Sacrificial Caves and Stone Pyramids – Maya Ruins in Belize

With headlamps providing our only light we waded up the cold river, going deeper and deeper into the dark cave. We were headed toward a gateway to the Maya underworld. Thousands of years ago the land that we now call Belize was a part of the vast Maya Empire. They left behind magnificent sites including flat-roofed pyramids, stone palaces and a sacrificial cave.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM cave)

Note: Cameras and phones are not allowed inside ATM cave. Pictures below are courtesy of our tour company, MayaWalks.

This is one of the best cave tours we’ve ever done. It’s touted as being adventurous and historical all at the same time. The adventure started right away. Soon after the parking lot we had a river crossing in shoulder deep water. A safety rope was strung across the river so we wouldn’t get swept downstream. There were 2 more challenging river crossings during the 45-minute hike so we were already wet when we arrived at the cave entrance. With our headlamps turned on we swam and waded up the river, going deeper and deeper into the dark cave. Led by our guide, we proceeded in single file relaying warnings to each other of obstacles both above and below the water. Squeezing through tight passages, sliding down smooth waterslides, and swimming in the deep river was an exhilarating way to travel in the cave. On the way we shone our headlamps on many beautiful stalactites and stalagmites in many different formations.

The Maya people strongly believed in the underworld. They believed that it is where the gods of agriculture and rain resided. Since the Maya had to carry flaming torches for light, they could not have entered the cave where we did. When we were over 3 km inside the cave, our guide showed us a steep ramp leading up to a hole in the ceiling. Historians believe that this was the entrance the Maya used as their gateway to their underworld. The cave was first used in 300 AD after a few years of drought. The Maya came to the cave to beg for rain and to find a source for water. Soon after passing this Maya entrance, we were on dry ground and started to see Maya artifacts. There were clay urns and pots that had been left for the gods. They would have been filled with food. One pot, called ‘Monkey Pot’ has a small etching of a creature on it and is one of only four Monkey Pots pots found in Central America. Other offerings were stalactites sculpted in the form of animals and people. It was obvious that this cave was very important to the Maya people.

Over the centuries they went further into the cave to get closer to their gods and their offerings intensified. By 600 AD the Maya people became very desperate. We followed their steps by scrambling up a rock that led to an open ledge. Here we saw our first sacrificial human bones. As we walked further we saw several more. The Maya sacrificed their own people as offerings to their gods. Some were young and some were old, and most were from important families. We continued to follow the Maya’s trail and ascended a bamboo ladder to the furthest point in the cave. Here we saw the ‘Crystal Maiden’. A full skeleton, glittering with calcite, lying on the cave floor. The skeleton is dated to 900 AD so is one of the youngest findings in the cave. In all over 1400 human artifacts have been discovered in ATM cave dating from 250 to 909 AD. Adventure and history together made this cave tour one to remember.

Getting to ATM cave

In order to tour the cave, you have to go with a certified guide. Tours leave from the city of San Ignacio. We used MayaWalks Tours and were very pleased with their guides and their service.


Xunantunich

Translated to Stone Woman, Xunantunich was one of the largest Maya cities ever built. There are remnants of temples, ritual sites, palaces, residences and burial chambers. At the centre is the impressive pyramid, El Castillo. At 42m (130 ft) high, El Castillo is the 2nd tallest man-made structure in Belize. It’s a typical Maya pyramid with a series of stairs leading up to a large flat top. Near the top of this structure are large friezes depicting kings, dancing women and astronomical symbols. From the top of El Castillo you can see the entire site with its green courtyards and temple pyramids. Looking the other way you can see the Guatemalan border which is only 1 km west.

At the other end of the city are the remains of a large palace once home to royals and elite Maya families. From its top is a lovely view of green courtyards and the majestic El Castillo.
As we discovered in the ATM cave, Maya people could be very cruel. In Xunantunich are the remnants of the courts for a Maya ball game where the losers were sacrificed to the gods.

Getting to Xunantunich

By Bus – From the San Ignacio bus stop catch any bus heading to Benque and asked to be dropped off at the Xunantunich ferry, 10 km from San Ignacio. The bus driver will know where this is. $2 BZ/person
By Taxi – Take a taxi from San Ignacio, min $20 BZ.
After getting off the bus or taxi, hop on the free hand powered ferry over the Mopan River. It’s a short but relaxing ride. Then walk 1.6 km (1 mile) up a hill on a semi-paved road to reach the site. Cars can go on the ferry, but the fee is $35 to park. If you don’t want to walk up the hill your taxi can drive you, but the fare will include the $35 parking fee. The ferry operates 7:30am to 5pm
Tours – There are many tours offered in San Ignacio which usually combine Xunantunich with Cahal Pech.

Entrance Fee – As of February 2020 entrance fee is a reasonable $10 BZ.


Cahal Pech

Its name translates to ‘Place of Ticks’ but don’t let the name dissuade you from visiting. Cahal Pech is a small Maya site dating back to 1200 BC making it Belize’s oldest Maya ruins. Cahal Pech is perched atop a small hill overlooking the city of San Ignacio and is believed to have been a palace for an elite family. Today the site includes the remains of a large stone temple surrounded by residential buildings and open grassy courtyards. It has a serene peaceful setting in the middle of a jungle. This small site doesn’t get as many visitors as the other sites which further adds to the peaceful setting.

Getting to Cahal Pech

It’s a 20-minute uphill walk from downtown San Ignacio to the entrance of the archaeological site.
Entrance Fee – As of February 2020 entrance fee is a reasonable $10 BZ.


San Ignacio

Located near many of the Maya sites, San Ignacio is the ideal city to use as your base when visiting the ruins. It has a slow Caribbean vibe, friendly locals and many good restaurants and hotels. There’s a great pedestrian mall in the downtown area that houses many cafes restaurants and shops.

Getting to San Ignacio

By Car – San Ignacio is easy to drive to as it is located along the Western Highway, 115 km southwest of Belize City.
By Bus – Buses travel frequently to San Ignacio from the Novelo’s Bus Terminal in Belize City and Belmopan’s Bus Terminal. The buses will say ‘Benque’ as their final destination. We used https://www.belmopanonline.com/belize-bus-schedules and found the information accurate.
By Air – There is an airport in San Ignacio.

Note: We don’t recommend spending time in Belize City. We spent two days in the city and had nothing to do and no sites to see. In addition the city feels unsafe, especially after dark. Nothing happened to us, but we were very cautious. Even Belizians from outside of Belize City said they are afraid to travel there.

Coming Next: Caribbean Cayes in Belize.

For extra pictures from Costa Rica click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

If you like what you read, please comment or share (with credit) using the links below.

43 comments

    • Thanks Allan, it was quite the adventure and I have to admit I was a little concerned at times, but that was part of the fun – at least to talk about later! We are both well and staying inside now. Stay healthy, Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

    • This cave was very impressive but there were a few tight squeezes that were even a little much for me. Start with a more open cave to see the beauty inside, without the stress.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sites, transportation and food was similar to Colombia prices, but we found hotels more expensive. It was more difficult to find good budget hotels, so these prices are more similar to Costa Rica. I don’t think they have as many backpackers traveling the country, they’re used to 1 week vacationers. It’s worth it though, we only saw 1/2 of the Maya ruins. Do you dive? It’s amazing for diving and quite inexpensive.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Wow, what a fantastic adventure, guys! I’m a little bit claustrophobic, so going so deep into the caves wouldn’t really be my number one choice of things to do, but I always admired people who can easily do it. I can only imagine what it feels like to be there in person! Thanks for sharing and taking me along. Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

  • I’ve been in caves before, but going that far in would probably start to freak me out after a while. Kind of reminds me of the Narrows in Zion. I’ve never hiked it but always wanted to. Have you ever hiked it? I think you would like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We haven’t! We actually looked at going last summer but it sounded like it was very busy in the summer. We thought we’d try this fall… hmm I wonder if we can now.

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  • I’ve been dreaming to see Maya ruins across Mexico and Central America for a long time. However, because I have to travel halfway across the globe to go there and the limited annual leave I get, for the time being Mexico is in the top of my wishlist. Hopefully one day when I do get the chance to visit this part of the world I’ll have enough time to go to Belize as well, because from your photos and story those sites look and sound amazing! I also noticed from your photo that compared to Tikal, those Maya ruins in Belize get far less visitors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you get to visit them one day. The ruins in Belize are much less busy than Tikal and the sites in Mexico since most people go to Belize for diving or the beach. Supposedly the best site in Belize is Caracal but it’s even less busy because it’s in the remote jungle with no easy access. There are tours to Caracal and to Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize. We really enjoyed Belize, it’s quite different from other CA countries because it’s English, and the people are very laid back and friendly.

      Liked by 1 person

  • WoW! Beautiful photographs. Maya is mysterious and you have shared quite insights. I am amazed by the history and information you have shared. It is on my travel list. I hope I can make it some day. And more over, what a co-incidence, I too posted about the Bhangarh ruins in my latest post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, the Maya people have a very interesting history and culture with amazing historical sites. Glad you enjoyed it, I’ll look for your post today. Thanks for reading, Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

  • Looks unbelize-able (haha, sorry, I really couldn’t help myself). I was actually planning a trip to Belize for my birthday at the end of April and was contemplating going on the ATM cave tour. Looks like it was quite the adventure. Needless to say, all trip planning is put on hold at the moment. Thanks for the escape and for providing some good ideas for when I finally can visit Belize.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Belizians are really funny people too, they use unbelize-able, you better belize it, land of make-belize… and really have fun with it. I hope you can go, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions. I would definitely recommend ATM. It’s busy, but the cave is so large that we didn’t see other groups until we all caught up at the last skeleton, but otherwise it’s pretty quiet. Do you dive? Our next post will be about diving, although our underwater camera broke so there are no pictures. I can recommend dive sites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do dive. That’s a bummer that your underwater camera broke. I’m looking forward to reading about your diving adventures and would definitely benefit from your recommendations around dive sites 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  • Oh my goodness! Your post brings back such great memories of Belize when we visited last January. We especially loved the ATM cave. Our guide was amazing (as I’m sure they all are). When we came back, he lagged a bit so that we couldn’t see the group ahead. Then we switched off our headlamps and walked and swam in total dark for quite a while. Thanks for finding those great photos of the cave too. I completely understand why they don’t allow cameras.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alisen, it was one of the best cave trips we’ve ever done. The guides did a great job to keep separated so you feel like it’s just you, adding to the experience. Thanks for reading! Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it was one of the best cave tours with a little bit of danger and a lot of history. It was fascinating, glad you enjoyed it! Maggie

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  • I’m jealous! I really wanted to visit ATM Cave but our son was still too young at the time. What a great adventure. Belize packs a lot of diversity into a very small package. I enjoyed our time exploring the Mayan ruins around San Ignacio and was thrilled with a quick trip we took across the border to see Tikal. Thanks for the tour through the cave and giving me some escapism today.

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  • Wow thanks for sharing…learned alot…I’m not a big traveler and know I will never physical travel to those locations you have, but the way you described being there makes me feel like I was there with you…great facts and no opinions gives the reader cause to reflect on the Maya’s society…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, I really appreciate your kind words. I don’t like to be preachy, just share what we’ve seen. Glad you could share the adventure with us.

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