Caving into the Actun Tunichil Muknal

As the van moves slowly down the windy road, Abraham turns back to the group and jokes that he’s taking us to “the underworld.” In the Mayan tradition things that are below the surface like caves are considered to be the openings to the underworld, where you are forced to deal with the world of darkness, sickness, death, and fear. For the Mayans, ours was not the only world there were nine other worlds below and thirteen above. And they believed that this world was transitory and they would move onto other worlds. Death was certainly not something to fear.

I have been inside many caves but this one is different. Discovered only recently (in 1989), Actun Tunichil Muknal (also known as the ATM cave - about an hour and a half from San Ignacio, Belize) was a sacred temple for the Mayans twelve to thirteen centuries ago. The high priests were the only ones allowed and they would make the hard journey deep inside to commune with their Gods and make offerings. Filled with relics of the past, today only a handful of guides like Abraham have permission by the Department of Archeology to take people in for a tour.

Mouth of the ATM Cave (San Ignacio, Belize)
After parking the van the eight of us on this tour start the forty-five minute hike up to the cave, feeling both a little bit of trepidation and a lot of excitement. We arrive at the mouth of the cave ready with hardhats with headlamps. The first glimpse of the hourglass shaped cave entrance with water effortlessly flowing out is beautiful. I spot little fish that survive in these waters and try not to think about what else might be able to survive here. I’ll be waist-deep in it for the next four hours. I quickly wad through the water to get to a shallower point where I can stand and hold onto the side of the cave. We create a single file line as instructions are given by the guide and then repeated several times by others for the person behind them. “Watch your head; Do not step on the rock to the right; Be careful with your knee; Use your arms to pull up on the rock; Sharp rock on the left; Watch out for everything.”

Minutes inside the cave I look up in awe of the grand rocks high above that have taken hundreds of years to form. Stalactites and Stalagmites reach vertically and spread out and almost connect at different points. I immediately feel like I’m treading on sacred grounds. We trek through the rocks with the river turning and twisting all around us, water gushing louder in certain places. Every now and again the guide stops us to take a look at a rock with his flashlight, many shiny crystallized formations in the shape of jellyfish, trees, and waterfalls.

About a mile into the trek, Abraham turns his flashlight off and asks us to turn our headlamps off also so we can get a sense of how dark it really is. I’m surprised to see myself switching mine off without hesitation and two seconds later its pitch dark. You can’t see your own hand much less the person in front of you. Abraham continues talking and sharing more about the Mayan culture. The Mayan priests would walk this darkness with torches. I recognize that I’m literally standing “with” two of my biggest fears right now, the darkness and the water and feeling oddly fine with it (not to mention being in a cold cave). He continues talking for at least five minutes with the lights off. I’m reminded of the importance of overcoming my fears. All of our lives most of us try to seek comfort and don’t want to do things that are uncomfortable or make us uneasy. And before we know it, these little unnecessary fears build into big ones and cling on to our minds and create a permanent space there. Perhaps these corners of our mind were the “underworlds” that the Mayans referring to.

The lights are finally back on and I can slowly make out the shadows in front of me. After walking for another forty-five minutes, we hike up an impossible looking rock to arrive at the main “Cathedral,” where the guide asks for to remove our shoes and put on socks that he was carrying in the dry sack. The socks prevent the caves from getting impacted by the oils from our feet. He also hands us our cameras for this portion of the cave since it’s dry. I’m amazed to see that there are dozens of clay pots that the Mayans used to make offerings to the Gods just lying around. Instead of being behind glass at a museum, these are lying exactly where they were found with a little orange tape around each area. A couple of caves later, we find two skeletons from sacrificial ceremonies, generally of enemies captured from other tribes. The last bit is a long climb on a wooden ladder up to a tiny area about twelve feet by four. Once you get to the top there’s a full skeleton known as the “crystal maiden” because of the way the water has been flowing over it some parts of the year, has created sparkly crystals across the bones.

The inside of the cavern, the dry part

Pottery used by the Mayans centuries ago in the ATM Cave
It is still difficult for me to imagine that sacrifices were part of such a rich spiritual culture. And yet from the reaction of other people in the group, I feel that it’s also a part that often gets more hyped and sensationalized than the truth. All-together there were only fourteen skeletons found in this cave. As long as man has lived, it has not been uncommon to capture the enemies. Mayans made them an offering to appease their Gods. Many people would also cut themselves and offer their own blood as a sacrifice. People believed that if they were sacrificed, they would be born into a better world, considering it a good thing. They did not believe that the death was the end-all as we do today.

More significantly, these caves were used for solitary prayers and meditations to get in touch with their Gods. Priests would often times fast for days before they would embark on the journey to these caves. They would bring with them corn and squash and other vegetables in the clay pots as offerings to the Gods. They especially prayed for rain because of the droughts during those times, and would often return back to their village with an exact answer of when it would rain. When it rained at the time that they predicted, the people started to see the priests as their conduits to the Gods.

We came back out of the cave to civilization to find that the sun was about to set. It feels like I journeyed back in time and felt privileged to see a glimpse of what life might have been like twelve to thirteen centuries ago. It was an added bonus to tap into my own fears and glance them in the eye if only for a few moments. The beauty of facing and overcoming our fears is that along with the freedom from what we are most afraid of, there is an opening for the heart to expand wider and deeper which enriches all other parts of our lives.

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