Stalactites and Skeletons in Belize’s Mayan Underworld

If you’ve ever yearned for your own Indiana Jones-style adventure, be sure to add Belize’s most infamous cave to your bucket list.

ATM—full name Actun Tunichil Muknal—is your ticket to the ancient Maya underworld, or Xibalba. Also known as the “cave of the stone sepulcher,” it’s near San Ignacio in the Cayo District, and it’s where the Mayas of old performed their sacred rituals long before Europeans came.

Within, you’ll find scattered the skeletal remains of sacrificial victims, which calcification has cemented to the cave’s floor. The skeletons range in age from one-year-olds to adults. The famous crystal maiden, the skeleton of an 18-year-old girl, has been there 1,100 years. Her bones have a sparkling, slightly plump look.

There is a physical price to pay to visit this natural sepulcher. You’ll hike for an hour to reach the mouth of the cave and cross three streams. There’s a short swim through the pool at the cave’s entrance. Then, for several hours, you’ll wade through a subterranean stream and climb ladders to reach the sacred chambers.

But the trip is worth it. Each cave chamber is exquisitely adorned with crystalline stalactite and stalagmite formations. Along the way you’ll pass thousands of pottery shards. The Mayas used these pots during their sacred rituals: Note the “kill holes,” a hole made in the pottery that allowed the spirits to escape.

You must hire a specially trained guide for this tour, and the best time to go is when water levels are low, in the spring. Most tours cost about $100 for the day. River Rats Expeditions has several knowledgeable guides who emphasize safety and have anthropology/archaeology training.

The cave is one of a few protected places that allow only a limited number of authorized tours. Be careful, as the skeletons are not roped off. And note that cameras are no longer allowed in the cave, due to tourists’ dropping the cameras on skulls and breaking them.


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