Belize: ATM Cave Tour

Howie is an expressive beast, and I can always feel his judging eyes on me when I neglect this space.


Before life got in the way, I was writing about Belize, and I definitely wanted to talk about two of our amazing adventures that we embarked on during the Jungle Portion. First, we took a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal, an ancient cave used by the Mayans around 700 AD for ceremonial purposes…and ritual sacrifice (what??? I always forget that this is a practice that actually happened). Touring this cave might truly be the most amazing thing that I’ve experienced, thus far- it’s right up there with Egyptology studies.

Belize is pretty lax with regulations and laws, but one restriction they really do enforce is no cameras in this cave (allegedly, a tourist dropped a camera on one of the sculls a few years ago). So, I borrowed some photos from the interweb, to give you an idea of what ATM was like:

We walked for about forty-five minutes through the jungle, crossing through the river three times; the river was perfectly warm, and never more than waist-high. After we took a quick break to grab a snack, we walked to the mouth of the cave. To enter, you had to swim through a pool of some of the clearest, bluest water I’ve ever seen- deep enough to jump into, but you could see all the way down.

Then we spent three hours in the cave, travelling about a mile and a half. Nearly the entire tour was in the water, which I didn’t realize, and the cave was pitch black, illuminated only by our headlamps. About halfway through the tour, all I could think about was the movie Anacondas. Luckily, though, the water was perfectly clear throughout the cave, and the only creatures I noticed were the occasional bats.

There are a few amazing things that I need to share. First, the cave was enormous, with ceiling heights over a hundred and twenty feet, at times. Second, there were no safety precautions whatsoeve-r we were swimming, scaling 20 ft rock faces, barely cramming through tiny spaces between sharp rocks, with no equipment whatsoever, save for a helmet. Evan commented that, had anything happened to anyone, it’s not like Belize’s non-existent EMS would even be able to get to them…fellow tourists would have to carry someone out of the cave, and a helicopter would need to get to the middle of the jungle.

 The other amazing thing about ATM was the ridiculously free access to the artifacts…and skeletons. As we neared the end of the cave tour, we came to the ceremonial chamber where most of the pottery is found. At this point you’re required to remove your shoes (socks only!). I sat down on a ledge and started taking off my soggy gym shoes and noticed that I very nearly set them on top of a tiny vase! Looking around the chamber, I noticed that they clay pieces were (sort of) haphazardly marked with colored tape, to discourage people from stepping on them.

Similarly, when we reached the complete skeleton that people suggest is the highlight of the entire tour, there was a bit of twine “roping” it off but, as I sat to listen to our tour guide, I could have easily reached out a touched it. I asked about why these items haven’t been excavated, and our guide said that excavation would ruin the artifacts and the cave, since many of them had been calcified over time, so Belize had decided to leave the cave as a living museum.

So, overall, this was one of the most awesome things I’ve been so fortunate to experience. To be able to go through such a remarkably beautiful and well-preserved ancient ceremonial site was ridiculous, and something we would never be able to do in the States. I would absolutely recommend this tour to anyone who is planning to visit Belize!