A Cave of Sacrifice and Blood-letting

Words by Pete Heck
My mind raced and my heart beat faster than normal. The road twisted through the Belizean teak farms, bean fields and orange groves. When our truck came to a stop I was told there was a 2km hike through the forest, crossing 3 rivers before we would arrive at the cave.

“The Cave of the Stone Tomb.” Or, better known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM).

On our walk I questioned our guide if the Mayan people were upset that a cave so important to their history is now being used for tourism. His response was simple.

When he was younger he would enter these caves without a guide on his own accord. His mother had expressed displeasure with him doing so but knew she would not be able to stop him. So instead she asked him to always ask permission from the Mayan gods before entering the caves. He needed to respect where he was going and what he was doing. Needless to say, I was already asking permission in my mind before we had even reached the entrance.

In order to enter the cave we had to first swim through the crystal blue water into what looks like a keyhole.

In order to enter the cave we had to first swim through the crystal blue water into what looks like a keyhole.
ATMentrance-Ambernussbaum-web

photo by: flickr user ambernussbaum

From there the sun quickly disappeared and the air turned tar black. The headlamps were the only thing to keep us from being completely enveloped in the deafening darkness.

Towers of calcium have formed over millions of years – when the light hit them shadows in shapes of faces, figures and animals were cast. I often wondered to myself if the Mayans had seen the same as what I see at this moment. Were these altered for this reason?

Spaces became tight as we scaled walls of rock. We carefully stepped and waded through the river. My body barely fit through crevices, and only after craning my neck in some awkward positions.

After about an hour the cave seemed to just open up. We were suddenly standing in what was known as the cathedral. A huge vaulted open room in the middle of the cave.

This is where I learned about why the Mayans used the cave. The Mayans wanted to be closer to Chac (the Mayan God of Rain), and the caves were believed to be a portal to the Underworld. The Mayans, when they needed rain during times of drought, would offer sacrifices to their God in this cave.

They would sacrifice men, women and even children to Chac. To be sacrificed was considered a privilege and honour.

Around us were scattered pieces of Mayan pottery, mostly all of them cracked or broken, indicating that they had been used in painful blood-letting. The women would typically let blood run from slicing their tongue and men from slicing their genitals. The pottery would usually hold the blood as an offering.

We were able to climb up a wall and see a spot where this blood-letting would occur as some of the tools to perform such ritual have been preserved.

And then we saw the remains.

To be sacrificed was considered a privilege and honour.
Scull-V31S70-web

photo by: flickr user V31S70

The remains of 5 Mayans whom are believed to have been sacrificed to the Mayan God. Most are intact and the most renowned is the Crystal Maiden.

Crystal Maiden
Her bones have been calcified by the water in the caves and now sparkle when light is shone upon them. It is unknown if her body had been left as is after the sacrifice, or if she had been moved to this position. Regardless, I couldn’t help but to stand and stare and think what she gave up for herself and her people.

As we exited the cave there were other groups coming through. I wondered if they would feel the same as me. I wondered if they asked permission to enter. And most of all I hoped they would have the respect for the cave and what it means to the Mayan people.

Note: Entry into the caves without a guide is strictly forbidden and only 21 guides exist in all of Belize. The caves extend for 5.3 kilometers and are very tight to maneuver through. As of May 2012 cameras are strictly forbidden as a careless tourist dropped a camera directly onto a skeleton remain believed to be over 1000 years old and shattered the skull.

I was a guest of Ka’ana Belize for the ATM tour and as always all opinions are my own. To read all about our stay there, please click here.

15 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • February 20 2013

    Wow. I too would be in awe at such a place. Hard to imagine how these people felt and thought. What made them believe so hard in their sacrifices.

    • Pete
      February 22 2013

      It’s very interesting indeed. I am fascinated learning about this sort of culture.

  • February 21 2013

    I’m really bummed that I didn’t get to do any of the cave-related activities in Belize. The day I had the opportunity to do so in San Ignacio, I was SO sick that it wasn’t even an option.

    It sounds/looks really fascinating, though. Guess I’ll just have to go back to Belize! Darn.
    Amanda recently posted..Forget Chichen Itza – Go to Tikal Instead

    • Pete
      February 22 2013

      Too bad for sure. It really was a cool experience, especially being the only one in the cave (with the guide of course). At one point we shut off all lights and just let our senses guide us. That lasted for about 10 seconds :). You will definitely have to get back.

  • February 21 2013

    Leave it to a careless tourist to ruin the photography for the rest of the people. Good adventure though and it would be worth seeing even without a camera in hand.

    • Pete
      February 22 2013

      Yeah, I had some not nice words for that tourist. Sometimes experiences are all the more better when you can enjoy it fully and not have to worry about the photography. This was one of them, an unforgettable experience. Thanks Jeff!

  • February 21 2013

    Wow, that’s a great experience. I lived in Guate for a while, but had no idea there were actually sites like that you could visit.

    • Pete
      February 22 2013

      I had no idea either until I arrived in the location. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Nico
    February 22 2013

    Looks like an interesting place, but I don’t know how priviliged I’d feel to be a sacrifice.

    Nico recently posted The restaurant where Big Gay Al meets Alice in Wonderland

  • February 22 2013

    Pretty cool! I’d love to explore such a cave.

    And I like the fact that you can’t take pictures, I think it really makes the experience more special somehow.

  • February 24 2013

    I’ve done a lot of crazy things around the world, but the ATM caves stand out as top three intensely amazing experiences. So happy you were able to tour them!!!
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..Are the Best Sights of India in Old Delhi? Look Here.

  • March 3 2013

    Was there earlier this year, but torrential rain meant the cave was closed the day I was meant to visit and our flight out was next day ๐Ÿ™

    Excuse to go back to Belize though….
    Barry recently posted..For starters

  • March 3 2013

    I have always wanted to see the Crystal Maiden (although she is also known as the Crystal Princess, for your readers looking to Google her). What an amazing opportunity you had! I hope to repeat your side trip!

  • Wow, what an amazing experience. It’s a shame cameras are not allowed – that tourist could have easily dropped anything onto that skull
    Jade Johnston – OurOyster.com recently posted..Travelling With Children -Interview With Walking On Travels

    • March 15 2013

      Very true. But, if it means a better chance of preservation, then there are no complaints from here. ๐Ÿ™‚

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