It was pitch black. I closed my eyes, then opened them again. It made no difference, I still couldn’t see anything. The only sound was the dripping of water, and my nervous breath. Then a voice rang out in the cave……
The ATM cave tour in Belize was an experience like no other. The caves themselves are spectacular, and to be able to see Mayan artefacts just millimetres away was truly unique. I joined Carlos the Caveman on a guided tour of the ATM caves, and was whisked away to another world.
Tours to the ATM caves in Belize, officially known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (the cave of the stone sepulchre), can be easily arranged from San Ignacio, the closest major tourist town to the caves. There are several operators who run the ATM cave tour, and all have good Tripadvisor reviews. I later learned that 49 potential guides took the test proposed by the NICH, the National Institute of Culture & History in Belize, but only 23 passed. Now, not all of these guides are active, but there still seems to be a lot of companies in San Ignacio offering tours to the caves. I chose Carlos the Caveman, partly because I love the name, partly for the excellent reviews, and partly because the company is a small business run by Carlos himself. I try to support small, local, family businesses wherever I can, so I contacted Carlos to see if I could join one of his ATM cave tours. While the tour is expensive for backpackers in Belize (as are most tours here) it is definitely worth it if you can stretch your budget.
Quick to reply, Carlos The Caveman confirmed the tour for a couple of days later, and explained what we had to bring: closed shoes that would get wet, socks, sunscreen, insect repellent – and no cameras. On the day of the tour, Carlos arrived at my hostel to pick me up at 8.30am. We were just three people on the tour; my companions were a couple of friends from Germany and we chatted on the way to the caves. The first stop was actually the Maya site of Cahal Pech to buy the tickets to enter the caves. These are other Mayan ruins in San Ignacio that are also worth a visit if you have time.
It takes just over an hour to reach the ATM caves from San Ignacio; or the car park at least. The first section is by paved road, then the rest by bumpy dirt track. When we arrived, the ranger checked our tickets and Carlos parked the car. The car park was already filled with mini-vans from other companies – the times of the tours are staggered to avoid having everyone in the cave at the same time, as some parts get a little cosy! Carlos provided us with our safety gear – a hard hat with a head lamp, a life jacket, and a machete for good measure. The machete was really just for the photo but it was still the biggest I’d seen!
We set off, and in a couple of minutes came across the river the first time. I had expected to get wet in the cave, but didn’t realise we would swim across the river straight away! But, swim we did, with the aid of a rope if needed. We then squelched our way along the path towards the cave. The hike to the entrance is 45 minutes to an hour, but on flat terrain through the trees so it’s not a difficult walk. We crossed the river twice more, splashing across this time as the water was shallower here. I wished I had brought my GoPro, but cameras are not allowed on the tour, so I had time to just appreciate the scenery. As we went along, Carlos pointed out termite nests (and tried to convince us to eat a couple of them, but we all declined), lizards and an agouti, as well as several different trees and plants. The caves are set in Tapir National Reserve, but we didn’t see any tapirs unfortunately!
When we arrived at the mouth of the cave I was struck by its beauty. The sun shone into the blue water, and vines draped around the entrance to the cave. We stashed out water bottles to collect later and descended into the cave. The river flows right through the cave; and is deep enough to have to swim in parts. The first part was at the entrance, and I flopped into the cold water as gracefully as I could and swam to where Carlos directed me. The water here was much cooler than the river we had crossed, coming out of the shadows of the cave. Once we had all crossed, Carlos led us deeper into the cave, climbing over rocks and wading through the river. We passed the last window of natural light, and moved into the darkness. We rested for a moment and Carlos asked us to turn off our lights. We sat in silence in the dark for what seemed like a long time, but must have only been a few moments. Then Carlos spoke. We had just asked permission to enter the cave. A spiritual place for the Maya, entering the cave should not be taken lightly. He also emphasised the importance of safety and communication, those at the front must pass back instructions to those at the back so we all help each other through the cave. Make no mistake, health & safety regulations don’t apply here! There are no hand-rails, no anti-slip flooring, and a step in the wrong place could end in serious injury. Well, if I wasn’t nervous before that, I was now!
I had never been caving before, and honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had spoken to several people who had already done the tour, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw inside that cave.
Actun Tunichil Muknal itself is stunning. Beautiful rock formations had been moulded by the constant flow of water through the cave, and there were stalactites hanging down to stalagmites which reached up to greet them. Columns of rock that looked like melted candles, minerals in the water had created bizarre shapes all around us, and the light from our head lamps threw strange shadows that loomed ominously on the cave walls. Some parts sparkled from light, others were black from different mineral deposits, and others were dark with bat guano. The bats hung upside down in holes from the roof, their faeces spraying upwards and melting into the rock. Carlos the Caveman lived up to his name, deftly leading us through the cave. I asked him how many times he had done the tour – “so many times I don’t need a headlamp” he replied with a smile. He clearly knew his stuff, explaining the theories to explain why the Maya came here, and pointing out all the different rock formations, the beasties that lurked in the cave (spiders, bats, cave crickets), and a tiny sprout of a plant that somehow is managing to grow in the darkness.
After a while we reached a hidden entrance in the cave wall. Apparently, cavers had missed the passageway several times, before finally discovering that it led up to a higher ‘room’ in the cave, known as the Cathedral. We climbed up the rocks, and took off our shoes. Climbing up a ladder that was tied to the rock, I wondered how anyone had managed to find their way in here, be they Maya or the later explorers! I nervously climbed up the ladder (I am not a fan of ladders in any circumstance!) and crawled onto the rock above.
A huge room opened up in front of us. Everywhere I looked there were fragments of Mayan pottery. A few remained whole, set up high on ‘shelves’ in the cave walls. Others had been washed away by heavy rains years before, and broken pieces collected in dips in the rock. We followed a narrow path across the rock surface, our socks helping to prevent oils from our skin seeping into the stone. The path was marked by a tape on the ground. No railings, no ‘do not touch’ signs, just a piece of tape. And millimetres over the other side of the tape was a Maya skeleton. A human sacrifice, made to appease the gods and plead for rain. Studies from the rocks in the cave suggest that there was a drought at the time, and the Maya performed more and more rituals in the cave, desperately hoping that the Gods would be satisfied & bring them rain.
We moved through the cave, to a narrow section at the back where we waited for another group to finish. Here lay more skeletons, part petrified from the rains that finally came, washing minerals over the bone to calcify them. Centuries of water flowing over the remains, which are remarkably intact. Apart from a huge hole in the skull from a dropped camera. That is why cameras are not allowed inside the cave! A clumsy visitor dropped his camera on the skull of a thousand-year-old Mayan skeleton.
It was a sobering experience, seeing where these people had met their end. Were they unconscious before they were killed? Drugged or totally aware? Did they know what fate awaited them deep in the cave? Here in the darkness, the only light from the flames of their torches, the Maya had come time and time again to make their offerings to the gods. There are the remains for 14 men, women & children in the cave, including the most complete skeleton of the ‘Crystal Maiden’ – a young woman (or possibly a man) whose bones are now calcified from the water & minerals, so they sparkle when the light touches them.
The ATM cave tour was fascinating, and unique. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where you can be this close to such important artefacts in their original location, at least for the moment. It is hard to imagine that the tours can continue like this, without more safety measures or protection for the relics that remain, but that would definitely take away the magic of the experience. I really enjoyed the tour, Carlos was an awesome guide and I highly recommend him. My advice is go to Belize and do the ATM Cave tour soon, before it’s too late!
Learn More About the ATM Caves
This video offers more insight into why the Maya performed these rituals in the ATM cave, as Dr Jaime Awe, the archaeologist who discovered the cave, explains possible reasons for their behaviour.
Tips for Visiting the ATM Cave in Belize
What to Wear for the ATM Cave Tour:
T-shirt & shorts/leggings that you don’t mind getting wet. I would also advise long-ish shorts, as in parts it is easier to sit on the rock & slide down on your backside – and my shorts were quite short so I scratched my delicate behind.
Socks & shoes that will get wet – closed shoes are better to avoid stubbing your toe on the rocks in the cave.
Contact lenses are better than glasses if you have them.
Apply sunscreen if you burn easily. There is a 45-60 minute walk to reach the cave, partly in shade, partly in sun, so you may burn without sun protection. Try to bring bio-degradable sunscreen if you can.
We didn’t need insect repellent, but in other seasons it may be useful, again, biodegradable if possible.
Leave your camera & phone at home, or leave it in the car. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave since someone dropped their camera on one of the skeletons!
It’s better not to carry anything or wear anything that you care if it gets wet. Carlos had a small bag with him wear I put my sunscreen, but we didn’t need anything else.
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I was a guest of Carlos the Caveman on his ATM Cave Tour, and the fact that I had a great time definitely influenced my review! As always, my opinions are my own. Thank you Carlos for a great day!
Last updated: July 3, 2017