Of all the amazing things you’ll do there, touring the ATM Cave in Belize will be, by far, the winner. It’s up there with the likes of tracking down the Ark of the Covenant and racing a mine cart through the Temple of Doom. It’s definitely one of the coolest things I did… and I did a lot of cool stuff in Belize. Such as:
- Snorkeled with sharks, turtles, manatees, and rays in Caye Caulker,
- Climbed a mountain,
- Hiked through the jungle at night,
- Let a tarantula crawl up my arm without fainting,
- And explored ancient Maya temples, Indiana Jones-style. OK, that last one was technically Guatemala but it still counts.
However, exploring the ATM Cave in Belize is among not just the coolest things I did in Belize, but one of the most unbelizeable experiences of my life. And I once punched a Nazi mechanic into an airplane propeller during a quest to find the Holy Grail, so that’s saying something.
Touring the ATM Cave in Belize
I’m guessing you’re here because you found “take an ATM Cave tour” on every list of what to do in Belize, right? Well, all those lists are right – you must take an ATM Cave tour!
The ATM Cave in Belize is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal which means “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” in Mayan. And that sounds juuuust Indiana Jones enough for me to don a pair of khakis and kiss a hot lady Nazi. Ashley Smith and the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher—coming to a poorly managed YouTube channel near you.
Where is the ATM Cave?
The ATM Cave is located somewhere near San Ignacio, Belize in the Cayo District, specifically in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve of Western Belize. And if that isn’t enough information, here’s a map to clear it up:
Yeah, it’s a bit of a trek to get there.
Zooming out you can see the ATM Cave in Belize is not that far from Guatemala (to the left) and southwest of a village mysteriously called More Tomorrow–population 154. It’s a procrasti-nation.
What is the ATM Cave in Belize?
So yes, Actun Tunichil Muknal is most famous as an archaeological site containing the skeletal remains of Maya human sacrifices, pottery, and other ancient artifacts. Everyone goes bananas over the fully intact skeleton from around 700-900 AD that literally sparkles because over time… science.
But for me, all that glitters was just a bonus. There could have been modern-day pencil sharpeners and an algebra exam at the end and I’d still list my day at the ATM Cave in Belize at the top of badass things I’ve done.
It’s been called “one of the best cave adventures in the world” and I can’t stress enough how absolutely true this must be. I haven’t visited all the caves so I can only assume.
I signed up for the ATM cave tour on little more than blind faith after all of the descriptions I read on the experience provided less useful information than a swamp conversation with Yoda. Do or do not—there is no… explaining what the ATM Cave in Belize is all about apparently.
They were all… there’s a skeleton, in a cave, and you have to walk 45 minutes through the jungle to get there. Something about the force. Fun for all ages!
Well… yes, and no. Allow me to clear some things up…
What to expect when touring the ATM Cave in Belize
Though there are a handful of ATM Cave tour operators, all of them have the same basic procedure. Contact your tour company for specific details. An ATM Cave tour will go like this:
Meet at the tour office or get picked up
Depending on your personal arrangement, you’ll either meet at your tour company’s office or they’ll pick you up at your accommodations in and around San Ignacio.
Since I was staying at the remote Black Rock Lodge, someone from the lodge drove me to the PacZ Tours office where I met the rest of the group.
Drive to the site
Next, your entire (small) group and your guides will drive you through the Cayo countryside to the town of Teakettle. Here, you’ll enter the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve where things gets rocky. If the van is a-rockin’… you must be almost there.
I mean it, this just might be the bumpiest ride you’ve ever taken.
On our tour, we stopped at a small market before we entered the Nature Reserve where we were able to pick up water and last minute snacks. Whether this is a regular occurrence, I’m not sure? But you can always make a request!
Hike to the cave
After parking the van, you’ll embark on a 45-minute hike through the jungle to the mouth of the ATM Cave. Much of this hike is via a worn path, but you should know this hike also includes three river crossings of various water levels.
Also, you’ll have a guide in the front leading, and one in the back bringing up the rear.
Some of these crossings only come up to your ankles, while others can be neck-deep. During my visit the ATM Cave in Belize, I visited during a drought and the highest river crossing I made was waist-deep. From what I’ve been told, this is not the norm.
However, where needed, there are ropes strung across the river to help you get safely across. If you’re picturing Arwen rescuing Frodo from the approaching Ringwraiths, calm down. You’ll make it. (More on the hike to the cave in a bit.)
Arrive at the ATM Cave
Gotta pee? This is where you do it. In a bush, behind a tree, just not in the water where everyone is swimming, thankyouverymuch.
The ATM Cave tour
There’s no easing into the ATM Cave tour – just go ahead and accept it.
To get into the cave, you’ll jump into the deep water and swim into the cave. It’s thrilling and exhilarating and just the start of the adventure you’re about to experience.
The rest of the ATM Cave tour will consist of:
- much swimming: water levels will vary from totally dry to so deep you can’t stand
- some rock climbing
- some small crevices
- a ladder climb up and down
- artifacts and skeletons
- some rocks formations you literally slide down like an ancient water park
- some tight squeezes
- and a partridge in a pear tree. And by that I mean a scorpion spider on a cave wall.
After the tour
After exiting the cave, you’ll backtrack another 45-minute hike over the river and through the woods, to dry clothes and lunch we go!
You’ll be given time to change into your dry clothes while your tour guides prepare a more-than-adequate lunch (with punch!) at the park’s picnic area.
There are real restrooms (with toilets and everything!) and changing rooms here.
Then, you’ll board your van and head back to where you started. Driving through the beautiful Cayo district once more, though almost everyone in the van will be fast asleep.
How long is the ATM Cave tour?
Touring the ATM Cave in Belize is a full day excursion. You’ll meet early in the morning (7 or 8 or whatever time your company prefers) and you’ll get back to the office around 4 or 5 in the afternoon.
The time inside the cave itself will be somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.
The ATM Cave in Belize: Tips
Your tour guides will do an amazing job of, well, guiding you through the jungle and the cave. However, here are a few tips you should know before you go.
Don’t think the ATM Cave tour will be a breeze
Touring the ATM Cave in Belize is quite challenging. And perhaps surprisingly so—everything I read before signing on for this made it seem like this day trip ain’t no thang. Some light hiking, you may get wet, a short tr—No.
The tour websites do not adequately prepare you for the work you’re going to put in on your ATM cave tour. Only Billy Blanks or Shaun T or whichever extraterrestrial life form is responsible for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can prepare you for this.
This experience is nothing short of your real-life audition for Nickelodeon GUTS or the Double Dare obstacle course. Wait, what am I saying? It’s freaking Legends of the Hidden Temple!
Expect a challenge
You’re going to leave this experience with a collection of fresh cuts, scrapes, bruises, and an all-expenses paid trip to NASA Space Camp! Just kidding—there’s no way you’re getting past the Shrine of the Silver Monkey.
I vividly remember being shocked that they actually let people do this. It’s the kind of fun you can only have outside of the United States.
Luckily for me I’m small, of a relatively young age (TV show references aside), have no paralyzing phobias, and possess a pretty decent fitness level. The extra challenge this tour presented was welcome and exhilarating but I could easily see how a misled tourist could end up on this tour and feel totally screwed. This ain’t yo’ grandmama’s spelunking excursion.
Expect to have your mind blown
You’ll find when researching the ATM Cave in Belize that what you read the most about is the “Crystal Maiden.” The Crystal Maiden is the skeletal remains of a sacrificed teenage girl (that they now believe is a boy–Chris Maiden?) that sparkle due to a millennia of natural calcification. ✨
They call this the highlight of the tour and it seems it’s the key reason to venture inside but, to me, it’s just a bonus to the whole mind-blowing ATM Cave experience.
It’s more than just a means to an end
I’m reminded of the time my husband and I drove to Switzerland from our apartment in Tuscany. Obviously the goal was a weekend in the Alps but we’d actually had such a fun-filled eight-hour drive through the most fascinating landscapes that, after almost tumbling off the side of about six mountains in our rented SUV, my husband said, “Even if we don’t find this place, this will still have been one of the best trips we’ve ever taken!” and I agreed completely.
The ATM Cave in Belize was no different, only this time it was bats and spiders and mystery fish instead of sheep on sheep on sheep. If we’d made it all the way into the cave and didn’t get to see the Crystal Maiden, I’d still call this one of the best experiences of my life.
The sparkling skeleton is cool, but don’t discount the rest of the experience as just a means to a disturbing and untimely end that was also somehow an honor.
An incredible experience
Your mind will be blown when you see exactly just how far you’re able to physically (and, for some, mentally) push yourself. You’ll lose count of how many times you say, “Holy sh*t, I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
From eating live termites on the hike to the cave, to staring down scorpion spiders face-to-face (that are actually the size of your face), to swimming through cave crevices only as wide as your neck.
You’ll wade across rushing rivers in waist-deep water (ankle-deep if you’re Yao Ming—and if you are, call me; I need some tree limbs cut down). You’ll climb wet ladders inside a cave in just your socks. And you’ll enter a deep, dark hole in the side of a mountain because a Central American stranger told you to.
The cave itself will astound you
As for the cave itself, the beauty of it, the immense size of it, and the way it sparkles like diamonds in the light of your headlamp will astound you. The way it sustains unique life of its own, the beliefs the Maya had of it, and just how the [email protected]#$ the guides know where they’re going will blow you away.
Then they’ll have you turn off your headlamps to experience complete and total darkness. You’ll be amazed at how something so simple can be so intense.
Wear the right stuff
When it comes to hiking the ATM Cave in Belize, wearing the right stuff is crucial. Especially on your feet.
The topic is so important, in fact, that I wrote an entire post dedicated to answering “What to Wear to the ATM Cave?” Check out my full guide here: What to Pack for the ATM Cave in Belize.
Don’t bring a camera at all
Maybe you’ve already read about the tourist back in 2012 who dropped his camera on one of the 1,100-year-old skulls inside the ATM Cave and broke it. If your goal is to become one of the skeletons inside the ATM Cave, this is a good way to go about it.
Because of him, no one is allowed to bring cameras on an ATM Cave tour. Alas, the old adage is true: one bad asshole spoils the whole bunch. As you can imagine, this is an issue the authorities take very seriously.
So please, do not, under any circumstances, bring a camera into the ATM Cave. We were told to not bring one at all—into the cave, on the hike, even in the van.
Seriously, you won’t need it
Looking back, there would have been no way whatsoever I would’ve been able to take photos. This tour requires all of your mental and physical abilities and trying to take pictures while simultaneously trying not to become Shelob’s next meal would have been more dangerous than I care to make a trip into a deep, dark hole in the earth.
As a total picture-taking nut, it was really hard for me to sign on for something so awesome knowing I wouldn’t be able to document it. Would anyone believe I really did this? Well, I’m hoping the 4,000 words in this article prove that.
This is an experience you‘ll want to remember for the rest of your life and you’ll just have to rely on your own memory skills and maybe lay off the Mary Jane.
Leave all your fears behind
Specifically your fears of heights, enclosed spaces, spiders and other creepy crawly critters, water, the dark, ghosts, rickety old ladders, and the public humiliation that comes with being the one guy on the tour who can’t swim.
Even if you have some of these phobias, do the tour anyway. I don’t know of a therapist alive who would say, “Oh, you’re afraid of heights? Better just avoid leaving the ground ever.” Besides, can you really be claustrophobic in a cave that’s easily the size of an NBA arena?
Can you still be arachnophobic when the spiders in here are half scorpion? Ha, just kidding–I just answered my own question. (I’ll talk more about doing the ATM Cave with phobias in a minute.)
Can you still be afraid of water if… wait a minute… you can’t swim? You should probably know how to swim. This is actually a pretty vital life skill.
However, I do have one piece of advice for all scaredy cats…
Trust your guides
Only licensed tour guides are allowed to escort city-folk such as ourselves through the ATM Cave and there are only a handful of them. They complete extensive training and work closely with archaeologists and geologists to make sure the world’s treasures don’t fall into the hands of the Nazis. Probably.
Tour groups are regulated to a maximum of eight people (who should know how to swim) and you’ll have two experienced guides with you at all times. I would trust these guys with my life. In fact, I pretty much did.
Step where they step, swim where they swim, eat only the bugs they say are safe to eat. But make sure one of them does it first to make sure he survives.
I booked my tour directly through Black Rock Lodge where I was staying who uses Pacz Tours as their go-to tour company. The fact that I’m still alive to brag about them is a testament to how fantastic this tour company is.
Don’t discount how awesome the hike to the cave is
Don’t treat your 45-minute hike to the cave as just the route to get there; pretend that’s why you woke up at 5 am. I buddied up to one of our guides who taught me everything he knew about the trees, the animals, the river, and more than I ever needed to know about slate. #geologyrocks!
He pointed out different species of birds, lizards, snakes, fish, and we even discovered a new species of butterfly together. And when I asked what those big lumps on the trees were, he dove right in and showed me how to eat bugs because life is short, termites are plentiful, and I didn’t wanna look like a wussy.
The landscape is beautiful, the river crossings are fun, the threat of jaguars is real actually, and the termites are delish. Don’t write off a second of it! And don’t be a wussy.
The ATM Cave in Belize is among the most sacred of all sacred sites. The rules in place here exist for actual reasons and do you really want to upset the ancient overlords?
Don’t sneak a camera in; do not venture off on your own; don’t step over the lines you’re told to stay behind. No one will think you’re cool–they will all think you’re a jerk. Even the guy who can’t swim is on a higher pedestal than you. He’s wearing arm floaties and a nose clip up there but at least no one hates him.
Respect your tour guides by remembering they know everything. Remember to respect Belize whose insects will sustain you should you wander off into the jungle and have to spend the night sharing a tree branch with a spider monkey.
Respect the Maya because… well, you do know what “human sacrifice” means, right? And those were the high-status prisoners. Just image what they would do with you… I’m just saying, you don’t see people dressing up as René Belloq for Halloween.
Get there ASAP
The ATM Cave in Belize, which wasn’t even discovered until 1989, is a highly fragile environment. The restricted number of guides who are allowed to take an even more restricted number of visitors into the cave is evidence of Belize’s attempts at keeping the site safe and well-preserved.
Just think, the ATM Cave has been known to us for only as long as The Simpsons has been on the air and already some dodo has destroyed a priceless piece of history. That’s an eternity for a television show but in the span of history we’re just getting into the opening theme.
And as careful as the rest of us are, our mere presence is a slow but steady agent of destruction and at some point the ATM Cave will be off limits to visitors for good. Get there before this happens!
ATM Cave in Belize: Fears and Questions
I get asked a lot of questions about the ATM Cave in Belize and almost all of them are centered around fears and phobias. And rightly so–don’t feel bad about that! A trip into the ATM Cave is quite literally a trek into the mysterious underworld. (Which is not a place known for its fluffy, snuggly creatures and sprinkle-covered delights.)
Here are some of the questions I get asked most often:
I’m claustrophobic, should I skip the ATM Cave?
The ATM Cave in Belize is, indeed, a cave. This means there’s probably just one way in and one way out (though there’s actually a few). So if getting trapped in a cave is your phobia, I really can’t help you. You should probably just avoid caves altogether.
However, if you’re afraid of tightly enclosed spaces, have no fear! The ATM Cave may be a cave but it’s a massive cave. There are some tight squeezes and small spaces in some parts, but overall the inside of the cave is ginormous! You may not like the feeling of being enclosed, but for the most part you shouldn’t feel confined.
One of the rooms in the cave they call the “Cathedral” because that’s literally how big it is.
How afraid are you?
You should know that the ATM Cave tour is an adventure and definitely a challenge, physically and mentally. If you see overcoming some mild claustrophobia as a “challenge,” my guess is you’ll be alright.
However, if you foresee a panic attack and an emergency evacuation (not even sure how that would go down), I’d think twice about an ATM Cave tour.
What I would advise you to do is to google “ATM Cave” and click on “videos.” Watch some of the footage people have taken of the ATM Cave tour (back when cameras were allowed).
If any of it makes you feel like you want to cry, faint, or throw up, maybe just skip the ATM Cave. But know this: I watched about ten of them and none of them show the biggest parts of the cave. Plus, these videos are just a few minutes out of the 3+ hours you’ll spend in the cave. Obviously these videos aren’t showing the whole picture.
Also, don’t feel like you have to do this. There are plenty more exciting adventures to have in Belize that are out in the open! River tubing, horseback riding, wind surfing, hiking, biking, checking out Maya ruins of the outdoorsy type, and so many more.
I’m afraid of heights, should I skip the ATM Cave?
Definitely not. The only time “heights” would be an issue inside the ATM Cave is at the end. At this point, you’ll toss aside your shoes and climb a ladder in your socks to where the Crystal Maiden lies.
The ladder is a typical metal house ladder (technical name?) propped up against the ledge where you’ll find the famous skeleton. That ledge is only about 10 feet up (by my guess). In other words, not very high at all.
Now I understand what might be “high” to you may not be as high to me. So just know it’s about 10-15 feet up, with plenty of room for multiple people, so you’re not trapped next to the edge or anything. Feel free to crawl on your hands and knees, no joke.
I’m afraid of snakes/spiders/bats, should I skip the ATM Cave?
Definitely not. And this is coming from a girl who has spent many hours in therapy dealing with debilitating arachnophobia.
There were a lot fewer creepy-crawlies in the ATM Cave than I expected there to be. I only saw one of those weird scorpion spiders and it wasn’t even close enough to bother us (I just moved in closer to check out it out). The time we saw bats was in the largest part of the cave and they were hundreds and hundreds of feet away from us, just hanging around.
Nowhere on the ATM Cave tour did a spider or snake or bat create an issue so I’d say you have nothing to worry about. The cave is massive and anything that is in there is going to be so far away from you it won’t be an issue.
Plus, I guarantee you’ll be so distracted by what you’re doing physically, what the guide is explaining, etc. to even worry about creatures.
And as always, just remember: They’re more scared of you than you are of them.
Let your tour guide know about your fears. I’m sure they’ll be able to accommodate you/keep you away from the creepy-crawlies. And if you do see one, picture it in a top hat and tap shoes. Therapy works.
I can’t swim, should I skip the ATM Cave?
The biggest thing to know here: you’re allowed to wear a life jacket.
Before our tour started, the guides asked us about our swimming skills and if we thought we needed a life jacket. Three people on our tour decided to wear them and they were all happy they did.
There aren’t any long lengths you’ll have to swim. You’ll be in water a lot, but most of the time you’ll be able to stand (if you’re over, say, 5’3″) or you’ll have various rocks and cave formations to hang on to. Only at the beginning and maybe a couple other times will you need to doggie-paddle a little ways and a life jacket should be enough to get you there.
Let your tour operator know ahead of time that you require a life jacket–it shouldn’t be an issue.
Also, like above, take a look at some ATM Cave videos to see what some of the swimming and water parts are like.