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The ATM Cave in Belize (updated for 2021) : Everything You Need to Know

By 5/24/2020 5 minutes  (1)



COVID-19 ALERT: The ATM Cave reopened for visitation on August 3rd, 2020. Groups are limited to 8 for each tour guide. A five-minute interval is enforced between groups accessing the trails and cave. Visit our travel resource page for more information.
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.



Virtual Audio Experience
Elias Cambranes, expert ATM cave guide from K'atun Ahau Tours, takes us on the first of its kind virtual audio experience of the ATM cave.
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.

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. There is a daily limit of 125 visitors allowed in the cave. You should book your tour early to ensure that you secure your spot for your preferred day. Park rangers collect entry tickets at the gate, but tickets are only sold in San Ignacio town and only to licensed guides. Additionally, your guide must be licensed specifically for the ATM cave. There are only about 25 such licensed guides in the country.

Driving to the Site

The drive to ATM is through the village to Teakettle in Western Belize. Most tour prices are inclusive of transportation, lunch, and entrance fees. Some tour companies may consider a small discount if you provide your own transportation up to the cut-off point in Teakettle. Results may vary, because the tour company will usually still need to send a vehicle, driver, and guide whether you drive with them or not. We don't recommend taking your own transportation.

The drive is approximately 45 minutes from the Teakettle village to the ATM park, through winding dirt roads, citrus orchards, cornfields, and at least one river crossing. If you're thinking of attempting the drive, we recommend a 4 wheel drive vehicle.

*Don't drive to the site thinking you can slip your way into the cave without a guide. There are no guides on site. They don't sell park tickets on-site, and guides who happen to be there with other visitors will only have tickets and food for their group on that day.

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, for preservation purposes. After climbing up 'the elevator' you will remove your shoes for the rest of the way.

Most of all, just keep in mind that you will get wet (soaked) 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 throughout the journey. Just make sure it's sealed.

Bring a light snack for the hike. The hike is about 45 minutes from the parking lot. Put your snack in a ziplock back so it doesn't get soaked in the river.

Also bear in mind that no cameras are allowed within the cave or on the trails. 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
  • Snack

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. There are three river crossings on your hike. The first crossing is at the very start of the hike, across freezing chest-high water pulling yourselves across on a rope. By the time you arrive at the entrance of the cave, you will be soaked.  

*For a virtual audio experience of this tour, tune in to Episode 20 of The Belize Travelcast.

Your tour through the cave takes 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. If you suffer from claustrophobia, the ATM tour may not be the right fit for you.

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. Any of the certified ATM guides are highly trained to lead tours into this cave. 

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. On a scale of 1 to 10, this cave is about a 6 in terms of difficulty due to the long hike and some climbing.

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. There are only one or two areas where swimming is necessary, including at the very entrance of the cave. The tour is perfectly suitable for swimmers and non-swimmers alike.

While the most commonly cited appeal for these tours is 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. Book your tour today with a licensed tour operator, and secure your spot on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.




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.
Can kids do the ATM cave tour?
Yes, kids are able to do the ATM tour. There is a height limit of 48 inches.
Can I get a guide at the site?
No, you must generally book this tour through a licensed tour operator who will provide all necessary insurance and safety equipment. Tickets are sold to licensed tour operators only. The ticketing office is in San Ignacio town.
Can I enter the ATM cave on my own?
No, you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. There are only about 25 tour guides in the entire country who are licensed to lead tours to the ATM cave.
Is the ATM Cave open for visitation?
The ATM Cave reopened on August 3rd, 2020. Group sizes are limited to 8 visitors per guide.
Learn More
Places to Stay
 (3)
Private Riverside Villas
Aliana's is a vacation rental property located near San Ignacio, Cayo. Aliana's sits on a 50-acre farm and includes three private riverfront villas. ... more

Gold Standard Transportation is provided via Belize Ground Shuttle.
Relax on the banks of the Mopan river just outside your doorstep and enjoy bird watching or take a refreshing swim to cool off at your pleasure. We have canoes and floating tubes available. A popular guest activity is to float down the Mopan river from the village of Bullet Tree Falls. The float takes about two hours. You can spot monkeys and a variety of bird species along the river. We also have an outdoor grill and brick oven available for use by all guests.

Each unit includes air-conditioned bedrooms for your comfort. The property is filled with many tropical fruit trees that you can enjoy when in season, such as mangoes, breadfruit, plums, star fruit, and others. The property may be booked for private events subject to availability.
Gold Certified:
Yes
Area:
San Ignacio
Region:
Western Belize
 (3)
Find yourself in our award-winning Belize ecolodge. Situated on a 105-acre jungle reserve along the Macal River, settle into 10 intimate, rest in eco-friendly cabanas, nosh on farm-to-table ... morecuisine, sip tropical cocktails, cool off in our infinity pool, and graze with resident donkeys through our working, organic farm. Take the river by canoe or tube, hike jungle trails, and allow us to plan your excursions to the many natural wonders and Mayan sites in Belize.

Awards: 
TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Winner 2020
Corporate LiveWire Innovation & Excellence Award 2020
Travel & Hospitality Awards - Lodge of the Year 2018 & 2019
Global Luzury Hotel & Spa Awards - Boutique Lodge of the Year 2019
TravelMyth Top 20 Accommodations for Honeymoons 2019
Latin American Business Awards - Best Boutique Lodge 2019
Belize Tourism Board Small Hotel of the Year 2010 & 2015
Belize Green Business Award 2011
Gold Certified:
Yes
Phone Number:
+501-672-4040
Area:
Cayo
Region:
Western Belize
 (3)
Perched atop the magnificent Five-Sisters Waterfalls in Belize’s famed secluded Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, GAÏA Riverlodge, named aptly for the Greek goddess of Earth and ... morethe mother of life and all creation, will fulfill its promise to reconnect you to your most authentic and adventurous self.

An hour jeep ride from the more populous San Ignacio area, guests can recharge in their private and spacious cabanas to the waterfall’s sounds. Enjoy the rainforest’s intimacy with its native birds, butterflies, and remarkable flora, set amongst the pink and orange glow of the setting sun.

Remote, private and sustainable by design, we are a proudly Green Globe Award certified hotel. We operate on hydropower and offer an electric tram to transports guests from the lodge to the river. Most of our fruits and vegetables are also farmed on-site by local staff in our Mayan organic garden.
Gold Certified:
Yes
Phone Number:
011.501.834.4005
Area:
Cayo
Region:
Western Belize
 (2)
Conveniently located a short walk from downtown San Ignacio, Rolson Hotel offers comfortable accommodations and free WiFi access.... more

The hotel is a 15-minute drive from the western border, a 10-minute drive from the Xunantunich Maya Site and a 10-minute walk from the Cahal Pech Archaeology Site. The Princess Casino and the Green Iguana Conservation Project are a few minutes' walk away.

The rooms offer a mini-fridge, cable TV, alarm clock and a safety deposit box. They also include coffee and a coffee maker, 2 water bottles and ironing facilities. The private bathroom has a shower and hairdryer.

The on-site Mexican restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a variety of local dishes. It also has a fully equipped bar with top shelf liquor, cocktails and beers.

Staff at Rolson Hotel's front desk can assist with massage services, laundry and tours. Transfers from and to the airports are available for an additional charge. There is free parking.
Gold Certified:
Yes
Phone Number:
+501 824-2730
Area:
San Ignacio
Region:
Western Belize
Tours/Activities
$
250
/ Person
Departs From:
Belize City
 (2)
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.
$
115
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (2)
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.
$
125
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (8)
Provider:
Discovered in 1989, this cave is a full five kilometres deep. Taking a journey into the Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”, ... morewill be one of the most enlightening, and unique experiences of your life. You will venture into the heart of the Cave with a licensed, experienced tour guide. This cave is not only geologically beautiful with its crystalline stalactites and stalagmites but also historically as it is a natural museum of ancient Mayan artefacts and a sacred offering place for the “Crystal Maiden”. Time spent inside the cave is 2 ½ to 3 hrs. Get an in-depth look at Belize’s Mayan culture.

Inside the dry zone where the artefacts 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 sepulchre.
$
125
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (6)
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.
$
225
/ 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 ... moremysterious underworld 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.
 (19)
Required for RETURN to the USA
Required by the US Government. Testing service for compliance with CDC travel requirements. The Belize Ministry of Health has approved testing for travelers through private facilities ... moreand mobile testing units. Our preferred provider is Belize Diagnostic Center, the leader in Covid-19 testing services in Belize with locations available countrywide. Book Now to save your spot.

Get the Latest Belize Travel Updates and Restrictions
Hassle-Free booking. Submit your booking request, and we will secure your appointment and send reminders before your test date. You don't pay until we confirm an appointment with an approved test lab.

Get tested before your departure date to avoid delays at the airport. Keep your results handy and be prepared to show them when required at the airport. This testing requirement applies to all air passengers, 2 years of age or older, traveling into the US, including US citizens and legal permanent residents.

To reduce the introduction and spread of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, CDC issued an Order effective January 26, 2021. It requires all air passengers arriving in the US from a foreign country to get tested for COVID-19 infection no more than 3 days before their flight departs and to provide proof of the negative result OR documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 to the airline before boarding the flight.
Turnaround:
Same Day
Location:
San Pedro (Ambergris Caye), Caye Caulker, San Ignacio Town, Hopkins, Placencia, Belize City, Belmopan, Dangriga, Punta Gorda, Orange Walk Town, Corozal Town, Other (or unknown)
Ali Wunderman
Ali Wunderman joins us in the studio for a conversation about the new Belize covid-19 travel restrictions and her experience traveling back to Belize for the first time during the ... morepandemic. We discuss the new travel protocols and her experience arriving in Belize and visiting different areas of the country. With travel to Belize now fully reopened, including the return of cruise tourism in July 2021, there are some updated protocols and procedures that travelers should be aware of. Ali walks us through her experience and explains why traveling to Belize is as easy as 1-2-3.
Guest Name:
Ali Wunderman

Belizing.com Staff

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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.
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