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So, you’ve decided to see one of the most famous caves in the world for yourself. Whether it was your friend’s experience, the mystery surrounding the sacred site, or National Geographic’s praises, your tour is booked and no bloggers’ scary testimonies will keep you away from visiting the ATM Cave.
ATM, Actun Tunichil Muknal in Maya, translates to “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher,” and is considered one of the most sacred sites in Belize. Completing the tour is no breeze, and if your friend is to be believed, you need to be ready for whatever the jungle throws at you. However, don’t let this deter you. The scariest thing you will encounter is skeletal human remains, and that’s more cool than terrifying (to some, at least.) Located specifically in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in Western Belize, this tour takes about a total of four hours to complete.
Here is how to do ATM right, emerging with only a few scrapes and tons of bragging rights.
Take appropriate clothing. There will be lots of walking, spelunking, climbing, squeezing and swimming. You might want to prepare for that. The hike from the parking lot to the actual site is about a half hour to 45 minutes, and within that time you will cross three rivers (though relatively shallow.) You will want comfortable clothing that won’t restrict your movements. Parts of the path will require you to squeeze through crevices, climb onto ledges and even a metal ladder, so be sure your shoes have great grip and is close-toed. It’s recommended to wear quick drying long-sleeved shirt (protection against the mosquitoes) and comfortable athletic shorts.
Carry a lot. It is tempting to pack all those Cliff bars and giant water bottles and other equipment, but you will be weighed down considering the difficulty of the tour. It’s best to keep it simple and pack only what you need. Your change of clothes can stay in the car and so can your million-and-one snacks. You won’t have the time or energy to be lugging around a giant
Be prepared to swim. As mentioned above, you will come across three rivers before you make it to the cave, though that isn’t where your swimming adventures will end. The entrance of the cave itself is a pool about six feet deep you will need to swim through to get to the rest of the cave, but for those who cannot swim there is an alternate route. ATM is considered a ‘wet cave’ so be careful and stay on the guided path so you don’t slip amongst the rocks of the ground.
backpack, plus no one wants to be that guy who keeps back the group because of the large bag.
Touch. This one might be obvious, but still requires a gentle reminder for curious tourists now and then. Remember you are in a sacred site, so be respectful and try not to touch the many ancient artifacts in the cave.
Take sunscreen and bug repellant. The walk to the cave itself is not completely shrouded in trees so make sure to wear (waterproof) sunscreen (nothing like a stinging red sunburn to document your vacation, right? Not.) There is also the occasional bout of mosquitos that are well-known in Belize’s western region, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Trust your guide. Though the tour itself might be grueling and something you are not used to, there’s really no need to fear for your safety as long as you trust your guide. There are only a handful of guides certified to conduct tours at the ATM Cave and they receive extensive training, working closely with archaeologists and geologists to make sure the phenomenal site is preserved. If your guide says don’t cross the marked red lines, don’t cross the marked red lines.
Wander off. There’s a reason why the tour is limited to only 8 people per group, so there is no reason for you to be ‘left behind.’ Each guide takes their utmost care in making sure all guests are properly taken care off. The jungle of Belize might look inviting to explore, but it’s best to stick with your group and enjoy the tour itself. Besides, along the way the guide will be informing you on the history of the caves and during the hike, they will share lots of exciting tidbits about Belize.
Bring a camera. Last but not least, under NO circumstances can you bring a camera. The policy was implemented after an artifact got damaged by a camera falling on it. To not have such an unfortunate tragedy be repeated, there is a highly strict no-camera policy at ATM Cave. Besides, you won’t have time to be taking photos when you’re spelunking and climbing and swimming. It’s best to just enjoy the cave and all its wonders, and advice your friends they just have to make the trip themselves to believe your tale of a Maya skeleton in a deep, dark cave in Belize.
Expect to be amazed. This is where the real fun begins (though it can be argued the entire trek is an experience unlike anywhere else. Once you swim across and make your way gripping the cave wall, you will arrive at the most sacred part of the cave (which has a strict socks-only policy.) The cave opens up into a huge chamber, stalactites reaching for you from above. This is where you will see the ancient Maya artifacts like pottery. This is also where the famous Crystal Maiden rests. The Maya girl’s skeleton, dubbed “crystal maiden” due to its calcified bones causing it to shine like diamonds, is suspected to have been part of a Maya sacrificial ritual centuries ago. The remains are definitely eerie, hinting to a different world in a different time whose details are mostly unknown today.
If you’d like more information on activities to do in Belize, feel free to call us toll-free at 1-800-624-0686 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.