Actun Tunichil Muknal, hailed as the world’s largest sacred cave by National Geographic, became the ultimate choice for my first visit to Saint Ignacio. Opting for the renowned Mayan underworld adventure, it was the priciest but most renowned one-day tour, costing $125. From initial hesitations to a journey’s end filled with an insatiable desire for more, this immersive historical experience leaves an indelible mark. Join me as I share Belize’s unmissable must-visit spots, including the limited 125-person daily access to this world-class cave.
English is not my native language, but I am currently learning it. I am attempting to write articles in English to help others who may be searching for information. Some sentences might sound awkward or unusual, and I hope you understand. I welcome any questions you may have, and I’ll be happy to respond.
Being in Belize for nearly a month now, I had an unexpected extra day off due to some last-minute schedule changes with my school teacher. As soon as the final bell rang, my roommates and I decided to embark on a little adventure. Although I have yet to explore Belize City thoroughly and have a grammar exam on Monday, we didn’t want to miss this opportunity. With James, a friendly Taiwanese guide who lives in Belize, wholeheartedly recommending it, we chose the nearby town of San Ignacio.
San Ignacio, the capital of Cayo District, is located about an hour’s drive from Belize City. It’s easily accessible by bus, with buses departing approximately every 45 minutes. To get there, my roommates and I took a bus from the Belmopan Bus Station. We purchased tickets for 4 Belizean dollars each.
Second time taking a bus in Belize, and to my pleasant surprise, it had air conditioning! I used to think all buses here lacked AC, but this one was much more modern and upscale compared to the one I took in the Belmopan area last time.
This region boasts a wealth of Maya ruins, such as Cahal Pech, Chechem Ha Cave, and Chaa Creek Cave, among others. These sites showcase Maya architecture, murals, and artifacts. Additionally, you can visit local Maya villages and immerse yourself in the flavors of authentic local cuisine.
My first encounter with Maya culture, aside from what I learned in textbooks, was through Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Sun King. The movie portrayed the evil witch, Latīna, attempting to sacrifice Prince Dīo in a human ritual. It highlighted the Maya belief that sacrificing individuals of high status showed more sincerity. Additionally, the game of soccer that Prince Dīo and Nobita played together in the movie aligned with a historical notion in Maya culture, where only the victorious player had the bravery to be considered eligible for sacrifice.
Actun Tunichil Muknal – A World-Class Cave with a Daily Limit of 125 Visitors
Heading to ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) requires a licensed guide to lead the way. You can sign up for a tour with various travel agencies found in hotels, restaurants, or even on the streets. The pricing for ATM tours is around $125, and there might be slight variations among different providers. Fortunately, we managed to book ours for $95. We set out on Friday, and on Thursday, we tried inquiring if there were any last-minute deals or available slots at a lower price, but weekends tend to be busier, and unfortunately, we couldn’t find any available tours.
On the morning of the trip, just before 7:30, we finally joined a tour. One agency that had quoted us $95 the day before suddenly increased the price when we tried to sign up with them. Fortunately, we got lucky and found another agency online that offered the tour for $95, and the best part was that we didn’t have to join a group with strangers.
Before our departure, we had breakfast at Martha’s Kitchen near our hotel. The guide arrived at 9:00 to pick us up, and we embarked on a journey from San Ignacio to ATM. The road to the destination was quite bumpy, especially the gravel section before our arrival.
Upon arrival, the vehicle is parked at the entrance, and all luggage is left in the car as no personal belongings, including phones and cameras, are allowed inside. The site provides changing rooms where we can switch into appropriate attire. The guide distributed a water bottle and a headlamp-style safety helmet to each of us. Unfortunately, our tour didn’t provide life jackets, but we noticed other groups equipped with them. One group had only one elderly person wearing a life jacket while the rest did not.
Wearing pants or swimwear is recommended for the excursion. I chose to wear a T-shirt on the upper body and switched to swim shorts on the lower half. It was essential to avoid any cumbersome clothing since we needed to climb inside the cave.
Why is it not allowed to bring a camera to Actun Tunichil Muknal?
In 2012, due to an unfortunate incident where a tourist dropped a camera and caused damage to the cave’s artifacts, it is now strictly prohibited to bring cameras or cell phones without prior authorization for photography. (As a result, all the photos inside the cave in this blog post are sourced from travel websites.)
Before reaching the cave entrance, there is a 45-minute walk (as stated on the official website, though it doesn’t feel that long in reality). Along the way, you will need to cross three rivers. The first river is just one minute away from the entrance and is approximately chest-deep for someone around 160cm tall, making it one of the three deepest river crossings.
The water flow is clear and gentle, allowing you to vaguely see small fish and stones on the riverbed. Despite the warmth of the daytime sun, the water temperature is not cold, providing a refreshing and pleasant feeling. The depth of the water can be a bit nerve-wracking, as I initially thought we would only get wet once we entered the cave. To my surprise, just one minute after entering, we had to wade through the water. If I had known we’d get wet so soon, I would have saved some of my mosquito repellent and sunscreen.
The trail along the way is very smooth and not narrow, with a few overhanging branches here and there. Overall, it’s even more enjoyable to walk than various hiking and health trails in Taiwan. Luckily, the weather was mostly cloudy that day, sparing us from direct sunlight, making the whole experience exceptionally comfortable.
Along the way, the guide introduced us to various plant names, and surprisingly, there were no mosquitoes or insects bothering us. We encountered lizards and brightly shining blue and green butterflies that looked like something straight out of a Barbie movie. The observant guide even spotted a Porcupine hiding in the bushes. At first, we could only see its backside and tail, and my friend from Honduras and I thought it was a monkey. It turned out to be a slightly injured little porcupine, completely unafraid as it walked out of the bushes, crossed to the other side, and gave us the chance to witness a wild porcupine up close.
The website mentioned that it takes nearly an hour to walk to the cave entrance, but in reality, it didn’t take that long. Before entering the cave, there’s a small gazebo where we took a short break (about five minutes). The guide prepared his equipment and lights while showing us how to operate the headlamp on our safety helmets. Bottled mineral water was also available at the gazebo.
The full name of ATM is Actun Tunichil Muknal, and it stretches approximately five kilometers in length. The cave was discovered by archaeologists in 1989 but was only officially opened to the public in 1998.
The cave entrance is where the water is relatively deep. Before getting into the water, the guide asked if we knew how to swim. Since I mentioned that I wasn’t very confident, the guide positioned himself in the shallower area to lend us a helping hand in crossing the deepest part.
After guiding us to the shallow water area, the guide instructed us to follow the small stone steps along the edge. As there was no sunlight inside the cave, the water felt a bit chilly.
There was a very short section in the middle where we couldn’t touch the bottom (maybe just a few seconds). Combined with limited lighting, it was quite nerve-wracking. However, we quickly managed to proceed by gripping the rock walls for support. The riverbed was rocky, making it necessary to be cautious about slipping.
During the cave exploration, most of the time was spent moving through water, which varied in depth from shallow to deep. We even had small fish swimming around our feet. The journey was mostly in semi-darkness, relying on the light from our headlamps for illumination. Without the lights, it was challenging to see our surroundings clearly.
The cave is entirely natural, and along the way to the ceremonial site, we encountered numerous impressive stalactites. The formation of these magnificent structures took thousands to tens of thousands of years, resembling sparkling diamonds. The guide reminded us not to touch these formations. Additionally, the guide lightly tapped the stalactites three times to let us listen to their natural sound, which was remarkably crisp and mesmerizing. However, we were cautioned not to imitate this action.
Inside the cave, there were no photos as bright as the actual scene, but the spectacle was undoubtedly breathtaking. The headlamps on our safety helmets had relatively low brightness, suitable only for immediate illumination. Whenever we encountered significant points of interest or needed guidance for our steps, the guide would use his flashlight to provide better lighting.
Before reaching the ceremonial room, the journey involved various challenging terrains, including wading through water and navigating through rugged paths. We even spotted bat caves on the cave ceiling. At the same time, we felt fortunate that we couldn’t bring our phones or cameras as it allowed us to focus entirely on the adventure. Throughout the trip, we needed both hands and feet, and even if we had waterproof phones, there would have been no time or opportunity for photography!
Wearing the safety helmet properly is a must as the route involves navigating through varying elevations, and walking on rocky paths can be hazardous. It’s effortless to accidentally bump your head on the rocks. Surprisingly, on the return journey, the tension eased, but I managed to bump my head three times and slip twice. Safety precautions and careful attention are vital throughout the entire exploration.
The idea of crouching and immersing oneself in water to pass through tight spaces can be nerve-wracking, especially when worrying about getting stuck in between rocks. I also wondered if anyone had ever gotten stuck. The guide, being more robust in build, might have alleviated some concerns, but I still couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious about the narrow passages. However, the guide’s expertise and reassurance helped us navigate through those sections safely.
As we got closer to the “Holy of Holies,” the number of rocks to climb increased. Some rocks were so high that you would think they were just walls to pass by, but in the next moment, the guide would point and say, “Go this way.” The challenging terrain kept us on our toes, and it felt like an adventurous puzzle, requiring both physical strength and mental focus to navigate through the intricate path.
During this stage, I experienced moments of regret for embarking on the ATM journey. The images I saw before looked deceptively manageable, but in reality, it felt like climbing a full floor without any stairs, handrails, or safety measures. It required you to navigate the rugged rocks by climbing. At one point, I even contemplated staying put and waiting for others to return. The challenge of the ascent was indeed daunting and tested my resolve to continue further.
Facing my fear, I hesitated to take the first step. However, with the expert guidance of the experienced guide and the support of my fellow travelers below, I finally mustered the courage. The guide used his flashlight to show me where to place my hands and feet for the next steps. With their encouragement and assistance, I started to climb, and their reassuring presence made the ascent a bit less daunting.
After climbing the rocks, you’ll reach a slightly crowded area (seen in the upper right corner of the picture), where you’ll be required to remove your shoes. That’s right! From this point on, you can only go barefoot or wear socks for the rest of the journey.
Following that, you’ll enter a spacious area known as the “Holy of Holies” as it was used for religious ceremonies and rituals.
Walking on the sandy ground in the “Holy of Holies” can be quite painful, especially after spending a considerable amount of time soaking in the water earlier. The sand and stones underfoot can feel sharp and uncomfortable, but the awe-inspiring surroundings make it all worth it.
The guide will use their light to direct you where to go and stand in specific areas while giving explanations. The limited light adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the cave, but the guide’s skilled use of the flashlight ensures that you can fully appreciate the beauty and significance of each location while staying safe during the exploration.
The ATM cave holds immense significance for the Maya people as they consider it a sacred gateway to the spirit world. They conducted various religious ceremonies and rituals inside the cave, seeking blessings from the divine. If regular offerings failed to receive the desired protection from the spirits, they resorted to human sacrifice, using fresh blood to appease the deities.
Inside the cave, you can witness a vast array of artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and the remains of sacrificial victims. In total, 14 individuals were discovered, among them six were under the age of three, and one was around seven years old. While encountering real human skeletons might seem daunting, it surprisingly evoked a sense of calmness rather than fear. It felt as though they were always meant to be a part of this place, even though it’s difficult to comprehend the reasons behind such practices and the despair felt by those involved. The ATM cave stands as a profound testament to the ancient Maya beliefs and practices, offering a glimpse into their spiritual world and cultural history.
The real highlight of the journey is climbing this ladder. Even if you have experience with the previous rock climbing, looking at this tall ladder can still be intimidating, making you hesitate. At the top of the ladder is the pinnacle of the ATM cave, the “Crystal Maiden.” This is the moment where all your efforts and courage will be rewarded with an awe-inspiring sight that will leave you mesmerized.
After climbing up, you’ll find yourself in a relatively smaller chamber where a fully intact skeleton, known as the “Crystal Maiden,” rests. Her body has been remarkably preserved within the cave, becoming one of the defining features of the ATM cave. Due to the calcification process, her bones appear to shimmer and glow, which gives rise to the name “Crystal Maiden.” However, when you’re in the moment, you might not immediately notice the sparkling aspect of her remains. The sight is both fascinating and haunting, offering a glimpse into the ancient rituals and beliefs of the Maya people.
The return journey tends to be faster as the guide doesn’t make as many stops for explanations. Walking behind the guide with his flashlight leading the way, the path feels even darker than before. It’s easy to bump, scrape, and slip more frequently compared to the journey in, given the haste and limited visibility. Despite the challenges, the experience remains unforgettable, leaving us in awe of the ancient Maya’s connection to this sacred cave.
Upon reaching the entrance around 2 PM, the guide prepared a table with tablecloths in the resting area, and we enjoyed a delightful lunch together. After the physically demanding adventure inside the ATM cave, the meal provided much-needed nourishment and a chance to relax and share our experiences with fellow travelers.
It’s great to hear that the lunch and mineral water were included in the tour package. Our group enjoyed sandwiches for lunch, while other groups had boxed meals. The guide even provided us with some snacks. Before changing out of our wet clothes, we made a special request to the guide to return to the first river to take some memorable photos as souvenirs of our incredible journey.
It’s completely understandable to have hesitations before embarking on a tour like the ATM cave exploration. The high tour fee, along with the prospect of encountering human remains and swimming in the depths of a challenging cave, can be unsettling. However, the strict regulations and the need for certified local guides ensure a safe and meaningful experience.
You were fortunate to have a small group with a dedicated guide who took care of every detail throughout the journey. The guide’s support and guidance, especially in challenging areas, made the experience more manageable and enjoyable.
While it might have been regretful not to bring a camera to capture the awe-inspiring moments, not having that distraction allowed you to fully immerse yourself in the journey and be present in the cave’s unique atmosphere. The lack of photography also made the experience of encountering the human remains more profound, as it enabled you to focus on the significance of the site and respect its historical and spiritual importance.
Returning to the entrance, the driver dropped us off, and we were pondering how long we might have to wait for the bus at the nearby bus stop.
On our way back, one of the minivans happened to be heading towards Belmopan. I accomplished my first experience of riding a minivan in Belize. The fare for the return journey was 2 Belizean dollars, and the minivan drivers actively looked for potential passengers along the route, so there was no need to wave them down. We only paid the fare upon reaching our destination.
To Recommend or Not: Actun Tunichil Muknal Adventure?
Embarking on the ATM Cave expedition was truly a jaw-dropping and challenging adventure. Even after returning, the excitement lingers, and I can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment. The best part? It’s a remarkably safe journey, making it accessible to individuals with varying fitness levels and even those not accustomed to regular exercise. However, be prepared to deal with some muscle soreness for a few days upon your return.
This thrilling experience has undoubtedly earned a spot in my top ten life achievements. The sense of achievement and awe-inspiring moments encountered throughout the journey make it a truly unforgettable expedition. The ATM Cave provided a unique opportunity to step back in time and immerse myself in the enigmatic world of the ancient Mayans.
One of the remarkable aspects of this adventure is its inclusivity. Despite being a challenging trek, the tour is designed to cater to participants of all physical abilities. The guides are highly experienced and attentive, providing helpful support and guidance along the way. Even if you don’t consider yourself an athletic individual, this journey will undoubtedly leave you feeling accomplished and exhilarated.
As I reflect on my time in the ATM Cave, the memories of exploring the dark caverns, swimming through pristine waters, and discovering the secrets of the past come flooding back. It’s an experience that has left an indelible mark on my heart, and I can’t help but encourage others to embark on this extraordinary adventure.
If you’re seeking an adrenaline-fueled escapade and wish to challenge yourself while uncovering the mysteries of a bygone era, then the ATM Cave is a must-do on your bucket list. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring journey, where history meets adventure, and you’ll come out of it with a renewed appreciation for the wonders of our world.
Who is Suitable for Actun Tunichil Muknal?
Are you someone with a sense of adventure, longing to disconnect from your phone, and standing taller than 100cm with a normal physique? If so, then the ATM Cave expedition is tailor-made for you. This exhilarating experience will take you deep into the heart of the ancient Mayan world, offering a rare opportunity to explore a cave filled with millennia-old history and mysteries. Although the water’s depth might make even a 160cm-tall adult feel a little nervous, the tour website states that individuals as short as 100cm (40 inches) are eligible to participate. This showcases the professionalism of the guides and the trip’s emphasis on safety and accessibility.
This type of adventure tour is especially appealing to children seeking an adrenaline-fueled experience. However, for those uninterested in history, it might be perceived as a bit dull. Therefore, it’s recommended for participants above junior high school age, and during our journey, we did not encounter any children in the group.
One crucial tip is to avoid visiting during the rainy season, as high water levels could lead to the cave being closed for safety reasons. Moreover, due to the potential impact of rising sea levels, there’s a possibility that the ATM Cave might eventually become submerged. Therefore, if you have the opportunity, don’t miss out on this unforgettable experience.
Overall, the ATM Cave expedition is an adventure like no other, attracting thrill-seekers, history enthusiasts, and anyone seeking to disconnect from modern distractions. So, if you’re ready to embrace the challenge, escape your phone, and delve into the mysteries of an ancient world, the ATM Cave should definitely be on your bucket list.