Fancy yourself as the next Indiana Jones or Lara Croft? Then the ATM Cave Tour in Belize will tick every adrenalin junkies bucket list! In a word, it’s epic!
Located in the middle of the thick jungle, near San Ignacio Town in west Belize the ATM Caves (full-name Actun Tunichil Muknal caves) are seen as the most sacred caves in the world and with good reason.
So what are the Belize ATM caves? Over 1000 years ago a large chunk of central America was ruled by the Mayans. High Priests would try to appease their Gods by making offerings to them; the ATM cave in Belize was used for these ceremonies.
After the demise of the Mayan empire, the ATM caves remained undiscovered until 1989. Since then, archaeologists began extensive excavations on the site finding a whole myriad of artefacts and items used in their rituals. Quite disturbingly, they also uncovered a large number of human victims, many of them were young children, the most famous of them is known as the Crystal Maiden.
The ATM Cave Belize was one of the most memorable places I visited during my time in Central America. I 100% recommend doing the ATM cave tour – however, it’s not for the faint hearted. Think you’ve got the guts? (you’ll certainly need them!). Read on to find out why.
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Tell me about the ATM Cave Belize
Before my trip to Belize, I’d never heard of this ancient Mayan site, my main goal was to scuba dive in the world’s largest sinkhole at the Great Blue Hole. It was an absolute bonus to add to my itinerary a second adventure sport, the ATM Cave Belize.
The first thing that sprung to my mind when I heard the phrase ‘ATM’ was cash machine; so no, this isn’t a trip to a cave to find the worlds-most-hard-to-reach-cashpoint!
In actual fact, the ATM Cave in Belize is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal. In the Mayan language, this translates to “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”.
The ATM Cave Tour – What to Expect (in a nutshell)
I’m using this section as a bit of a disclaimer, I’m not going to lie and rose tint this, some of the ATM Cave Tour is tough!
BUT don’t be put off by that. Your guide will choose a route suitable for the ability of the group, (our guide obviously thought that the group I was in were all hardened explorers!) there are often alternative routes in the cave which are less strenuous.
During my time in the ATM Caves, there was even a group of people in their late 60s/early 70s. As long as you have a moderate level of fitness and mobility you will be able to do the ATM Cave tour.
If you are worried at all, make sure you check with your guide before going on the tour and tell them exactly what you are and aren’t willing and able to do.
I visited the ATM Cave Belize during the wettest time of the year. Because the caves are water-filled, the level of rain in the preceding days will have an impact on how tough it is – all the water levels both inside and outside of the cave when I did it were much higher than normal.
You might come across some little cave critters too, sometimes little crabs or fish in the water, and occasionally an Amblypygi (also known as tailless whip scorpions) – although harmless to humans, they can be huge and have a face that only their mother would love.
In short, the ATM cave tour is as close as most of us will get to being Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. To get to these awesome artefacts you have to cross three rivers, do some jungle trekking and enter a pitch-black cave then navigate (with the help of the guide) your way through the narrow crevasses, plunge pools, and slippery climbs all while going against the flow of the river!
Still interested in exploring the Belize ATM Caves? Awesome! Then keep reading for full (and gory) details of what happens on the day.
ATM Cave Tour Cost & Booking the ATM Cave Tour
To visit the ATM caves, you can only go with an officially licenced and certified guide. The guides all go through extensive training both for the physical stuff and the history behind what you’re going to see. They work with the local archaeologists to preserve the caves and artefacts.
Try to book onto the ATM Cave Belize tour as far in advance as possible, especially at peak season when spaces fill up quick. There are only a limited number of guides, and they are limited to a certain number of people per day – this is an attempt to preserve the delicate ecosystem within the cave. You can check out availability for the ATM Cave Tour by clicking here.
Group size varies, the largest group is 8. I was in a group of 5. The full day tour costs $120, although if you have a private guide it will be more. The price includes a fully qualified guide, safety equipment, pick-up and drop off at your hotel, transfers to the cave and lunch and of course a full-day of epicness!
The ATM Cave in Belize is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in the west of the country. It’s about an hour from San Ignacio and whichever tour you book your transfer here will be included in the price.
ATM Cave Tour What To Wear
So, some things to bear in mind when you visit the ATM Cave Belize.
- 1) wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet – there is no option to not get wet.
- 2) your clothing stands a good chance of getting scuffed up on the rocks, so wear something that you’re not bothered about getting trashed.
- 3) try and wear something that covers at least your knees and shoulders to stop your skin getting scuffed up too; some of the rock is sharp and you’ll be squeezing through some pretty tight gaps.
- 4) make sure whatever you are wearing is comfortable when it’s wet. You will be soaked for about 7 hours with no chance of drying out. Chaffing denim will not be your friend i.e. don’t even think about wearing denim.
- 5) as far as footwear goes, you’ll need something suitable for hiking and swimming in. They also need to be enclosed – so no flip-flops/thongs and comfortable to wear when they are wet. I went for my old pair of tennis shoes.
As a general rule, you don’t need to take anything into the cave with you, however, if there are essentials that you can’t go without (e.g. medication) then take it in a good quality waterproof bag like the one in the image.
In the past, I’ve used zip-lock bags, which are fine for keeping my stuff dry during a downpour or when you’re not submerged in water. Unfortunately, a zip-lock bag won’t cut it while you’re in the caves so IF you need to take stuff, don’t scrimp here.
ATM Cave Tour Essentials
After a whole day hiking and grubbing about in the ATM caves, don’t forget to pack these essentials for the journey home. This gets left in the 4×4 and collected at the end of the day. There are changing rooms on site. Also, don’t take anything valuable with you, leave it all back in the safety of your accommodation. But don’t forget to take…
- A towel – A lightweight microfiber towel, like this, is perfect for quickly drying off before getting changed back into your dry and clean clothes.
- A change of clothing – including dry shoes and if you’re susceptible to the cold like me, then a warm jumper for the journey home. Flip-flops/ thongs are fine for the journey back.
- A big plastic bag – your clothes are going to be wet and muddy, and most likely humming of sweat. Make sure you take a plastic bag big enough to contain the water and smell.
A Day in the ATM Cave Belize - A Personal account
The guide arrived early (early as in 7 am! for me this is crazy early) in the morning in his 4×4 at my hostel in San Ignacio, I was the last of the group to be picked up. After an hour-long and bumpy journey later, we arrived at the entrance to the archaeological park. There are changing rooms, toilets and (cold) showers here. Our guide told us, ‘if you need a snack or a real toilet, now is the last chance’.
We get kitted up in a helmet with a waterproof head torch on top. Apart from the clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet, this is all that’s goes on the ATM Cave tour. Leaving everything else behind we were now ready to start our ATM Cave Belize tour adventure.
A NOTE ON CAMERAS
The most gutting thing about the ATM cave tour is that you CANNOT under any circumstances take a camera with you (hence why none of the pictures in this article are my own), no matter how much you plead or how well it’s strapped to you it’s a big fat NO.
The reason is a few years back in 2012 some imbecile dropped their camera onto one of the skulls inside the caves. This left a square-shaped hole in its cranium and thus ruining thousands of years’ worth of history in an instant.
This absolute bell-end has ruined it for the rest of us, so now there’s a blanket rule strictly enforced. NO CAMERAS. End of!
And into the jungle, you go
Within about 200m (muddy) walk we were at the first of three river crossings. Due to the Biblical style rains the region had suffered recently, the rivers were high at my time of visit. High rivers meant they were a chocolate brown colour with a reasonably strong current, and that you couldn’t touch the floor; you have to swim. Thankfully there is a rope to hold on to so that you can pull yourself across. Just don’t let go!
Clambering out onto the muddy bank, our group continued through the jungle until we arrived at river crossing number 2. This one isn’t as wide or deep. Repeat the process one more time; jungle walk followed by a river crossing and you’re done.
Eventually, after more jungle trekking we came out to a bit of a clearing in the jungle which is also your last toilet stop before entering the caves. The word ‘toilet’ is used in its loosest sense. Basically, it’s a piss behind a tree with your fellow teammates. I am going to add that girls and boys have different trees to go behind.
Now the real subterranean adventure begins.
The next bit really is taken straight from Tomb Raider. I half expected Lara Croft to come bounding out of the jungle. What we could see was a great big mouth of a cave, covered with hanging vines and foliage with a river gushing out of it into a pool of deep clear water. Our route was to continue into the great pitch-black hole in front of us. This is the entrance to the ATM cave.
Before entering we were given a short briefing. The essential rules are that you follow every instruction to the n-th degree that the guide gives you. Don’t go ahead of him, unless he’s told you to. Don’t even think about going ‘off-piste’ on your own personal excursion and if there’s a cordoned off area, it’s for a reason so don’t cross it.
Briefing done, helmet lights on and in we jumped to the pool of water outside the cave swimming against the water current and into the mouth of the cave. The next few hours were a constant mix of swimming, clambering over rocks and scrambling through ravines or down little waterfalls.
If you aren’t into little critters, take note here. This is where you’ll want to keep an eye out for some of the residents of the caves, the sinister-looking yet harmless Tailless Whip Scorpions, which was pictured earlier in this article. Harmless to humans although super sinister looking.
It’ll be fun, he said
After cottoning on that our group was fairly nimble our guide decided to take us on the ‘fun’ route.
Imagine, a tall and very narrow crevasse, that goes on and on in the pitch back, with water being channelled down it pushing you back if you were to let go. Using every body part, we each shuffled ourselves inch-by-inch, slowly along the ravine. A bit scuffed up, we eventually, made it to the end. It was exhausting!
This opened up into a climb up a great big calcification. At the top you’ll get to see freshwater dripping through the roof of the cave, creating new formations.
Climbing, overal is fairly easy in the ATM caves due to the calcification of the rock, it leaves it feeling like gritty cement, but white and sparkly.
And finally, we make it to the Great Chamber
Eventually, after more traversing, we arrive at the pinnacle of our ATM Cave Belize Tour; the Great Chamber. The air in this part of the cave is smelly, still and stuffy.
The Great Chamber is at the top of a wet and slippery rock formation (this one is much less grippy than anything we’d climbed so far, foot-traffic have made it smooth), it’s a long way down with nothing much to break our fall (apart from our backs maybe!). At the top of the formation, you’ll be greeted by a strange sight, dozens of pairs of abandoned shoes. This section of the ATM Cave Tour is done in barefoot (or socks). There are still thousands of artefacts buried in the silt and sediment and removing shoes helps to reduce the impact of tourists tramping over it.
Carvings of sacred faces and creatures in the soft rock of the stalactites and stalagmites greet us. These were created by the Shamans and High Preists. In all honesty, the carvings themselves don’t look that impressive at first glance. However, when a light is shone on them and their shadows are cast against the back wall they become more imposing. 1000 years ago, this would have looked otherworldly. Clever stuff!
Looking around at the ground, you will see hundreds of ceramic jars – some look like they had only just been put down and others were calcified over and had almost become part of the rock.
So, the Mayan Empire was pretty savage, they were big into their sacrifices. The first of the body remains they show us were from monkeys, these were a lesser offering. Along with the monkey bones, our guide goes on to point out a smaller collection of bones. We were told these bones were from the Priests or Shamans themselves who would cut off their little fingers as a larger offering. Out guide gleefully points at a little row of bones, once belonging to someone as he tells us this.
We continue the tour of the Great Chamber with our guide, who doesn’t hold back in the description of each specimen we stop to look at. The more he talks and explains, it does make me thankful that I have a pretty much empty stomach at this point. Twinned with the stuffy air of the cave I do start to feel quite queasy! – yeah, I’m not good with gore.
Bones Soup anyone?
As if the stores of sacrifice and cutting off fingers inside the ATM Caves weren’t enough, we then get introduced to the term bone soup. This is the ‘affectionate’ term that the archaeologists had given this area of the Great Chamber where they discovered a whole load of skulls and body parts belonging to numerous sacrifice victims, who were then dumped into one pit on top of each other. These various sacrifices of prisoners were much larger offerings to the Gods than the previous priest’s pinkies that we’d seen.
Our guide seemed to be revelling in making us wince, as he goes on to tell us about the various forms of self-mutilation they practised; stories of how they cut off their foreskin, sharpened their teeth with files, scarred themselves and so on. All signs of how superior they were and with the hope of appeasing their Gods.
Is anyone feeling peaky yet?
'The Crystal Maiden'
Feeling quite nauseous now, we head across a muddy clay flat, eventually finishing up at a ladder. In classic Belize style, it’s wooden and rickety, goes up and up, with no ounce of safety rail and a hard landing if you slip – I was quite accustomed to the lack of H&S now!
At the top there is a chamber with a pretty much complete skeleton; ‘The Crystal Maiden’. It’s not going to take a genius to figure out why she is called The Crystal Maiden. The calcification means that she literally sparkles.
Our guide told us that the Crystal Maiden was once thought to have been a female, hence the name, however, recent studies now say it was a male in his early to mid-twenties.
Male or female, who knows, but these remains are the apex of the absolute gore that went on in the ATM caves. S/he was most likely a prisoner from a rival tribe who was captured and tortured to death as the ultimate human sacrifice.
Our guide didn’t spare any detail in the description of the series of events that happened here. According to our guide, who seemed to be revelling in these gore stories, the more you tortured someone, the more you would please your God.
The Crystal Maiden was found in a spread-eagle position; most likely he was held down by other lesser priests while the Grand Priest performed the ritual. By looking at the injuries from the skeleton the archaeologists know that a club like object was used first to dislocate the knee. They then cut off one of the hands before breaking her/his back. You could clearly see the crushed vertebrate halfway up the spine of the skeleton.
He then added that it was common practice in the Mayan times for priests to remove organs of the prisoners while they were alive.
Side note: My head right now is just rallied with flashbacks from the film Apocalypto – if you’ve not seen it and gore is your thing go watch it – if like me, you hate gore, I’d suggest giving the film a miss.
The reason why NO-ONE is allowed to take cameras in with them
Not too far from The Crystal Maiden, you will see the reason why no one is allowed to take a camera on the ATM Cave Tour. The infamous skull with a whopping great hole in it from the irresponsible douche bag who dropped their camera on it.
This skeleton with the camera-shaped hole in its head is in huddled down in a curled up position. We were told it was of a younger person. Our guide with the gore fetish goes on to tell us that this sacrifice victim was bound with their arms around their back and then had their head chopped off.
And back out to civilisation
We descend the rickety ladder and back across the mudflats, dodging the puddles of stagnant water, pass more skeletons and bone pits, sometimes with just tiny fragments of bone poking out of the ground. It’s then I have that morbid thought cross my mind; how much skeleton fragment and bone dust do I have stuck on my feet. I try to push that thought straight out of my mind! Thankfully, we are getting back into the water to wash it all off.
The route back out of the cave is easier than the route in as you go with the flow of the river. Our guide still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve just to keep us on our toes. We have to swim through a rock formation called aptly called the ‘Throat Cutter’. This aptly named feature is a shard of rock that’s jutting out, at neck height. The water here is fairly deep so you carefully and strategically have to swim through the gap, with no clearance for anything – tough luck for anyone with a fat neck!
We finish off with a fun formation – a naturally formed rock slide tumbling down a little channel into a little pool.
Slowly a little glimmer of light in the distance shows that we are nearly out. Our ATM Cave Tour is almost over.
Retracing the jungle walk and back through the three rivers, we finally arrive back at the van.
We had survived, apart from the odd scuff and bruise, unscathed. And it was frickin’ awesome. This was a total immersive Indiana Jones/ Lara Croft experience and if you are in the country I would highly recommend visiting the ATM Cave Belize.
It’s the perfect excursion for anyone who loves an actual adventure, twinned with tons of storytelling, facts and archaeology. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and I’d do it all again in an instant.
Where to stay near the ATM caves
The best place to stay is in San Ignacio, it’s not the prettiest town, but it does have a buzz about it and you’ll find plenty of amenities and everything ATM Cave orientated.
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Are you thinking of doing the ATM Caves? Great! Is there anything else you’d like to know?
I’d also love to hear from you if you’ve done a Cave trip like this anywhere else in the World. I’m keen to do more!