Tours

ATM Cave Tour for Non-Swimmers - A First Hand Experience

By Katherine Wong Too Yen 10/16/2019 8 minutes

As someone who is unable to swim at all, I wanted to share my experience of doing the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour in the hopes of helping anyone who is feeling uncertain or unsure about whether to do it. I went on the tour with Belize Caving Expeditions, and wanted to share these practical tips or things I wished I knew before doing the ATM tour. All in all, it was a very positive experience!

About me:
I'm in my late 20s, female, 5'0 (153 cm) tall and I don't know how to swim. I don't even like putting my face in the water. I would consider myself to be in reasonable shape. In other words, not a gym-goer but I'm easily able to walk 5 miles (8 km).

How I prepared for the ATM cave tour:

To get more comfortable with being in the water, I spent one day in Caye Caulker dedicated to walking around in shallow areas and gradually went in deeper. I wore a life jacket and got used to floating, then being towed around by a friend, as well as practicing some kicks while wearing my Keen sandals. This made a big difference in helping to overcome my fears (the water was warm too, so it was quite pleasant!).

If you're in San Ignacio you can also do this down at the Macal river as long as it is not flooded. 

What I wore for the ATM cave tour:

  • Bathing suit

  • Gym shorts - you're climbing parts of the cave in a single file, so your butt will be in someone else's face.

  • One pair of thicker socks - you'll be walking across some rocky bits while in socks, so thicker the better. The socks are mandatory!

  • Keen sandals - alternatives could be an old pair of running shoes, water shoes, or quick dry hiking shoes. Anything with some grip on the bottom, a bit of protection on the toes, and that you don't mind getting wet. NO flip flops!

  • A hair tie (optional) - helpful if you have long hair, since you'll be wearing a helmet.

  • Sunscreen and/or bug spray (optional) - it will mostly wash off in the 3 river crossings to the cave and back, but helpful for your arms, shoulders, and neck/face

What I brought:

  • A small bag with a complete change of clothes: t-shirt, underwear, shorts, socks, second pair of shoes, a towel, sunscreen and bug spray (optional) - all of this will stay locked in the van with the driver (I left my cell phone/wallet here too).

  • Small change to buy snacks and/or tip your tour guide (optional)

What to expect:

  • When booking, make sure to request a life jacket in advance and let the tour guide know so they can assist as needed.

  • Duration of the trip. While the trip itself is a full day (it was 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM for me from San Ignacio, but your start/end times may differ), you're only in the cave itself for about 3.5 hours. It starts with an hour ride in 12-person air-conditioned shuttle van along the highway, before you turn off on a dirt road.

  • About 7 miles away from the Actun Tunichil Muknal Archaeological Reserve, in the village of Teakettle, our guides stopped to allow people to pick up snacks or beers from a small grocery store. (The snacks will be put in a dry bag carried by the guide to the cave, but the beers go in the cooler and stay in the van!)

  • After the grocery store, the road becomes much rockier and bumpier as you drive past groves of orange trees and small huts.

  • Once you arrive at the ATM site, there are bathrooms with running water, and individual showers/change rooms. This is the last point you will have access to a proper bathroom - so use it!

  • Your guide will provide you with a helmet and a life jacket at this point, and you'll be expected to carry your own bottle of water on the 40 minute trek through the jungle. (You'll leave the water bottles at a small picnic area just before entering the cave, so you'll have both hands free to climb.)

  • A lot of people call it a "hike" but there is a clearly marked dirt path, which is quite flat and very easy to walk along. If it has just rained, it may be slightly slippery with mud.

River Crossings:

  • The first river crossing comes up about 10 minutes into the walk, and while some taller people were able to touch the bottom with their toes, I had to bob along and pulled myself along using the rope going all the way across if you need something to hold on to. You can easily see the other side from where you are standing. The water was warm, clear, and calm. The tour guide will not rush anyone along, and won't proceed until the whole group has made it through.

  • The second and third river crossings (really more of a stream) are more shallow and only about a foot or so deep (came up below the knees), depending on when it last rained. These both have ropes tied across it in case you need something to grab. The water here was also warm, clear, and calm.
Just before getting into the cave, you'll stop for a snack and some water while your guide explains how the headlamps on the helmet works. You'll leave your water here so you can keep two free hands for the cave.

Inside the Cave:

  • At the cave entrance, you'll enter the river which is fairly deep and requires you to be fully submerged in the water. Again, I was surprised at how warm, clear, and calm the water was. I had a friend swim/tow me across and was able to keep my face fully above the water. There are some tiny fish about the size of a finger swimming around as well.

  • For the remainder of the cave portion, the water was generally no deeper than the entrance and often times only about 2 to 3 feet high. Again, this is dependent on when it last rained but they do have park rangers who check water levels and will close the area to tours if they feel it is unsafe.

  • In order to get to the cavern with the Crystal Maiden, you'll need to take off your shoes and leave them on a rock platform. You'll climb up a metal ladder (which is securely tied with rope at the bottom and top) one-by-one and walk the rest of the way in socks. The rocks may hurt the soles of your feet a bit, so you can wear two pairs to add a bit of cushion. (Our tour guide did it in bare feet.)

  • There were a couple of narrower points where it was a bit of a squeeze with the life jacket on - it would have been just as easy to take off the life jacket for those parts and carry it in my hand. Once we reached the area where you removed your shoes, I took off my life jacket as well - since the higher we climbed, there was no water around.

  • After reaching the Crystal Maiden, going back to the cave entrance feels much quicker. Many people felt the water was calm and refreshing, which is helpful when you're walking around a cave. Before you know it, you're all done! 

Once you're finished the "hike" out, the guide will direct you to the change rooms to shower and/or change. A typical Belizean meal is set out by the shuttle driver - we had rice and beans, chicken, coleslaw, homemade salsa and tortilla chips. Plenty of cold water and rum punch was on offer as well, or beer if you had bought some at the aforementioned grocery store!

Other notable points:

  • There are only 27 licensed guides who are allowed to lead the ATM cave tours. Many have been doing it for 10+ years, and are required to renew their license every year. In order to be licensed, the guides had to take a certification course by the Belize Tourism Board and get a minimum 75% on the written and practical portions of the exams.

  • A maximum of 125 ATM tour tickets are released each day at 6:00 AM. Once they're gone, they're gone. Each tour guide can purchase up to a max of 8 tickets - and in high season, they go fast.

  • The tour guide will literally point out step-by-step where to place your hands or feet for any tricky bits in the cave, as well as help out by shining a light so you know exactly where to go. As long as you follow their instructions, the climbing portions are minimal, safe, and manageable.

  • The tour guide will carry extra batteries for head lamps, snacks, and other gear in their dry bag into the cave. You will not be bringing anything along with you except for the clothes you are wearing.

  • You can expect to see small fish (including catfish), bats, and the occasional spider while in the cave. Generally, the experience was pretty bug-free!

  • If you feel up for it, ask the tour guide about how to eat termites - you pass by many termite nests along the "hike."


That's it! I hope the details above give you a better idea about what to expect, whether you're a non-swimmer or a weak swimmer that's wondering about the ATM cave tour. If you have the time, I highly recommend this experience!

*Originally posted on Reddit. Reposted with permission from Katherine Wong Too Yen.



How much time do you spend inside the cave?
You're only inside the cave for about 3.5 hours.
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Tours/Activities
$
260
-
$
295
/ Person
Departs From:
San Pedro (Ambergris Caye)
Provider:
The ATM Cave is a "must do" tour experience- and it's easily accessible!! The tour starts with a 45 min hike through the jungle in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. It is a great ... moreway to soak in the majesty of the surrounding jungle. You will cross three rivers as you wind your way through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. Tour duration is approximately 3 hours. Bring along a change of clothes as you will be completely wet by the time the tour is over. 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.

Guests should dress as if preparing for a hike, bringing comfortable clothes and sturdy closed-toe shoes. Also, socks are mandatory for walking inside the cave. Bring along a towel and change of clothes (required) for a dry trip on your return transfer. 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.
$
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
 (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.

Katherine Wong Too Yen

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