Exploring A Mayan Sacrificial Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal)

If swimming, crawling and climbing your way through a dark cave to view 1,000 year old human skeletons scarified to the Mayan gods does not sound appealing – stop reading now because this article is REALLY not going to be your thing.


Human sacrifice within Actun Tunichil Muknal

Entrance To The Underworld

An hours drive from the town of San Ignacio in Belize is one of the more unique tourist offerings in this part of the world, Actun Tunichil Muknal. A narrow cave system which according to archaeologists was viewed by ancient Mayans as an entrance to the underworld. Which meant that when things got bad (drought or natural disaster wise), the Mayans would enter the cave to present offerings and sacrifices to their gods (offerings being food in a big ol’ clay pot and sacrifices being of the human variety). Today Actun Tunichil Muknal offers exceptional tours to the small number of tourists that visit it daily.

Entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal

Entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal

Swimming In

Swimming In

Inside Actun Tunichil Muknal looking out

Inside Actun Tunichil Muknal looking out

The tours are part cultural, part adventure and part exploration of this mad cave network, which offers a completely different world to that which we are used to. To reach the cultural part of the cave you must first pass through the adventure section. The only option for which is to swim through the entrance of the cave and then squeeze your way through narrow passages until the cave widens out. An hours hike into the cave you’ll reach the vast caverns which lie deep within Actun Tunichil Muknal and you have made the cultural part of the show.

None of this adventuring is really too demanding though, not with some of the modern comforts such as headlights that are used. This was a different story for the ancient Mayans that truly believed they were entering the underworld and had only primitive means of lighting their way through fire. To run out of light an hour within the cave you would be monumentally buggered. Considering you have to do some amateur rock climbing and all the rest through the  pitch black to get back out again. The guides did their best to illustrate this by making us walk around with no or limited lighting.

It gets tight in places

It gets tight in places

The Cultural Show

Actun Tunichil Muknal is believed to have been used during bad droughts, the worse the drought the deeper into the cave and larger the offerings made to the gods. Which today equates to the same principle, the further you enter the cave – the larger and more interesting offerings you encounter. I don’t know too much about how much you need to offer a Mayan god to appease them, but there is a fair amount of offerings in the cave, given it all had to be carried in and not counting the 20 plus human remains which so far have been discovered.

Our guide was proud of the fact that all of the artifacts found still remain inside the cave. It was his view that in other parts of the world everything would have been moved off into a museum. Just after we left Belize there was a story in the news that some government workers were using the stones from an ancient Mayan temple to build a road.  Luckily nothing of good road making material lies within Actun Tunichil Muknal, and it may just be a little too inaccessible.

It is impossible to picture what it was like for the Mayans back in the day, but having all the relics in their place certainly helped for the ‘trekking through a different world‘ experience.


The Crystal Maiden

The most spectacular offerings are no doubt the human sacrifices, and the most spectacular of the human offerings is the Crystal Maiden – whose skeleton is virtually whole and intact. Billed as the climax of the trip and lying within one of the furthermost reaches of the cave that tourists are allowed to enter. During the rainy season a stream of water flows completely over the Crystal Maiden, not disturbing the bones but leaving behind a thin layer of shiny crystal minerals to cover the remains. Originally believed to be female, hence the name,  archaeologists now believe these remains are of a male.

The Crystal Maiden, Actun Tunichil Muknal

The Crystal Maiden, Actun Tunichil Muknal

No Clumsy Tourists Please

On one of the most intact skeletons in the cave there is evidence of a massive blow to the head – does this show how they were killed? No, rather the blow comes from a tourist that dropped their camera right into the forehead of the poor bastard. For those viewing the site the damaged skull is a slightly cringe-worthy reminder of the destructive side of tourism.

The government has since responded by limiting the number of people that enter the cave and completely restricting the use of cameras. It is refreshing to visit a place where people aren’t constantly pulling out their camera and ruining the other-worldly atmosphere by flashes constantly going off. The photos used in this post are credited to Antii T. Nissinen though I am not sure how they managed to get these photos.

There is a slight downside to the caves popularity. The high demand for something that has limited supply has seen prices continually escalate (currently around $90). Actun Tunichil Muknal is an exceptionally great place to visit but it is unfortunate to have to put a dollar value on the experience. At some point it won’t be worth the price for some people, though with some luck there are other similar caves out there just waiting to be discovered.



Quick Info – Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour

Booking Details: Plenty of tour places to book through in the centre of San Ignacio.
Price: US$90 per person plus tip
Duration: 8am til mid afternoon
Details: You have to be able to swim to complete this tour. Includes lunch.


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3 Responses

  1. March 27, 2014

    […] Exploring a Mayan Sacrificial Cave […]

  2. March 27, 2014

    […] Exploring a Mayan Sacrificial Cave […]

  3. November 28, 2014

    […] activities based around cave and river networks and Mayan ruins (for Mayan artifacts in a cave see here). Belize is sparsely populated which has allowed for  large tracts of jungle to be kept intact […]

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