A few years ago, we were fortunate to be able to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre, a.k.a. ATM) cave in Belize.  It’s a 3-mile long wet cave (i.e., there’s a stream flowing through it), and a pretty “tough ticket” in that only a few guides are permitted to take tours through it — and the number of groups passing through on any given day are strictly limited.  It’s a physically demanding visit, too — you wind up climbing over and under boulders, swimming a significant part of the way, etc.


But the restrictions are all for good reason.  The cave was used for sacrificial offerings by the ancient Maya, largely during the classic period (roughly 250 – 900 AD).  As the classic period wound down and the local situation worsened, increasingly dear sacrificial offerings were made increasingly far into the cave.  Tours extend as far as “The Crystal Maiden,” the calcified skeletal remains of a teenage girl sacrificed near the end of the classic — but she is only one of 14 individuals whose remains have been found in the cave, and less macabre offerings predominate anyway.

The Crystal Maiden

Sadly, in 2012 a tourist dropped their camera on one of the 1,000 year old skulls in the cave and fractured it — the skull was repaired to some degree, but as a result of that one tourist’s inattention, visitors are no longer allowed to bring cameras into the cave.

Temple of the Cormorants

An angled shot of Building 2 (Temple of the Cormorants) at the ancient Maya ruins of Dzibanché in Quintana Roo, México:

Building 2 and steps

Dzibanché is an amazing little site to visit — it doesn’t get the press of the bigger sites (so there are never crowds), but it still has lots of interesting structures to see.

The Temple of the Cormorants is the site’s tallest structure, but sadly you can’t climb it.  Still, plenty to see from ground level.  This structure contains three burial chambers, one stacked atop the next in its core.  In the bottom one, archaeologists found the tomb of a member of the city’s elite, with a wealth of grave goods — including a polychrome vessel decorated with cormorants (giving the structure its modern name).

This shot’s taken from the northwest of the building — even from here you can see some of the structure’s many layers of construction, and you can just make out the stucco carvings under the sheltering roofs along the steps on its side.

Palace of the Governors

Likely the best surviving example of Puuc-style architecture, at the ancient Maya ruins of Uxmal, Mexico:

Palace of the Governors

Many Maya structures still bear the nicknames given whimsically to them by their re-discoverers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether by luck or prescience, the name of this structure fits it surprisingly well — archaeological work here indicates that it was once used by the rulers of Uxmal in its heyday.

Calakmul Structure III

Structure III isn’t the largest building at Calakmul, and it was likely never the fanciest, but it’s by far the most interesting one there:

Calakmul Structure III

It was typical in the Maya Classic era to periodically rebuild structures — tearing down old superstructures, covering their platforms with another layer of masonry, building anew on top of them. In some cases, this happened every 20 or 50 years for centuries — that’s why a number of them took on elephantine proportions.

Structure III was different, though. It seems to have been inhabited for the duration of Calakmul’s existence (about 1,500 years), but was never buried and rebuilt. Fairly early in its history, a very well-appointed tomb was built into one of its rear rooms — other than that, it appears that nothing was done to alter its original architecture.

For 1,500 years.

The inhabitants did such a good job of maintenance that when Calakmul was rediscovered 1,000 years after it was abandoned, this was the only structure at the site that wasn’t just a rubble mound. It’s thought that the tomb held one of the original kings of the site, and that Structure III was a palace inhabited by his descendants.

Building 1

At the (fairly small) Maya ruins of Dzibanché in Quintana Roo, Mexico:

Dzibanché's Building 1

This is a nicely restored little pyramid, and since the site of Dzibanché isn’t all that frequently visited, you can have it to yourself for a while. It’s a quick day-trip from either Costa Maya or Chetumal, too — an easy and affordable excursion should you find yourself in the area.

El Castillo

This is the north face of El Castillo (a.k.a., the Temple of Kukulkan) at the ruins of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico:

El Castillo

It’s pretty much the image you see of this structure on postcards, calendars, T-shirts, and the like — and it’s harder to capture than you might think. Since it’s a “marquis” structure at one of the most visited of Maya ruins, everybody wants to get their picture taken in front of it. So if you want a “clean” photograph (i.e., no tourists) of the structure, you’ll have to do what I did — take a dozen or so photos of the thing, then use Photoshop Elements to combine them.

At the serpent’s mouth

At the foot of the stairs on the north face of El Castillo, in the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, Mexico:

At the serpent's mouth

Should you make it to Chichén Itzá, just remember — you can walk right up to the steps, but don’t even think about climbing them. Not that many years ago (until 2006), you could climb these to check out the temple at the top (and take in a fantastic view). But sadly, somebody slipped and fell down the stairs (to their death) — the structure’s been off-limits ever since.

Pyramid of the Magician

The first thing you see once you’re in the gate at the Maya ruins of Uxmal, Mexico:

Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal

It’s an impressive structure — although a bit odd for photography. You get a better overall vista from the east side, but the architectural details are better on the west side.

Some years back, you could climb the stairs and either go all the way to the top, or pass through the tunnel partway up (giving you access to older temples now buried in the body of the pyramid). But sadly you can’t climb this structure any more — at least you can get good shots of most of it from the ground. This is actually stitched from two wide-angle shots, with colors tuned up a bit in Topaz Adjust.