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