Visiting the ATM Cave in Belize

Kris Oonagh atm cave belize
Our Irish spelunking companion, Oonagh O'Farrell, and Kris after the cave dive and march out of the jungle. You'll notice the painted faces. Our guide insisted we paint ourselves with rust from the iron oxide rocks in the cave to show what bad asses we are.

Our exploration of the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (known simply as the ATM Cave here in English-speaking Belize) inspired me, yet again, to ask, “Am I too old for this shit?”

When I expressed this sentiment to Kris, she corrected me. “Tom, you just hiked briskly for an hour and a half, waded a river three times, swam, rock climbed, and spelunked for almost four hours with no break. You just proved that you’re not too old for this shit.”

So, yes, we did just spend almost six hours kicking our own asses, and the verdict is, “It was worth it.”

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And, “Pass the ibuprofen.”

The ATM cave was discovered in 1989 (by a PhD archeologist–which our guide said was the definition of discovery in this part of the world. (The fact that the locals always knew about it doesn’t count.) That said, here's the short version of the ATM Cave story: it is a sacred Mayan sacrificial site which was used infrequently from around 600 to 900 C.E. It’s a cave system that extends five kilometers into a hillside. The cave was formed by an underground river which still runs through it and which you will swim and wade through on your way to the sacrificial sites.

After climbing out of the river, you reach an internal plateau that was the river bed a couple of thousand years ago (and can still occasionally get wet during particularly bad hurricanes.) On this plateau, you’ll get close enough to touch Mayan pottery that was used in religious rituals, and almost close enough to touch human remains that anthropologists and forensic bone investigators believe were sacrificed to the gods here.

To get to that point of climbing up to relatively dry land, you swim a couple of times but mostly wade–sometimes in chest deep water–for about 45 minutes. You can do it in running shoes, which I did, but I recommend closed toe water shoes or sandals. Swimming in running shoes sucks, by the way. If I had known what I was in for, I definitely would have brought the Merrill water shoes.

More important than shoes were the helmets with lights provided by our guide. Kris and I attached the headlamps we always travel with for some extra illumination. They came in handy since they were pointed up more than the ones on the helmet so you could see ahead of you as well as just down in front of your next step. Believe me, you need the helmets. Mine saved me more than once as I folded my old inflexible self through minuscule low ceiling passages that I never would have believed I could fit through. Then there was the time I slipped and fell on my ass and banged my head on the limestone floor.

After the wading, you have to remove your shoes and go either barefoot or in socks into the actual ritual areas. There you see what amounts to altar after altar with, in most cases, almost intact pottery left near the sacrificial fire as if it had happened yesterday. Some of the pots are large food receptacles. Others are small serving dishes, but all represent offerings to the god of the cave, and supplication that he release water for the Mayans use during “bad times.”

According to the anthropologists' theories, the Mayans entered the cave only infrequently and when “special measures” were called far. There is only evidence of around a score of rituals over the course of the 300 years the remote parts of the cave were used. There are also fourteen human skeletons in various states spread throughout the cave. Many of them are in remote caverns which are not open to tourists. However, you do see several from a distance of about a meter. Most, apparently, were sacrifices to the gods.

guide atm cave
Ian is a bit of a clown, and a hell of a guide. Ask for him by name. You can also call him yourself +501 668-9085. Add an 011 in front if you are calling from the US.

If you are interested in this sort of stuff, I recommend you get down here as soon as possible. My guess is that the ecosystem and the anthropological evidence of the cave is being damaged more and more every day by the tromp of tourists. Although the cave guides, including our great guide Ian Burns, are adamant about staying within the boundaries marked by red tape, and never touching either geological or archeological rarities, the damage is inevitable. I’m guessing one day soon the government of Belize is going to close the site down to tourists.

Since 2012, it’s been prohibited to bring cameras into the cave. That rule is courtesy of an American tourist who, while leaning directly above a skull to get that last shot, dropped his camera and left a hole exactly the size of a digital camera in the remains that had previously lain undisturbed for 1100 years.

He then denied doing it. Asshole. If you want to see photos now, just Google “ATM Belize” and click images. There are lots of good ones. None of the big hole in the skull, however.

Some details of how to visit the ATM Cave in Belize: you should either stay in or near San Ignacio so you can start from the town with your guide sometime around 8 a.m. It’s a 45 minute drive, much of it over teeth bouncing road, to get to the car park within the preserve. You leave a change of clothes, your camera and anything valuable at the car park. From there, you have to hike about 45 minutes, including wading across a river three times, to the cave mouth. Drink water while you do it. There’s no water or food allowed in the cave itself. Just before the cave mouth, there’s a picnic area where you can leave your backpack, water, and lunch, for when you return. We paid $145 USD per person (not including tip) for the all inclusive tour, including all transport to and from the hotel, lunch, water. Ibuprofen was not included.

Your hotel should be able to hook you up with a guide and make all the arrangements.

Another suggestion: ask your hotel to book you with guide Ian Burns, (if he's still available. We toured in 2013.) He was fantastic. He was expert in navigating novices through the cave–which, believe me, is important. Even better though: his knowledge of what you were looking at, both geologic and anthropological, was extraordinary. He’s also quite funny.

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13 thoughts on “Visiting the ATM Cave in Belize”

  1. If that weren’t enough badassery, we just signed up to do a five day hike through the jungle to get to the Mayan site of El Mirador. Five freaking days in a jungle. I just read that Mel Gibson went to El Mirador in a helicopter. What were we thinking?

  2. I was always too old for this sh*t. I’m looking forward to your post after the 5 day hike in the jungle. I was cool (I mean, hot, but cool, you know what I mean) about hiking in the Costa Rican rain forest until our guide started seeming a little freaked out about flying fer-de-lances. Seriously, they have to freakin’ fly too?

    Your comment luv or whatever it is, was going to use my last post about a craft fair on Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia), but I thought that was way over the top wussy for this post.

    • Suzanne, our guide warned us about stepping on fer-de-lances before our hike through the jungle, but he didn’t say anything about flying ones. Kris was visibly nervous as she seemed to look down before every step. The best laugh of the day though was Oonagh from Ireland (where there are no snakes–thanks to Saint Patrick) asking if it was okay to step over them.

  3. Love this post…like the idea about being too old. I feel your pain…especially knee pain…argh!

    I’d love to do this when it’s not hot out. How do you do it in the heat? And the hike, too. Good luck with that one. Can’t wait to hear about it.

    • I’m afraid, Corinne, that “when it’s not hot out” doesn’t really exist down here. We got up at 4 a.m. to see the dawn over the Mayan temples at Tikal this morning, and the heat and humidity had my glasses fogging even then. So, I have to say I’m having second thoughts about hiking six hours a day in this humidity. We did it in a lot of heat in Spain on the Camino de Santiago, but, as they say, it was a dry heat. No such thing down here. Dry only means it’s not raining at the moment.

  4. This sounds like a great trip. I’ve been on similar trips and have always gotten OK tour guides. If I ever make it down that way, I will have to definitely find this guy. Looks like a challenging, but rewarding trip. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ian Burns was terrific as a guide. Definitely seek him out. He knows every inch of the cave, to the extent he can tell you exactly where to place each hand and foot in the difficult parts. And, he’s an expert on Mayan mythology and symbology. Hard combination to beat.

  5. I very much enjoyed reading your post about your exploration adventures of the Mayan ruins. It was very thoughtful of you to include Ian’s personal phone # in your post, and hopefully he will get some customers as a result of your thoughfulness. Someday, after I retire and become “too old for this shit,” I hope to visit Belize.

    • John, don’t wait any longer than you have to. I predict that as soon as the Belize government wakes up, they’re going to close, or at least severely restrict access to these caves. It was obvious to us that tourists at the current volume were definitely damaging it. Caves are particularly susceptible to damage, it seems. The ancient caves in France have all been closed, for example, as have a few of them in Northern Spain. Spain limits access to some of them to only 16 people per day, and then only at certain times of the year. Go soon.


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