Fine, fine, that kid we thought was so brilliant, the one who discovered an ancient Mayan city by looking at the stars? Probably not real. But that doesn’t mean that the Mayan world doesn’t still hold secrets untold. Secrets that will only reveal themselves to bold spirits and intrepid explorers.
Deep in the lush green jungles of Belize, there’s a cave with a 1,000-year-old skeleton inside. The bones once belonged to a human — killed to glorify the Gods — and can still be visited to this day. The spot is so special that National Geographic ranked it No. 1 in their book Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations.
It’s called Actun Tunichil Muknal, which translates to Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre. How good is that? It could be an Indiana Jones title with zero modification. To the locals, it’s known as ATM cave (because it makes the region a lot of money?); to the ancient Mayans it was Xibalba. The word means “place of fear,” which designates the cave as an entrance to the Mayan underworld. For the Mayans, the underworld was not an abstract concept — it was real, accessed through caves like this one. And with Belize being home to the most caves in all of Central America, Xibalba was never far from the minds of the region’s early inhabitants.
In those ancient days, standing at the entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, and any cave for that matter, was like standing at the entrance to hell. Xibalba wasn’t just home to demons, though. It was also home to one of the Mayans’ most revered deities: Chac, the God of rain. Early Mayans who followed rivers upstream to discover their sources usually found a stream gushing from the mouth of a cave. This led them to believe that water was born in caves — so naturally caves were also the home to Chac.
Chac was responsible for the rain he provided for crops (signifying his mercy) and also the withholding of rain or the throwing of lightning bolts from the sky (signifying his vengeance). When the Mayans sought his favor, they offered gifts, delivered to his dark and wet home deep under the earth. They delivered quite a few gifts to him at Actun Tunichil Mukna, offerings that remain there today.
To see all of this for myself, I traveled down a long and bumpy dirt road, hiked through the jungle, and waded across two rivers before finally arriving at the cave entrance.
I. Into The Belly Of The Beast
With the overgrown vines and the precariously situated boulders hanging above, plus the blue-gray water pouring from the caves’ mouth, Actun Tunichil Muknal is the quintessential jungle cave. It’s so perfect looking that you’ll think it’s the entrance to a Disney World ride.
Remember, caves were considered the underworld to the ancient Mayans — the home of Gods. With that in mind, as you stand at the entrance, think about the Mayans who stood in this spot one thousand years ago to begin their journey into the underworld to offer sacrifices (sometimes human ones) to the Gods with only torches to light the way.
II. Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter
Come prepared to get wet. Very wet. To enter the cave, you’ll need to jump into the grotto and swim about 20 feet to the other side. Your feet won’t be able to touch the bottom. Don’t freak out, the only thing swimming with you will be a few tiny fish.
Inside, your journey will include climbing and maneuvering over, under, and around rocks — including a few tight squeezes. But mostly, you’ll be wading through the cave’s river and pools, which vary in depth. Unfortunately, few photos exist that show this part of the trek, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
III. This Cave… Rocks!
Throughout the adventure, you’ll see an impressive array of cave formations, like stalagmites and stalactites that have been continuously forming for hundreds of thousands of years. You’ll also enter some spectacular dry rooms, including the expansive main chamber (pictured below).
IV. Mayan Relics Abound
After entering the cavernous main chamber (it’ll require a little climbing), you’ll need to remove your shoes and continue on in just your socks to help preserve the cave and artifacts.
Continuing deeper into the cave, the presence of the ancient Mayans turns from metaphysical to tangible as clay pots left behind ages ago begin to appear in the darkness. Brought in to appease the Gods, these pots held offerings like food and animal blood.
But when these offerings didn’t appear to be work (when war, drought or famine persisted), the Mayans took their sacrificial offerings to a new level — by offering the blood of humans which was ceremoniously collected in the cave (often by piercing the tongue with the spine of a stingray).
And when human blood didn’t seem to do the trick, well…
V. Let’s Talk Human Sacrifice
In dire times, Mayan’s offered the ultimate sacrifice to their Gods — people. Within Actun Tunichil Muknal rests the skeletal remains of 14 human sacrifices, including those of seven children. All are not visible and the bones of most remain scattered, buried or semi-buried on account of being displaced by running water and covered in sediment.
VI. Finally, In A Hidden Chamber… The Crystal Maiden
Before turing back, you’ll make one final stop. Using a ladder (the only human device throughout the entire cave brought in to assist visitors), you’ll climb up and into a small room. Crouching down, you’ll shuffle forward a few feet and come face to face with the Crystal Maiden — the name given to the fully intact skeleton which has been lying here for more than 1,000 years.
For years, it was believed the skeleton was that of a 20-year-old female, but later science determined that it’s actually that of a male of about the same age. After a thousand years of being dripped on by water falling from the ceiling, his bones are now calcified and sparkle ever so slightly under light.
Climbing back down the ladder, lost in thought, you’ll begin the journey back to the cave’s entrance. After twisting and turning your body through some tight passageways (one just big enough to squeeze your neck through…while treading water), you’ll emerge from the underworld and into the sun-filled jungle.
How To Go:
Only government approved tour operators are allowed to lead groups into Actun Tunichil Muknal. A simple Google search for “Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour” is all it takes to get started.
Tip: Since Actun Tunichil Muknal is located in the far west of the country, and tours depart in the morning, you’ll most likely need to spend the night before in the region (and we highly recommend spending a few nights in the jungle anyway). Your hotel will be able to set you up on a tour, and some hotels even have their own guides.
Chaa Creek, Belize’s original jungle eco-resort, makes it easy to organize your Actun Tunichil Muknal trip through the hotel’s activities concierge.
Price: Most tours range from $90 to $110 per person.
Good To Know:
You will see bats and maybe a spider or two. Keep your cool, you will survive. Since 2012, cameras have been strictly prohibited within the cave (thanks to someone dropping their camera on a skull and cracking it). The photos seen here were taken several years ago, before the ban.
In a world with a “If I can’t post a photo of me doing this to Instagram, did it ever really happen?” mentality, it’s kind of nice to be forced to see and remember the world with your eyes and brain, not with a camera.
What To Bring:
For guys: athletic undies with shorts or a bathing suit and a long or short sleeve shirt. For ladies: a bathing suit with shorts or yoga pants and a long or short sleeve shirt. Don’t forget to wear socks.
The most important thing is having the right shoes, becasue Belize is humid and it could take days for regular sneakers to dry out. Chacos, like the Outcross 1 for men and the Outcross 1 for women, were made for a situation like this.
For more, check out this video from friend of Uproxx Don Wildman
By the way, Don’s travel advice can be found in the Uproxx Travel Guide series — check them out here