might have had a difficult time. The only alternative would have been to climb up and over the boulders, a far scarier option I thought.

The slim passage where you
had to turn your head just so to get through.
The cave is very popular and some groups of people race through it.  A few guides  sign up for two groups a day, one starting at 8am, the other at 2pm. We started into the cave around 10:30 and finally emerged around 5:00. Our guide clearly planned for us to be the last people with the Crystal Maiden. We helped him by being really slow, most of us were over 60.

So while we slogged along walking upstream, we would sometimes step to the side while a group of 20-somethings raced past, laughing and chatting, and then much later, still slogging along, that same group would race by on their way out.

Danny was so meticulous, helpful, and caring. He lent a hand to anyone who needed support, allowed others to hang onto his shoulder while he swam, and practically supported my whole body in one scary drop down the side of a cliff. (It wasn’t scary to anyone else, but I’m petrified of heights.)

He used our waiting times to tell us about the geology of the cave, the ancient people who used it, and to show us obscure places where they’d left things. I doubt any of the racers got such a thorough and deep understanding of the cave. In fact, I’m sure most didn’t as we saw them passing back out with red paint on their faces. They’d been through some whooping and hollering ceremony that may have been their guide’s idea of a human sacrifice re-enactment.  Danny had too much sensitivity and reverence for such nonsense.

About 500 yards into the cave, we stopped and climbed up a cliff onto a platform that was the floor of a cave so large the guides call it the Cathedral. It was dry. The floor was made of flowstone so smooth and fragile that shoes are not allowed inside. We had to wear socks to prevent any human oils from damaging the rock.

Danny described food offerings, and showed us where the Mayans had made fires between three stones, a sacred number representing the first three mountains made by the gods. Some of the pots showed blackened sides and had been used to cook food indicating people probably stayed inside the cave for days at a time. In places the ceiling was blackened from the smoke

All of the pots were broken as the Mayans believed everything and everyone has a spirit that must be released upon its death. The pots were, in essence, sacrificed. One pot in particular had a strange perfectly round hole with no ragged edge, and a tiny slot emerging from one side like a keyhole. Danny told us that some skulls also showed that same kind of hole, but healed up, indicating the Mayans performed brain surgery. Since they also wrapped the heads of royal infants to slope them, the adults may have had headaches and opening up a hole could relieve the pain.

Immediately upon entering the Cathedral there was evidence of human sacrifice. In a hollow on the floor were bones encased in rock. The dry cave isn’t always dry. During the rainy season, water flows over the rocks adding calcium to the bones and pots left behind.  A bit of orange tape surrounded a small u-shaped ridge, all that was left of an infant’s skull. In another place the vague shape of a skull  encased in a thick coat of calcium could be seen. Other places the bones or skulls were merely cemented in place.

Many of these artifacts have been damaged. One skull is missing part of the face because some idiot dropped his camera onto it. Another lost two front teeth when a lens cap fell off, and another skull has a big hole where a tourist was leaning against the wall above it and dislodged a rock. It is up to the guides to keep people inside the boundaries marked with orange tape, but that’s got to be a challenge if the people are young and energetic, and there are eight of them to one guide. The job is doubly difficult when there are dozens of groups going through the cave every single day.

Hence the rules: No cameras allowed inside, no cell phones or electronics, no packs or bags, no food or drink, socks only in the upper chambers, etc. Guides carry a pack, but it has emergency supplies and is water proof. No one else is allowed to carry in anything. In addition, all people going into the cave must be respectfully dressed, in shorts and shirts, no swimming suits or bikinis.

Eventually the total number of visitors may have to be curbed, or the cave closed altogether.

At the very back of the Cathedral cave is a little alcove with the Crystal Maiden. Our guide said the latest archeological measurements have discovered that she is a he.  From the position of the body, it looks like he was struck with a severe blow to the middle of the back and left to die. The middle two vertebrae are clearly smashed. The position he is in is how he must have died, struggling to move, pushing with feet and pulling with his right arm. For years people thought it was a female in a sexual pose.  Another boy, about 14, whose skull had been reshaped as a baby, was left to die, arms tied behind his back and bound to his feet. The bones piled up in a way that suggests that position. 

Other sacrifices in the cave were less intact. Danny pointed out a scattering of bones that indicated the victims had been killed higher up in the cave. The bones washed down before becoming glued to the floor with calcite. All in all there were 16 known sacrifices, and many of them were children.

Apparently as the ecological disaster that ultimately took down the Mayan civilization was worsening (drought, deforestation, soil erosion, climate change) the people began to think the gods had abandoned them and they performed human sacrifices. Finally they resorted to sacrificing the most precious of all, the children. At the bitter end, they lost faith in their god-kings and political upheaval finished off the upper classes. Because they were the only educated people, most knowledge of the Mayan rituals, astronomy, math, and poetry was lost.


We were the last people in the silent cave. When traveling in, the light reflections of other groups illuminated the walls and ceiling. But traveling back through the empty cave, that inky blackness was punctuated only with our small lights.

It was a sad and lonely feeling to have witnessed evidence of the last desperate hopes of people who thought the only solution was to sacrifice children and leave them to die in that deep darkness. They believed all caves to be entrances to Xibalba, home to the gods of the underworld.  It truly was the gateway for those young people tortured and left behind.