Actun Tunichil Muknal (455 acres)
Actun Tunichil Muknal, also called ATM, translates as Cave of the Stone Sepulchre. It is called his due to the remains of 14 individuals found inside it. Located in the karstic limestone terrain of Roaring Creek Valley, ATM is one of the most thrilling caving experiences Belize has to offer.
Discovered in 1989 and impressed by the cave’s natural beauty and its unique cultural remains, National Geographic Explorer Television produced a documentary (Journey through the Underworld) of the site in the 1990’s. Today Actun Tunichil Muknal is a living museum where artifacts that were left inside by the ancient Maya can be viewed in their original contexts rather than in glass cases.
Because Actun Tunichil Muknal and a few other cave sites are accessible to the public, Belizeans and foreign visitors have a rare opportunity to visit these sacred, beautiful and unique caverns. Like all subterranean sites, however, these caves are very fragile and sensitive environments. They are also sacred to Maya culture. It is therefore our collective responsibility to protect them from destruction, and to preserve them so that future generations can appreciate their beauty and splendour.
Actun Tunichil Muknal was discovered in 1989 and was opened to the public in 1998. Dr. Jaime Awe, a Belizean archaeologist was the first to explore the cave. Dr. Awe and his Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP) conducted archaeological research at ATM from 1993-2000.
Maya first began to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal during what is known as the Early Classic period (300-600 A.D.). During this time the Maya primarily utilized the entrance to the cave for most of their ritual activities. Not until much later, during the Late to Terminal Classic period (700 – 900 A.D.), did they begin to penetrate deeper into the cavern to conduct their ceremonies. By this time at least four major sections of the cave were used for cultural activities. These locations included the “Entrance Chamber”, the “Sinkhole Entrance”, the “Stelae Chamber” and the “Burial Chamber”.
More than 80 percent of the ceramic vessels in Tunichil Muknal are large ollas and bowls, and almost all the pots are broken or ceremonially killed. We know from other sites in the region that these vessels very likely contained plant remains. In cave sites where the preservation of organic remains is excellent, archaeologists have discovered corn, chilli pepper, cacao, and copal incense inside of ceramic vessels. The corn, pepper and cacao were taken into the caves as offerings to the gods and to deceased ancestors. The copal incense was generally burnt during celebration of the cave rituals.
ATM is located south of Teakettle Village in the Cayo District. The junction is at Mile 52 on the George Price Highway. Due to the sensitive nature, visitors can only access this cave with a certified tour guide. Tickets are not sold on-site; therefore need to be purchased in advance from the official ticketing agent Cahal Pech Archeological Site in San Ignacio or the main office of the Institute of Archeology in Belmopan.
The site is open 365 days a year, except when closed due to rising water levels. Closures of the site are posted on social media and sent to the various tour companies. The site opens at 8am and last entry into the cave is at 2pm.