On July 23, 2017, the popular history website Ancient Origins published an article about the mysterious Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in Belize. Located deep in the jungle of Belize's western Cayo District, ATM Cave is a vast underground labyrinth that was once used for sacred Maya religious ceremonies including human sacrifices.
Abandoned and forgotten for more than 1,000 years, ATM Cave was only rediscovered in the 1980s. Once inside, archaeologists were amazed to discover a treasure trove of undisturbed artifacts including obsidian weapons, ceramic pots still containing food offerings, and a large altar carved from the native rock.
But it was the discovery of the Crystal Maiden, the complete skeleton of a young woman whose bones have fused with the minerals in the cave, that make the cave so interesting. According to Ancient Origins, the ancient Maya believed that ATM Cave was a portal to Xibalba, a frightening underworld of monsters, demons, and evil spirits. Only priests were allowed to enter the sacred space in order to perform spells and rites in an effort to appease the gods.
To enter ATM Cave today, visitors must wade through a crystal clear pool and then make their way to a large space nicknamed "The Cathedral." Inside this chamber, visitors can still see ceramic objects and other artifacts left behind by the ancient Maya during a time when their empire was wracked by drought, war, and civil unrest.
Intrepid explorers can then make their way to the deepest part of the cave after climbing a series of ladders. It is here, more than a mile from the entrance, that visitors can see the bones of both adults and children who were sacrificed to the gods. According to Ancient Origins, forensic analysis of the bones show that many were killed by blows to the head, perhaps with one of the many sharp rocks that litter the cave floor.
The so-called Crystal Maiden is the most famous skeleton in ATM Cave. Initially believed to be a young woman, the bones shimmer in the light after having become fused with the crystalline elements in the cave. Nearby the Crystal Maiden are the remains of more than a dozen other people, including many young children. Although gruesome by modern standards, the ancient Maya believed it was the highest honor to sacrifice their lives in these deeply religious ceremonies.
Caves Branch Jungle Lodge is the perfect place to stay for travelers interested in exploring the mysterious depths of the ATM Cave.