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Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

The Caves of Western Belize

Tour the Portals to the Mayan Underworld

Mayan pottery in Belize
These clay pots, or ollas, were once carried into Actun Tunichil Muknal by the Mayans to perform rituals such as ceremonial bloodletting. Once used, the pots were broken to release their spirits

Mayawalk Tours is one of only two tour companies in Belize licensed to lead groups into Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, known locally as “ATM.” First explored in the early 1990s by Dr. Jaime J. Awe, a Belizean archeologist who still runs research programs at various cave sites in Belize, ATM holds more than 200 Mayan pottery pieces and 14 sets of human skeletal remains. Preserved in calcite from drip water and protected from wind and rain, most of these artifacts remain preserved as they were left there thousands of years ago.

Mayawalk’s overnight camping trip to ATM costs $170 per person and includes a 45-minute educational hike through the jungle to base camp, lunch, a tour through two smaller caves the first day, dinner, campfire stories, one night’s accommodation in a tent under the jungle canopy, breakfast the next morning, a 3-hour-plus expedition through ATM, lunch, and, if you choose, rappelling in the afternoon before heading home.

A word of caution: This is not your average slow-moving, crowd-following, camera-toting tour. You’ll be required to swim, climb, hike, and face a variety of phobias, including heights, arachnids, and the dark. The tour size is limited to four, though on the day my companion and I showed up no one else had signed up to come with us. Turns out, most people opt for the 1-day tour and aren’t interested in spending the night in the jungle, much less hiking in with camping gear (all provided).

Getting There

Follow the Western Highway from Belize City to the capital of Belmopan, continuing southwest to the town of San Ignacio. Novelo’s bus line makes regular runs for about $2.50 and the trip takes about two and a half hours (express buses are also available).

Fieldwork and Research Programs

Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP) sponsors a 4-week research program overseen by Dr. Jaime J. Awe. Participants study ancient Maya archaeology in a hands-on, educational environment in the jungles of Belize (www.indiana.edu/~belize).

Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project (BVAR), also directed by Dr. Awe, offers 2-week, 4-week, and customized programs for credit or noncredit to those interested in archaeological field study (www.bvar.org).

Tour Company

Mayawalk Tours, 19 Burns Ave., San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize; 011-501-824-3070; mayawalk@btl.net, www.mayawalk.com.


Responsible Travel Tips

 Don’t touch any of the artifacts and always be aware of your feet.

 Don’t touch stalagmites or stalactites with the palm of your hand; the oils will inhibit the growth of the formation.

 If you bring a camera (you’ll need a Ziploc or dry bag for it), it’s wise to use a strap or keep your distance when taking photographs of artifacts; some have been damaged by dropped cameras.

 Be sure to use the outhouse before you go into the caves; you won’t be able to go once you’re inside.

 Take out what you bring in.

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