ATM: Hell’s Tale of an Empire’s Fall

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

After an hour long drive and a forty minute hike we arrived at a place that might have been Eden. The entrance to Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is submerged in a pool of water made ice blue by dissolved minerals. The morning sun flickered through the trees, illuminating the vibrant greens of the jungle trees and moss covered rocks. It was peaceful, lovely and alive.

Appearances are deceiving, though. This wasn’t the entrance to paradise. It was the opening to Xibalba (”shi-ball-bah”), the underworld of the ancient Mayan people. The story told here is not one of creation, but of sadness, desperation, and decline.

We went to Actun Tunichil Muknal to simply explore another cave system, the fifth of our recent travels. What we found instead was something unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Our descent into Xibalba began with a short swim, away from the leafy jungle and into diminishing light. From inside, the view was perhaps even more striking; the bright colors of the outside world rendered more vivid by the interior darkness.

Turning away from the light, we set off into the cave. We scrambled over rocks and squeezed through crevasses, each obstacle made more challenging by an onslaught of rushing water.

On the threshold of the ancient Mayan underworld

Before long a bend in the cavern brought us to a threshold of sorts. We shut off our headlamps and experienced the cave in its natural state. Behind us, the faint glow of sunshine was still visible. Ahead, only inky blackness. We stood at the point where natural light ceases; where creatures of daylight give way to those of the underworld. Our world lay behind, Xibabla ahead.

I wondered about the Mayan, delving deeper into an unfamiliar environment they greatly feared. Their flickering torches casting dancing shadows in every direction. Did they imagine the shadows to be those of taunting demons? How could they not?

Pressing through the shadows and the water we eventually arrived at a place of significance. A short climb up flowstone led us to a series of chambers; nine in all. Coincidences are funny things. Perhaps it was fate. The Mayan ventured into their underworld and deep inside found exactly what legend foretold: the nine layers of hell.

At the beginning of these chambers we encountered our first artifact: a broken pot left behind more than a millennium ago. At one time it was filled with food, or drink, or some other cherished commodity and offered up as an appeasement to the gods.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Potery

What did the Mayan hope to accomplish? What suffering were they seeking to end?

As we moved deeper into the nine planes the styles and arrangement of the vessels became more varied, their concentration more dense. Was this a sign of desperation? When the earlier offerings failed, did the Mayan respond by pressing deeper into the underworld making ever greater sacrifices?

It seems so. Deeper still we encountered an artifact so startling it elicited a scream from one of our members. A calcified human skull rests on the flowstone, its skeleton barely visible beneath centuries of accumulated silt.

We’re left to wonder what pressures brought the Mayan people to this place. Why they ventured into an area whose name means “place of fear” and what hardships drove them to seek relief through increasingly extreme sacrifices. If they thought the gods of death could be entertained and pacified by an offering of human flesh, they soon learned the thirst of evil is not so easily slaked.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Skull, Belize

Just ahead we found more skeletons, and more signs of increased desperation. These bones were not those of mere peasants. They bear the sings of privilege and the markings of elite tribes. The people murdered in these chambers came from the ruling ranks. These blood sacrifices were of the earthly powerful to the mighty divine.

But neither food, nor drink, nor gifts of human suffering satisfied the wicked gods.

High above, up a steep climb, we found a final chamber; the ninth level in this section of the cave. Inside rests a lone female, whose bones show remarkable density for people of this period. She was a young, healthy woman from the upper echelons of Mayan society, her back  so cleanly broken we could see the separation from a distance.

In front of us lay the “Crystal Maiden.” This young woman, possibly a priestess, was the greatest gift to the underworld. Left to suffer and die for the enjoyment of the gods. She died in vain. Despite all attempts to appease their gods the great Mayan civilization succumbed to its pressures. There were no more sacrifices. The Empire had fallen.

Crystal Maiden ATM, Belize

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37 Comments on “ATM: Hell’s Tale of an Empire’s Fall”

  1. Kristina February 27, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    Every time I read this kind of stuff, it makes me shiver… I know, these days even worse things are happening, but back then everything was done in such a primitive way, so ruthless just for somebody’s enjoyment and weird beliefs…

  2. Mary February 27, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Thank you for allowing virtually allowing me to travel with you on your adventures. Wonderful writing and images.

  3. Deano February 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Great adventure. I am surprised all these artifacts and skeletons have not been removed years ago.

    • Brian February 27, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

      There is talk that the cave may be closed, or the artifacts removed – with good reason too. These treasures are just laying on the ground with nothing really protecting them. As wonderful as it is to see them “insitu” instead of behind glass in a museum, we saw some careless people stumbling about who definitely put some irreplaceable artifacts at risk.

  4. cravesadventure February 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Creeeepppyyy – what an experience! Thanks for sharing.

  5. earthriderjudyberman February 27, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    I agree with Deano. These tombs are often raided by those seeking souveneirs. Great story and excellent photos. Amazing adventure.

  6. f-stop mama February 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Wow nice post! That last photograph is especially striking. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  7. crazysexyfuntraveler February 28, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    It looks really cool! I visited many similar caves sin Mexico, they were amazing!

  8. Mary @ The World Is A Book March 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    I’m glad I stumbled on to your blog. We were in Belize last January and also explored a small part of Xibalba through one of their cave systems via cave tubing. We didn’t get the chance to see the more interesting things you saw in the chambers but still a great experience. Thanks for sharing your wonderful adventure. Love the first photo!

  9. finola March 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Stunning opening pic. Wow.

  10. Suzy March 4, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    You sound more like Dante here, describing the Inferno! I can’t believe the skeletons and artifacts are just left in the cave in such a manner. You would think a museum would be all over that.

  11. loveantoinette March 20, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    hhHhmmm that skeleton laying in the ground like that is beyond creepy! There is a catacombs underground the San Francisco church in Lima, Peru but the skeletons and bones are protected at least… Still a bit creepy if I must say. That first picture is amazing by the way!

  12. sohojay May 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    So happy that I found your page. I really admire your experiences, writings, photos and freedom.

    Happy and Safe Travels!
    :)

  13. Lynne Ayers June 18, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    This is a place I’ll probably never get to, so thank you.

  14. lovemorestudio August 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Great shots! So glad you stopped by and like my post at LoveMore Studio– I’ll be sure to check back to see more of your photos! ~ peace, Jason

  15. Sylvia Morice September 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Very captivating post and the pics are amazing. Like the other commenters, I’m surprised those artifacts were still there in the open for you to find. Hope somebody looks after them.

    • Brian September 11, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Earlier this year a tourist dropped a camera on one of the skulls and damaged it. They no longer permit cameras in the cave. I expect that eventually the artifacts will be removed because people simply can’t be trusted not to ruin things.

      • humanTriumphant November 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

        that’s such a sad commentary in & of itself, isn’t it. Such a striking difference between the 1st photo & the last. Very well presented.

  16. miramiandmog November 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Incredible!!

  17. websandthreads November 19, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Impressive blog indeed! I hope to have time to explore more of your posts. Thanks for your interest in my blog as well.

  18. Phd But ADHD November 28, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    How fascinating. Has flavors of old-school archeology, and a hint on Indiana Jones…very cool

  19. francisguenette November 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Totally fascinating – I was left wondering how important archeological artifacts like the one’s you encountered are kept safe – I think I’ll follow and see what other interesting places you choose to visit and write about. Thanks

  20. kelihasablog November 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Very cool blog! I like the pictures mixed through out as well… PS~ thanks for stopping by to visit my blog recently. I truly appreciate it! Hope you have a great week! :D

  21. midihideaways December 8, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Amazing story – as always!! Thanks guys, allows me to travel virtually, I don’t think I’d be brave enough for these caves!

  22. Christa Thompson @ChristaTravels August 6, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    I was tipped off about this place today from reading a new book I purchased. In my research I came upon this post. What an interesting place. I am glad that they are working to preserve the ruins, but I hope it doesn’t close.

    Great story by the way, I really enjoyed it :-)

    • Brian August 7, 2013 at 10:27 am #

      We hope it doesn’t close either, but it might be unavoidable. While we were there we saw people walking where they shouldn’t. A month or so later we heard that a tourist dropped a camera and fractured one of the skulls. Now they no longer allow people to bring cameras. It’s probably only a matter of time before they don’t allow anyone at all, or replace the artifacts with replicas.

      • Christa Thompson @ChristaTravels August 7, 2013 at 10:49 am #

        That is sad. It’s crazy, we think that the US needs to be more proactive about preserving natural and historic resources, but there is much to appreciate when you see this type of ancient history left to the waste side. It would be nice if they could implement something similar to the caverns that we have in the US with ropes and guides in an effort to preserve that history while allowing tourism and leaving the site in its natural state.

        What an amazing and mysterious place… I hope I get there one day.

        • Brian August 7, 2013 at 11:54 am #

          They do try. You’re not supposed to enter the cave without a guide and I think they limit the number of guides and maybe even the number of entrants. But I don’t believe everyone follows the rules. Tourism is a lucrative business and it’s tough to enforce restrictions when there’s money to be made.

          • Christa Thompson @ChristaTravels August 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

            Wow, well let’s hope for the best. We send people to the moon, certainly it can’t be that difficult to implement a safe and educational experience that allows preservation.

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