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The ATM Cave in Belize (updated for 2023) : Everything You Need to Know

By 1/23/2023 5 minutes  (1)



COVID-19 ALERT: The ATM Cave is fully reopened for visitation!
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 a treasure trove for archaeologists but also for its diverse ecosystem of bats, crabs, crayfish, and tropical fish. You can take a day trip from almost anywhere in Belize to visit the ATM cave. Book in advance because there is a daily limit of 125 tickets sold only to licensed tour guides.

Take a day trip from San Pedro / Ambergris Caye to visit the ATM Cave with an expert tour guide. We take care of all the logistics. Tours depart San Pedro at 6am by boat or 7am by flight, and returns by 5:30pm. [Learn more]

Here's everything you need to know before you start planning a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal 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 Maya people practically since their origins.

The Maya 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.

ATM Cave Tour Price

How much does it cost to visit the ATM cave? Prices vary from $100 USD per person to $365 USD or more per person. These are shared tour prices. Private tours are available at an additional cost. Either way, groups are limited to 8 per guide. The price depends on several factors, especially where you are located in Belize. Most tours depart from San Ignacio. The average shared tour price from San Ignacio is $100 to $125. If you book from anywhere other than San Ignacio, the transportation will factor heavily into the final price you pay. If you have your own transportation, you can book a tour that departs from San Ignacio and coordinate with the tour provider to meet them in San Ignacio or Teakettle village. All ATM tours must be booked and paid in advance. You can compare and book direct at the best prices on Belizing. [Learn more]

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".

Belize ATM Cave Crystal Maiden
Belize ATM Cave Cystal 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.

Take a day trip from San Pedro to visit the ATM Cave with an expert tour guide. We take care of all the logistics. Tours depart San Pedro at 6am by boat or 7am by flight, and returns by 5:30pm. [Learn more]

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 also don't sell park tickets on-site, so you won't get past the park rangers at the gates. Tour 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. Your guide will provide information about the local flora and fauna, and you may even spot some of the exotic wildlife that calls this area home. 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 compare the options from licensed ATM tour providers on 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.

The ATM Cave Tour is a truly unforgettable experience that should not be missed by anyone visiting Belize. Whether you're a seasoned adventurer or just looking for an exciting new experience, this tour is sure to leave you with memories that will last a lifetime. So book your tour today and get ready to uncover the beauty and mystery of Belize's most famous cave!




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 40 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.
How much does it cost?
Shared tour prices start at $100 USD per person. Prices depend on your tour departure location in Belize, to account for transportation costs.
Is there an age limit for visiting the ATM Cave?
There is no age limit. People of all ages can visit as long as they are able to make the journey. The only restriction is a height limit of 40 inches.
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
Tours/Activities
$
250
/ Person
Departs From:
Belize City
 (5)
Explore a vast network of caves while your tour guide narrates information about the Mayan families, sacrifices, and rituals that previously took place there. Skeletons, Stoneware, ... moreand ceramics are still there and undisturbed as evidence of previous holy practices. You'll be surprised and eager to learn more about Mayan history after this full-day tour.
$
200
-
$
380
/ Person
Departs From:
San Pedro (Ambergris Caye)
 (6)
Take a Day Trip from San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, and experience the best Cave Tour in Belize.  About the Tour All-inclusive ATM tour from San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Includes all transportation, ... moreentrance fees, equipment, and lunch (meal preferences can be arranged). 

Departure Time from the island is 7 AM

Your pick-up in Belize City is scheduled for 8 AM sharp - so it is critical that you board the flight on time! 

Your tour will be with a certified gold-standard tour operator, with an ATM-licensed guide. 

Groups are limited to 8 per guide, and there is a daily cap of 125 visitors per day. 

You can add local transportation to/from your hotel in San Pedro for an additional fee. 

The tour is refundable (minus a small service fee) up to 24 hours before departure. Any cancellations made within 24 hours of departure will not be refunded. However, if we are contacted at least 24 hours in advance, we can help you to reschedule the tour for a later date.

The ATM Cave has been declared the world's most sacred cave by National Geographic. Journey back in time to explore this sacred cave, previously untouched for thousands of years!
About the ATM Cave The Belize ATM Cave is a wet cave, where you swim into the entrance and then trek through ankle to chest-high water before climbing to a dry chamber that leads to the cathedral or main hall. This towering chamber is 350 meters in length and 50 meters wide and is filled with artifacts and the skeletal remains of 14 bodies, about half of them children. All of the skeletal remains are male except one completely intact female skeleton covered in sparkling mineral deposits, the Crystal Maiden. Other artifacts include large pots and jars, flute-like instruments, and ground stones used for grinding corn and grains, suggesting agricultural rituals.

ATM Cave is considered the best Belize cave to explore and is declared the world's most sacred cave by National Geographic. It is an extraordinary and rare opportunity to see ancient Maya ceremonial sites and altars as they were thousands of years ago, virtually untouched.
$
115
/ Person
Departs From:
San Ignacio Town
 (5)
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
 (21)
Discovered in 1989, this cave is a full five kilometers deep. Taking a journey into the Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”, will be one ... moreof 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 artifacts 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 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.
$
225
/ Person
Departs From:
Placencia
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 from 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.
New
In this episode we speak with Dorian Rivero, owner of Private Belize Adventure and tour guide of over 20 years, to discuss what activities are available to visitors in and around Belize ... moreCity. Take a virtual walk-through of cave tubing destination Nohoch Che’en as well as the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha.
Guest Name:
Dorian Rivero

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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