๐Ÿ”ฆ Belize ATM Cave: Firsthand Review & Tips

A group of seven people wearing helmets, water shoes, and life jackets.
๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Overall Rating8.5
๐Ÿฆ„ UniquenessHigh
๐Ÿ˜Š EnjoymentVery High
๐Ÿ’ฐ ValueModerate
๐ŸŽ’ PreparationMinimal
Overall Rating is based on a weighted average of factors (learn more).

The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave is a sacred site in Belize that contains sacrificial human remains. Here, I review my experience with a coherent rating system before sharing firsthand tips.

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๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Overall Rating

8.5
The ATM Cave is one of my top recommendations โ€“ don’t skip it.

My overall rating is based on a weighted average of four factors travelers consider important when assessing an experience. I break down the factors in my review below.

Verdict

The ATM Cave was the highlight of my Belize trip. It plunges four miles deep into the earth and requires hiking, climbing, spelunking, and swimming, making it a great adventure.

Due to the cave’s cultural importance and delicate nature, you’re required to hire a licensed tour guide. The tour is moderately priced and includes transportation and lunch.

Minimal preparation is required, as you need to book the guides in advance (especially during the high season) and wear appropriate clothes and shoes.

Phones and cameras are prohibited, so you won’t see recent, unofficial photos of the ATM Cave.

The exit of a cave with clear water.
ATM Cave entrance (photo by MayaWalk)

Planning a trip? Here’s what to know about Belize.

๐Ÿ† Where Does It Rank?

The ATM Cave ranks as my #1 thing to do in Belize. Here’s how it compares to other experiences on my trip:

#ExperienceLocationOverall Rating
1๐Ÿ”ฆ ATM CaveSan Ignacio8.5
2๐Ÿคฟ Hol Chan Marine Reserve SnorkelingAmbergris Caye7.5
3๐ŸฆŽ Green Iguana TourSan Ignacio6.4
4๐Ÿด Xunantunich Horseback RideSan Ignacio6.2
5๐Ÿ’ง Swimming DockAmbergris Caye6.1
6๐ŸŒŠ Caye Caulker Day TripCaye Caulker5.7
7๐Ÿ‘Ÿ Explore San PedroAmbergris Caye5.6
8๐ŸŒฎ The Truck StopAmbergris Caye5.5
9๐Ÿ–๏ธ Secret BeachAmbergris Caye5.0
Overall Rating is calculated using Lukiih’s rating system.

See myย Belize itineraryย featuring the experiences above.

โœˆ๏ธ About My Trip

For context on my review, here’s what to know about my trip:

  • ๐Ÿ€ย Self-fundedย โ€“ I finance my trips and don’t receive sponsorship, so this review reflects my honest opinions.
  • ๐Ÿ—“๏ธ 2022 โ€“ This post has updated 2024 information, but I visited the ATM Cave in 2022.
  • โ˜€๏ธ Low season โ€“ My Belize trip was in July when it was less crowded and expensive.

๐Ÿฆ„ Uniqueness: High

The Uniqueness Score is based on how rare and memorable an experience is.

Rarity: Very Rare

The ATM Cave is a very rare experience. It is the most famous of the few sacred caves with skeletal remains that are open to visitors worldwide.

๐Ÿ’Ž What Makes It Rare?

  • It contains remarkably well-preserved sacrificial human remains (the Maya used the cave for ritual ceremonies).
  • The thousands of fragile, ancient artifacts are not protected behind glass like in most museums.

National Geographic has called the ATM Cave one of the world’s top sacred caves. It’s home to the famous “Crystal Maiden” and more than ten other human skeletons.

๐ŸŒ What Makes It Less Rare?

  • Other Maya caves and sites with sacrificial remains exist throughout Central America, such as Chichรฉn Itzรก and Loltun Cave in Mexico.
  • Many other impressive caves exist worldwide, including Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave (one of the largest in the world) and South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind (which has important fossil discoveries).

Memorability: High

The ATM Cave is my most memorable experience in Belize.

๐Ÿ“ธ What Makes It Memorable?

  • The journey to the Crystal Maiden is adventurous. It requires some swimming, climbing over rocks in dim light, and carefully walking through a fragile portion with just socks on.
  • Learning about the Maya culture while being close to multiple skeletons is remarkable.

Read on for the ATM cave’s itinerary.

๐Ÿ’ค What Makes It Forgettable?

  • Except for the brief river crossings, the hike to the cave’s entrance is forgettable.

๐Ÿ˜Š Enjoyment: Very High

The Enjoyment Score is based on how much happiness and reward an experience provides.

Happiness: Very High

I found the ATM Cave tour very thrilling and fun.

๐Ÿ˜ƒ What Makes It Enjoyable?

  • It’s a fun adventure that involves crossing three rivers, swimming in darkness, wading through tight crevices, and scrambling up a tall rock.
  • Although thrilling, it feels safe as everyone is required to go with a licensed guide.

๐Ÿ˜ฅ What Makes It Less Enjoyable?

  • Despite the Belize government limiting the number of visitors, the area where all the Maya artifacts are located is very crowded. It will feel cramped at times.

Reward: High

The ATM Cave is a rewarding experience.

๐ŸŒŸ What Makes It Rewarding?

  • You spend close to five hours hiking, swimming, and exploring a cave system.
  • Learning about the Maya culture and the reasons for the human sacrifices is educational and enriching.

๐Ÿคท๐Ÿปโ€โ™€๏ธ What Makes It Less Rewarding?

  • The cave is accessible to the public through licensed guides, so it won’t feel like a big adventure for people with more cave experience.

๐Ÿ’ฐ Value: Moderate

The Value Score is determined by the price divided by the duration of an experience. All prices mentioned here are in USD.

Price: $120 PP

The ATM Cave requires a licensed guide, and hiring one costs between $110 and $125. The tour lasts about eight hours and includes lunch, transportation, and gear. At about $15 per hour, I consider this tour moderately priced.

Tipping is customary for tourists in Belize, so expect to add another $10 to $15 to the total.

I booked my tour with a highly-rated MayaWalk, and paid $120 during the low season. Here are the prices of other well-rated tour companies (I last checked prices in May 2024):

Only 125 people are allowed in the cave per day. During the high season (late November to mid-April), the cave is usually booked out one to two weeks in advance.

A small store that says Maya Walk Tours.
MayaWalk storefront

Seeย my Belize trip expenses.

๐ŸŽ’ Preparation: Minimal

The Preparation Score is based on the required skills & fitness, transportation, and bookings & packing. The higher the score, the less preparation is needed.

Skills & Fitness: Minimal

You need some minimal skills and fitness to complete the ATM Cave.

  • ๐Ÿฅพ Hiking โ€“ The one- to two-hour hike is flat and mostly shaded as you walk through the jungle, so it’s not strenuous.
  • ๐ŸŠโ€โ™€๏ธ Swimming โ€“ The guides can accommodate visitors who donโ€™t know how to swim. You’ll wear a life jacket the entire time.
  • ๐Ÿชจ Climbing โ€“ Climbing is only required at two parts of the journey inside the cave:
    • Right before reaching the Maya artifacts, you’ll be instructed on how to climb a rock. If you have any rock climbing experience, this part will be easy.
    • Before reaching the Crystal Maiden, you’ll also need to go up a ladder.
  • ๐Ÿ˜ฐ Claustrophobia โ€“ The guides can accommodate visitors who are claustrophobic. They can take several paths; if you let them know you’re claustrophobic, they will take a route with more open spaces.

Guides do not recommend visiting the ATM Cave if youโ€™re pregnant, have a walking disability, or have a heart condition.

Transportation: Easy & Short

Pickup for the ATM Cave is in the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo district, and the cave is 20 miles east of it in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.

  • ๐Ÿš™ Method โ€“ The journey to the cave is straightforward. The guide will drive you to the start of the hike on well-paved roads.
  • โฐ Duration โ€“ It’s an hour-long drive with an optional stop midway for snacks.
A group of people standing on a street surrounding a store front.
ATM Cave pickup point

Booking & Packing: Some Effort

To visit the ATM Cave, youโ€™ll need to book and pack accordingly:

  • ๐ŸŽŸ๏ธ Tickets โ€“ Hire a guide in advance. During the high season, book at least one to two weeks ahead.

There are about 25 licensed guides for the ATM Cave tour. Most of them have been doing this excursion for over a decade as it requires extensive training.

  • ๐ŸŽ’ Packing โ€“ Wear appropriate clothes and shoes for the ATM Cave. Gear will be provided, so you don’t need to rent it at an extra cost.

How To Guide & Tips

Interested in doing the ATM Cave after reading my review? Below is a practical how-to guide and firsthand tips.

Itinerary

The ATM Cave tour is an eight-hour day trip regardless of which tour company you book with and here’s how it breaks down:

TimingATM Cave Itinerary
8โ€“9 amPickup & drive โ€“ The guide will pick you up in San Ignacio and drive you to the start of the hike.
9โ€“9:15 amGear up โ€“ Youโ€™ll gear up (e.g., put on helmets and life vests) and leave all your belongings in the vehicle (e.g., cell phones, dry clothes).
9:15โ€“10 amEasy hike โ€“ Youโ€™ll hike a flat, shaded path to the entrance of the cave. There will be three river crossings that range from shin to chest-high.
10โ€“1 pmCave exploration โ€“ Youโ€™ll do a short swim in deep water to enter the cave and then explore it before reaching the famed Crystal Maiden.
1โ€“2 pmCave exit & hike back โ€“ Youโ€™ll exit and hike back to the vehicle.
2โ€“3 pmDry off & lunch โ€“ You’ll switch to dry clothes (thereโ€™s a bathroom facility), and lunch will be ready in an open area near the parking lot.
3โ€“4 pmDrive back โ€“ The tour ends with the drive back to San Ignacio.

Top of guide โ†‘

Is It Safe

The ATM Cave is considered safe to visit because you must go with a licensed guide with extensive training. Youโ€™re also provided with the necessary equipment (e.g., a helmet with lights and a life jacket).

However, there are always associated risks when going on adventures like this one:

  • You can get injured if you hit a rock while wading through water.
  • You can get lost if you stray from your guide or group.
  • You may panic if you feel too claustrophobic.
  • You can get temporarily stuck in the cave if the water rises too rapidly.

I had no safety concerns when visiting the ATM Cave.

Top of guide โ†‘

What To Pack

Youโ€™ll be in water 80% of the time and doing activities ranging from hiking and swimming to climbing, so itโ€™s important to wear and pack the right clothes for the ATM Cave.

Two women wearing helmets, life vests, and water shoes.
ATM Cave outfits
  • Closed-toe shoes โ€“ This is a requirement. Water shoes are adequate as long as they have traction or grip. I purchased these water shoes, and they worked well. My friend bought these water shoes with more traction and recommends them as well.
    • I considered getting Keens, but I think theyโ€™re overkill. Some people wore them and said they liked the extra protection.
    • Tennis shoes are not recommended unless you donโ€™t mind having wet shoes for a while.

Some tour companies include shoes as part of the package. However, they have a limited supply, and the shoes may be less comfortable.

A shelf with different types of water shoes.
Water shoes provided by MayaWalk
  • A moisture-wicking top โ€“ Most visitors wore tanks or short sleeves, but the guides wore long sleeves for some warmth, so I wore a moisture-wicking sun hoodie.

You might initially feel cold, but once you start moving, you won’t feel it even when in the water.

  • Swimsuit โ€“ Wear a bathing suit underneath your clothes.

Bikinis are technically not allowed, but no one will bother you as long as you have a top covering it, which is what I did.

  • Shorts or leggings โ€“ Most people wore shorts (I wore quick-dry shorts). Wear leggings or long pants if youโ€™re concerned about scratches during cave exploration.
  • Socks โ€“ Youโ€™re required to wear socks during some portions of the journey for cave preservation purposes.

Consider bringing throwaway socks if you donโ€™t want to deal with wet or muddy socks afterward.

  • Reusable water bottle โ€“ The guides recommend bringing snacks and water on the hike to the cave. I carried my insulated water bottle, which kept my water cold for hours.
  • Snacks โ€“ Your guide will make a stop for snacks before the hike.
  • Dry shoes or sandals โ€“ Youโ€™ll want to change into dry shoes or sandals after the tour. I wore my Chacos to let my feet air dry.
  • Quick dry towel โ€“ You need a towel to dry off before lunch. I brought these quick dry towels, which worked great throughout my Belize trip.
  • Cash โ€“ Bring cash to tip the guide afterward. The guide will also be the driver.

A 10% to 15% tip is appreciated in Belize. See more tips on using cash in Belize.

  • Plastic bag โ€“ Bring a bag to hold wet clothes. I purchased cheap dry sacks specifically for this trip.
  • Change of clothes (optional) โ€“ If you want to wear something other than what you initially wore before the hike, bring a change of clothes.
  • First aid kit (optional) โ€“ Bring a kit for any scratches you get during the cave exploration. I brought one with me but didnโ€™t use it.
  • Sunglasses (optional) โ€“ Some people liked wearing sunglasses for the hike back after being in darkness for hours.
  • Bug spray (optional) โ€“ You wonโ€™t need bug spray for the hike and cave (itโ€™ll get washed off), but you might want it for lunch since youโ€™ll eat in an open-air area. I get bitten often and think bug-repellent lotion works better than spray alternatives.

What Not To Pack

  • Dry bag for carrying things โ€“ You are not allowed to take a bag with you during the hike or cave, but they’re useful afterward for separating wet clothes.
  • Waterproof phone case โ€“ Phones are prohibited during the hike or cave exploration, so you won’t need this. They are very strict about this.
  • Sunscreen โ€“ Sunscreen will wash off at the beginning of the hike, and you wonโ€™t need it for the cave or lunch since the area is shaded.

Top of guide โ†‘

Belize Trip Planner 2024

To make your travel preparation easier, download the trip planner below. It has destination-specific travel information, itinerary, map, and packing list.

My trip planners are built on Notion, which I use for all my travel planning. I genuinely love this tool and creating an account is free.

Three Notion template screenshots are shown: travel information, itinerary, and map + packing list templates.
Preview of Belize trip planner.

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2 Comments

  1. Ana Rocha

    I do not know how to swim. Is it necessary to know in order to take a ATM tour?

    1. Lukiih

      Hey Ana, you will feel more comfortable if you know how to swim for the ATM tour, but since you’re in a life jacket and the actual swimming portion is small and brief, it’s not necessary to know how to swim. The licensed ATM tour guides know how to accommodate non-swimmers. Good luck!

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