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Planning our last trip to Belize, I knew that I had to get tour the ATM Cave! My goal was to have a trip with some adventure and relaxation, and the ATM cave in Belize was a huge part of that adventure! But after reading articles and blogs, I became concerned that the tour would be too physically demanding for me given recent health issues. Here is an honest run down of what to expect. By the way, you MUST go if you can!
What is the ATM Cave in Belize
Actun Tunichil Muknal (commonly referred to as “ATM”) is a cave near San Ignacio, Belize. In Mayan, the name of the cave translates to Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. This cave was used by the Mayans as a sacrificial chamber and to ask the gods for favors. You’ll walk right up to and next to pottery that is thousands of years old. You’ll see skeletal remains of human sacrifices. But inside you’ll see some interesting geology. There are few places where you can get so close to ancient Mayan artifacts. Unfortunately, the ability to get so close has also led to some pottery being accidentally destroyed by careless visitors. A few years ago a visitor dropped his camera, breaking one of the skulls. Cameras are no longer permitted as a result. Because of this, the ATM cave has become somewhat of a mysterious destination. The photos in this article have been graciously shared by our tour company and Benedict Kim of Esoteric Vision Photography (check out Ben’s entire photo collection!).
What to Expect when Visiting the ATM Cave in Belize
Plenty of websites tell you that to participate in the ATM cave tour, you’ll go through a difficult hike, crossing three rivers, and that you need the fitness level of an ultra athlete to make the journey. One blogger even referred to this as her Indiana Jones adventure. Tour companies say almost the opposite, that they take people of all ages and fitness levels. So which is it? The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Visitors can only enter the cave if accompanied by a licensed tour guide. All groups are limited to 8 visitors. The small size of the groups allows for individualized attention from the tour leader. At one point, I tripped and fell inside the cave and our guide made me move closer to the front of the line to help me. In other words, the tour is physical, but not excessively demanding.
Yes, you’ll walk 45 minutes each way from the parking area to the entrance of the cave. The path is not really hilly but it isn’t completely flat either. This jungle path can be muddy (we went during rainy season), there are loose rocks at times, roots grow on it, branches may have fallen, and there are insects (mostly ants) along. You should be able to easily walk for an hour at a time at a decent pace (approximately 4 miles per hour). Tour guides are knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the area and you’ll learn a lot about what the Mayans knew about nature.
You’ll cross the river three times on your way to and from the cave and there is water inside the cave. The flow and depth of each river crossing greatly depends on the time of year and how much rain has occurred in the preceding days. We swam the first crossing while holding on to a rope. I held on to the rope for the other two crossings mostly because I was afraid of tripping on rocks and falling. The only way into the cave is to swim in, while wearing your helmet and carrying any wet bag you brought. There was one other time inside the cave where you’ll swim, especially if you’re short.
Climbing the ATM Cave in Belize
There are multiple times where you have to climb up and over rocks – guests need to be able to climb up, at times raising their feet to hip height (I’m short!). You’ll need to be able to pull yourself up while using foot and hand holds. At one point, you’ll climb a metal ladder while wearing only socks. Yes, this is uncomfortable, but not really painful.
Inside the cave
I’m not going to kid you – there are tight fits. At only 5’4″ tall, there were several times when I had to swim inside the cave whereas taller guests were able to walk. Visitors should be strong swimmers or not afraid to swim wearing a life vest. If you’re scared of enclosed places, or the dark, or being underground, or of heights – this is not the tour for you. But if you’re not a fan of those things but not really scared, then step outside of your comfort zone and give it a try!
What to Wear when Visiting the ATM Cave in Belize:
You’ll get wet and hike for a while. So what should you wear? Beware of chafing from walking for hours wearing wet clothes!
A water shoe with good grip is ideal. Keen makes a great shoe for this purpose. Don’t wear sandals or flip flops – there isn’t enough grip on the bottom and it won’t protect your toes. The paths inside the cave have rocks and it is easy to stub your toe – you will want a closed-toe shoe. And you want your shoes waterproof because there is no avoiding getting wet on this trip. Two of our fellow guests wore Sketchers sneakers which didn’t have enough grip and made them slide a few times. I had only a toe loop on my water shoes (I couldn’t wear closed toe shoes at the time) and I tripped on a rock. You don’t want to be that guest! Wear appropriate footwear!
You will get wet, so wear clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. While we didn’t get dirty, conceivably, you could brush up against a muddy wall or slip in the mud on your way so you could get dirty (in other words, don’t wear something you don’t mind throwing out). Because you’ll be climbing up, wear shorts that are either loose or very flexible. Jean shorts are a bad choice! As far as a top, most women were wearing tank tops, and the men wore t-shirts. Knowing we would be wet, we wore quick dry tops. Also, because I was scared of bugs (i.e. spiders) crawling on me, I chose to wear long-sleeves. (I saw one cricket inside the cave, but no spiders.) You’ll need to bring a pair of socks – these are required when you’re walking around the pottery and skeletons. Tour companies provide helmets with lights so you can see where you’re going.
Sunscreen & Bug Spray
You’ll be walking for a while and while there is some coverage, the pathway is not in the shade. Wear waterproof (remember those rivers!) sunscreen, especially if you’re visiting on a sunny day. The mosquitoes will feast on you. Even Allan, who is rarely stung, got several big bites. The problem is that the first river crossing is a swim and is shortly after starting. Feel free to bring some bug spray with you but do you really want to carry a repellent with you?
How Strenuous is the ATM Cave Tour?
Can you swim? If so, you won’t have a problem. We’re both NOT in our 20’s (or 30’s or 40’s) and NOT in the gym and, other than a bit of a large stop up at one point, did fine. The hike in is almost 100% flat. The first river crossing is a swim or pull yourself along a rope. The second two were wade-across, below the knee. Allan didn’t even bother with the rope on the middle one.
At the entrance you have some slippery steps and have to swim maybe 10m to the first landing. Maybe another quick swim or two, depending on your height, but mostly wading or dry ground.
A couple tight spaces but nothing claustrophobic. The tour guides explain exactly how to make it through the tight spots.
Take clothes you know will get soaked and a little dirty if you have to scoot down in spots. Water shoes like Keens or the like. But not flip flops. You’ll need them secured on you’re foot. And a good sole. You’ll bring a change of clothes that will stay, along with your phones/valuables, in the van with your driver. They have shower/changing facilities.
Allan wore swim trunks and a long sleeve PFG style shirt to keep the mosquitoes away. I wore quick dry shorts and long sleeve shirt. (Note that I got awful chafing though!)
The entire ATM cave tour takes about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Plan on an hour and a half of walking and about two hours inside the cave itself.
Tour guide explaining flora and fauna along the hike – Photo by Cayo Adventure Tours
Getting to the ATM Cave in Belize
Since you can only access the ATM cave in Belize with a licensed tour guide, you’ll need to make reservations. There are multiple ATM Cave tour groups to choose from. We booked our tour with Cayo Adventure Tours who agreed to pick us up at the Belize City International Airport, drive us to our hotel in San Ignacio, pick us up the following morning from our hotel to take us to the ATM Cave, provided an ATM guide, and drove us back to Belize City to the ferry terminal for the remainder of our trip. They provided us with a packed lunch that we ate in the car to make sure we could make our ferry to San Pedro!
Other options for getting to the area:
- Fly with Tropic Air into Belmopan
- Rent a car and drive yourself to the area
- Take a bus to San Ignacio
Once you’re in the area, you’ll still need to hire a tour company to take you to the ATM cave, so don’t try to access it on your own! We hired Cayo Adventure, who picked us up from the airport in Belize City, took us to our hotel in San Ignacio, and drove us to the ATM cave the following day. After the ATM tour, Cayo Adventure took us to the ferry terminal in Belize City so that we could take the ferry to San Pedro. We completed out trip in Caye Caulker.
I’m so glad that I didn’t let the stories scare me away! ATM Cave in Belize truly was the highlight of our trip. I did feel like a bad ass but it would be an exaggeration to say that this was an Indiana Jones adventure (other than as an archaeology expedition). Feel free to contact me if you have specific questions and I’m happy to give you my input!
Annick, The Common Traveler