San Ignacio is Belize’s hub for adventurers. Adrenaline sports, intriguing day trips and a plethora of cultural activities are offered by many a tour company. Undoubtedly, the ATM cave is a must-do but who should you go with, what should you pack and what is it like when you visit the ATM cave? We learned all of this during our trip with Belize Family Adventure. Read on to find out our top tips for visiting the ATM cave, Belize.
Our ATM cave tour was hosted by Belize Family Adventure but all opinions are entirely our own
We also want to mention that all photos from within the ATM cave were provided by Gliss, our guide, who took them when cameras were allowed inside…more on that later.
What is the ATM Cave?
First things first, ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is not a Flintstones cash machine! The ATM cave Belize is a navigable cave that extends underground in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, close to San Ignacio. It is also known as the Cave of Crystal Sepulchre, due to the beautiful, twinkly stalactites within the cave system. Inside there is a large area, sacred to the ancient Maya ns that lived near to the cave. Visitors can see the archaeological treasures, rediscovered in the late 1980s and enjoy the journey through the cave system.
So how, can you visit the ATM Cave, Belize? Check out our top tips for visiting the ATM Cave.
Top Tips for Visiting the ATM Cave
1 – What Shoes to Wear for an ATM Cave Tour
Firstly, and most importantly, bring Water Shoes! I packed my trusty jellies but found out that these were not going to cut it. They could slip off and they didn’t cover my toes. You can stub your toe quite easily in the caves so bring closed toes Water Shoes! Mr Fluskey was going to wear his trainers and then throw them away. Luckily, our guesthouse had a couple of spare pairs that we could steal for the day. You may have seen shoe rental places at other water-based tourist activities in Belize, but there are no shops or rental spots at the ATM cave.
2 – What Clothes to Waer on an ATM Cave Tour
You are going to get soaked, there are no two ways about it. Even before you reach the caves, you will be walking through rivers that reach up to your chest. We recommend lightweight but tight clothing. You don’t want it to drag you down when you are trying to walk through water, or when you are dripping in the open air. Plus, loose clothing can get caught on rocks within the cave so leggings or long shots would be ideal and a tight-fitting top. You could rip whatever it is you are wearing so don’t bring the latest addition to your technical fabric running gear. A light cotton top with a little stretch should do it.
Ladies, I suggest wearing either a comfortable swimming costume/bikini or yoga bra under your outfit. The catches and underwires of a traditional bra could be uncomfortable and start to rub when they are wet.
3 – Don’t Forget Your Socks
As well as your shoes, and your undies, you need to remember a pair of socks. This isn’t just to keep your toes warm. When you reach the sacred area of the cave, every visitor is required to wear socks. Shoes can damage the rocks and they want to preserve this amazing spot. Oh, and don’t have bare feet, they could easily get scraped by the sharp areas.
4 – Bring a Change of Clothes and a Dry Bag
After you have walked back from the cave, you will have some time to change. Eating in dry clothes is much more pleasant. Plus, your guide probably won’t appreciate you soaking their van seats. Bring something to pop your wet gear into whether that is a proper dry bag, a large ziplock bag or even just a plastic bag without holes. We squeezed out our dripping clothes and left them in the sun to dry a little while we ate lunch. It made a real difference when it was time to leave.
5 – What not to Bring on Your ATM Cave Tour
A few years ago, a clumsy tourist dropped their camera onto an ancient skull within the ATM cave. Due to this carelessness, there is a strict list of what you can take into the cave. (It is the reason we don’t have many of our own photos from the tour). Leave your camera and phone in your tour vehicle, or even in your hotel. You cannot take them with you.
Although there is a walk between the entrance blocks and the cave, visitors are discouraged from using sun cream or insect repellent. One of the first things the group does is wade across a river which will only wash these off, and they can damage the environment so there is really no point. You will have a helmet and these can help keep the sun off your head if you are worried about the UV.
Anything that you take with you, you will have to carry or put in your pocket. If you bang into a rock wall, your sunglasses etc could get damaged or they could be dropped or fall out of your pocket. It is much easier to just leave everything with the vehicle.
6 – Use the Toilets When They are Offered
There are no facilities within the cave so if you are a fan of hydration, you will need to consider you loo trips carefully. At the visitor centre, there is a large and clean toilet block.
Alternatively, just outside the entrance to the cave, you will find the lavatory…or rather, the lava-tree. Males are pointed in one direction to pee in nature, and females in the opposite direction. If you are at all worried about needing the loo inside the cave, make use of this primitive offering. You won’t see it again for two to three hours.
7 – Your Fitness Level is Probably Fine
I am not a fitness buff. In fact, when we visited Belize, we were distinctly chubby and unfit. I was worried about the prospect of spelunking (the exploration of caves) but this was a comfortable level of activity. The hike to the cave is a mostly flat 40-minute walk with a couple of river crossings. It wasn’t enough to leave me puffing. The walking speed isn’t a march, more of a stroll.
Once you are in the cave, the group only goes as fast as the slowest person. You may get slightly out of breath at some points but the climbing only comes in short spurts and it isn’t too challenging.
The toughest part of the experience is when you finally reach the sacred area of the cave. You need to scale a large rock sand hoist yourself onto a shelf. Actually, I found coming back down harder but our amazing guide was there to shout instructions and the whole group becomes so supportive of each other.
8 – You Will Stay Wet During Your ATM Cave Tour
The walk to the cave starts with a wade through a river which is about four feet deep. Then, just as you start to steam in the warmth of the day, you head through another river, this time only two to three feet deep.
To enter the cave, there is a short swim (don’t worry, if you can’t swim, you can take a life jacket from the base camp). Throughout the journey, the water level goes from dry rocks underfoot to belly button deep. Yes, the water is chilly but not terribly so and the excursion of the wading and distraction of working out your path along the cave will keep you warm enough. There also is no wind within the cave, an enemy of all soggy people!
9 – Listen to Your Tour Guide
First things first, whatever you do, follow the rules as explained by your tour guide. Some rules can seem unfair, we would all like to have our own photos inside the cave, but they are there for good reason. For example, there are some beautiful, sparkling rocks in the ATM cave. These stalactites are gorgeous to look at but they need to make sure nobody accidentally touches them.
During the spelunking, your guide will tell the person behind them what to do. For example, they might advise the best spot to place your foot or point out a sharp rock to avoid. These instructions are passed down the line which can feel a little silly but these instructions are important for everyone’s safety.
The other reason to listen to your guide is that they are very interesting guys! They know so much about the ATM cave, its history and surrounding area. When they are explaining the artefacts, you will get so much more out of the experience.
10 – Children are Welcome…To a Point
Children can join an ATM cave tour but there are a few things to consider. They need to be pretty self-disciplined and have to follow all the rules too. It is also worth noting that they won’t get any food within the cave so they need to be happy to forgo snacks. Finally, if they are short, it would be better if they were confident swimmers as they will be out of their depth more often. Usually, tour companies recommend that children should be at least eight years old but it is up to the parent’s discretion.
11 – Book Your Tour Early and With a Great Company
Speaking of tour companies. Entrance to the cave is strictly limited to certified guides and the groups they are escorting. It is strictly forbidden for individuals to enter alone. Therefore, everyone must be on a tour. There are only 125 people allowed in each day, and tour groups must be no larger than 8 tourists. ATM cave tours book up early, especially in high season. As soon as you have decided to go to the ATM cave (hopefully it is somewhere about halfway through this blog post) it is time to secure your spot.
Our Full ATM Experience
After begging for the water shoes at our guesthouse, we hopped into the van and met our guide for the day. Gliss has been guiding since the 1990s and was both incredibly sweet and very knowledgeable.. Most of the drive was fine but the last 1525/30 minutes took us through a farm, owned and operated by Mennonites. The road was very bumpy so if you get car sick, prepare yourself for this.
We hopped out and picked up a helmet and bottle of water each. The group were offered life jackets but everyone felt confident in their swimming so they remained untouched. We all debated what to take on the trip with us and pretty much everyone ended up leaving everything. One couple gave some snacks to the guide which he duly popped into his dry bag but the experience was so all-engrossing that they forgot all about them.
We set off walking and very quickly came to a set of steps that led steeply down to a river. this was the first moment we got wet. The river came up to my shoulders as we strode across with purpose. It was cold but very clear. Seeing the bottom and having a guide rope made the crossing easy enough.
On the other side, the sun quickly warmed us up again and we walked along a mostly flat dirt path. There were a few tree roots to look out for but it was a very easy walk. There was one further river crossing but this only reached my waist so it was even easier.
We reached a clearing with woods around and a concrete shelter. Everyone was given the chance to use the bathroom (pee behind the trees) and found a spot for our water bottles, trying to remember which was ours. At this point, everyone was instructed to put their helmets on and we were given the chance to take our masks off, which most people did. Gliss, the guide, kept his on throughout.
The experience began with a 10m swim into the cave. Again, the water felt cold but from here on out, it was just pleasantly cool…and this is from someone who gets cold easily and stays cold forever!
On the first big rock, Gliss explained how travelling through the cave would work. We took everything in single file, with each member of the group passing on the pertinent information to the person behind them. Sometimes it was to avoid sharp rocks, sometimes it was a reminder not to touch the sparkling walls and sometimes it was explaining how to move our bodies to pass through an obstacle.
We walked for about 45 minutes but as each new area of the cave presented a new challenge, it flew by. The water was ankle-deep one minute and then we would descend into a waist-deep pool before stepping up into the dry…all in three minutes. I loved scrambling up a mini waterfall and marvelling at the gorgeous glittering stalactites. We only covered about 1 km / 0.6 mile but the sense of accomplishment was much greater.
The final challenge was to climb a 3-metre rock up to a huge ledge, the entrance to the ancient Mayan relics.
Our Meeting With the Mayans
We all hoisted ourselves onto the first ledge and found a spot to put our shoes. Those who didn’t have their socks on took a minute to sock up and then we all walked up a steep section of rock until we came out into a HUGE cavern. It was a surprise to see so many other groups. That may sound silly but we had been concentrating on our footing etc and hadn’t really seen anyone else so it was easy to forget there were 10-12 other groups working their way through the cave too!
Up here, the floor was completely dry and the paths we could take were clearly marked out. Around us, we spotted the remnants of the ancient Mayan civilisation’s occupation. Huge pots set at strange angles were brought to life by Gliss. There is much that we don’t know about how the cave was used. Was it just a few priests bringing in their human and food sacrifices for the gods? Could it have been a regular thing, a journey made by many people? The clues are there but nobody can know for sure.
Amongst the pottery were human bones. Full skeletons and bones calcified into the rocks. Gliss explained how they could identify these victims’ genders and approximate ages. It tickled all my dark tourism tendencies, fascinating history, human remains and a cool setting! The most famous body is called The Crystal Maiden.
There was one area with stunning, twinkling chandeliers of stalactites and candelabras of stalagmites. It was very much a blend of Phantom of the Opera and Frozen! I was gutted I didn’t have my camera to capture it. It must be the blog/Instagram effect that I like to share photos. However, seeing the smashed skull of an ancient skeleton, ruined by a camera many years ago hammered the point of the camera ban home.
Our Return Spelunking
On the way back, we passed through some familiar rock formations. A few, I remember dreading going back through but it was all fine. At one point, we had all joked about water rushing down a hole.
“It’s a waterslide”.
Well, it turned out, it was! We all took our turn slipping down the small tube (don’t worry, everyone fit through easily). It was a little scary but great fun. This took us on a slightly different path which had the craziest part. This one spot was not great for the claustrophobic contingent, especially because it is called decapitation rock! There is a wide crevice that you half swim, half bob/walk through. About midway through, a section of rock nipped in from both sides to create a very thin gap.
If you turn your head, you can slide your neck easily through these two pieces of rock, turn your head to face forward though, and you’ll feel the pinch. One member of the group didn’t feel confident enough to do this and so they just put their head under the water and came through the nice wide bit.
We also had the chance to experience the true darkness of the cave. We all stopped in a cavernous area and turned our headlamps off. Having been shining our torches around, and been with some many other groups in the sacred area, I had almost forgotten the cave was dark! When I finally figured out that it was MY headtorch that was still on (embarrassing) and switched it off the whole place was plunged into pitch black. Logically, we all knew it would happen but it was still astonishing.
Our Return Hike
Now, my only complaint was about the final moments of the walk. After emerging from the cave wet, we were very quickly at the shallower river crossing. After this, we walked in the heat for around 25 minutes. I begin to steam dry, I got nice and warm and then we all had to do the deep river crossing again and so we were thoroughly dripping when we arrived back at the bus. I know it is all fun and games but I really would have appreciated a rope bridge or something to save the last minute soaking.
Yes, yes, I know, I am being a princess but I do love a little moan about being soggy sometimes.
Once our wet things were squeezed out and drip-drying, we all sat down for lunch. We each had a piece of succulent BBQ chicken, a good helping of the classic Belizean rice and beans, some coleslaw and even a little fried plantain. I definitely feel like had earned it and tucked in with gusto. The nicest surprise was the large jug of rum punch that appeared. We had one…ok two…fine, three glasses of punch to send us home.
Belize Family Adventure
So why choose Belize Family Adventure for your ATM cave tour? Gliss was our guide for the day and he was fantastic. Even on the hike to the cave, we discussed the nature in Belize, the history of the Mayans in the area, his history with the ATM cave and guiding…and that was just the chat we had personally. Within the cave, he was incredibly professional, making everyone was comfortable with each stage. I felt like we were in safe hands.
We have had a look through the TripAdvisor reviews and there are numerous guides mentioned by name with glowing testimonials. It seems that every single one of their guides is a true professional. In fact, we even read of a private tour by one of their guides, Dr. Rafael Guerra, who actually helped rediscover and map out the cave.
Belize Family Adventure doesn’t just offer ATM Cave tours. There is a huge array of adventures to choose from. If you have discovered a new passion for caving, they run tours through the Crystal Cave, and Che Cham Ha Cave, amongst others. However, if you fancy seeing a little more sky, they offer tours to ancient Mayan temples, bird-watching trips, horse-riding, kayaking, awesome jungle hikes and mountain biking! (That sentence is best read in an increasingly excitable voice). There’s rather a lot to choose from.
Final Thoughts on Our Visit to the ATM Cave, Belize
After taking the tour with Belize Family Adventure, I believe that no trip to Belize would be complete without an ATM cave tour. I was genuinely nervous about not being fit enough, being too cold or falling down a shaft…turns out, it was easier and more fun than I expected. Plus, not only did we have a fantastic time, but we met some wonderful like-minded travellers that we bumped into around San Ignacio and even on Caye Caulker.
We hope the advice in this post, and the story of our ATM cave tour help you prepare for your own trip both in what to pack and what to expect. We couldn’t recommend it heartily enough so if you are travelling to soon run, don’t walk, and book your tour to the ATM cave, Belize!