Two and a half years before touring the ATM Cave in Belize I found myself clinging to the side of a mountain with the kung fu grip of leather pants on Kim Kardashian. I was approximately 2,000 feet above the valley floor, tethered to the mountainside only by a thin wire akin to Salvador Dali’s mustache or a Padawan braid.
I wore a harness that fit tightly around my waist and snugly up my butt, a child’s helmet even though I was 31 years old, and with just a sliver of rebar to stand on. I oozed the kind of stink that only bouncing across a tightrope over a waterfall with a 2,000-foot drop can produce and repeatedly declared, “OMG, THIS IS THE COOLEST SHIT I’VE EVER DONE!”
That was my experience on the via ferrata in Switzerland on the day my friends threatened to murder me in my sleep if they actually survived the hike I signed them up for. It was the most badass thing I had ever done (that didn’t involve polar bears). Until I took a trip to Belize.
Now, I did a lot of cool shit in Belize. I 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, one more–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.
ATM CAVE IN BELIZE
I’ve toured my fair share of caves here and there. I’ve been to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, famous for being the world’s longest cave system; the Lookout Mountain Caverns in Tennessee, famous for Ruby Falls, the 145-foot underground waterfall within; and the Lost River Caverns in Pennsylvania, famous for absolutely nothing but I did get to buy a piece of amber in the gift shop so I can start my own Jurassic Park.
The ATM Cave in Belize would be my first “famous for its sparkly skeletal remains of human sacrifices and the trek it takes to get there” sooo… hold on to your butts!
The ATM Cave in Belize is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal which means “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” in Mayan and sounds juuuust Indiana Jones enough for me to don a pair of khakis and kiss a hot Nazi. Ashley Smith and the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher—coming to a poorly managed YouTube channel near you.
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:
I told you it was 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 AKA still fewer people than are in line for a cronut at any given time.
As I said, 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 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 has 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 an 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…
DON’T THINK THIS 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 will 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.
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 higher than average fitness level. The extra challenge this tour presented was welcome and exhilarating but I could easily see how a misled casual tourist could end up on this tour and feel totally screwed. This ain’t yo’ grandmama’s spelunking excursion.
DO 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 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 any tour and it seems that’s the only reason to venture inside but, to me, it’s just a bonus to the whole mind-blowing ATM Cave experience–like getting to see the living bat colonies or… surviving.
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 days 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.
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 shit, 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; you’ll enter a deep, dark hole in the side of a mountain because a Central American stranger told you to; and you’ll probably pee on yourself a little.
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.
DO WEAR THE RIGHT STUFF.
As for what to pack for Belize, here’s what you need to know as far as clothing goes: you’ll be hiking, you’ll be swimming, you’ll be sweating like Richard Simmons in sequins. I wore a bathing suit, athletic shorts, and a tank top. My husband wore swim trunks and a T-shirt. No disco anthems were harmed in the making of these outfits.
Let me guess, you have no idea what kind of shoes to wear for this? It’s your first day at your new job, your wedding, and basically every single Saturday night since you were 14 all over again. Only it’s about to get hella Aggro Crag up in here.
I was so confused (what else is new) as to what this tour was going to be like that I really stressed out about what shoes to wear. I didn’t know how I was going to pull off swimming, river wading, rock climbing, spelunking, and hiking all in one pair of shoes and without breaking any toes. I knew I’d be breaking all the laws of fashion but that’s just another day in the life.
Hiking shoes were obviously necessary but out of the question. I needed to be able to swim in them and then, after the tour, what… was I supposed to wear wet hiking boots for the rest of the day? Maybe even the rest of the trip? Umm, no—I’ve already mentioned that some of that is pee.
But I can’t wear flip-flops or sandals since I can’t hike or climb in those and I definitely don’t want to step on any silver snakes, orange iguanas, or blue barracudas in them.
So, I relayed my fears and concerns to Olmec, the ancient God of 90’s Children’s Programming, and my prayers were answered. I was presented with the perfect shoe; a shoe for both water and land; a shoe for all levels of dangerous physical activity; a shoe so ugly I wouldn’t mind getting a little pee on them.
I give you: the Keen Newports. Ugly as they may be, I’d swear they were made specifically for the ATM Cave in Belize. They’re hardy like a hiking boot, drain like a sandal, and are, you’d never know it to look at them, the most comfortable shoes I own. You should probably just go ahead and wear these to your wedding, too. You’re welcome. For actually useful shoe information, watch this video from Zappos:
Let me save you a few headaches: stop your shoe search now. You won’t find anything better than these Keens for your ATM tour and you’ll be so happy with them. My husband and I both continue to wear ours for hiking, fishing, canoeing, and the occasional fancy dinner party. Get them here:
DON’T FORGET ALL THE OTHER ESSENTIALS.
FOR THE OVERALL TRIP
The following items won’t be needed until after you complete your ATM cave tour and have successfully retrieved the Ark of the Covenant. They can be left in the van you arrived in along with your whip and timeless sex appeal.
➤ A towel to dry off whatever is still wet after your 45-minute hike back from the cave under that ruthless Belizean sun. And by that I specifically mean blood, sweat, and tears. I always travel with this 3-piece set of microfiber quick-dry towels.
➤ An extra set of clean, dry clothes to change into after the cave tour. Have no fear, there are on-site restrooms/changing rooms here. You won’t be forced to change clothes in a hot van full of strangers. Save that for Burning Man.
➤ A large plastic bag to hold your dirty, stinky, wet clothes and towel until you get back to the lodge. This is for your benefit as well as for the benefit of all those strangers you’ll be sharing a hot van with.
FOR THE ACTUAL CAVE TOUR
The following items will be taken with you through the ATM Cave and on the hikes to and fro and, because of this, should be kept to a minimum. Cast aside the notion of emergency first-aid kits and plentiful stores of food—should you get lost in this cave, your only chance at survival is out-riddling Gollum.
➤ A couple of snack bars. A delicious and plentiful lunch is provided after you return to the park entrance from the cave. On the way to the cave are a healthy number of termite nests your guide will punch a hole into and show you how to eat the live termites. Should you need a little something else, I recommend these Clif Bars.
➤ A bottle of water. I know this sounds silly considering the borderline unhealthy amount of cave water you’ll unintentionally consume, but those jungle hikes will still dehydrate you. I take my insulated Camelbak everywhere.
➤ Cheap sunglasses for the hikes to and from the cave. Especially from the cave after you’ve re-entered a world of torturous blinding light after three hours in the dark Maya underworld. These polarized classics do the trick for me.
➤ A pair of socks. Welcome to the ancient artifact portion of the ATM Cave tour where we have skeletal remains of human sacrifices, rare tools and pottery, and a very strict footwear policy.
At this point you’ll abandon your Keens on a rock ledge and continue through the cave wearing only a pair of socks on your feet, just like all the greatest cave explorers (and American Apparel models) of yore. This helps preserve the ancient cave’s already fragile environment and supports your husband’s belief that, no, you don’t need a pedicure before your trip to Belize.
➤ And a dry bag to carry all of it. Besides the shoes, another conundrum was how to tote everything I needed and keep it dry while not interfering with my desire to live long enough to find out who the hell takes over Westeros once and for all.
I resorted to a series of crappy store brand ziplock bags inside a crappy backpack (that my husband carried–see? Problem solving.) but, as evidenced by the wet granola bar I was forced to eat, my plan failed.
Our guide and fellow tour-takers all had these waterproof bags that were seemingly made for this. I had never seen these before but if I was planning to sail my army across the Narrow Sea, I’d need to get on board. I’ve since purchased one my own and LOVE. IT. I use it out on the water when we go fishing, by the pool, at the beach, and, when I get my hands on a time machine, I’ll go back and take it with me to the ATM Cave in Belize.
For the few things you need with you in the ATM Cave, a 5L dry bag would do just fine. However, if you plan to use this again, say, at the beach, on a snorkeling excursion, or on a Double Dare physical challenge, I’d recommend the 10L. My Leader Accessories 10L dry bag (shown above) holds a beach towel, a couple bottles of sunscreen, phone/wallet/keys, snacks, a book, and has plenty of room for more (snacks).
- Bug repellent and sunscreen are not recommended (for environmental reasons). But neither are Zika and skin cancer so you’ll have to make your own call on that one.
- A helmet and headlamp will be provided to you by your tour company. The strength of will to ignore how bad it smells is all you.
- Oh and one more thing…
DON’T BRING A CAMERA, AT ALL, WHATSOEVER, I MEAN IT.
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, unlike that whole wildfire thing.
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.
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.
DO LEAVE ALL 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.
If you have any 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.
Can you still be afraid of water if… wait a minute… you can’t swim? You’re an adult–you should know how to swim. This is actually a pretty vital life skill. I’m kinda worried for you bro…
However, I do have one piece of advice for all scaredy cats…
DO TRUST YOUR GUIDES.
Only licensed tour guides are allowed to escort city-folk such as myself 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 see if he dies.
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 guide’s 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, and the termites are delish. Don’t write off a second of it! And don’t be a wussy.
DON’T BE DISRESPECTFUL.
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; don’t venture off on your own; don’t step over the lines you’re told to stay behind. No one thinks you’re cool–they all think you’re an asshole. 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. 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 who farts in his sleep. 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.
DO 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.
🎶 “You’re in the mouth of hell, everything’s going swell…” 🎶
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!