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

By 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)

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.

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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