ATM – Actun Tunichil Muknal Mayan Burial Cave Belize

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Everything you need to know to visit ATM cave in Belize

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM cave) in Belize is a 3000 year old Mayan sacred site. Visiting the cave is one of the most amazing things you might ever do. Hiking through the jungle, swimming across the river and into the mouth of the cave is pretty exciting. However it pales in significance against the artifacts you see and the stories you hear on this amazing caving adventure.

Being able to visit ATM cave in Belize is really incredible and something that I don't believe will always be available. If you are in the area, jump on a tour and get there now before they close it to tourists.


I never imagined that I would take a journey into the underworld of the ancient Mayan civilization when we started our Mexico, Belize and Guatemala trip. Somehow I had never heard of ATM before we left Mexico city but it would end up burning itself into my travel memory as one of the most epic and unique adventures I've ever had.


What is ATM – Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize?

ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave is said to be the number one most Sacred Cave in the world. National Geographic deems it to be not only historically of the utmost importance globally, but also as a sacred burial place.

Along with some amazingly preserved artifacts it is also the final resting place of a young girl known as the Crystal Maiden, an ancient Mayan Ceremonial victim.

Today the cave is a primarily tourist attraction about an hour's drive from San Ignacio. The cave is very close to the Belize Guatemalan border so its often referred to as being in Guatemala (incorrectly).

Visit ATM cave in Belize to see some extremely well preserved human skeletal remains, ceramics and stoneware that are over 3000 years old. The ceramics at ATM are mostly significant because they contain what's called “kill holes” which indicate that they were used for ceremonial purposes.

One particular pot, often called the “Monkey Pot” is one of only 4 ever found. It showcases the incredible quality of the ceramics that were made by the Mayan culture.

Monkey pot at ATM Cave in Belize
Monkey pot at ATM Cave in Belize

The history of ATM cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal)

The Mayan's knew ATM as a sacred entrance to Xibalba, the underworld in Mayan cultural beleifs. ATM loosely translates to “Cave With The Stone Sepulcher”.

The Mayans used the massive amphitheatre at the end of the cave as a sacrificial chamber.

Human sacrifice.

Young girls actually.

It was a huge honour for these preteen girls to be chosen and their families were held in very high esteem for their ultimate offering. These girls fate was not hidden from them. They knew what was going on. They knew they would go into the cave and not come out.

They made their way into the cave the way we do today. They swam through ice cold water, climbed over slippery rocks and slithered through barely there gaps knowing this would be the last walk they ever did.

The Mayans have carved many of the stalactites that hang down from the cave ceiling to resemble the jungle cats that were commonplace at the time. So in the flickering lamp light it would have felt like they were watching your every move.

I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like walking through what must have felt like miles of cave system knowing you were never coming out.

The stalactites in the ATM cave in Belize
The massive stalactites in the ATM cave in Belize

Getting To ATM and Into the Cave

ATM can only be done with a tour group. Don't even try and do it yourself. Please be respectful and join a tour that is easily booked in San Ignacio.

There is a box with 2 tours in it below, one from Belize City and one from San Ignacio so check those out. 

From San Ignacio its about an hour's drive to the car park. Once you are unloaded and ready to go you strap on your helmet and shoes (shoes are a must) and start the 45 minute trek through the jungle.

There are 3 river crossings and the depth will vary based on the time of the year and the recent rain falls. It's not a difficult hike and its pretty cool to be hiking through a Belize jungle.

Once you are at the mouth of the cave you have to swim into the entrance. There is no other way to get in. The cave entrance (pictured below) gives you no indication that there is a HUGE cave behind it.

The entrance to ATM Cave Belize
The entrance to ATM Cave Belize

Tours that do ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave

 


Navigating through the cave

Once you are across the water and on the rocks they rig you back up with your helmet and light (we had to remove our helmets to swim across). The very first thing you have to do is feet first slide into an opening that is like a rock shute. It's going who knows where and for who knows how long.

I was frigging shitting myself.

The guide told us later he has had grown men sobbing like little girls at that point but Brad just kept reassuring me and going first, sliding on my arse, down I went (I went first so I wouldn't get left there).

What followed from that point was emotionally both exhausting and exhilarating. Physically it wasn't super tough, but it was difficult to make your way through the cave listening to your guide tell you stories about what would have been happening, and not get fully immersed into it.

​It takes around 30-40 minutes to get to the actual burial chamber and during this time you are climbing over boulders, wading through crystal clear streams and hauling your arse through what seems like impossible cracks in the rocks.

Caving through ATM to the main burial chamber
Caving through ATM to the main burial chamber. You can't really see but we are up to our waist in water.

Once you get to the main chamber you have to climb these huge boulders to get into the actual cave. Coming back out and getting from the main level back onto these boulders in one step is a little daunting I have to admit.

Actually it was by far the scariest thing for me. I can't squat (old knee injury) so I couldn't squat down and step over to the next boulder like everyone else was doing. I had to almost jump from standing position onto this boulder that was maybe 80cm square and not completely flat. I did it but it wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done.

What do you see in the burial chamber?

There are remnants of cooking and storage pots on the outer edges of the chamber, and then as you get in further you start to see the human remains.

3000 year old human remains.

Its truly amazing that we were even allowed to do this. Once you get right back in to the furthermost reaches, you can climb up a rickety old timber ladder (which now is a full aluminium one) and see the full skeleton of the Crystal Maiden, who was at the time of her sacrifice a young teenage girl.

I know it sounds really macabre but its not. It is weirdly inspiring.

Its definitely incredibly engaging and most of all its exhilarating that you are standing right next to someone who willingly gave up their life for their beliefs. 3000 years ago. It is always amazing to me that someone's faith is that strong. I don't understand it but I have to admire the commitment.

It is just incredible!

The skeleton of the Crystal Maiden at ATM in Belize
The skeleton of the Crystal Maiden at ATM in Belize

What do you need to know before visiting ATM?

Our group was only small and everyone was very respectful and listened really well.

It's not a race.

A couple we met that evening said that they group they had was made up of a young couple that kept telling everyone how fit they were and how much they hiked and in the end their guide told them if they didn't stop trying to overtake people and push ahead, he would call his offsider to come and remove them from the cave.

You do see these people everywhere – but don't be one yourself.

It's not for everyone and I've heard stories of people getting to the jungle and then being told they won't be able to do it. The tour operators aren't the guides and of course will book anyone on anything, so just because you are on the bus, doesn't mean you will be able to do the cave.

If you feel like you might be not super stable on your feet, or have an injury that might restrict you, please ask the driver at least. Often the guides meet you there but sometimes they drive as well. Better to ask up front than get to the starting point only to have to wait for everyone else to do it. That would really suck.

We were still able to take photos when we visited the cave. However, a tourist only a few weeks before we got there had dropped her camera on a skull and knocked out 3 teeth. Oh My God! The grilling you get about respecting these remains is indisputable and some idiot drops her camera?? The worst part is she would have to have been leaning over so far to do that she would have probably been off the path anyway.

UPDATE: I met a couple of young New Zealanders last year who had done the cave recently (2017) and they said you can no longer carry anything into the cave. Sad how some spoil it for everyone but I must say I was relieved to know it will remain intact for future generations.

While the cave is a 3000 year old Mayan burial chamber, it should not be the only reason you go. During the process of walking through to the chamber, the guides tell you about what it would have been like for the Mayan people. They stop at important sections and explain what would have happened and tell some amazing stories.

I'm not going to tell you any secrets but the guides tell it so well and it is quite an experience when you know what it must have been like for the people at the time.


Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.


How protected is ATM cave?

In short: Very protected!

There are 15 guides licensed to do ATM and only 7 of them can operate on any one day. They can only take 8 people each so that's a max of 45 people per day that can have this amazing experience.

We were so fortunate, there was just two American guys with us and we only saw one other tour group in the cave. Because of this we had a really good amount of time to spend listening to our guide and looking at the artifacts everywhere.

The areas aren't roped off and you have to follow your guide's footsteps literally. He was so strict but when you hear what some people have done, its no wonder. Be respectful and you will be fine.

While it is incredibly controlled, I can't believe we were able to do it. It is very very sad that some will undoubtedly ruin it for all and I wouldn't be surprised if it gets added to some heritage list and is closed before long.

The guides are super careful but unfortunately the same can't be said for the visitors. There was a really old skull we saw with a few teeth and our guide said it used to have a full set of teeth but somewhere along the way people had either stolen the teeth or they had been broken off.

A skull inside ATM cave in Belize
A skull inside ATM cave in Belize

How hard is the hike and the caving to get to ATM Cave?

The guide we had was crazy about safety so we were considerably slower than the other tour we saw but we also saw and learned heaps more.

The trek is only 30-40 minutes and its just walking really. You cross the river 4 or 5 times and its mostly knee or thigh deep. There was one we had to swim but there is a rope across the river for safety anyway.

You do have to swim across some water to get to the entrance but its not far and the guides watch you very closely. That was my favourite part if I'm honest.

Once you are inside its not aerobic, but it you really have to have your whit's about you. Wear shoes! You are walking on rocks and pebbles and swimming and crawling, but it would be heaps harder with only sandals on. I tied my shoes on super tight and was really glad I had.

Crossing a river on the hike into ATM cave
Crossing a river on the hike into ATM cave

What should you wear to do ATM cave?

Everyone pretty much ends up in boardshorts and singlets for the guys and crop tops for the girls. Obviously you need to wear something you can get wet and also something you can walk in while its wet.

Quick dry shorts & a close fitting singlet will be best. Some girls do it in crop tops but I wouldn't recommend it. You find yourself brushing against rocks and sliding over boulders and a shirt helps to keep your skin relatively intact.

Shorter leggings would also work but be sure to wear something over your bikini bottoms if you are female. While the guides expect you to wear clothing you are happy to get wet, and a swimsuit is part of that for most women, they really would prefer your lower section is covered in shorts.

While this area isn't particularly conservative, no guide needs to see your butt while you try and take huge steps onto or off rocks. You will also need something to protect you when you need to shuffle on your butt over the boulders.

I would recommend sandshoes, runners, trainers or whatever you call them over sandals. Your feet are wet the entire time and even when you are wading through the cave, the rocks underneath are often unstable.

Shoes that are fully tied on will help you to enjoy the experience much more. A few in our group had hiking sandals and they just move around too much. If I had to recommend anything it would be to wear shoes you are happy to get wet. Hiking boots that you are happy to dry out later would also be great.

The main chamber in ATM cave Belize
The main chamber in ATM cave Belize

Should you spend the money & visit ATM Cave?

Absolutely! Yes you should visit ATM.

We had been on the road for around 6 weeks I think when we got to San Ignacio. We'd been doing the Mayan trail through Mexico, up to Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, down through Tulum and the Yukutan Peninsular through Belize and into Guatemala.

It was an amazing trip with unbelievable access to Mayan ruins and historic sites not to mention some spectacular cenotes, and a few kick arse beaches, especially in Belize. But you know how it is, being on the road most days with only maybe one or two multi night stays in 6 weeks was starting to wear a little thin.

We got to San Ignacio which is a really cool little town just close to the Guatemalan border late in the afternoon, piled off the bus and headed to our accommodation for the night. Our guide JC (Juan Carlos) suggested we have a shower and meet him in the little bar across the street from the dorms. A Mexican bar incidentally. Shocker!

We met JC and our other trip mates at the bar and I have to say it was pretty subdued. We were all pretty shattered. JC explained what was in the area and everyone was making decisions as to what to do the next day.

Now please remember that ATM Had Been JC's primary recommendation for this entire trip. All throughout the trip JC's one comment was that if we did nothing else, we couldn't miss ATM.

I remember that clear as a bell, however I'm ashamed to say that when he wanted to know who was going to do it the next day, none of us put our hand up. It meant a 7am start (not super early in the overall scheme of things but somehow horrific at the time).

It was also $250 USD each (another meaning for the ATM reference I'm sure) and a full day trip.

Everyone was talking about the cost and how we had seen so many Mayan ruins already and I admit, I was sceptical too. It was a lot of money and I'm claustrophobic. Not – screaming panicking I turn into Darryl from the Walking Dead claustrophobic, but I am, and it's a decent level of panic.

Being in Belize and heading into a cave that you have to crawl, swim and go spelunking through didn't ring real true on the safety scale either. It was a concern to me the level of safety we would be exposed to. So we decided not to go.

I changed my mind!

All night I kept waking up which isn't unusual for me, but I would wake thinking about it. I couldn't stop. I just kept remembering JC being so adamant that this was one thing we shouldn't miss.

So come dawn I get up, get dressed and head over the road to the tour office to see if they have space for me. I figured that if they are going at 7am the would probably be there at 6 to get the van ready and luck was most definitely on my side that day.

They were in and had room. I went to the ATM (pun intended) and got the money and rushed back to the room to tell Brad I was going. No show without punch so Brad was up and dressed in the shortest time I've ever seen and off we went.

To this day I can't believe that I almost discounted the advice from what will always remain to be one of the best tour guides we have ever had anywhere in the world.

Money can be the route of all evil and it almost stopped me seeing something I could never ever see again. Hopefully I will never not listen to a great guide again.

So in short – ABSOLUTELY YES YOU SHOULD GO TO ATM CAVE!

A human skull at ATM burial cave in Belize
A human skull at ATM burial cave

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