I’ve done a lot of cool sh** in my 22 years of life. I motorbiked in Thailand, roasted marshmallows on a volcano in Guatemala, and learned to surf in Taiwan. But I’ve never really been an adventurous traveler — until Belize that is.
My first stop in Belize had me snorkeling with sharks, turtles, manatees, and manta rays. I honestly thought I couldn’t get much cooler than I was in that moment. Then I met the ATM Cave — one of the coolest things I did in Belize and probably my entire life.
The ATM Cave in Belize
I’ve never been the type of person to get excited about exploring a cave. I’ve visited a few caves in my life and they’ve all been pretty much the same thing — you walk in, you see a few stalagmites and stalactites, your guide turns off the lights, you contemplate the meaning of life as you sit in complete darkness with 30 strangers. In the gift shop you beg your mom to buy you a cool geode.
The ATM Cave in Belize is NOT THAT KIND OF CAVE TOUR. This is the “swim through jungle rivers and climb up boulders to see sparkly human remains” type cave tour.
The ATM Cave in Belize is about an hours drive from San Ignacio in the Cayo District. Along the way your tour guides will identify various flora and fauna that are unique to that area. You’ll play ice breakers with your tour-mates and laugh and sing and you’ll think, “wow, what a leisurely and not at all dangerous afternoon I’m about to have.” NO. The ATM Cave in Belize is NOT THAT KIND OF CAVE TOUR. (Although the guides will point out all the different trees in the area. Did you know that Belize is home to teak, mahogany, oranges, coconuts, mangoes, cashews, and ceiba trees?? Me either.)
ATM is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal which means “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher”, although one guide told his tour group that it stood for Another Tourist Missing which is funny — but also kind of believable.
The ATM Cave in Belize is a famous site containing Mayan artifacts, pottery, and skeletal remains of human sacrifices. It has been named National Geographic’s #1 Most Sacred Cave in the World. I haven’t visited all the caves but I can vouch for it compared to Cave of the Mounds in BlueMound, Wisconsin which is severely lacking human sacrifices.
What to Expect
Expect a serious Challenge
Everything I read online made this tour sound like it was a casual walk in the park. “You’ll hike a little bit, see some cool rocks, and maybe get a little wet”. NO. Nothing you see online will prepare you for how much work the ATM tour will be.
My tour-mates and I all had the same reaction — there is no way they would let you do any of this in the United States.
Five minutes into the tour you’ll do your first river crossing. Apparently this river used to be about knee high but due to some severe weather a couple years ago you will be straight up swimming across a rushing river. You’ll climb wet ladders inside a dark cave in just your socks and swim through cave openings only as wide as your neck. At some points during the trip your guide may say to you “follow my footsteps exactly” and PLEASE DO follow his footsteps exactly because caves contain sharp rocks.
All of that being said, I am not in incredible shape and I was able to do this tour with no serious problems. I saw people of all ages and sizes doing the ATM tour. It is a challenge but it is not by any means impossible.
Expect to face your fears
Afraid of swimming? Afraid of spiders? Small spaces? Heights? Human sacrifices? Whatever your irrational fear is, the ATM tour is sure to have you facing it.
I am terrified of heights so having to climb a slippery boulder in the middle of a pitch black cave was not the highlight of my trip. But I am so glad I didn’t let my fears get in the way because I would have missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Which brings me to my next point…
Expect to be blown away
The ATM cave is almost sensory overload. The immense size of it, the giant stalactites and stalagmites, and the way it sparkles in the light of your headlamp.
The main attraction of the ATM Cave in Belize is the skeletal remains of a sacrificed teenage boy called the “Crystal Maiden.” The fully-intact skeleton now sparkles due to over 1000 years of calcification. You’ll also find several other skulls, bones, and pottery left behind by the Mayans.
You’ll also be blown away at just how far you can push your physical limits. From wading across rushing rivers, to swimming through narrow cave crevices, to climbing wet ladders in only your socks. There are times when you think, “there’s no way I can do that.” But you can and you will and you’ll be amazed with yourself for doing it.
How to Prepare
First off — there is no way to be 100% prepared for a tour like the ATM Cave in Belize. Will you fall off that 6 foot boulder you have to climb? Is your headlight going to burn out and you get lost in the cave forever until one day a group of tourists are trekking to look at your skeletal remains? Will you step on a 1,000 year old skull and end up in Belizean prison? Luckily, you will have to go with a guide and your guides have been training and working with archaeologists and geologists to make sure you don’t eff anything up too badly.
What to Wear
You’ll be hiking, swimming, climbing, and sweating. I wore athletic shorts and a regular tank top and I was fine. The only clothing regulations are that you can’t wear just a bikini. Which is a bummer because of all the sun-tanning you could be getting inside a pitch black cave under a mountain.
The real question is, what kind of shoes do you wear for something like this? First off, don’t wear anything with an open toe. You (and your toes) will sorely regret this decision. A lot of people will recommend these hideous but super functional keen sandals. Yes, they will protect your feet, dry quickly, and are suitable for all adventures. BUT AT WHAT COST. ($100).
Honestly if you have the money and you take a lot of semi-aquatic adventures, go for it. I just brought along some ugly tennis shoes I had in my closet for 8 years and threw them away when I got out of the cave. Badabingbadaboom. I looked just as stupid but I was $100 richer for it.
So what do you for sure need?
- Closed-toed shoes for scrambling over rocks and running away from evil spirits.
- Socks. At one point you will be required to take off your shoes to protect the fragile part of the cave. You will want socks.
- Clothes. Something more modest than a swimsuit. You’re in the #1 most sacred cave in the world so you’re expected to cover up a little bit.
That’s about it. It’s not that serious. Don’t buy a bunch of equipment unless you’re planning on doing this on a regular basis.
What to Bring
- Water. The whole tour lasts around 8 hours — please stay hydrated.
- A set of clean, dry clothes to change into afterwards. There are bathrooms and changing areas onsite.
- A plastic bag to hold your wet cave-y clothes. Please don’t hang your dirty underwear on the back of your car seat. Bring a bag to put everything in.
You’ll be crossing a river several times. The residents living of a village downstream from the cave drink this water. Please don’t wear lotions, perfumes, bug spray, or sunscreen. It will wash off within 5 minutes of the tour starting when you have to do your first river crossing anyways.
What not to bring
If you’ve read anything about the ATM Cave in Belize you probably know about the tourist who dropped his camera on the 1,100-year-old skull. In order to prevent any more boneheads (pun intended) from ruining sacred artifacts, the government banned cameras from the cave.
As a travel blogger and photography-lover, it was really hard for me to sign up for a tour that I wouldn’t be able to document. Thankfully, MayaWalk tours emails their stock photos to all tour participants. Yes, everyone ends up with the same pictures. But at least there won’t be any photo evidence of you peeing your pants when a bat flies next to your head.
I am actually so thankful that I didn’t have my camera with me. I would have been so worried about getting the perfect shot that I would have missed out on immersing myself in the experience. Besides, this tour requires all of your mental and physical strength so there’s really no opportunity for a good photo-op.
I booked my ATM Cave tour with MayaWalk Tours. They’re the top-rated tour company in San Ignacio and their main office is on the main road in town.
The guides were all friendly, fun, and informative. My guide for the cave tour was Hugh and he was incredible. He was so knowledgeable about the cave features and Mayan history. Hugh went out of his way to make sure that every member of our group was safe.
The MayaWalk staff was also incredibly helpful. Due to some weather problems, I had to shift everything on my Belize itinerary back one day. MayaWalk was so flexible in letting me reschedule even though it was such short notice.
The only complaint I have about Mayawalk Tours is that they didn’t have the vegan lunch I ordered. I’m sure there was just a mixup because I had to reschedule my tour a few times. Luckily, the non-veg option had a large serving of rice and beans included so I didn’t go hungry.
Want to book a tour of the ATM Cave in Belize? Check out Mayawalk Tours.
Heading to Belize? Check out my other Belize posts.