Thighs burning from the hike, your headlamp bounces off the moist rocky walls before illuminating a centuries-old Maya skeleton, undisturbed on the cave floor. Your sense of awe expands as you appreciate seeing the relic in its natural state rather than in a glass case at some museum.
Can any of your friends say the same?
This is the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Western Belize, made famous in the ’90s by National Geographic and archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe. Containing 14 Maya skeletons, ATM is just one of the many thrilling caves in the country. To help you plan your cave-centered explorer itinerary, we have curated 9 mystical caves for you to venture into.*
- Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave. As mentioned above, the ATM cave is in the Cayo district, in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. The guided tour to the site and then through a stream into the cave is fairly demanding, but is rewarded with a sight of a large number and variety of artifacts, including complete pots and skeletons – evidence of its ancient ritual use.
- Barton Creek Cave. As the name suggests, a creek runs through this cave in Cayo’s Mountain Pine Ridge and it has to be visited by canoe. Although many of the human remains and artifacts have been removed, there are still plenty visible on ledges as you float silently among the stalactites.
- Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch. Accessed from Jaguar Paw, transport through part of this system is by inner tube which sometimes has to be carried as the river dips in and out of the caves. Evidence of Maya occupation, such as pottery shards and embedded human footprints can be seen along the way.
- Rio Frio Cave. Rio Frio Cave is located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Facing the 65-foot arch at its entrance visitors can see the entire half-mile length of the cave and the stream running through it.
- St. Herman’s Cave. Situated inside the Blue Hole National Park, St. Herman’s Cave was used by the ancient Maya around 300-800 CE. This is perhaps the easiest cave to get to, amounting to approximately 10-minute walk.
- Che Chem Ha Cave. Discovered by a local farmer, this cave is most notable for its unique collection of Maya artwork and artifacts. Visitors will appreciate the cave’s entrance, which is decorated with Maya motifs and the extensive assortment of large storage jars that line the walls of the chambers. The cave is located seven miles from Benque Viejo Town.
- Actun Chapat & Actun Halal. These two caves close to Benque Viejo house human-made features such as terraced and raised platforms. Human remains, ceramic and wooden artifacts can be seen.
- Hokeb Ha Cave. Artifacts found in this cave near Blue Vreek village, Toledo, show evidence of how it was in use by the Maya up to about 800 CE.
- Tiger Cave. There is a one-and-half-hour’s hike from the village of San Miguel, Toledo, to reach this cave. The trail passes through areas of rainforest and present-day Maya farms and milpas.
(*Information from Belize Travel Guide 2017.)
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