One of our most adventurous experiences in Belize was the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave tour. The cave, an archaeological and geological wonder, is part of the Tapir Mountain Natural Reserve and is protected by the Belizean government. The tour was adventurous because it was a bit physically challenging, because there were poisonous snakes on the trail, and because it was DARK in there. But it was awesome and we highly recommend it!
The ATM Cave tour is one that seems like it wouldn’t be allowed in the US due to liability concerns and regulations that protect artifacts. But in Belize, so far, it’s still permitted. We heard there has been talk about stopping it to protect the artifacts, but so far there is just a limitation on bringing in cameras: no cameras are allowed in the cave. This is understandable after seeing it, but it was a bit disappointing.
On the morning of our tour, a PacZ Tours van picked us up at our hotel and after stopping at a few other hotels for other passengers, drove us to the trailhead. We were given hardhats and headlamps, were asked to sign some waivers, and were told about the camera policy. We actually could have brought our camera on the first part of the hike — through the forest — but we didn’t realize it. So our camera sat in the van the whole time. Therefore, you will not see any pictures of Belize’s most dangerous and aggressive snake which was right in the middle of the trail not five minutes after the guide had given us the dangerous snakes speech. It was like it was put there just to prove a point. It was not, and our guide took no chances. After much throwing of sticks and rocks, and only a little crying by one of the other people in our group, it slithered away. I will admit I moved as quickly as possible past where it had been. Needless to say, no one went off the trail in our group!
The hike to the cave includes three river crossings, beginning right away. It was a hot day, and the cold, thigh-deep water felt good. The bottom was rocky, so we left our shoes on. We continued on a trail again after that, happy to be cooled by our wet shoes between crossings. The hike through the rainforest to the cave takes less than an hour, and we were allowed to bring some snacks and drinks with us in a daypack for a snack break before we entered the caves. We also got a bathroom break before heading into the caves. It was easy to imagine falling through the holes in the pit toilet’s floor — nearly as frightening as the possibility of the snakes if you peed in the bushes. We wondered, what did they have in store next?
We left our backpacks hanging at the picnic shelter, donned our hardhats and headlamps, and headed into the water again. This crossing, however, was no knee-deep crossing. The crossing into the mouth of the cave required swimming across a deep pool. With our shoes on! Luckily, it was not that far. Invigorating, as they say! We moved slowly but steadily along in the cave, either in the water or scrambling over rocks the entire way. In a few spots, our guide would suggest we slide our bodies this way or that, turn our faces just so, duck under a ledge, etc. He had a very horror movie voice-over kind of voice, and in the dark of that cave — afraid you’d get your head chopped off if you didn’t turn it the right way while slithering between those precarious rocks — sometimes it was downright creepy!
The tour doesn’t actually go that far into the cave, but since it is kind of slow traveling, it took around 45 minutes. Along the way were several beautiful calcite cave formations and some pottery shards. Most of the cultural artifacts are at the end of the trail. Much of the “trail” is in the water and requires wading and swimming. Toward the end of the trail, you climb up and out of the water and walk (carefully!) along a rock shelf where archaeologists have uncovered ancient artifacts such as shards of Maya pottery, tools, and even bones. At the point where you climb up and out of the water into the dry chambers, the guides have you take off your shoes due to the sacredness of the area. You keep your socks on to keep bodily oils off the rock. This makes for some slick walking!
Most of the pots are broken to release the spirits within them, and archaeologists believe that all the human remains are from sacrificial victims. There are some trail markers that have been placed using that bright pink or yellow tape often seen at archaeology sites, but honestly, they’re extremely close to the artifacts and some of the artifacts are even right on the path. It’s a wonder more of the artifacts aren’t destroyed by the tourists coming through, especially children, many of whom we saw running unattended. The no camera rule is the result of a tourist’s camera accidentally dropping onto — and breaking — a skull in this section of the tour! The guide will likely point it out. At the very end of the trail you climb up a ladder to view the site of the Crystal Maiden, the most complete skeleton found in the area, of a young woman of about 20 years who was most likely sacrificed here. It’s an eerie but fascinating sight.
You basically return the way you came in, but the return trip goes faster — because the guides aren’t stopping the group to point as many things out on the way back. More adventurous cavers can return via a very tight squeeze that requires turning your head just the right way to get through! Once we arrived back at the van, we grabbed the dry clothes we’d brought along and changed in the restrooms (no holes in the floor and actual flush toilets!) before we started back to our hotel, tired but so glad we were able to adventure into this unique and sacred space of the Maya people.
If you want to see some of the highlights from an ATM cave tour, check out this five-minute video.
We highly recommend the ATM tour if you visit Belize, but watch out for the snakes; they’re not a prop! Enjoy your next adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!
Photos from the cave were taken in 2008 by Flickr member Bernard DuPont.