Travel Tips

The ATM Cave in Belize : (2020) Everything You Need to Know

By Belizing.com Staff 2/4/2019 5 minutes


Here is everything you need to know about the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (ATM) in Belize. Trust us, this tour will change your life! There's such a wealth of historical and natural landmarks in Belize that it can be hard to know which to fit into your schedule, but the ATM Cave - or Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave - is a possible contender for Belize's most stunning attraction. Located close to the town of San Ignacio, the ATM Cave is the most popular cave tour in Belize. Its vast network of underground chambers is known as being a treasure trove for archaeologists but also for its diverse ecosystem of bats, crabs, crayfish, and tropical fish. Here's everything you need to know before you start planning a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave.

Belize ATM Cave
Belize ATM Cave

The History of the ATM Cave

The ATM Cave may today be known as a popular tourist attraction and a great place for caving adventures but the Mayas knew it as the "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher". While ancient historical records are spotty, there's plenty of evidence that Actun Tunichil Muknal has been a sacred site for the Mayas people practically since their origins.

The Mayas first discovered the cave between 300 and 600 AD, but the dark and dangerous environs prevented them from venturing into its deepest realms for quite some time. Somewhere between 700 and 900 AD, the cave had become an important spiritual site for the local peoples. Since what's now modern Belize was once one of the major hubs of the Maya Empire, that makes it one of the critical spiritual sites for one of the most prominent cultures in Mesoamerican history.

And while we may not have a full account of the importance of this cave to the Mayas, modern archaeologists have been able to piece together a fascinating look at their habits and practices in a relatively short amount of time. The cave wasn't rediscovered until 1989, and archaeological investigations prevented it from being made open to the public until 1998.

The first person to explore the cave in modern times was Dr. Jamie Awe, who conducted research there with his Western Belize Regional Cave Project from 1993 - 2000. While it's since become a treasured destination for the most adrenaline-fueled outdoor adventurers, its relevance to anthropologists and archaeologists can't be understated. European colonialism destroyed many of the records of the Maya civilization, and that makes the ATM Cave something of a rosetta stone towards unlocking the customs and traditions of these mysterious people.

The volume of archaeological discoveries in the ATM is truly stunning. Over 1400 human artifacts have been discovered, all of them dating from 250 to 909 AD. The combination of pottery, tools, weapons, and vessels for water tell a tale of a broad and advanced society, and the scope of the discoveries make it one of the most worthwhile finds in archaeological history.

Belize ATM Cave
Belize ATM Cave

The Crystal Maiden

Many of the stories that can be gleaned from the ATM Cave are rather bleak in nature. It's believed that as part of their sacred rituals, the Mayas used Actun Tunichil Muknal to conduct human sacrifices. Well-preserved human skeletons are just as prodigious in the cave as handmade artifacts are, but the most famous of these finds is the "Crystal Maiden".

Due to the passing of time and the unique climate of the caves themselves, this alleged victim of sacrifice has a glimmering appearance that evokes a sense of the supernatural. The maiden herself was found in a main chamber that was believed to be the heart of this makeshift temple, and the presence of "kill holes" further supports the notion that the skeletons found within were the victims of ritual sacrifice.

Other evidence suggests that the sacrificial practices involved significant acts of ritualized torture as well. A Stelae Chamber that serves as one of the centerpieces of most tours contains stelaes where anthropologists believe that victims were placed bound and then bled for the approval of the gods.

Fourteen intact bodies have been found in the main chamber with half of them being children under the age of five. It's believed that young children were favored sacrifices because their purity made them pleasing to the gods.

But not all of the important discoveries are so gruesome. The famous "Monkey Pot" found within the depths of the cave contains a design that's replicated in only three other discovered artifacts, and it's one of the most treasured indications we have regarding the sort of art and craftsmanship that the Mayas indulged in.

Belize ATM Cave
Belize ATM Cave
Understanding why this cave was of such sacred importance to the Mayas requires an understanding of their spirituality. In the Maya religion, the gods of agriculture, rain, and fertility were believed to reside in the underworld. It would only seem natural that the ATM Cave, with its seemingly endless pits, would be seen as a potential gateway to the underworld. By making human sacrifices within the cave, they could appeal to these important gods practically at their front door.

Visiting the ATM Cave

The cave itself plunges down to approximately four miles, but due to safety concerns, visitors are only allowed about two-thirds of the way down. Visits to the cave have become a popular tourist activity, and any trip with an approved guide is perfectly safe, but you should take some preparations for your own comfort. You are not allowed to visit without a licensed guide. Group sizes are limited to 8 visitors per guide, and a daily limit of 125 visitors are allowed. You should book your tour early to ensure that you secure your spot for your preferred day.

Belizeans are serious about preserving the cultural heritage of their ancestors and the majesty of the wild, and that means that access to the cave is largely reserved for foot traffic.

What to Bring/Wear?

Guests should dress as if preparing for a hike, bringing comfortable clothes and sturdy closed toe shoes. You must also wear socks. This is mandatory when you're inside the cave.

Most of all, just keep in mind that you will get wet during your visit. You should bring a small backpack with an extra set of clothes. You'll also want to bring a bottle of sun block able to protect you against the jungle heat and a water bottle to keep you hydrated you throughout the journey. Just make sure it's sealed.

Also bear in mind that no cameras are allowed within the cave. The prohibition of cameras prevents damage to remaining skeletons and artifacts and preserves ATM for future generations.

  • Socks (this is MANDATORY)
  • Closed toe shoes
  • Comfortable clothes
  • Change of clothes
  • Towel
  • Sunblock
  • Water bottle

What to Expect?

The tour starts with a forty-five minute trek through Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. It is a great way to soak in the majesty of the surrounding jungle. You will cross three rivers on your hike, pulling yourselves across on ropes. By the time you arrive at the entrance of the cave, you will be soaked.

Your tour through the cave take about three hours on average. Bringing a dry change of clothes for the deeper voyage is advised but not necessary. There's more swimming and climbing (in the dark) to come. 

There's a reason why tour guides are required for visits to the cave, and it's not just to preserve the skeletons and artifacts contained within. The cave itself is a labyrinth of interlocking chambers, and one can quickly get lost if they don't have someone to provide them with bearings.

The archaeologists and caretakers of this cave have been reverent in its preservation. All of the everyday artifacts were left as they were to preserve things as they were before modern people arrived, and a knowledgeable tour guide can provide you with a fascinating insight into how these people lived.

Belize ATM Cave
Belize ATM Cave

Is it an easy tour?

This is a physically taxing tour, and the combination of tight corridors and pitch blackness can be a challenge for the less resilient, but it's well worth a journey for anyone who's up to the task.

Guests are equipped with headlamps, and reaching the deepest layers of the spiritual cave means venturing through five hundred meters of water. If you can't swim, life jackets are provided. The tours is perfectly suitable for swimmers and non-swimmers alike.

While the most commonly cited appeal for these tours are the human artifacts, the natural beauty of the cave is equally as impressive. The stalactites and stalagmites are often meters in height. The fact that it's taken tens of thousands of years for these formations to develop is a true marvel, and it's no wonder that the Mayas saw the caves as a mystical portal directly to the underworld.

The ceremonial chamber where most of the sacrifices were performed and the Crystal Maiden was discovered is the most humbling landmark within the caves, but it's not the only one. The first notable human-occupied chamber that visitors experience is what archaeologists have dubbed "The Cathedral". While the dark rituals were performed another three hours deeper into the cave, the Cathedral served as something of a waiting area. The urns and stoneware were practical in purpose, used by the shamans in preparation for the human sacrifices that would take place later.

Actun Tunichil Muknal has earned its reputation as one of the most stunning natural and anthropological sites around. National Geographic ranked Actun Tunichil Muknal as the number one sacred cave in the world, placing it above breathtaking spiritual caves throughout India, Greece, and China.

Belize ATM Cave
Belize ATM Cave

Why you should visit ATM

The ATM Cave has to be seen to be believed, and it's not out of the way at all. The close proximity to Maya sites like Cahal Pech, El Pilar, and Xunantunich mean that it can be folded together into a larger tour, but ATM Cave is worth exploring just on its own. The choice is yours, but you should visit Belizing.com before you make your final decision. As the country's largest marketplace for activities, tours, and transfers, Belizing.com is the best resource for getting your bearings and figuring out the best tour options available to you.




What should I wear for the ATM cave tour?
Wear comfortable clothes and closed toe shoes. You MUST wear socks in the cave. We recommend bringing an extra pair of socks as well as a change of clothes.
How long does the ATM Cave Tour take?
The entire trip lasts a full day from about 7am to 4pm. The actual time inside the cave itself is about 3 to 3.5 hours.
Is the ATM suitable for non-swimmers?
Yes, life jackets are provided upon request and there is minimal swimming required during the hike and at the cave entrance.
Learn More
Tours/Activities
$
196
88
/ Person
Departs From:
Belize City
 (1)
Hike, Crawl and swim through a massive cave system while your guide projects knowledge and facts about the past Mayan families, rituals, and sacrifices that once took place in the ... morecave. Skeletons, Stoneware, and ceramics still lay untouched as proof of existents and sacred activities. This all-day adventure will leave you amazed and yearning for more Mayan history.
$
95
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
Welcome to the gateway of the Mayan Underworld. Actun Tunichil Muknal (cave of the stone sepulchre) is commonly referred to as ATM Cave. Located near San Ignacio, Cayo District, it ... moreis one of the most impressive Maya ceremonial caves containing rare bloodletting altars used in sacrifices by Maya royalty, and where calcified skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware have been found. The best known as “The Crystal Maiden”, the intact skeleton of a teenage girl, whose bones have been calcified over the years to a sparkling crystallized appearance

The hike to the cave entrance through the lush Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve requires visitors to swim to the mouth of the cave and then wade through ankle to chest high water and once inside the magnificent cave, the exploration begins. The tour requires climbing and swimming as well as crawling through small spaces. The cave is extensively decorated with cave formations in the upper passages, a labyrinth of dry chambers which lead to the cathedral-like main hall, a towering chamber 350 meters in length and 50 meters wide and filled with artifacts and sacrificial remains. Visitors remove shoes and explore the cave in socks only, to protect the artifacts on the cave floor. After this, another climb takes you to the stone sepulchre (after which the cave is named) where the Crystal Maiden lies. Photography is now disallowed inside the cave unless special permits are obtained.

This is an extraordinary Belize adventure and a rare opportunity to see ancient Maya ceremonial sites and altars as they were and virtually untouched for centuries. A visit to this site is truly profound and unforgettable. After this memorable adventure, we hike back to our vehicles and sit to enjoy a local lunch before heading back to San Ignacio.
$
95
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (4)
Travel to one of the most popular Mayan ceremonial caves in the Maya world. Discovered in 1986 in western Belize, mapped and studied by an archaeologist from 1993. The cave has a full ... morelength of 5 km but the ceremonial area used by the Mayan priest & shamans is 1 km from the entrance. Fourteen human remains have been found inside and 1100 ceramic objects. All bones and most ceramics have been completely covered by calcite from the dripping water which has left them with a sparkling appearance especially the full extended skeleton called the ‘Crystal Maiden’. Drive 1 hour from San Ignacio then hike is 35 mins on a jungle trail. Swim once across a river then walk across shallows twice. Inside the dry zone where the artifacts and bones are located all persons need to remove all shoes and walk in socks to reduce damage. To see the Crystal Maiden you need to ascend a 13 ft ladder to reach the area known as the sepulcher. Time spent inside the cave is 2 ½ to 3 hrs. Get an in-depth look at Belize’s Mayan culture.
$
105
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (5)
Provider:
ATM CAVE TOUR Taking a journey into the Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”, will be one of the most enlightening, epic, and unique experiences ... moreof your life. Leave the world of the living behind as you venture into the heart of the ATM Cave with your licensed guide. Recently deemed the #1 Sacred Cave destination in the world by National Geographic, the ATM cave is not only beautiful geologically, with its crystalline stalactites and stalagmites, but also historically, as is a natural museum of ancient Mayan artifacts, as well as a sacred burial place. This is the final resting place of the “Crystal Maiden”, an ancient Mayan ceremonial victim, as well as the remains of 13 other sacrificed men, women, and children. MayaWalk guides have led government officials, National Geographic teams, the Discovery Channel, The British High Commission, and US Embassy officials into the ATM Cave. 

This sacrificial site is accessed by approximately an hour drive from our office in San Ignacio. Here we enter the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and park our vehicles at the ranger post. From this point on we are on foot, hiking through the jungle for approximately 45 minutes to the entrance of the cave. The hike includes three stream crossings. To access the cave, we swim across a small spring-fed pool with the assistance of a rope and wade into knee-high water into the dark underworld of the cave that allows us access to the extensive underground maze of tunnels, passageways and chambers, climaxing in the ceremonial chamber housing stoneware, ceramics and the famed crystallized skeleton of the “Crystal Maiden”. We spend approximately 3 hours in the cave under the instruction of our experienced guides.

Leave your cameras behind and experience the power of ancient spirits with your mind, body, and soul. This is not only a physical adventure but a journey into the spiritual realm. We enter back into the jungle world and hike to our vehicles, where we relax and enjoy a homemade picnic lunch, with water and soft drinks, before driving back to San Ignacio.
$
195
/ Person
Departs From:
Hopkins
Provider:
Actun Tunichil Muknal, One of the Top Caves to Visit in Belize When you step across the entrance to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, you’re beginning a journey into the mysterious ... moreunderworld of the Maya. The ATM Cave, sometimes called the “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”, will leave explorers amazed, enlightened, and uplifted.

Rated as the #1 Sacred Cave in the World by National Geographic, the ATM Cave is one of the most important historical sights in the world. Only accessible with a licensed guide, the ATM Cave is an incredibly beautiful underground world filled with glittering stalactites and stalagmites.

But it is its position as a Maya artifact that draws in tourists around the world. Deep in its underground labyrinth lie the remains of the Crystal Maiden, a young adult who was sacrificed to the Maya gods more than 1,000 years ago. Near her bones, which have taken on a sparkling shine after having fused with the minerals in the cave, lie the remains of more than a dozen other victims, including very young children.

Untame Belize Tours is one of the few companies in Belize to offer authorized guided tours of this cave. Located a short drive from our office in southern Belize, the tour begins with a drive to the ranger post in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. From there, participants must proceed on foot, hiking through the jungle for approximately 45 minutes, crossing three jungle streams along the way.

Once at the mouth of the cave, participants must swim across a spring-fed pool, using a rope for guidance. And then the adventure truly begins, wading through the knee-high water until a network of vast tunnels, chambers, and passageways is reached. Only after climbing up and into a remote ledge deep in the rear of the cave will participants reach the sacred chamber once used by Maya priests.

The ceremonial chamber still contains pottery, obsidian objects, bowls that once contained food offerings, and the famous skeleton of the Crystal Maiden. It takes approximately three hours to explore everything in this cave.

Strict rules in place by the Department of Archeology forbid any cameras inside ATM Cave, but participants will experience a truly remarkable journey into the lost world of the Maya. After exiting the cave, there will be a return hike through the jungle followed by a delicious picnic lunch.

Belizing.com Staff

1 reviews   0 comments
Overall
How useful was this blog post?
(5.0 of 5)
This is the top rated inland tour in Belize. Visitors rave about this experience. You don't want to miss this. Note that group sizes and daily visits are limited, so we always recommend booking your spot as soon as possible. You won't regret it.
Overall
1
0