One of Belize’s most popular tours, the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave tour, entails hiking, climbing, spelunking and swimming, and can be modified to be accessible for most people up to the tour guide’s discretion. Plunging down 4 miles deep into the earth (though visitors are only allowed ~2.7 miles in for safety seasons), the ATM cave is one of my all-time favorite tours.
This top 10 sacred cave can be a mystery since photos aren’t allowed during the tour. Here are practical tips on what to wear, pack and expect on the ATM cave tour.
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Is the ATM Cave Tour Worth It?
Whether you want to spend a full-day on an ATM cave tour comes down to personal preference, but here are a few reasons why the experience might be worth it to you:
- The ATM cave is one of the world’s top sacred caves where you get to see and learn about Maya human sacrifices in close contact (they’re not behind a glass in a museum).
- The ATM cave tour is an extremely unique, cool spelunking (i.e., cave exploration) experience in a safe environment. The guides go through extensive training.
- If you’re into more active tours, this experiences combines hiking, swimming and climbing in an accessible way. Your tour group might even get lucky and take the more “adventurous” and challenging route (more information on that below).
ATM Cave Tour at a Glance
Here are some general information on the ATM cave tour:
You cannot hike to or explore the ATM cave on your own; a tour guide is required. There are only ~25 licensed ATM cave tour guides in the country. Most of them have been doing this tour for over a decade as it requires extensive training.
📍Starting location: The ATM cave tour starts in San Ignacio, Belize’s most popular mainland stop. This is where your guide will pick you up from. The ATM cave is located ~20 miles east of San Ignacio.
🕜 Tour duration: The ATM cave tour is a full-day tour that starts in the morning around 8am and ends around 4pm, but you’ll only be inside the cave for approximately 3 hours. It’s a full-day tour because the tour needs to budget time for picking up each party, transportation to the ATM entrance, lunch and helping individuals gear up.
👩👩👧👧 Tour size: ATM cave tour groups generally have 8 people or less per guide. My group had 6 people since I visited during the low season.
💰 Tour cost: The ATM cave tour typically costs $115-$125 USD. This includes the tour, transportation and lunch. I paid $110, making it the most expensive activity I did in Belize.
I traveled to Belize during the wet season, so the tour operator offered a slight discount if we booked on the spot.
Once I realized negotiation was an option, I negotiated the price down to $110 by offering to book two tours on the spot. The other tour I booked was visiting Xunantunich by horseback.
🚌 Tour operators: There are several tour operators, including MayaWalks (the operator I booked and can recommend), Cayo Inland Expeditions, Belize Family Adventure and Belize Caving Expeditions.
Only 125 people are allowed in the ATM cave per day. During high season (late November to mid-April), the ATM cave can get booked up, so it’s best to book in advance. You cannot book tickets at the entrance; all tickets must be booked through an operator in advanced.
If you visit during the low season, note that the ATM cave can be rained out at the last minute.
How Hard Is The ATM Cave Tour?
Despite requiring a level of hiking, swimming, climbing and spelunking that athletic people can appreciate, the ATM cave tour is surprisingly accessible.
- The ATM cave tour guides are known to have been able to accommodate visitors who don’t know how to swim or are claustrophobic. Most of the guides have been doing this tour for over a decade as extensive training is required to become a guide. See below for a detailed description on what to expect during the tour.
- Kids are welcomed to do the ATM cave tour, but are required to be at least 40 inches in height.
- People who guides do not recommend doing the ATM cave tour include: pregnant women, people with walking disabilities and people with heart conditions.
If the ATM cave is not your cup of tea, consider doing another activity like visiting Xunantunich by horseback.
What To Expect on the ATM Cave Tour
Here’s a quick summary of what to expect on the ATM cave tour:
- You’ll be hiking, swimming and climbing. 80% of your time will be in water so packing correctly is important.
- The breakdown of the tour is:
- 1 hour drive with a snack stop
- 45-minute easy hike with 3 river crossings
- 2-3 hours of cave exploration
- 45-minute easy hike back
- 45-minute drive back to your hotel in San Ignacio.
Here are the details of what to expect on the ATM cave tour:
- Transportation to the park’s entrance. You’ll get picked up and driven ~1 hour to the start of the hike. You’ll stop for snacks that you can eat after the cave tour and before the second hike back.
- Gear up. At the starting location, you’ll gear up (e.g., put on helmets, life jackets, shoes) and leave all your stuff in the vehicle (e.g., phone, camera, change of dry clothes, sunscreen, etc.)
Phones and cameras are not allowed on the hike or in the ATM cave.
- Hike with 3 river crossings. You’ll start with a 45-minute easy, flat hike that’s mostly shaded in the jungle. There are 3 river crossings during the hike:
- The 1st one is within a minute of the hike and is chest-high. (It’s chest-high regardless of the season). This is why they don’t recommend putting on sunscreen or bug spray as they’ll wash off right away.
- The latter 2 river crossing are approximately shin-high.
- Approach the cave. A bit before the cave entrance, you’ll leave your water bottle and snacks behind because you’ll need all four of your limbs for spelunking (aka cave exploration).
- Cave exploration. The cave exploration starts with a short swim. You’ll turn on your head lamps and be in the cave for 2-3 hours, often walking in water.
Something not advertised: The ATM cave has multiple routes. Your guide will assess and choose the route that best fits your group’s overall comfort and fitness level.
– Adventurous routes can include crawling through tight crevices, swimming in the dark, etc. This is the type of route my group did and the group seemed to have a blast.
– Easy routes are mostly walking through water, but you’ll still need to watch out for shin-splitting rocks. This is the route I saw most groups do.
- Sock switch. At the midpoint, you’ll take off your shoes and put on socks to enter the protected area of the cave. The socks are mandatory for preservation purposes.
- Human sacrifices. You’ll see and hear the stories of the remains of 10+ human sacrifices, which is what this cave is famous for. Before seeing the famed “Crystal Maiden,” you’ll go up a 12-ft ladder, two people at a time.
- Cave exit. You’ll exit the cave (not necessarily back through the same route), take a snack break and hike 45 minutes back the way you came through the same 3 river crossings again.
- Dry off. Back at the vehicle, you’ll dry off and switch to dry clothes. There’s a bathroom facility with spacious stalls.
- Lunch. The tour will have lunch ready. At my tour, chicken with rice and beans, and rum punch were provided.
- Drive back. The tour ends with the drive back. Tip the guide if you enjoyed it; they work hard!
In Belize, tips are welcomed and customary, but not mandatory. This Belize travel guide has other general tips and basics for the country.
What To Wear and Pack on the ATM Cave Tour
Since you’ll be in water 80% of the time and doing activities ranging from hiking, swimming, climbing and spelunking, it’s important to wear and pack the right clothes for the ATM cave tour. Below is what to wear and pack for the ATM cave.
What To Wear and Bring on the Hike
- Closed-toe shoes. Water shoes are adequate (ensure they have some traction/grip). I bought these water shoes specifically for this tour and they worked well. My friend bought these water shoes and also thought they worked; they had a bit more traction than mine.
- I considered getting Keens, but they’re an overkill in my opinion. Some people wore them and said they liked not having to worry about jamming their toes while walking in the water.
- Tennis shoes are not recommended unless you don’t mind having wet shoes for hours and days that may be hard to dry.
Some tour operators will provide shoes as part of the package (they don’t seem to advertise this for some reason). They have limited supply and the shoes may not be as comfortable.
- Top. Tanks, short sleeves or long sleeves are all appropriate. The guides wear long sleeves for some warmth, so I copied them. Most people wore a tank or short sleeve. I wore my moisture-wicking sun hoodie since I run cold.
- Bathing suit. You’ll wear your bathing suit underneath your top as you’ll be in water 80% of the time. Bikinis or one piece both work. Bikinis are not technically allowed, but no one will bother you as long as you have a top covering your bikini, which is what I did.
- Shorts or leggings. Most people wore shorts. Wear leggings or long pants if you’re concerned about scratches during the cave exploration. I wore quick-dry short and that was sufficient for me.
- Socks are required for the cave for preservation purposes. You can wear them or bring them to the hike.
Consider bringing throwaway socks if you don’t want to deal with wet or muddy socks afterwards.
- Reusable water bottle. We all left our water bottles outside the caves, which felt secure since everyone in the jungle are on the ATM cave tour. I brought my Hydro Flask which meant my water was cold for hours.
- Snacks. Your guide will make a stop for snacks before the hike.
What to Pack and Leave in the Vehicle
- Dry shoes to change into after the tour. I wore my Chacos which allowed my feet to air dry.
- Quick dry towel to dry-off after the hike. I brought these quick dry towels and they worked great throughout my trip in Belize.
- Cash for tipping the guide afterwards. The guide is also the driver.
In Belize, tipping is welcomed and appreciated, but not mandatory. A 10-15% tip from tourists is standard.
- Plastic bag to hold wet clothes. I used some cheap dry sacks which I bought specifically for this trip.
- First aid kit (optional) for any scratches you get during the cave exploration. I brought one and didn’t use it.
- Sunglasses (optional). I didn’t bring one and wouldn’t recommend it, but some people liked it for the hike back after being in a dark cave.
- Bug spray (optional). You won’t need it for the hike and cave (it’ll get washed right off), but you might want it for lunch since you’ll eat in an open-air area. I get bitten a lot and I think bug repellent lotion works better than the spray alternatives.
What Not To Pack
Here’s what not to pack for the ATM cave tour:
- Dry bag for carrying things. They will not allow you to carry a bag during the hike or cave, but I brought them to isolate my wet clothes.
- Phone waterproof protective case. Phones are not allowed during the hike or cave exploration. There are very strict about this.
- Sunscreen. Sunscreen will wash off at the beginning of the hike and you won’t need it for the cave or lunch since the area is shaded.
This Belize packing list outlines what to generally pack during the rainy season, which runs from June to November.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below!