The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour was my favorite thing that we did in Belize during our entire trip! I am a bit partial and really enjoy spelunking and exploring caves, but this adventure really was super cool and lived up to all of my expectations!
ATM cave is world renown and was named one of the top 10 caves in the world by National Geographic and the #1 sacred cave in the world. This is “THE thing to do” in Belize, and as such is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. To this day , it’s one of the most impressive and artifact rich caves ever discovered.
Overview of Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Actun Tunichil Muknal (which translates to the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre) was a sacred cave in the western part of the county used by the Mayans around roughly AD 250-909. They believed the cave was a literal entrance to the underworld and only “important” or “high status” people (such as priests or royalty) were allowed to enter and use the cave. Rituals, offerings, and even human sacrifices were made in this cave.
It was officially “discovered” in 1989 and later opened to the public in 1998. Of course the cave existed far before that and many people knew about it, but this was when archaeologists first started to officially explore and catalog the cave. Over 1400 artifacts have been found and cataloged. Many pots and ceramics are still visible in the cave, one of the most impressive being the “monkey pot”, which is a large pot with a distinct design of a monkey near the rim. This is one of only 4 pots with this design that have been found in Central America.
But the thing that this cave is most famous for are the remains of the human sacrifices. The remains of 14 different people have been found in the cave – 7 adults and 7 children under the age of 5. Many of these are still intact and have been calcified into the floor cave, so you will see them during the tour. The most famous remains are “the crystal maiden”, which is a fully intact skeleton of a roughly 17 or 18yr old person. Archaeologists have not determined with complete certainty if these remains are male or female.
Can You Do ATM Cave Without a Tour?
No, you cannot do the ATM cave without a tour guide. The cave is protected, so to enter you need to be with a guide who is licensed by the Belize Department of Ecology – there are only around 25 licensed guides in the whole country. There is a checkpoint on the road to the parking lot from where you’ll set off to reach the cave, so you can’t sneak in. Also, all of the vehicles in the parking lot are the white tour vans, so it would be pretty obvious if you tried to visit the cave yourself.
Prices generally range from $95-$150 per person. It’s more expensive if you’re outside of San Ignacio.
If you’re staying at a hotel or resort, they will easily be able to arrange a tour for you and this would be the best way to set it up. They will arrange for transportation for you from your resort to the road to the cave. From here you may need to transfer into another “approved” van to go down the dirt road and through the check point. Then once all of the vans have arrived in the parking lot, all of the tourists will be divided up into groups and assigned to a licensed guide.
There are also tours available from Viator from other cities too.
How Long Does The Tour Last?
While the tour itself is only a few hours, this is an all day event given the amount of travel time to get here.
The drive down the dirt road to the parking lot at the trail head takes approximately 30-40mins.
The walk from the parking lot to the picnic area just before you enter the cave takes about 20-30 mins depending on pace, and is probably about 1-2 mi.
Once you enter the cave, you will be traveling only .25mi into the cave itself and will be spending around 2 – 2.5hrs in the cave.
How Big Are The Tour Groups?
There is a limit of 120 people that can visit the cave per day. However, our guide admitted that this is not strictly enforced and if tourists are willing to pay, there may be as many as 200 people in the cave per day.
Group sizes generally average around 8-10 people per guide. We were lucky in that we only had 5 people in our group, but we passed a few others that had at least 10.
How Difficult Is The ATM Cave?
You should be in pretty good physical shape to do this tour and then it will be fun and easy for you. People of all ages and sizes can it, it just depends on your level of comfort. Everything I read before going made it sound more intimidating than it actually was in my opinion. We saw both children (need to be at least 40″ tall) and seniors in the cave during our trip – all though the vast majority of visitors are 20-30s.
While the majority of it is pretty easy, the tour does involve hiking, swimming, scrambling over rock boulders, and climbing up/down ladders. There are also some narrow spaces that you will need to fit through in the cave. You will be moving slowly once inside the cave so that you don’t accidentally bump into the jagged rocks in the water or twist an ankle. The majority of the tour will move at this slow pace as you wade through the water, but there will be a few moments of increased physical activity when you’ll need to be on all fours or will need to pull yourself up onto a rock ledge.
If you can’t easily make it up a flight of stairs or have knee/joint problems, then I don’t think this tour would be good for you.
Can I Go If I Can’t Swim?
Yes! There’s really only one section that requires full swimming inside the cave, which is right at the entrance. If you are not a strong swimmer or can’t swim, a life vest will be provided to you at the parking lot before you start the hike to the cave entrance (make sure to grab one!). Wearing the life vest, you should be able to paddle yourself through the 10-20ft area that requires swimming. The rest of the cave is still full of water, but you should be able to touch the ground for all of it.
I’m 5’2″ and the deepest water inside the cave other than the entrance came up to my chest. This will vary of course based on rain and water levels at the time you visit.
What to Wear
Be prepared to get wet! Not just a little wet – fully submerged, swimming wet! You are also going to be walking across rocks for the entirety of the tour, so you need appropriate shoes.
I would recommend:
- Water shoes or other sneakers that are ok to swim in
- Tank top/lose fitting shirt and shorts/leggings – make sure that whatever outer clothing you’re wearing allows you to bend and move and won’t get caught on things.
- Socks – there is a portion of the cave where you have to take off your shoes. If you are not wearing socks (no matter how wet they are) you will be walking around in bare feet.
What to Bring
There is a parking lot with changing rooms at the trail head where you’ll have lunch and where the vans will stay. There is also a picnic area directly before you enter the cave (after you have walked through the jungle from the parking lot, crossing several streams) where you can leave a water bottle, bag, or snacks.
After this picnic area, you aren’t allow to take anything into the cave with you. You will be given a helmet with headlamp and life vest if needed, and that is the only thing that you can take other than the clothes on your back and shoes on your feet.
So, I would recommend:
- Change of clothes (to be left in the van)
- Change of shoes and dry socks (to be left in the van)
- Towel (to be left in the van)
- Reusable water bottle – you can bring this with you on the hike through the jungle and then leave it at the picnic area.
- Snacks – if you think you’ll be hungry you can bring some snacks with you on the hike and eat them at the picnic area before going into the cave. Make sure whatever you bring is waterproof as you’re going to be getting wet during the hike to this picnic area.
- Bug spray or sunscreen – You will be asked NOT to use bug spray/sunscreen if you are seen putting it on in the parking lot before the hike to the cave. This is because the rivers that you will be crossing during the hike to the cave entrance are used by villages down stream for drinking and cooking and they are trying to keep the water from getting contaminated.
I think that’s admirable and respected that, but this was a tough one for me because misquotes LOVE me and I also get burnt very easily. Surprisingly, I didn’t get bit once during the hike to the cave entrance. Maybe I was just lucky or it was a good time of year (even though I got destroyed in other areas during this trip), but the mosquitoes really weren’t bad at all. You’re also in and out of the water continuously during the hike which I think helps to keep away the mosquitoes. And most of the hike is covered by a canopy, so the sun isn’t too harsh either.
So bring bug spray/sunscreen for AFTER the tour when you are sitting and having lunch in case you want it at that time.
No cameras – including Go Pros and cell phones – A while ago a tourist dropped their camera and broke one of the artifacts and thus ruined it for everyone and now no cameras (or anything that could break an artifact) are allowed. Even if your camera is physically attached to you and there’s no way for it to fall off, you will still not be allowed to bring it into the cave. See above where I say that you can bring nothing into the cave with you – this really means absolutely nothing.
What to Expect
Turning off of Hummingbird Highway, the road to the parking lot of the trail head is 7mi on a dirt road through an extensive farm, which can sometimes be bumpy when in the tour van.
Once at the parking lot you’re assigned a tour guide and outfitted with a helmet with headlamp, and life vet if needed. You can leave your change of clothes or other belongings in the van which the drivers are standing watch of for when you get back.
You will be asked to NOT apply bug spray or sunscreen before setting off on the hike into the jungle since you will be crossing several rivers where the people downstream use the water for drinking and cooking. Also no cameras/Go Pros/ cell phones are allowed in the cave (hence all the promo photos I’ve used in this post) – you cannot take ANYTHING with you into the cave.
The hike through the jungle is pretty easy. It’s all a flat packed dirt path that has been cleared. You’ll cross 3 streams during the 20-30min walk. The first crossing happens almost immediately from the parking lot, within 100ft. The water levels of the streams vary depending on the time of year. For me (5′ 2″), the first stream was up to my chin, so I just decided to swim across rather than walking. There’s a rope that stretches across all the streams that you can hold onto and follow across. The two streams after the first one were much more shallow, only reaching my ankles.
If water levels are too high, your tour may be canceled.
You’ll reach a cleared picnic area with a pavilion and picnic tables at the end of the path. Here you can leave your water bottles or anything else that you brought with you which are not allowed to go into the cave. You also have the option of using the “facili-trees” – meaning if you need to pee, you can go swat behind a bush. There are no latrines.
Once everyone is ready to go, you’ll then go down a short set of stairs to the entrance of the cave. From here, you’ll have to swim into the cave and to a rock ledge a few feet past the entrance where you can then stand. This is the most difficult swimming portion of the cave.
The cave is roughly 3 miles deep, however you’re only going to be traveling .25mi of this. You’ll continue to follow your guide into the cave, stopping in sections where he will give you more information about the history of the cave and pointing out interesting formations. You’ll be walking against the flow of the river. The majority of the time, the water is below knee-depth, however there are some sections that were up to my chest or where I again needed to swim because I couldn’t touch. There were also only 2 narrow sections that we had to squeeze through, everything else was wide open.
There is some wildlife in the cave. We saw a little black bat trying to hide from our lights, a crab nestled between some of the rocks, fish in some of the bigger pools of water, and even some plants. Spiders are also commonly seen in the cave.
After a while you’ll come to the area where you’re going to explore a different section of the cave, which is up out of the water. Your guide will instruct you how to climb the large boulder which then leads to the ledge above and the higher section of the cave.
Once on the ledge, you will have to remove your shoes. This is in an effort to reduce the impact of the tourists on this dry area of the cave where the artifacts are. I highly recommend that you wear socks under your water shoes so that you can wear socks during this portion rather than bare feet since some of the areas where you’ll be walking are not smooth.
From here, you’ll again climb further back into the cave following your guide until you reach a large cavern. Your guide will take you around the cavern showing you the points of interests and explaining the remaining calcified artifacts. During the majority of our trip, we didn’t run into any other of the tour groups until this section. This areas creates a bit of a traffic jam in places as some tour groups are coming/leaving and there are only narrow areas where you’re allowed to walk (identified by roped off sections of the cave).
After the large cavern, you’ll continue to move further and further back into the cave. You’ll climb up another section, this time on a ladder, and then traverse across a much more rough rock face (also known as the “ouchy area”). At the back of this section is the Crystal Maiden, the fully intact skeleton remains. These remains are in a small area and it would be a tight fit for an entire 10 person group to view it all at once.
Then you’re back out the way you came in. Going down the ladder, down the rock face, putting on your shoes, down the boulder, and then back out the mouth of the cave to the picnic area and back to the parking lot. Here you’ll have a late lunch (likely rice, beans, and chicken) and rum punch with the other tourists and guides. You can change in the changing rooms and restrooms into your dry clothes before/after lunch for your ride back out the dirt road.
Is The ATM Cave Worth It?
Yes! Like I said, this was my favorite thing we did the entire time we were in Belize. I think this tour is absolutely worth it and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an off-the-beaten path adventure. It’s wild enough to keep it interesting, but still completely safe at the same time. The guides (or at least our guide) was really great (our favorite guide from any tour we did). He was super knowledgeable, funny, made sure to help anyone who was having trouble in the cave (on the ladder or climbing the boulders), and made this a really great tour.