The Ultimate, Must-Do Cave Adventure
What Is the ATM Cave
The ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave) is ranked as the number one sacred cave in the world, according to National Geographic. Both the Discovery Channel and National Geographic and produced documentaries on the cave and the Mayan history within. The Mayans believed the cave was a connection of the living world to the underworld and it is believed that the Mayans sacrificed humans to the Rain God, Chac or perhaps to the Gods of the underworld. The ATM cave is translated to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre,” and it was believed by the Mayans that the cave was an entrance to hell.
What You Will Encounter
Only a handful of guides have been granted license to give tours. Make sure to book a tour before going as you cannot go in alone, nor should you. Upon entering the cave, you will most likely find some fish swimming in the spring-fed pool leading into the cave. You may witness bats, whip spiders, crawfish and perhaps even a predatory spider or two. Wonderful stalactites and stalagmites fill the ceilings and walls and some of run-off from the stalactites have formed beautiful crystalized cave walls. Once you enter what’s known as the “cathedral,” a cavernous room towards the back of the cave, you will find the pottery, tools and sacrifice victims of the ancient Mayans. The artifacts are demarcated only by red tape along the ground, so if you have kids, make sure they do not step over the tape and onto the artifacts.
Your guides will point out victims’ skulls, bludgeoned and left unburied throughout, as well as a fully preserved skeleton of a young girl that has been crystallized (calcified) from the cave. Her murder was brutal, with two of her vertebrae crushed and tossed to her final resting place. She is known as the “Crystal Maiden.” Some of the victims were as young as one-year old, and up to adult age. Some skulls had been shaped, giving them a slight alien appearance, before being killed.
You will see ceramics with “kill holes” in them for draining blood and tools left behind. Your guide will show you cave formations created by the Mayans to create stories from silhouettes of temples, animals, and Mayan life.
This tour is not recommended for those that are claustrophobic, scared of the dark (or spiders), scared of heights or not in good physical health. It is long tour that starts early in the morning and takes a good 4-5 hours to complete. Although the recommended minimum age is a mature 10, our 8 year old went and was fine. Keep in mind though this is a very grueling a difficult tour, so if your child is not a good swimmer, or does not do well in the dark or with long hikes, it is likely not the right tour for your child.
The tour starts with an hour-long hike to the entrance of the cave. You will have to swim across two rivers and wade through one with slippery rocks. Make sure to be wearing closed toe water/hiking shoes. Like most tropical areas, it does rain, so you will be trudging through a lot of mud on the way.
Once you get to the cave entrance, there is a little area to leave your personal gear; you cannot bring a rain coat, bag or water into the cave. There are no private bathrooms, you will have to use the trees as your bathroom.
The Cave hike
A spring-fed pool of water that leads right up to the mouth of the cave. Immediately, you will be swimming or wading through water for over a mile in the cave. You will have to squeeze through many tight spaces and scramble up many boulders in order to arrive to the area of the sacrifices of the ancient Mayans. It is a long trek and chances are you will get some bumps and bruises along the way. There are no railings or cemented walkways.
Once you finally reach the area of sacrifice and artifacts, you will be required to scramble up a huge boulder and jump onto a small ledge. It is a bit scary and dangerous, and there are no railings or ropes to help you up or across, just the hands of the guide. On the ledge, you are required to take off your shoes and change into socks (yes bring some socks) to continue on. The guide will take you into a large area known as the ‘cathedral” where you will start seeing some of your first artifacts and sacrifices. The tour continues through the cavernous area of the ATM cave and ends at a 20 foot ladder held in place by ropes to bring visitors to the “crystal maiden.” However, order to get to the “Crystal Maiden,” you must again climb through tight spaces and over boulders to arrive to a steel ladder. The entire tour of the cave will take about three hours. Be aware, this is with little to no rest en route. The only time you’ll stop moving is when the guide stops to show and discuss an artifact or sacrifice victim.
What to Bring (and Not to Bring)
Back in 2012 a tourist dropped a camera on a 1000 year old skull and cracked it. Cameras are not allowed at all. No phones, no small cameras, nothing.
- Closed toe swim shoes. You will be swimming a lot and crossing rivers.
- A pair of socks. When you get to the “cathedral area, you cannot wear shoes, but I highly recommend socks to keep your feet free from the little pebbles. The guides will keep them dry in their waterproof bags.
- Swimwear of fast drying clothing. Like I said, you will be swimming a lot, but while in the “cathedral” area, it is dry so you will want clothes that dry off quickly
- Towel and change of clothes. The very last part of the hike is swimming through a river (so is the first part). You will want to get into something dry when you get back to the vans. There is also an area for showers and bathrooms to change.
What is Provided
- Headlight and helmet. The guides will fit you with a helmet and a headlamp for the cave. Wear the entire time.
- Life-jacket. Good idea to use these when crossing the rivers and once in the cave. There is a lot of swimming/hiking and you could get tired. Better safe then sorry.
- Water bottles. The guides provide bottles of water, but they cannot go into the cave.
- Lunch. After the tour, you are treated to a wonderful home-made Belizean lunch. We had stew chicken, rice and beans and plantains. It was a treat.
Why You Need to Go
The ATM cave is a natural museum with artifacts, pottery, and human sacrifices that have remained untouched for centuries. The fragility of the cave and it’s contents could lead the Belizean Government to shut it down to tourist at any time if deemed in danger of being to exploited or ruined. Like I said earlier, a tourist managed to crack a 1000 year old skull with the drop of their camera. If you don’t go now, you may never have the chance in the future. It is a wonderful, unique experience that even my 70-ish parents were able to accomplish and are grateful for the visit.