Hidden in the middle of the Belize Jungle, the ATM cave is one of Central America’s great natural and historical wonders. Belize is mostly known for its beaches and Mayan ruins, but these caves are probably its most spectacular landmark.
Visiting the ATM caves in Belize is an adventure in itself, as it involves a trail through the jungle, swimming in the cave’s darkness, crossing very tight spaces, climbing rocks, ladders, and much more. However, what makes them really special is their significance in the Mayan world and the archaeological artifacts that are hidden there.
In this article, we will explain how to visit the ATM caves, what you will find, how much it costs, the level of difficulty, and what you need (and are allowed) to bring. In short, everything you need to know to visit the ATM caves.
What are ATM caves?
(Re-)Discovered only in 1980, the ATM caves are extremely significant for the ancient Mayans. After a few years of research, the cave opened to the public in 1998, and since then, it has attracted the interest of many adventurous travelers.
Initially, it was possible to take pictures and videos of the caves, but currently and after an incident with a tourist’s camera, it was completely prohibited. For this very reason, this article has so few photos, and obviously, those of the interior of the cave are not our own.
ATM is the initials of Actun Tunichil Muknal, which in the Mayan language means “Stone Burial Grotto” due to the remains of a young Mayan girl that were found in a sacrificial chamber inside the cave – the famous Crystal Maiden. Incredibly we can visit this chamber and find those same remains there, as we will explain below.
The solemn significance of the caves hardly leaves anyone indifferent. After walking, swimming, and climbing rocks, we arrive at several interior chambers where shards of Mayan pottery are found, as well as the remains of human sacrifices. Archaeological evidence shows that the cave was used as a place for human sacrifices to please or appease the gods.
The most remarkable thing about the unique artifacts and original human remains is their degree of conservation. Belize authorities have not allowed the removal of virtually any object, and everything you will see has basically not been touched, not even by archaeologists. Making the whole experience almost surreal. For all this, National Geographic considered the ATM Cave one of the most important sacred places on our planet.
ATM Caves in Belize – General information
- Name: ATM Caves
- Start: San Ignacio
- End: San Ignacio
- Distance– 2.5 km of Jungle trail, 500 meters of walking in the river inside the cave, 200 meters of hiding and climbing inside the cave
- Time – A few hours
- Difficulty – Alta
- Type – Linear, way, and back
- Signs(1-5) – Only with a guide
- Cost: 100 to 125 USD per person
- Highlights: Mayan artifacts, human skeletons, caving, Belizean Jungle;
Is it worth taking the ATM Caves tour?
We struggled with this question a lot before doing the ATM caves tour. We oscillated between going and not going several times until we decided to go because we probably won’t be back in Belize anytime soon. And if there are unique places in the world, this is undoubtedly one of them.
The ATM Caves tour is quite expensive – it’s even one of the most expensive activities and tours we’ve ever done. On the other hand, it’s also one of the most fun, unique and amazing things we’ve ever done. It is absolutely unforgettable and, therefore, worth the high cost.
Which company to choose to go to the ATM Caves?
In our experience, the tours are basically the same, whatever company you choose. Or at least the most reputable ones. Costs may vary slightly, but they also end up being very similar, as everyone knows the prices charged by the competition.
The difference tends to be made by the size of the groups and the guides, and in both cases, it isn’t easy to know what to expect when booking. In our case, we were in doubt about going with MayaWalk Tours or Explore Inland Tours, as they have a good reputation and offered us the same price.
We ended up choosing Explore Inland Tours because it seemed that the group that day would be smaller. We were very satisfied because the guide was excellent (one of the best guides we’ve ever had), the food was very good, and the group was very small since there were only 4 of us.
Is it possible to visit the caves without a guide?
No! Entry to the cave is prohibited without the presence of a certified guide. In any case, believe me when I say I wouldn’t want to, nor would I be able to do it.
The ATM Cave Tour
Tours to the ATM caves start very early in the morning. The meeting time, in our case, was at 7:50, leaving at 8:00. After we were all prepared, we would go by van from San Ignácio to the beginning of the trail.
This route takes about 1h – 1h30 and is done initially on asphalt and then on dirt. The landscape is quite beautiful and exciting as we will pass through rural areas, agricultural areas, and plantations of some tropical trees typical of Belize. The guide took the opportunity to share some interesting facts about the area, the trees, and what we would do on tour.
Tour overview – trail
The tour itself starts in a park by the river, where you’ll find picnic tables, bathrooms, and parking. However, there are no shops or restaurants. You must bring with you everything you may need.
Note, however, that you cannot take anything with you from here. In fact, you can, but it doesn’t make much sense to take anything other than water. You cannot enter the cave with them, and there are no places to leave valuables at the entrance. So leave everything you don’t need in the car (sunglasses, cameras, cell phones, snacks, etc.).
We start with a completely flat trail of about 2.5km, which doesn’t present any difficulty… except for the 3 river crossings. Since there are no bridges, we must cross on foot or swim, depending on the water flow.
The first passage is the most complicated, and it’s natural here to have to swim or pull yourself up on the rope. Don’t worry, it’s a lot more fun than challenging. In the other two, the water is usually up to your knees, so walking is fine. Just be careful not to slip.
The walk takes about 45 minutes but can vary a little depending on the size of the group and the stops that are made for the crossings, sightings of animals, or simply curiosities that the guide may show.
Arriving at the entrance to the Cave, we have to leave behind everything we still have with us, such as water. We cannot take anything into the caves except clothes, shoes, and a helmet with a flashlight provided by the agency.
Tour overview – wet grotto
Entry into the group starts right away with a short swimming session. We have to swim a few meters to cross the river. A few meters ahead, we have to turn on the lanterns as there is no longer any natural light, and the cave has no artificial light.
From here, we will always walk or swim upstream through the cave. It is undoubtedly an incredible experience and almost unique. We’ve done a lot of water activities and a few caves, but this one goes to the top of our favorites (perhaps on par with Wadi Mujib in Jordan).
The guide will explain the characteristics of the cave, the stalactites, stalagmites, columns, etc. It also shows the best way to overcome all the obstacles that arise, and at this stage, we realize that it would be impossible to explore the cave without a guide.
This cave lasts for 5km, but we’re only going to do about 500 meters by water and then 180 by land. These 500 meters take a good half hour to 45 minutes to do, giving us the feeling that we walk much further. It’s not that it’s particularly hard, the parts that require you to swim are pretty short, and the walk, despite being in the water, is nice and easy.
Tour Overview – Dry Grotto
After about 500 meters, the guide tells us the water section is over. First, we climb a huge rock, and then we have to take off our shoes as we cannot continue the tour with shoes on. We will enter the most protected area of the cave, and all precautions are necessary. We have to be very careful, especially where we step and with all the artifacts that we are going to find.
Thus, we can go barefoot or in socks – it’s up to you, but we advise you to wear socks as they are much more comfortable. Along the 200 meters, we will first find many Mayan artifacts and then some real skeletons.
So far, the tour has been amazing and definitely fun. It was almost worth it just for this, but this cave is, in fact, unique, and we are still missing the highlight – the artifacts and original human skeletons.
After some instructions from the guide on what to do and where to walk, we enter the old Mayan World with hundreds of artifacts that are a thousand years old or more. In addition to their preservation, these objects are located where they were found and just as they were found.
The Crystal maiden is the most famous relic in the cave. Due to the natural characteristics of the cave, it seems to glow with the lights of our lanterns. It is also the last visit of the tour. After seeing the various human remains, we must return precisely the same way we came.
Where else in the world can we see the original artifacts and human remains precisely how they were left 1000 years ago? Not even archaeologists were allowed to touch it. It’s fascinating and helps to understand why there are so many precautions and limitations.
What is the best time of year to go to the ATM Caves?
Access to the caves can be done at any time of the year, as long as the river flow allows it. So, as long as the weather is good and it hasn’t rained much in the previous days, any time of the year is a good time to visit the ATM caves.
Anyway, we advise you to go in hot weather (which in Belize is not difficult) as the cave and the water is cool. Note that it is fresh, not cold… 🙂
Who can go to the ATM Caves?
Although the tour involves walking, swimming, ladders, and small climbs, it is not very physically difficult. However, it implies having some sense of adventure, resistance, knowing how to swim, being agile, flexible, and not afraid of closed places.
With regard to children, although there are signs that indicate that they cannot visit the caves if they are less than 1 meter, the guide tells us that this is not verified in any way, and he has already made several visits with children. The youngest were 3 or 4 years old.
What to bring for the ATM Cave tour
This is a tour you can’t take too much with you. In fact, apart from your clothes and helmet, you cannot take anything into the cave. Still, here’s what we need:
- Wet clothing, including shorts, shirt, and socks;
- You have to take shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Hiking shoes do perfectly. If you don’t have or don’t want to ruin yours, that’s okay, companies provide crocs to use. Note: we were very surprised how crocs do not slip and protect your feet in the water in the dark.
- Change of clothes to wear at the end of the tour;
- You don’t need to bring food, as the agency provides lunch;
- You can and should take water for the walk. The bottle has to stay outside the cave, so one liter per person is enough.
- You can take your cell phone and camera, but you cannot enter the cave, and it might be a good idea to leave it in the car. There are no lockers at the entrance to the cave, and you will get wet right away when you cross the river for the first time.
Important: Regardless of what you want to take with you for the tour, remember that you cannot take anything inside the cave.
How to get to the ATM Grotto?
This is a non-problem. As we said above, we can only go to the caves with a guide, so the guide takes us to the caves and then guides us inside.
ATM cave tours start in the center of San Ignacio. Usually, we have to go to a designated place, and from there, we take the vans to the entrance to the caves. In some cases, agencies can pick up clients from hotels. But San Ignacio is really small, and it should be easy to get there.
Tip: The tours start pretty early (8 am in our case), and lunch is only between 1 pm and 2 pm, so it’s essential to have a hearty breakfast. If you don’t have breakfast at the accommodation, we recommend going to Mike’s Kitchen next to the San Ignácio Market, as it opens very early and serves good Belizean breakfasts.
Where to stay when visiting the ATM caves
The ATM caves are one of the most incredible monuments in Belize and Central America. The best place to stay when visiting the caves is undoubtedly San Ignacio.
This small town is close to the Guatemalan border and is known as the base for visiting some of Belize’s best-known attractions. The city itself is not particularly interesting, but it does have a lot of activities nearby, including the ATM caves. If you want to explore the caves, the jungle, and the ruins of Belize, San Ignácio is the ideal place.
Thus, despite being small, there are plenty of accommodation options in San Ignácio, Check the map below for some good options.