ATM Caves in Belize: Calcified in Xibalba

ATM cave entrance

Unlike everything else in the Caribbean, the mid-morning downpour is right on time.

“Hurry up and jump in the river before you get wet!” jokes our tour guide.

He is referring to the river that lolls out of the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave like some glassy tongue.

Mythically linked to the Mayan underworld of Xibalba, this cave system was the site of gory sacrifices spanning from 1 CE to 1000 CE. After the civilization collapsed, the ATM caves were abandoned for over a thousand years, only remembered by wary locals who feared the black abyss where so many spirits had been surrendered to the gods.

It was re-discovered by archeological scientists in 1989 and opened to the general public in 1998. Unfortunately, one of the generals in this public unintentionally re-enacted one of the rituals when he dropped his camera onto a skull and cracked a hole in it. The new gods of the caves, aka the Institute of Archeology, immediately prohibited their use.

Therefore, with nothing but the clothes on my back (I also draped some on my front to appease the gods of modesty), I doggy-paddle through the liminal entrance and into the darkness beyond.

During Mayan times it would be heretical to allow rag-tag foreigners inside hallowed grounds — it was for purified religious elite only. But things have changed. Now, any secular schmuck with a 100 bucks can waltz on in.

Our guide explains how the entryway was used by Pre-Classical Maya (up to 250 CE) to offer benign gifts like pottery. However, once blood became recognized as vital for the functioning of the cosmos, focus shifts from food and bowls to animals and genitals. Priests scar themselves to offer blood to deities like Ixchel, the goddess of fertility.

The rituals intensify as the civilization declines. When food droughts become common, military power uncommon, and social cohesion nowhere to be found, suddenly a pricked finger is not enough. During the darkest hours, infant skulls are crushed to satiate the demanding gods.

BeFunky_null_9.jpgWith this in mind, our tour begins.

The eerie ambiance superimposes itself over the surreal geometry of the rock. Stalactities sag like crystal beards and stalagmites rise like inflamed bones while “J-Lo”, a nubile slab of shimmering stone, writhes curvaceously. All these phantasmagoric formations, these calcified cephalopods waiting in the rayless dark, are caused by water sliding down rock.

They emerge from the blackness for a brief moment and then return. And as everyone turns off the headlamps, so do we.

No sight.

No sound.

An individual could go mad if they spent too much time here, but our brief interval feels therapeutic.

Oftentimes we push aside that which we need the most, so the silence and darkness ends when spurts of small talk eek out to create familiarity in a place so unfamiliar. This, most likely, would have been sacrificed by the Mayans as well because superfluous words get in the way of essential silence.

But enough of that whining.

After delicately ascending a slippery rock, I yank on wet socks and tip-toe towards an underground graveyard of twinkling bone and carved clay. Over 1400 artifacts and 14 bodies have been uncovered here. Clay pots were broken open and the jagged shards left behind to allow indwelling spirits to be released — the same reason why “kill holes” were placed in the famed Monkey Pot. These brittle fragments share space with chalky bones that melt like hot wax into the sediment below.

One of the most striking finds is the so-called “Crystal Maiden”, a teenage sacrificial victim who, contrary to the name, was in fact male. He’s been reclining in his death pose for over 1,000 years and is forever fused to the limestone floor.

Gazing pensively at the calcified bones, I wonder what Xibalba is like.