This was not the cave we were planning to visit in Cayo District, Belize. We were looking forward to venturing deep into the belly of the Crystal Cave. Slowly, the wait for our guide turned into an hour, our calls went unanswered, and we were getting anxious. We didn’t want to leave San Ignacio without a little caving. We ran to the nearest tour agency and started figuring out options. And just like that, we were on a tour for the Actun Tunichil Muknal, a remote cave filled with sacrificial relics and skeletons from the ancient Mayans.
We’d tried to do this tour the previous day and got rained out. Since it was the low season, the price was low ($85USD per person), but the cave was often closed due to the weather. Now, this may seem like a boring post, lacking any photos of our adventure. The fact is, after an incident with an archeologist and a damaged skull, the ATM guides voted to ban cameras within the cave. It is even prohibited now to carry a camera on the trail to the cave.
For photos of the ATM Caves, check out this old post by Katherine Belarmino.
About Actun Tunichil Muknal
Only discovered in 1989, it was open to the public eleven years later. The length of the cave is about three miles deep, with a river running through it. Mayans believed caves were the entrance to the underworld and they performed ceremonies and sacrifices within the depths of the caves. Throughout the years, they moved further into the cave to get even closer to their gods.
Upon entering the main chamber, visitors have the chance to see pottery remains (some are still perfect, some are calcified), sculpted stalagmites, and the skeletons of human sacrifices.
Finding a Guide
We did a little searching before arriving in San Ignacio, but it’s easier to just wait until arriving in town. Ask around and get a feel for the agency. Since we were on a time crunch (leaving 30 minutes after we agreed to go) we didn’t have much choice. Some companies have their own guides, most use subcontracted guides. That being said, there aren’t a lot of options to choose from. Only 24 guides are certified to enter and guide within the ATM Cave. Our guide was a subcontractor, Danny Portillo. Tours are also available directly through him.
This choice was actually perfect for us. We were in a small group with one other outdoors-y couple, and we made it to the cave later than the other groups. As we were heading inward, we passed most of the groups heading outward, and we had the ceremonial chamber all to ourselves.
The Hike In
It’s a short and easy hike, with three strong river crossings to contend with. Naturally, our guide floated through the water like it was nothing. It was a little more work for the rest of us, pulling against the rope to help get to the other side. At the entrance of the cave, it was time to use the “facilitrees” and leave our water bottles behind. We donned our helmets and headlamps and started our swim at the mouth of the cave.
Swimming, Pulling, and Pushing Our Way Through
The way into the cave goes against the current. Some spots include swimming. For the most part, we were pushing against the current in water that was between knee level and chest/neck level (depending on your height). This lasted for a little over an hour before we climbed up a couple meters and slipped off our shoes. We were in the main chamber, where sacrifices once took place.
It’s weird to stare down at broken pottery and skeletal remains and think “these were once people who lived, these were the tools they used, and these caves were their connection to a higher power.” While the adventure in is impressive and challenging, the true beauty of this tour is found in the historical significance.
Is it Worth it?
Yes. The price is steep, but we realized we were screwed as soon as we arrived in Belize and started spending, spending, spending. Even for budget backpackers, this is an adventure. Anyone who can hike, handle themselves in water, and deal with some small, dark spaces should attempt this cave.
That being said, we are sad we missed out on other caving adventures in Belize, due to the weather and time. This is certainly not the most adventurous caving experience to be had in the country. There are more caves in teeny, tiny Belize than any other Central American country. Guess that only inspires us to come back.
How to Prepare Yourself for the ATM Cave
In conversations with other guests at Bella’s Backpackers, we realized some agencies hadn’t actually prepared their guests for this tour. One girl in our group didn’t have socks (a requirement) and had to wear some random pair that Danny had in the back of his van.
Be Sure to Wear/Bring the following
- Shorts, or long pants. Long, lightweight pants are a great option if you get bit by mosquitos easily. The guides ask that you don’t apply bug spray to the lower half of your body, so as not to pollute the river. We each chose quick drying bottoms and wool shirts.
- Sneakers or Water Shoes. The best would be something that wraps completely around your foot, like mesh water shoes or sneakers. Hiking sandals will work, but from experience, we don’t actually recommend them. Angel’s hiking sandals fell apart once we were in the rushing water.
- A change of clothes and a towel. The other couple in our group didn’t have spare clothes, and wound up riding back on a sheet of plastic in their soaking wet clothes.
- Not much else. Everything will get left in the vehicle or left at the entrance of the cave.
- A good headlamp. If you have your own, make sure the batteries are new. Otherwise, guides provide this along with a helmet.
Other Options for Caving in Belize
We had heard the Crystal Cave is for the true adventurer, and so we were pretty bummed to miss it. It’s on our list for next time, no doubt about that. This adventure includes a rappel drop into the mouth of the cave.
For someone looking for a more mellow caving adventure, a cave tubing trip leads you on a relaxing cave journey down the river, with a headlamp to light the way. Kayaking is also available at Barton Creek Cave, which we would have loved if weather had permitted.
Where to Stay in San Ignacio
Plenty of people come to San Ignacio passing through on the way to the next place, either in Guatemala (Tikal) or Belize (the Cayes). We would suggest spending at least a couple days in town and trying a few different activities. We stayed in Bella’s Backpackers for four nights. Prices are average for the area (25 Belize dollars for a bed in the dorms), rooms were clean, bathrooms were nice (cold water only).
In the interest of honesty, we spotted a bedbug in the first room we were put in. We’ve dealt with this with negative results before, but this time, we were really satisfied with the way it was handled. We informed the manager and the room was immediately shut down and deep cleaned, and we threw our clothes in their dryer to make sure no bugs hitched a ride. We were pleased with the way Bella’s handled the situation, and continued to stay here throughout our stay in San Ignacio, with no problems. We wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again.
We were given a discounted media rate for Bella’s Backpackers.