Belize’s ATM: The Inside Story of a Sacred Cave.

One of our True Beach Lovers, Cecelia Joslin, a teacher in Dallas, Texas, visited a sacred cave in Belize, Actun Tunichil Muknal aka ATM. Below is our interview with her that details her mystical, powerful experience–it’s a must-read if you’re planning a trip to Belize.

1. How did you find out about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize?

My aunt lived and worked for the Peace Corps in Belize. She started a school there in San Ignacio. During my summer vacation of 2014, I wanted to travel somewhere unique. I believed that Belize was both personal because of my family connection and it was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity!

2. When you heard you had to “unplug” on the Actun Tunichil Muknal excursion, how did you feel?

There were a few things that were expected on the cave excursion. First, we were not allowed to bring cameras, or phones. This was because it was a sacred place in Belize. Secondly, we were told to wear a full layer of clothes, shorts and shirt, over our bathing suits. This was also because it was a sacred place. At first I felt annoyed that I couldn’t bring a camera to document the experience. I also felt uncomfortable wearing my clothes over my bathing suit while in the water. But as the excursion went on, I realized how sacred this place really was.

The moment I entered the cave I began to think of the men and women who walked in these caves in the past. They cherished this cave and believed that their gods were there. We walked through the cave with head lamps, while these people thousands of years ago would have been carrying torches. The Mayan men and women who entered the cave were desperate and hopeful that their gods were listening. Regardless of my religious beliefs, I could feel those spirits, and hopes in the eerie cave. I am glad that the people in Belize are still respecting and acknowledging the sacredness of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. It is what keeps it special.

3. What was the most exciting part of the cave?

To be honest, originally, I did not want to go to the caves. My fiancé heard about it and really wanted to go. Once we parked the car and began walking to the cave I felt nervous and a bit unsure about what I was going to see. When we got to the mouth of the cave, we had to climb down a bluff and jump into the water. There was a pool of water at the entrance of the cave. We swam about 20 feet and then the water became shallow, about to our ankles. Our tour guide was enthusiastic and had a deep love for his culture and history. He led us through the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, climbing over and under rocks. We wore headlamps and helmets to help us see through the darkness. We walked about a half mile. (To me, this was the scariest part! What if something happened? We were so far away from any help-scary but also thrilling I guess!) Once we got to a tall boulder our tour guide said, “Climb up!” It looked impossible to me, but he knew the nooks and crannies of the rock and was able to guide everyone up. Once we got to the top of this rock we shimmied over to another ledge. Once we reached this ledge, we could see about 1,000 yards of open space. The room was FILLED with stalagmites and stalactites. It looked like an ancient cathedral. This was the most exciting part to me.

For the next 20 to 30 minutes we were walking through a narrow cave and by just climbing up one tall rock, it opened to this beautiful room. How did the Mayan people ever find this? I could see how they believed it to be so sacred. It was so beautiful and mind-blowing because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Once we were in this open area of the cave we began to see the sacrificial items that the Mayan people left.

First, we saw a series of broken pots.

The Mayan people believed that every item has a spirit, and once the item is broken the spirit can escape. The Mayans brought their pots through this narrow cave and up this tall, scary rock to this open cathedral-like room just to break it and give the spirit to the gods. As we passed the pots, soon we began to see animal remains. There was a giant tortoise shell. It was believed to be almost 1,500-2,000 years old. Next to the tortoise shell was some kind of tiger bone. (I don’t quite remember this as well. I know it was some form of tiger, but it was only part of the remains, not sure which part!) It was clear that the Mayans must have been struggling during these times because the pots, and animal sacrifices were not successful. They needed to go bigger and sacrifice humans.

Further inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave we saw the remains of a human male. I was so close to these remains that I could have touched it! But of course, I did not. That is also against the rules, and I totally respect that. It was fascinating to look at the bones of a human. A human who lived in a completely different world than me. It made me question what his life was like, what he looked like, and why was he chosen to be sacrificed?

 

Finally, our tour guide walked us to the very back wall of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. This was my Indiana Jones moment! He asked us to climb up this small ladder that looked almost as old as the remains! Then we reached another small ledge that overlooked the open area from before. Back here we saw another set of human remains. These were more intact–it was a female. Again, my mind became blurred with questions. I wanted to know more about these people and why they were here. It was a fascinating, exciting, and life-changing experience.

4. What is the one thing that you’d say to people about your experience inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize?

I would tell them to DO IT! First, I was apprehensive about going. I wanted to be in Belize for the sunshine and Pina coladas! So, when Trey suggested the caves, I wasn’t that thrilled. Nonetheless, I did it. I am SO GLAD that I did. It was the most thrilling and exciting thing I have ever done. The experience was so unique that I do not think I will ever be able to do something similar. Secondly, our tour group was only eight people. That is how many people get to go to these caves a day. I do not know if they will continue to give these tours. This is a sacred place and the more people that enter, the less sacred it is. Therefore, take the opportunity to go now–while you can!

5. Do you feel changed by this experience in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave?

Yes, I feel changed by this experience. First off, I believe that this experience made me realize how much I can really do. I was shocked that I could go through the cave of water and rocks. Secondly, I realize that this experience I had in Belize is once-in-a-lifetime. I am not Indiana Jones. I do not get to go to ancient ruins in Belize every day. I’m just a regular school teacher! But this experience allowed me to see something different from what I regularly see: school kids in Dallas. I felt special to be able to enter this sacred cave and see the sacred ruins of the Mayan people. I would go back to Belize just to go visit those caves again. It truly was a life-changing experience.

Ready to do something that’s incredibly mind-blowing? Then you have to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize. All you have to do is call 1-800-915-3162 and one of our sunsational Beachologists will create a magical vacation of your dreams to Belize, or to any of our other beaches in the Caribbean and Mexico. Life is short. Time to beach.

Lisa Mitchell

I am a blogger for CheapCaribbean.com who is a travel junkie and addicted to the beach.

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