7 Tips & Tricks for Visiting the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave of Belize

You feel like Tomb Raider hiking out and exploring the ATM caves in Belize. Here are 7 tips to prepare you for this adventure.

Walking deep into a cave is not always for the faint-hearted. I wouldn’t say I’m the claustrophobic type, closing a door to a small dark room won’t make me squeal, but squeezing down narrow shafts of a cave definitely gets the heart racing.

Regardless of any fear the mind may have for narrow dark spaces, boy was visiting the ATM cave of Belize was a blast.

A brief history of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)

Discovered in 1989 and also known as the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, the cave was used by the Mayans in the late classic period in a desperate plea to their gods to help flourish the lands with crops. Mayans were, as you know, an incredible civilisation, and while their end inevitably came from the arrival of the Spaniards, their downfall began a lot earlier. Although there are many mixed opinions on the matter, what was known as their farming capability was nothing short of destructive and conducive to their famine. Rather than refurbish and reuse farmland, they would burn it, and move on to the next patch. Mixed with drying wells, and bad weather, they soon were in danger of starvation.

Regardless of their technology, advanced mathematics and knowledge of the sky, to help with their famine, they turned to their gods.

Mayans believed in the supernatural, which included heaven and the underworld, both with many levels and deities. In this instance, praying underground, meant praying to the gods of the earth to refurbish the land. This is where the cave came in. It was a direct path to give a sacrifice of human life to please their gods.

Travelling deep into the cave

The tour is quite the adventure, and you get a fun Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe as you’re walking through the jungle, swimming through lakes and caves, and squeezing through narrow paths to find the hidden tomb.

The guide enriches the experience with deep knowledge on the history of the Mayans and the region.

Reaching the final room is incredibly rewarding and I still can’t fathom some of the bones, pots and natural cave formations left behind over 1,000 years ago. I don’t want to spoil the setting, you genuinely need to experience it.

You get a fun Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe.

But the Crystal Maiden is the final site. An almost perfectly preserved set of bones of an 18-year-old girl who had been sacrificed during this period. A reminder of some of the torment Mayans had endured, and their desperation to save their people from the coming famine.

Tips for visiting the ATM cave, Belize

If you are planning a trip here (which you should!) here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to the ATM cave:

1) Bring reef shoes

Your feet with being submerged in water for much of the tour, so it’s best to bring reef shoes to wear as they dry quickly and won’t get smelly! Although preferable, you don’t need hard toe reef shoes – completely soft ones are okay and accepted by the tour companies. Ideally, if you are travelling down the east coast of Mexico, get them in Playa Del Carmen as it houses the most shops, offering greater choice (cost is anywhere from $10 – $20USD)

2) Bring socks

There is the dry cavern where you will be required to take off your shoes to enter and walk through. As such you’ll want socks on as the ground has many small sharp rocks!

3) Don’t wear a long sleeve shirt

While it seems like a good idea at first, particularly if you’re prone to getting cold, you do visit the dry cavern for quite an extended portion of the tour and you’ll be standing in damp clothes for a long time. As such, it actually makes you colder since you’re wearing more wet clothing, and don’t worry, the cavern air is relatively warm, so you don’t freeze!

4) Do you really need a life jacket?

If you’re a competent swimmer, you don’t really need a life jacket unless perhaps it’s the wet season!

During our visit in early April 2019 (the end of the dry season), the water levels were relatively low, so there were only 2 sections during which I had to swim as my feet could not touch the bottom (I’m 1.7m tall). This was at the very entrance to the cave for about 10m and after about 10 minutes into the cave.

Being said, our guide explained that during the wet season the water levels in the cave can rise by almost 50-60cm, in which case there would be significantly more spots on the tour where swimming would be necessary. Of course, if you are not a confident swimmer, or want the added warmth, then a life jacket is for you!

Also if you are looking to go in September/October, be mindful it is hurricane season and if water levels rise too much, the ATM cave is closed to tourists for safety reasons.

5) Get on the bus early

Being the first group in the cave is magical as the waters are clear (as groups traipsing through haven’t yet stirred up sediment) and with the quiet, it feels like you have the caves all to yourself. We were lucky enough to be the 1st group through for the day. As we were leaving, because you exit the same way you enter, we often ran into groups who had only just begun and were then forced to stop at multiple points to let exiting groups pass. As always, the early bird catches the worm!

6) No cameras of video devices!

You can’t bring cameras or video recording devices into ATM cave. Period.

Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events with tourists in the past have lead to this ban on all devices in the cave. The upside though is you don’t need to worry about dry bags, fiddling with cameras, and your attention is 100% focused on taking in the moment 😊. You do receive photos at the end of the trip, but they are pre-taken photos of the cave by the tour agency – there is no tour guide following you with a camera and taking pictures of your group!

7) The tour and hike is not dificult

The tour does require some climbing up rocks and minimal parts of swimming (approx. 10m – 15m), but you don’t need to be a gym junkie to do this. The hardest parts are swimming into the entrance of the cave, climbing up a short ladder and a rock boulder to get to the dry cavern and probably squeezing through some tight spaces.

You don’t have to be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to do this tour.

All of this, however, is very much doable, and the tour guides guide you through every step, foothold and movement along the way.

Date visited: 16 April 2019.
Tour agency: MayaWalk Tours. We decided on these guys as they were one of the most and highest rated tour operators on TripAdvisor and departed at 7am from their office in San Ignacio.
The price paid: USD85 per person. We were initially quoted USD$95 but received a discount after requesting one for a group of 5 people.

If you enjoyed our post please share, tweet or pin it.

Join our mailing list for monthly updates

7 THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE VISITING CHICHEN ITZA: GUIDE, TIPS & TRICKS

Considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world. here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to Chichen Itza.

Considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world as voted in 2007, the UNESCO world heritage site Chichen Itza is a must see in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Located approx. 2 hours drive from the popular Tulum and Cancun, the Mayan engineering marvel is a fascinating sight to behold.

Dominated by the famous El Castillo or Temple of Kulkulcan, the ruins are made up of multiple sites and a network of paved roadways, reflecting the city complex, which was built sometime in the 5th century AD. By 600 AD, Chichen Itza had grown to become a thriving urban centre of Mayan civilisation, with an estimated 50,000 people living in the city at its height.

If you are planning a trip here (which you should!) here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to Chichen Itza:

Beating the crowds means having the temple all to yourself.

1. Timezone differences!
Perhaps the most important of all, particularly if you are making the visit from Tulum or Cancun, is being aware of a possible time zone change. In 2015, the state of Quintana Roo (in which Cancun and Tulum are located) decided to change to Eastern Standard Time, permanently gaining an hour of sunlight for tourists. Chichen Itza located in the state of Yucatan however, which still observes Central Daylight Time. Although, during April – October when daylight saving is in play, both states operate in the same time zone.

Between October – April when daylight saving is not observed in Yucatan, this creates a time zone difference. During this time, Chichen Itza is an hour behind Tulum, so if you’re planning on getting there just before opening at 8 am don’t forget to factor that in otherwise you’ll be like us and arrive before 7 am!

2. An early start to beat the crowds
While you don’t want to be too early, you do want to get there as close to opening as possible. A small queue had already formed by 7:45 am and being amongst the first people inside for the day means you get to enjoy the quiet and awe of Chichen Itza without the crowds and in the relative cool of the early morning.

3. Taking in your SLR camera
Be mindful there is a fee for the use of what they deem professional cameras and videos at Chichen Itza and requires a separate ticket to be used (i.e. DSLR’s and go pros. Regular point and shoot cameras like our Sony RX100 was fine). As such if you’re not willing to pay the fee, or happy to use our phone to snap pics, leave your camera and GoPro at home.

4. Entry fees
You will need to buy two tickets at Chichen Itza – one is the federal fee (MXN75 p.p), and one is the state fee (MXN400 p.p). When we were there in April 2019, we could pay both tickets on credit-card, but it’s often said that the state fee is paid in cash.

5. Cenotes of Chichen Itza
Unfortunately you can’t swim in the cenotes at Chichen Itza, however, if you’re looking for great nearby ones, our favourites were Ik Kil (8 mins away) or Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman (45 mins away just on the outskirts of the nearby town Valladolid and on the way back to Tulum).

The cenote Ik Kil.

Both open top cenotes, Ik Kil though is consistently rated in the top cenotes in Mexico with beautiful vines that dip down to the 40m deep waters. It has many facilities, including an on-site restaurant, lockers and accommodation options. The entrance fee is MXN70.

For Hacienda Oxman, what’s different about this cenote is it has both a natural underground pool (with rope swing!) plus an above ground pool with a bar if you’re craving a bit of sunshine. It also has three options for entry fees, all of which include life vest use and access to the pool.

a) MXN80 flat entry fee
b) MXN100 entry fee with MXN50 redeemable on food and drinks
c) MXN150 entry fee fully redeemable though on food and drinks

While we didn’t try the food, it was nonetheless a perfect post-Chichen Itza stop for an afternoon swim and drinks!

6. Lunch
A fantastic stop for lunch near Chichen Itza is Yerberbuena in nearby town Valleidod. This serves a delicious meal with local Mexican dishes and even vego/vegan options. If you go, we highly recommend their mango frappe – it was divine!

Snapping a selfie with no crowds around.

7. Special events
There is a bi-annual festival during the spring and autumn equinox each year at Chichen Itza that celebrates the beginning of spring. An interesting fact: there is equal (12 hours each) of daylight and night.

Occurring every year in March and September – generally on the 21st of the month – on these days in the late afternoon around 4 pm, the light of the sun casts a shadow along with the steps of the Kulkulkan template that makes it appear like a serpent is slithering down the pyramid. This amazing display of the Mayan’s advanced astronomical knowledge and is a fun celebration to be had as thousands gather each year to admire this phenomenon. While we missed it this time around, if you are planning a holiday in these months, it will be well worth lining up the dates!

GUIDE TO DISNEY WORLD MAGIC KINGDOM: TIPS, TRICKS & THINGS I WISH I KNEW

Disney World is truly a magical place, but can be tough to navigate with so many people. Here are key tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your visit.

Park VisitedMagic Kingdom on EMH
Date Visited Friday 22 March 2019 during spring break
(est. crowd calendar 8 out of 10)
Park Pass & Price
1 day Disney theme park base ticket (adult)
USD$132.50 p.p including all taxes and fees

On our last 2 trips to Tokyo and Paris, we had tried to visit Disneyland but could never line up the dates or quite make it work with our itinerary. So when planning our trip to the US this time around, Disney World was designated a “must see”. Unfortunately for us though, the only feasible dates perfectly aligned to spring break in Florida and try as we might, we couldn’t shift our timing. Our park of choice for this visit was the quintessential Disney World Magic Kingdom and so to maximise our time and minimise disappointment, I researched how to plan an optimal day in Disney World and luckily this paid off!

So how you might ask did we, during spring break period, manage to only wait a maximum 35 minute per ride, see everything we wanted to see and leave exhausted, but happy after a long and magical day?

Whilst by no ways exhaustive, these are just some of our own (hopefully) useful tips and tricks for an adults-only visit to MK:

1) Definitely try and score Extra Magic Hours (“EMH”) access

EMH is where guests of Disney resorts and select hotels can spend extra time in the theme park on a given day, either before it opens or after it closes. We timed our visit with a day EMH was in the morning for MK, so during spring break this meant MK opened at 7am with a significant crowd already gathered by 6:30am. EMH is definitely worth it in the morning though as whilst there was still a crowd gathered at opening time, ride wait times are the lowest they will be all day!
See below for non-Disney hotels that can still access EMH.

2) Arrive at least 30 minutes before opening time and don’t forget to factor in time passing through security, getting on the monorail and walking!

Don’t forget to factor in time walking from your car (if you drive) to the monorail entrance, passing through security, travelling on the monorail, and then time walking down from the station to the main gates of MK.
All in all at 6am the lines were minimal and we parked close to the entrance so this took about 15 minutes for us, however the later you go, the much longer the wait becomes particularly passing through the security check.

3) Book in your Fast Passes+ when it opens and book each pass 1.5 – 2 hours apart.

The Disney Fast Pass+ is a free benefit for everyone and one you should definitely take advantge of. It essentially allows you to “skip the line” on three attractions each day and it’s booking system opens 30 days in advance or 60 if you’re staying with a Walt Disney World resort or hotel with Extra Magic Hour benefits (such as where we stayed at Disney Swan Resort –see below!)

We unfortunately booked ours on the 3rd day after it opened and already missed out on securing a fast pass for the popular 7 Dwarves Mine ride. As such and given we love thrill rides, we booked our first 3 on: Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Booking your Fast Passes 1.5 – 2 hours apart gave us the opportunity to fit in seeing one other ride between each Fast Pass attraction. For example we had a Fast Pass at 9:30am,11am and 12:30pm. Doing this also allows you some time to walk around and see the sites within each land without having to dash like a mad person to the next booking! Also don’t forget you can’t book your next fast pass until all 3 initial Fast Pass bookings have lapsed – so it’s best not to leave your 3rd Fast Pass booking late in the day!

4) Head straight to the 7 Dwarves Mine ride at rope drop

If like us you don’t secure a 7 Dwarves Mine fast pass, I suggest you make a beeline for this ride when the park opens as wait times reach up to 195 minutes by lunch and it never dropped below 70 minutes whilst we were there (yes it’s crazy).  Although we weren’t at the front of the line when the gates opened, we only had to wait 25 minutes for this first ride of the day!  After the 7 Dwarves, we then did the short walk to Peter Pan (a 30 minute wait) and by the time EMH ended and the park fully opened, we had seen 2 of the most popular rides, with Fast Passes+ booking for the remaining one’s!

Disneyworld selfie with Cinderellas castle.
Excitement – Cinderellas castle!

5) Constantly refresh your Disney app when booking in your next Fast Pass

Disney allows you to book more Fast Passes – albeit one at a time – once all 3 of your initial Fast Pass bookings lapse.

When we were re-booking our next Fast Pass, we refreshed constantly as new time slots opened up all the time. We were able to score a Fast Pass to Haunted Mansion, our next preference that way when the ride’s average wait time was 75 minutes.

Also, towards the end of the day the app often says all the Fast Passes are “exhausted” – but again just keep refreshing as new options always loaded back up.

Lastly, when booking in later Fast Pass slots, I’d recommend just booking whatever is appealing, even it’s a 2nd or 3rd preference. Then use the ‘modify’ reservation function in the app to keep scanning to see if another more attractive ride slot pop ups. That way you always have an option booked!

6) Bring a battery pack for your phone!

You will likely be glued to your Disney World app as it’s where all the wait times are updated in real time and where you can book your Fast Passes from. Add in free wifi park wide and the wait time for rides = significant screen time for the day.

7) Use noon – early afternoon to eat, check out the stores and take a break from the rides!

By lunch time, crowds are the craziest and wait times for the most popular rides can hit up to 200 minutes. Depending of course on when your next Fast Pass is, we used this time to grab lunch, check out the daily parade, do some shopping on main street and (for one of us) to take a quick nap to recharge.

For a summary of our day plan – see below!

Having a nap at Disneyworld
Having a nap.

8) When filling into cinemas or shows and selecting where to sit, pick the row where a fair number of people have gone before you

In every show there are attendants that direct people to fill up each row from the ends first, meaning people can’t just plop down in the middle of the row. This means that rather than choosing an empty row, if you choose a row where people have already gone before you, you have a better chance of getting a middle seat!

9) Visit the Crystal Arts shop on Main Street for the glass blowing demonstration

You get to see close up and personal a live demonstration on blowing glass by the same people who produce the wares on sale in the Disney shop! It’s an interesting and fascinating 15-20 minute show that was held every hour.

10) If you read in other blogs to skip the Happily Ever After fireworks at 9:15pm and line up for popular rides as the crowds lessen – DON’T DO IT!

Firstly, the firework show was one of the highlights of our entire day – it was the perfect end to our time at Disney World and a fantastic collaboration of fireworks, music, lasers, lights and all beloved Disney characters. It isn’t just for kids as it also touches upon many of the older classic Disney movies and isn’t a short show, going for a solid 18 minutes so it is worth the wait. We arrived about 40 minutes before the show started and got a prime position, but they do pack the square so as many people as possible can get a great view. I would also note I did check the app and wait times, and whilst they did decrease slightly on the popular rides it was only by 10-15 minutes, so still a 80 minute wait for the 7 Dwarves Mine or Space Mountain!

Firewords at Disneyworlds closing celebrations.
Night time fireworks at Disneyworld!

11) The bus may be faster

When leaving the park, if the line for the monorail is mammoth – take a bus! When exiting the park, rather than heading right to the monorail, veer left towards the buses. There are always many attendants around who will point you to the direction of the next bus. When we left, the line for the monorail was insane and rather than a >30 minute wait, we were able to board a bus straight away and was back at our car within 7 minutes.

12) If you want to buy Mickey Mouse ears, buy them at the start of the day

I ummed and ahh’d about buying Mickey Mouse ears and finally caved as owning an original pair from Disney World has been a long time want for me. If you buy it at the start of the day, at least you’ll get to wear it for the full day and maximise your cost per wear 😊

Mini Mouse ears at Disneyworld.
Mini Mouse ears at Disneyworld.

13) Check out Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn – it’s Mexican food with generous sizing sizes and affordable pricing.

If you like Mexican and are looking for a hearty meal, this is a good place.
You pay for base ingredients for your Mexican meal such as the meat, tortilla, rice, chips, etc but all toppings (cheese, salsa, sour cream, tomatos, lettuce, jalapenos) are self serve! So you can load up your plate for a filling lunch.

14) If Disney Resorts are too expensive consider these other hotels as they can access all the same Disney benefits such as the all important EMH!

  • Walt Disney World Swan Hotel
  • Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
  • Shades of Green Resort
  • Disney Springs Resort Area Hotels
  • Four Seasons Resort Orlando
  • Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek; and
  • Waldorf Astoria Orlando.

We managed to score a great deal at Walt Disney World Swan Hotel (which despite the name is not technically a “Disney Resort”) and stayed for a fraction of what the cheapest Disney Resort would have cost us.

It was a great hotel however if you do stay here make sure to check if the daily US$30 resort fee is included in your quoted price or not! Also, good to note that parking is charged at US$20 per day in addition as well.

15) Save a bit of money!

Purchase your ticket through authorised resellers such as undercovertourist.com and scout websites such as http://www.ebates.com for any cash back offers! This worked out to be cheaper than purchasing direct from Disney (though bear in mind the type of ticket we bought) and I managed to score some cash back.

If you are new to ebates, you can automatically get US$10 back (plus any cash back %) by using this referral link! https://www.ebates.com/r/GABRIE25532?eeid=28187

16) Lastly, there are some great useful websites out there already that explain ride strategy, the fast pass system and the crowd calendar if you wish to read up some more!

Our ItineraryApprox. TimingApprox. Waiting Time
Arrived at the park entrance, ready and waiting for rope drop!6:30 AM30 min to
opening
1) 7 Dwarves Mine Railway7:00 AM35 min
2) Peter Pan 7:45 AM35 min
3) Splash Mountain (FastPass #1)9:30 AM5 min
4) Pirates of the Caribbean10:15 AM30 min
5) Enchanted Tiki Room Show 10:45 AM10 min
6) Big Thunder Mountain
Railroad
11:30 AM5-10 min
7) Monsters Inc Show12:00 PM10 min
8) Presidents Hall Show12:30 PM
9) Space Mountain (FastPass #3)1:15 PM15 min
Lunch / parade / shopping / glass blowing demonstration / snooze 2:30-6:30 PM
10) Mickeys Philharmonic Magic Show15 min
11) Haunted Mansion (FastPass #4)7:15 PM15 min
12) Dumbo (FastPass #5)8:00 PM10 min
13) Happily Ever After Fireworks
(snagged a spot by 8:30pm)
9:15 PM 45min
14) It’s a small world after all (FastPass #6) 9:45 PM5 min
Home time! 10:30 PM

HOW I TAKE SHOTS OF THE NIGHT SKY

As a night owl, I enjoy staying up late and practicing taking shots of the night sky. With limited tech, here are some of the tricks I use to get that perfect shot.

Picture of the Milkyway, in the night sky above the Train Cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia
The Milky Way over the Train Cemetary, Sucre, Bolivia

I’ve said this before, I’m not a photographer by any means, but I do love practicing and learning to take beautiful shots, and having even more fun editing them later. I have a lot of photography friends, both in my agency back home and others who travel full time. This makes learning about photography fun and easy.

I posted a picture a month back, you can see in the header of this post, and it went nuts. Since then, I’ve had a lot of questions on how I got this shot, so I thought I’d share this with you.

MY EQUIPMENT

Firstly, I don’t have a lot of professional gear. I don’t have a cannon EOS MK V, or a case full of lenses. I’m traveling for a year with a backpack! The last thing I need is another several kilograms of tech equipment. I have something simple but still powerful.

  • Probably the best point and shoot on the market, the Sony RX100 VI. With a 24-200mm lens, 8x zoom, and 2.8 aperture, it’s perfect for my long period of travel.
  • 128GB micro sd card for the camera, plenty of room for the camera
  • Phone, Samsung Galaxy S8
  • Small trusty flex-tripod
  • External battery pack, in case the batteries start to die
  • Torch/headlamp, to see in the dark
  • And laptop Surface Pro 2017, for editing after/on the go

CHOOSING THE RIGHT LOCATION

This is everything for shots like this. Unless you have a professional camera, for night shots you need it to be as dark as possible. If you’re close to a city with bright lights, don’t bother trying with a simple camera. The city glow will drown out any possibility of capturing that perfect night sky.

Make sure you’re taking photos at least 2 or 3 hours after sunset.

Similarly, it’s better if it’s moon free, as moonlight will have a significant negative impact.

SETTING UP THE CAMERA

You need to test what settings work best for your camera and the environment. So make sure you have plenty of time to play around before taking your final shots.

  1. Camera set to a wide shot and manual focus.
  2. Exposure set to 20 to 25 seconds. Any higher and you start getting a slightly blurry image as the stars move across the sky.
  3. Aperture set between 2.8 and 3.5.
  4. The camera is set to scenery mode.
  5. White balance set to 0, or auto if you like.
  6. ISO between 3500 and 6000. Depending on the camera, any higher than 6000 and you tend to get a grainy image.
  7. Make sure the digital screen is set to it’s lowest dim settings.
  8. Set your timer to 2 or more seconds, so that when you take the shot, you don’t bump the camera and blur the image.

Even better, if you can have a trigger to take the shot separate from the camera, this will prevent any concern of camera bumpage. I used the Sony Imaging Edge+ app. that works with my Sony RX100 Camera.

Set your camera into position, pointing at the sky (obviously).

Now is the hard part. As it’s night, your camera will possibly struggle to autofocus on the sky. Which is why you need manual focus. You need to try and find a star, and make sure that star looks as crisp as possible by adjusting the focus.

TAKING THE SHOT

With everything set up, now you can take the phot.
As mentioned above, this is a trial and error experience. Depending on where you are, you may need to adjust a lot of these settings. Give it a shot, try for a couple of hours, it’s great fun, and the end results are worth it.

EDITING AFTER

Once you’ve taken the shots, you may want to edit them slightly. I use Adobe Lightroom CC for this.