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actun tunichil muknal cave maya ruins

Actun Tunichil Muknal, (pronounced “Awk-toon Toon-each-EEL Mook-nal”), translated, it means "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre" and is sometimes (simply) referred to as the ATM Cave. This cave is an incredible network of subterranean spaces that descend over three miles into the earth and were used between 1000-2000 years ago by the Maya for religious ceremonies that included grisly human sacrifices. Caves were churches for the Maya, and indeed, some of the caverns rival the greatest cathedrals on earth today with all of their immense volume and transcendent beauty.

An Actun Tunichil Muknal adventure will start in San Ignacio town, Cayo District, with a 45 minute walk through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. This walk will take you through the forest and four rivers will need to be crossed to reach the entrance to this cave. Be prepared to get wet as you will walk through these rivers. Along the way one can learned how to identify several trees and plants, as well as their commercial and medicinal uses. The hike alone is truly a fascinating experience. At the cave's entrance one must ready the lamps on your helmets, put your
cameras and dry clothes into a waterproof bag.

The portal into the Mayan underworld is shaped like an hourglass. Enter into this mouth and sink into a turquoise pool fifteen feet deep filled with fish and then bid farewell to the light of the world for the next three hours as one must rely on headlamps to illuminate your way through total darkness.

During this journey one steps in and out of water, sometimes waist deep and sometimes swimming. Occasionally one will need to climb or crouch, often using four contact points to navigate over fields of fallen boulders or twist through narrow passages.


Helmets are essential to protect heads against overhangs that appeared just above the headlamp's beam.

You will emerge from the water into a large cavern at about the half mile point. Then you must ascend a series of rocks and ledges to reach the main ceremonial center. To respect the hallowed ground and to protect the pottery strewn about the cave's floor all shoes must be removed.

Religious pots are still intact, left untouched for a millennium although most have been intentionally punctured or smashed, to release the spirit of what they once contained whether it be water, food, blood, bones or ashes.

One of the pots contain a carving of a monkey, which the Maya considered to be the gods' third attempt at creating humans. First came Man of Mud, who didn't work out for various reasons. Next came Man of Wood, who tended to catch on fire a little too easily. Third came Monkey Man, who was too playful and disrespectful of the gods. Finally, there appeared humans, who apparently were deemed just good enough.

Walking deeper into the cavern the tall ceiling and enormous stalagmite and stalactite formations makes one gasp in awe. These were believed to be
the roots of the Yaxche, the sacred Maya Tree of Life whose high, axial branches were believed to touch the celestial realm of stars and glorified ancestor spirits and its roots were believed to have extended through the nine layers of the underworld, Xibalba.


It is in this area that one begins to see the remains of the 7 adults and 7 children that have been discovered in this cave. The Maya did not sacrifice slaves or common people; only the best people in society were offered to the gods. One of the skulls had filed teeth carefully inlaid with jade. The forehead had been shaped and flattened by a board since birth. Most likely this was a male who also had a bead suspended above his nose, so that he could stare at it and permanently cross his eyes. According to ancient Maya he was royalty and a rather attractive guy. No doubt he was most likely clubbed and/or choked to death by his priest.

Continuing further into the cavern there is a ladder propped against a wall. On this ledge is the chamber that contains the famous Crystal Maiden, the completely intact skeleton of a teenage girl, that is covered with sparkling cave minerals.

The Crystal Maiden's journey ended at this point about a 1000 + years ago. And so does the modern visitor's journey. One must turn around, crawl, hike and swim all the way back to the entrance of this truly magnificent cave taking away some breathtaking photos and memories of a lifetime!  ~ Anthony Benjamin




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