ATM Cave in Belize –
Why you need to do this right NOW
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What if I told you that the best place to relive your childhood dreams of competing on Nickelodeon’s 1990s show “Legends of the Hidden Temple” was in the ATM Cave near a small town called San Ignacio in western Belize?
First off, you’re probably thinking, “Nothing in this whole entire world could be as cool as actually putting on a Red Monkeys t-shirt and running through the Temple Run and putting together that damn monkey statue-puzzle-thingy!”
Second, you might be thinking, “Um, what the hell are they talking about?” Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for those non-90s kids out there.
Now that we are on the same page, I know there is a really big part of you that is thinking, “Man, I hope you’re serious!” Well, Belize it or not, we are completely serious!
The History – so you get the awesomeness of this cave
The Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the ATM as it is known locally (and by everyone else too…because who can pronounce those words?), is THE place to test your Temple Run skills at a place “filled with lost treasures protected by mysterious Mayan temple guards” (that’s a description of the Temple Run for the game show, but closely mirrors what you might see on your tour too…).
ATM cave was ranked as the number one sacred cave site in the world by National Geographic Society in 2012. Its name translates as the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, which should give you some indication of what lies inside…. but, if you’re like us, and had to look up sepulcher, it means a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.
The Mayans considered this place to be ultra-sacred and would venture in to spend time with the Gods and offer them sacrifices…of the human variety, of course! So, basically really old dead people in an ancient cave…count us in!
If I asked you to name something about Belize’s history, and if you paid any attention in your Ancient History class, you might come up with something along the lines of one of the ancient civilizations like the Aztecs, the Incans, or the Mayans, and maybe even further back to the Olmecs (I told you this was like Legends of the Hidden Temple).
And you’d be exactly right…well, really only if you said the Mayans.
The ATM cave is an archaeological site that was “discovered” in 1989 and opened to the public in 1998. I say “discovered” because the locals have known about this place forever, but it wasn’t until its “founder”, a doctor of archaeology, started conducting research here that this place was recognized for how awesome it really is.
As you might expect, the ATM cave is protected and there are only a few licensed guides that have been authorized to do tours in the cave. Once these guides hang up their headlamps and call it quits, no more ATM cave tours. Hence why you need to do this tour now…..NOW! But only after you finish reading this!
Getting to the Cave
We start on our journey from the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge (most places you stay will offer this as an excursion) with 5 other brave souls and travel the hour or so to ATM, along the absolute bumpiest of roads I’ve ever ridden on, past groves of oranges, and many throngs of cows and other livestock.
Once we cross a large creek in the van – yes, we drive through water – we reach the meeting point. Our guide for the day, Brainard, gets us all set with our helmets, headlamps, and life jackets, and makes sure we don’t have any cameras, cell phones, etc…more on that later. Wanting to beat the masses of tour groups to come, Brainard wastes no time and starts out on our 30-40 minute hike to the cave.
Within minutes of leaving the van, we come upon the first of 3 river crossings. Yes again, we said river, and we mean river. The first crossing is too deep to walk across, so you must swim while pulling yourself across with a large rope while fighting against a mild current. Brainard said the water temperature was “refreshing”, which is code for f-ing cold!
If this is where I lose you, we get it. Cold river crossing with a current. Well, we’ve got news for you Sport, there are 2 more river crossings and a 30-minute hike left in this adventure. Indiana Jones wouldn’t have called it quits and neither did we.
Now that we are sufficiently wet, Brainard starts in on a nature lesson, which is actually fascinating. The female tree-cutter ants do all of the work apparently while the males are used solely for mating. We also examined a large pile of jaguar poop, which according to our guide, was at least a day old — or so he claimed.
We come to a resting point where we take our last sips of water and go to the bathroom as we would be in the cave for nearly 2 hours. Believe me, you’ll need both hands throughout your time in the cave (sometimes wishing you had a third hand to help) and don’t want to be carrying anything.
Start the cave adventure – “Olmec, lower your gate if you please”
Descending upon the cave’s entrance, we climb down into the mouth and begin the trek about 2.2 miles (or 3.5 kilometers) into the cave’s belly, which meant immediately doggy-paddling in the frigid water. The first portion of this journey is wet…you’ll be in water for a good 45-60 minutes, ranging from ankle-deep to full-on swimming.
Don’t forget: this is a cave that dates back to 300 AD and has been home to numerous religious ceremonies and rituals, including human sacrifices. When we thought about continuing on, we had to think…WWIJD…as in What Would Indiana Jones Do.
After about an hour of swimming and wading through the active stream and around the slow-poke groups in front of us, we climbed up a huge rock. Upon reaching the top, we were asked to remove our shoes. Yep, this ancient cave with slippery, jagged rocks and bones galore requires you to take off your shoes for half of the tour. Seems logical.
We continue on and begin to find bones all over the place. Not just bones fragments either…I’m talking full-on leg bones, fingers bones, and even skulls. The whole shoes-off thing is to try and limit the impact of foot traffic because you are literally walking inches away from these ancient artifacts which have no protection around them whatsoever, other than your guide telling you to “Watch out!”
Super cool and eery all at the same time while being hit with the realization that these were human sacrifices. The ATM cave has to be one of the very few places in the world where artifacts and victims of sacrifice were left as-is and can still be viewed in their original contexts rather than in glass cases.
The site has never been excavated by archaeologists, with the Belize government using the watermarks in the cave to determine the age and history of everything. If you were to dig, we could only imagine the amount of bones preserved. I guess we’ll never know.
At this point, you’ve been walking/ swimming/ climbing in the cave for an hour and a half with zero end in sight. You begin to appreciate the vastness of this place and how complex and sophisticated of a society the Mayans were, not to mention – how the hell did they get these human sacrifices into this cave? I mean, seriously. We have literally completed no less than 15 obstacle courses to get to this point in the cave with life vests, headlamps, and helmets. How did they do it? I digress…
Now, obstacle #16, you must climb a 15-20 foot ladder (with no guard rails to protect you from falling) to reach the crown jewel attraction, the Crystal Maiden – but don’t worry, it’s worth it. The Crystal Maiden is a full skeleton of an adolescent girl (or is it a boy?), who was likely a sacrificial victim. They know nothing about this skeleton but it’s one of the few completely intact sacrificial remains in the cave.
You’d think this would be a good time to take a picture, right? Yes – but you have no camera or phone or GoPro. So carve this experience into your brain, because that’s the only place it will live. Keep reading to find out why there are no photos.
What other mystifying artifacts are in the cave? The Mayans aligned 3 fire pits in 3 completely separate caverns (rooms) within the cave that align perfectly with the star constellation, Orion’s Belt. Our society today has a hard time walking and texting at the same time, but the Mayans carried human sacrifices through a pitch-black cave with a torch while praying to the Gods and aligning fire pits. Fascinating stuff!
Now that you’ve reached the end of your adventure into the cave, it’s time to remember that what comes in, must go out. You get to do everything again — just in reverse. Down the ladder, down the rock, and back through the water.
On the way out, Brainard took us through a different passage where we had to pass through a part of the cave known simply as the “decapitator”. You must thread your neck perfectly through an opening while being shoulder deep in moving water. After learning about the Mayan sacrificing, we started to question Brainard’s motives here and if we were becoming sacrificed ourselves!
Making it through with no heads lost, we finally made it out of the cave and began the 40-minute hike back to modern civilization. The same 5 people who we started the tour with, and who were rather silent on our drive to the cave, had become great friends as we all helped each other through this challenging, yet utterly rewarding experience.
Back through the river 3 more times, passed the jaguar poop, and back to base camp, we got to change out of our sopping wet clothes and were treated to a local lunch of chicken, rice, and beans.
Back to Reality
Overall, the ATM cave was a truly awesome experience! But definitely not for the faint of heart. Or for those who are fearful of tight spaces. Or for those who don’t like climbing slippery rocks while barefoot. Or for those who don’t like ancient artifacts and human sacrifices.
BUT! If you’re cool with all of that, DO! THIS! NOW! And even if you aren’t cool with all of that, and if you’re physically capable, try to get over your fears and experience this rare chance to see history while you still can.
This tour was moderately demanding from a physical fitness point of view. One of the girls in our group (who is much more active than us) said this was the only time she felt like the helmet was necessary. Samantha personally hit her helmet on at least 10 occasions in the cave. We both survived with minor scrapes and bruises and one hell of a story.
Wondering why all the pictures of a kids’ game show, adventure movies, and really crappy stock photos of the ATM cave? Well, aside from needing the full attention and cooperation of your hands and feet throughout this tour, it turns out that some time ago, either in 2003 or 2012 (depends on your confidence in Wikipedia), some idiot dropped his/her phone directly on top of one of the ancient skulls, resulting in a huge hole in the skull (at least that’s what the guides have us believe).
Can you imagine the Mayan spirits that are still following that person around today?! Damn tourists! Similar to the no-shoes rule, the no-phones/camera rule is merely aimed at preserving the longevity and integrity of the cave and the ancient artifacts that remain.
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We are Samantha & Chris and we are Boozing Abroad (literally). Both stateside and overseas, we are connecting people with local cultures through local booze!