We have gone on some pretty extreme, pretty amazing adventures, and the ATM Cave in Belize flat boggled my mind. I spent five hours in a state of disbelief, watching my children with wide eyes and perma-smiles, completely at a loss for words.
Going to Belize was an adventure in itself, of the best kind. If any of you fellow gypsies ever have the opportunity, GO THERE. Don’t even hesitate. We fed jaguars, stopped the car at tapir crossings, hiked through rain forests, jumped off of 20-foot waterfalls 500 feet below the surface of the earth and swam with nurse sharks and giant turtles. There are just no words for the beauty of this country.
And the most breathtaking, most memorable thing we did, amidst all of that? The ATM Cave.
You have to enter Actun Tunichil Muknal with a tour group, because it would be perilously easy to get lost or to damage priceless cultural and historical artifacts inside the cave. ATM was used by the ancient Maya as a place of worship, and for ritual sacrifice to appease the gods and pray for rain. There are remains still inside the cave, including the most famous, the Crystal Maiden. The Maiden has been inside the cave for hundreds of years, and as water levels recede and progress, and mineral deposits trickle in from the ceiling, her remains have become crystallized from head to toe.
To visit the Crystal Maiden and pay our respects, we first took a bumpy ride through the rain forest with our cheerful guide. We got fitted with helmets and head lamps, and encountered our first obstacle – a quite enthusiastically flowing river, with the trail on the opposite bank. There was a rope stretching across for a hand-hold, but the water was so deep we had to swim it. Ally is not the most comfortable swimmer, and we were side-eyeing each other as we approached the bank. I think the promise of a possible tapir sighting is the only thing that got her moving. (Tapirs are those kind of friendly-hippo-looking guys in the picture above. Not the Crystal Maiden. Yep, that one farther up).
We made it across, breathed a little sigh of relief, considered ourselves halfway there to Indiana Jones status, and continued through the rain forest. The walk to the cave mouth is about 30 minutes from the jeep, and the guides spend that time pointing out leaf cutter ants, spiky vines, medicinal flowers and offering termites as a snack. Apparently, you come to Belize and think you’re Indiana Jones after one little river crossing, you get offered a termite. It’s the price you pay.
I had some pretty sky-high expectations on this trip, and nothing prepared me for entering the cave mouth at ATM. We had been following the river through the jungle, tracing it back, and as we entered a clearing, there’s a dark and foreboding cave entrance with water pouring out of it. And the guide grins and says “Jump in!”
Ry jumped. Leaped, really. Like a flying squirrel, or like I had promised him chocolate at the other end. So of course I had to jump, and I had just maneuvered Ally onto my back to see if we could ease into the water somehow without getting pushed out by the current. I panicked the first two or three seconds. The push of the water is a force to be reckoned with, but once you’re through the mouth of the cave, it’s like a lazy river. We swam through, jaws dropped, and waited while the rest of our group jumped in.
There are lots of caverns in California, and we’ve been on our share of tours. Nothing like this. The sheer size of the formations, the serpentine twists, the stalactites you literally swim under to continue on your path…
And the deeper you go into the cave, the more signs of an ancient Mayan civilization you will see. Hundreds of years ago, without anything but torch light, the Maya swam into these caves to pray for a plentiful enough harvest to survive. There are clay pots, beads and animal remains tucked into niches along the cavern walls.
The swimming got a little rough for Ally in spots, so our guide asked if she wanted a ride. His pack had straps along the top and sides, and she clung to his back like a little monkey while he swam through the passages, pointing out artifacts and telling her all about the Maya. She got quite used to the princess treatment on this trip, let me tell you.
After an hour of hiking and swimming underground, we reached the ladder to ascend into the dry caves and the final resting place of the Crystal Maiden. Here you take off your shoes, put on clean socks, and pay very strict attention to your surroundings. A tourist a few years ago accidentally dropped his camera on a skull, so security and caution here have really been upped.
The ladder was the hardest part for me. Not the rain forest hike, not leaping into a river inside a cave mouth, not swimming underground where you cannot see the light of day, but climbing up this rickety ladder. If you’ve read some of our adventures, you know I like carbs. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree. The ladder didn’t look like it could hold my 8-year old, let alone a gypsy mama with a love for tacos. But it did!
The trip back to the jeeps was a slightly more somber affair after seeing the Crystal Maiden and her eternal comrades. Instead of fighting the current on the way in, you’re pushed towards the mouth of the cave on the way out. We made it back in record time, and had a refreshing lunch of local rice and chicken and fresh fruit (with rum punch for the adult gypsies).
We had some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Belize, and this one is at the top of the list. There has been talk for years about closing the ATM Cave to tourists (especially after the camera incident), but so far it’s still open with licensed tour guides. Not many guides are gifted with a license for ATM, so you’re traveling with a very experienced, very knowledgeable local with a passion for sharing their country with you. It showed.
Cost: We went with MayaWalk Tours for our ATM experience. The cost is listed at $95/person for an all-day, food provided tour through this magical cave. We also booked a side trip into Guatemala with them, and they discounted our ATM tour since we were purchasing two excursions. You can also ask if they will discount you for paying the full amount up-front, rather than putting down a deposit and paying the balance when you arrive. I recommend calling or emailing whatever tour company you choose well ahead of time.
Directions: You must have a licensed guide to enter ATM. We stayed in the Cayo district in Belize and rented a cottage about 15 minutes from MayaWalk. They took care of the rest. You can also book a tour through Caves Branch, though the drive to the cave will take a bit longer.