ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL
Actun Tunichil Muknal, (pronounced “Awk-toon Toon-each-EEL Mook-nal”), translated, it means "Cave of
the Stone Sepulchre" and is sometimes (simply) referred to as the ATM Cave. This cave is an incredible
network of subterranean spaces that descend over three miles into the earth and were used between 1000-2000
years ago by the Maya for religious ceremonies that included grisly human sacrifices. Caves were churches for
the Maya, and indeed, some of the caverns rival the greatest cathedrals on earth today with all of their
immense volume and transcendent beauty.
An Actun Tunichil Muknal adventure will start in San Ignacio town, Cayo District, with a 45 minute walk through the
Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. This walk will take you through the forest and four rivers will need to be crossed
to reach the entrance to this cave. Be prepared to get wet as you will walk through these rivers. Along the way one
can learned how to identify several trees and plants, as well as their commercial and medicinal uses. The hike
alone is truly a fascinating experience. At the cave's entrance one must ready the lamps on your helmets, put
your cameras and dry clothes into a waterproof bag.
The portal into the Mayan underworld is shaped like an hourglass. Enter into this mouth and sink
into a turquoise pool fifteen feet deep filled with fish and then bid farewell to the light of the world for
the next three hours as one must rely on headlamps to illuminate your way through total
During this journey one steps in and out of water, sometimes waist deep and sometimes swimming.
Occasionally one will need to climb or crouch, often using four contact points to navigate over fields of
fallen boulders or twist through narrow passages.
Helmets are essential to protect heads against overhangs that appeared just above the headlamp's
You will emerge from the water into a large cavern at about the half mile point. Then you must ascend a series of
rocks and ledges to reach the main ceremonial center. To respect the hallowed ground and to protect the pottery
strewn about the cave's floor all shoes must be removed.
Religious pots are still intact, left untouched for a millennium although most have been
intentionally punctured or smashed, to release the spirit of what they once contained whether it be water,
food, blood, bones or ashes.
One of the pots contain a carving of a monkey, which the Maya considered to be the gods' third
attempt at creating humans. First came Man of Mud, who didn't work out for various reasons. Next came Man of
Wood, who tended to catch on fire a little too easily. Third came Monkey Man, who was too playful and
disrespectful of the gods. Finally, there appeared humans, who apparently were deemed just good enough.
Walking deeper into the cavern the tall ceiling and enormous stalagmite and stalactite formations makes one gasp in
awe. These were believed to be the roots of the Yaxche, the sacred Maya Tree of Life whose high, axial branches were believed to
touch the celestial realm of stars and glorified ancestor spirits and its roots were believed to have
extended through the nine layers of the underworld, Xibalba.
It is in this area that one begins to see the remains of the 7 adults and 7 children that have been
discovered in this cave. The Maya did not sacrifice slaves or common people; only the best people in society
were offered to the gods. One of the skulls had filed teeth carefully inlaid with jade. The forehead had been
shaped and flattened by a board since birth. Most likely this was a male who also had a bead suspended above
his nose, so that he could stare at it and permanently cross his eyes. According to ancient Maya he was
royalty and a rather attractive guy. No doubt he was most likely clubbed and/or choked to death by his
Continuing further into the cavern there is a ladder propped against a wall. On this ledge is the
chamber that contains the famous Crystal Maiden, the completely intact skeleton of a teenage girl, that is covered with sparkling cave
The Crystal Maiden's journey ended at this point about a 1000 + years ago. And so does the modern
visitor's journey. One must turn around, crawl, hike and swim all the way back to the entrance of this truly
magnificent cave taking away some breathtaking photos and memories of a lifetime! ~ Anthony Benjamin