I Went into a Mayan Sacrificial Cave

So there I was, dripping wet and only in socks, climbing up a rickety thirteen step ladder held into a vertical slab of limestone by rope and duct tape. As the light on my helmet reached the top, a human skeleton, beautifully preserved from the sparkling minerals to earn the name “Crystal Maiden” (pictured below), lay to rest not even six feet in front of me. A sacrifice made to please to Gods lay among many other sacrificial artifacts. My legs shook as I battled the last step and placed myself gently to the side to make room for the rest of my group to climb up the ladder. I just spent the better part of an hour and a half (maybe less, maybe more? you really lose track of time 900 meters deep in a cave) hiking, swimming, and bouldering. Did I mention the bats? The heights? The darkness? The neck deep water? The pathway nicknamed “The Neck Chopper” because you had to turn your head up and sideways to pass through as pointed limestone came centimeters away from your neck? And the fact that you weren’t allowed to wear shoes for half the time? I had a lot of other things on my mind than the time.

(Photo by MayaWalk Tours)

A forty minute deceivingly easy hike littered with jaguar footprints (besides the three “refreshing”, aka very cold, river crossings) leads you into the entrance of the cave. Jumping right into the sparkling teal water for the fourth time feels weirdly normal at this point. We kissed sunlight goodbye as we switched our headlamps on and ventured into what the Mayan’s referred to as ‘Xibalba’, or the underworld, Hell, whatever suits your fancy. After reading the reviews ahead of the trip, I had a feeling this experience was truly going to be my Xibalba. But, you know what? I actually did it. I made it in and out of the underworld with only a minor scrape on my knee and some intense chafing from wearing wet shorts for a few hours.

I am not Indiana Jones by any means, although this adventure felt straight out of a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I like hiking and seeing the sights, but the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave in Belize was the most physically and mentally challenging experience I have ever faced. I quite literally put my life in the hands of this Central American man (now, they only allow about thirty very experienced tour guides go into this cave, but let me be theatrical) as he showed us every step of the way. Foot here, hand here, don’t touch this wall since your oily hands will ruin it, that sort of thing. Single file line, my tour group, comprised of my family, my sister’s boyfriend, and Jim (a much more experienced adventurist from Hong Kong), played the most depressing game of telephone. If the tour guide said left foot there, we each were supposed to remind the person behind us. After about the third or fourth person, however, it fell short, which is why I kept myself in the front.

What makes this cave so special is it’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience anywhere else, especially in the States. Phones and cameras were banned from the ATM cave a few years ago after a few (many) accidents occured with tourists damaging artifacts. Being the guy who broke an ancient skull by dropping his camera on it to get just the right angle? I’ll pass. There’s no way you would even be able to take pictures. I utilized all five points of contact (two hands, two feet, one butt) probably 50% of the time we were in the cave; the other 50% was spent swimming and climbing. Yes, my butt was all over a sacred Mayan burial place, let's not talk about it.

(Photo by MayaWalk Tours)

All in all, I did this cave 0% justice in this article. If you get the chance to explore the ATM cave, do it. I was really dreading the day trip when it finally sunk in how challenging it would be, both mentally and physically. I hate tight spaces, water, the dark, heights, and the unknown more than anyone I know, yet I survived. It’s easy to stand on a ledge and think about how much you hate heights when you don’t have to jump. It’s easy to flip on a light switch because you would rather not be in the dark. But, when you’re in Belize, and there’s a man with Mayan ancestry telling you to keep your legs straight and head down as you slide down a mini waterfall known as “The Flush”? You better keep your legs straight and head down because there is no time to think about your phobias in that situation.

 

For more detailed information regarding the experience, check out https://www.mywanderlustylife.com/touring-atm-cave-in-belize/ and https://lostcomfortzone.com/atm-cave-tour-review/