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Central America Group Travel

Discover The Astonishing Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave In Belize

Last updated on May 28th, 2024 at 09:39 am

ATM cave is a name synonymous with adventure in Belize. Actun Tunichil Muknal cave – to use its full name – is also known as the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre and is a highlight for anyone travelling through this small Central American country.

Its ‘must see’ reputation is at odds however with the rather unusual fact that cameras are banned from inside the cave. Photos of the cave and its contents are therefore supplied by tour operators and are seen in pretty much any blog focusing on the cave, including this one! This may have you questioning whether a visit is worth it and what more is there to experience, but let me assure you, nothing is ever as good as actually being there!

In this post I’ll share my experience of visiting the ATM cave. I’ll also offer up various options for guided tours and answer some frequently asked questions. If you decide to go ahead with a visit, you won’t be disappointed in the ATM cave Belize me!

Image shows the welcome sign visitors see on entering the car park of the ATM Cave.
Photo Credit: Yute Expeditions

What is the ATM Cave?

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, otherwise known as the ATM cave for short, is a cave in Belize. It was discovered by the Mayan people between 300 and 600 AD. It was not until the period 700 and 900 AD however that the Maya ventured further into the cave to perform ceremonies and rituals, including sacrifices.

In the Maya world, caves represent the entrance to the underworld known as Xibalba. During the period 700 to 900 AD, the Maya were experiencing droughts and understandably, began to use the cave for making offerings to appease the gods of agriculture, rain and fertility. As things became more desperate, so it seems did the need to make offerings. The ATM cave is therefore a sacred cave to the Mayan people.

The cave was rediscovered in 1989 but not opened to the public until 1998. Archaeological investigations have discovered over 1400 human artifacts and 14 skeletons. National Geographic named the ATM Cave as number one of their top 10 sacred caves around the world.

Image shows a human skull located within the ATM Cave of Belize
Photo Credit: Yute Expeditions

Where is the ATM Cave?

The ATM cave is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, not far from the town of San Ignacio. The final part of the journey there involves a boneshaking ride along a dirt road for about 45 minutes!

How Can You Visit the ATM Cave?

Access to the ATM cave is regulated, with visitors only allowed in using licensed tour guides. There is a daily limit of 125 tickets, so you are advised to book in advance.

Most ATM tours will depart from San Ignacio town, but you can also book tours leaving from Belize City. You can start your research with these tours and book here:

For those looking to pick up an ATM tour from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, you can check this ATM tour option or for a tour departing from Hopkins, consider this ATM tour.

My ATM cave tour was operated by Yute Expeditions and like most of the tours included transport and lunch.

How Much Does an ATM Tour Cost?

The price of a tour will vary depending on the company you use, whether you are collected from your accommodation and where you are departing from. As a guide however, expect to pay from $100-125 USD per person. The tour price should include a guide, helmet, headlamp and lunch.

Getting to the ATM Cave

To start your ATM cave tour you will either meet at the tour company’s offices or they will pick you up from your accommodation.

Image shows a small tour bus that had carried visitors to the car park ahead of hiking to the ATM cave.

To get to the cave, tour groups will travel to the village of Teakettle (cute name eh?) and from there to the cave car park. There are toilets here so use them….there are none at the cave! At this point, you’ll be issued with a helmet and headlamp. Some tour groups I saw were wearing life jackets, but ours was not. Life jackets should be available for those who can’t swim so let your tour guide know if you need one.

On leaving the car park, there’s an initial hike in through the jungle which takes about 45 minutes and involves 3 river crossings. The ground is relatively flat, although in part it’s rocky and there are many tree roots to negotiate (you are in the jungle after all!). Your tour guide will likely provide you with information about the flora and fauna in the area as you hike to the cave.

The first river crossing is the deepest and gets up to around chest height, although the depth is dependent on how much rain there has been. The two remaining crossings are much shallower at between ankle and knee height. There is a rope strung across the river which you can hold on to as you cross.

Once you arrive at the cave entrance, you’ll get into some deep the water and swim into the cave. It’s a fantastic introduction to what will be a brilliant adventure!

Conditions Inside the ATM Cave

Once you have swum through the entrance into the cave itself, the rest of the time will be spent walking, swimming and climbing (including a ladder) through the cave complex, except at certain spots where access is easier if you’re sitting down!

The ground beneath your feet, whether in or out of the water, is rocky. There are large boulders that you will need to pull yourself up and over and some tight spaces between rocks you will need to squeeze through, including when you’re in the water. One such space is affectionately known as ‘the decapitator’!

As you enter into the largest part of the cave you are required to take off your shoes and walk in your socks. Be aware that the ground is still rough here – see my advice below on what to wear.

It felt cooler inside the cave than out of course, although you are wet which makes it worse. I wasn’t particularly cold however, but there is a drop in temperature to be aware of.

Image shows the ATM cave entrance when viewed from inside the cave and in the water.
Cave entrance – internal view. Photo Credit: Yute Expeditions

Can You Take Photos in the ATM Cave?

No. Cameras of any kind, including smart phones, are NOT permitted. In 2012, a tourist accidentally dropped some camera equipment onto a human skull and broke it. Since then, cameras have been banned.

Most of my photos were provided by my tour operator – I have included a photo credit in this post where relevant. Check that your chosen tour operator is providing photos too. In a strange way, not taking a camera to such a popular site has its benefits. Firstly, you will be able to concentrate on the caving aspect, secondly taking photos would be tricky in the wet conditions and thirdly, you actually take in the things around you rather than seeing them through a lens.

What is in the ATM Cave?

Once inside the cave, you’ll realise how large it is! You will also appreciate just how challenging it would have been to get into the cave carrying not just the artifacts that now reside there but the burning torches the Maya needed in order to see!

Whilst nothing beats experiencing it for yourself, here’s what you will see in the cave:

1. Geology

The limestone makeup of the cave means that there are plenty of stalactites and stalagmites on display throughout the cave. The Maya also modified the cave to create alters for the purposes of making offerings and for casting shadows of gods across the cave.

Images shows the inside of the ATM cave, especially the geology with stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave.
Photo credit: Yute Expeditions

2. Complete Darkness….Briefly!

Once inside the cave, your guide may well do what ours did and switch off your headlamp and his torch. The darkness will be complete! You will not see your hand in front of you. Fortunately, this doesn’t take long and pretty soon your light is back on and you’re ready to head further into the cave.

3. Ceramics and Artifacts

Eventually, you will arrive at ‘the Cathedral’, a large chamber where there is no water to negotiate but where you will need to remove your shoes and proceed in your socks only. Water had once flowed through this chamber and left behind a ridge like pattern on the floor. Artifacts and offerings have been found in the now dry ‘pools’ between the ridges and as such, visitors are required to walk on the ridges and not the pools.

In the Cathedral you will see plenty of ancient Mayan artifacts and pottery. Many of the ceramic pots have “kill holes”, holes that were deliberately made in order to release evil spirits.

You will also be shown the ‘Monkey Pot’ – a pot (seen below, right) which displays a small design only seen on three other artefacts in Central America – and quite a few three stone hearths which play a significant role in the Mayan creation story.

4. Human Skeletons

In the Cathedral you will also see evidence of human sacrifice in the form of 14 skeletal remains. Half of the remains are small children under 5 years of age. The cause of death is believed to be blows to the head. I read somewhere that young children were favoured as sacrifices because their purity made them pleasing to the gods.

The most well known of the skeletons in the ATM cave is the Crystal Maiden. The age and gender of the skeleton is not known for sure, but it was widely accepted to be a young woman around 18 years of age. There is a suggestion now however that it may be male. Either way, the skeleton has calcified and now shimmers giving it the name Crystal Maiden.

Images shows a complete human skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden. It was believed to have been female and aged about 18 but now scientists think it may be male. The skeleton has calcified and shimmers hence its name.
The Crystal Maiden. Photo Credit: Yute Expeditions

5. Wildlife

Yes, apparently there are critters living in the ATM cave! Fish, crabs, crayfish and bats all reside there.

6. Other Visitors

My tour of the cave started early so thankfully we were able to experience it without encountering many other people. As we were beginning our return trip however, the crowds had built, despite there being a limit to visitor numbers. Try to join a tour that will arrive early.

How Long is an ATM Cave Tour?

An ATM cave tour will start early in the morning and get you back to your meeting point late afternoon. Most tours will include lunch so you won’t go hungry but it will be a long day.

What if I am Claustrophobic and/or don’t like Heights?

It’s not completely dark inside the ATM cave but headlamps and torches are necessary and there are some tight squeezes between rocks which, if you are claustrophobic, may mean that this tour will be more challenging or possibly not one for you. As I mentioned above, at one point our guide did plunge us into complete darkness but that was deliberate and didn’t last long. The photos in this post and online generally will give you a sense of what the cave is like and whether it’s something you can cope with.

I am not a fan of heights (have not and will not do a bungee jump or dive out of a plane!) but this was not an issue for me in the cave. You do need to climb up over large boulders and then down again, however your guide is there to help if needed.

What to Wear on an ATM Cave Tour

This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to visiting the ATM cave. I know I spent a bit of time mulling over what to take, especially when it came to footwear.

Here then is my suggested list of items to wear – you can see how I’m dressed in the photo below:

  • swim shorts/gym shorts/gym leggings – clothing that is comfortable and not too restrictive in the water or heavy when wet
  • t-shirt/singlet/rash guard – the latter will give your skin an extra layer of protection
  • water shoes/sandals/running shoes – closed toe shoes with a thick sole
  • socks – these are mandatory in the cave. Wear thick socks or 2 pairs as you still need to walk across rocks!
  • sunscreen – you will be out in the sun on the hike to and from the cave
  • bug spray – I didn’t notice an issue with bugs in the cave but certainly outside you’ll want protection!
  • change of clothes and towel – keep in mind that EVERYTHING you wear will get wet through
  • bag to store wet clothes and shoes in for the ride back

You won’t need to carry anything with you to or into the cave so a dry bag is not necessary.

Image shows the author of this post following the ATM tour and wearing a rash guard with long sleeves for added protection, lightweight shorts and laced up sports shoes.

Tips for Visiting

If you are considering including a visit to the ATM cave in your Belize itinerary then here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The number of visitors per day is limited so book in advance
  • Expect that it will be a physical challenge. Hiking, swimming and climbing are involved therefore a good level of fitness is required but you don’t need to be an elite athlete!
  • Don’t cheat the system and sneak a camera in
  • Dress appropriately, the ATM cave is a sacred site
  • Protect your feet and wear the right shoes (and don’t forget to bring socks!)
  • Listen to the advice of your tour guide
  • Stay within the prescribed walking area and don’t wander off on your own
  • Accept the help your guide will offer!

Final Thoughts

A tour of the ATM caves in Belize is an experience like no other and definitely worth doing! Hiking through the jungle, swimming into the cave and then climbing your way through to view ancient Mayan ruins and sacrificial victims is not something you’re likely to do anywhere else so if you can do it, go for it. It’s UNBELIZEABLE!

For those who find the idea of exploring a cave whilst in Belize appealing but hiking, swimming and climbing your way into one isn’t, then you could consider this Barton Creek Cave canoeing adventure or this cave tubing and ziplining experience, both of which depart from San Ignacio.

If you are looking for further things to do in Belize, be sure to read my post on creating an awesome Belize itinerary, my post on the ancient Mayan ruins at Lamanai and my post on spending time in that Caribbean paradise, Caye Caulker.

If you need any general assistance with planning a trip to Belize, then do check my page of Resources.

Image shows a human skull lying within the ATM Cave and understood to have been a victim of human sacrifice to appease ancient Mayan gods.
Photo Credit: Yute Expeditions

Disclaimer – Information correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting

Disclosure – This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you book something using them, I will earn a small commission but you will not pay anything extra. Thank you for supporting my blog.

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