One of the most popular Belize attractions for thrill seekers is Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. This notable Maya archaeological site is also known as the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre or “Xibalba.” ATM Cave is listed at the Top Sacred Cave in the world by National Geographic, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Below, we’ll discuss the history of ATM Cave as well as describe the tour that you can take.
ATM Cave was discovered rather recently in the year 1992. Archaeologists have declared the cave as one of the most well-preserved remnants of the pre-classical Mayan culture from the time period 700-900 AD. Over the years, the cave has been extensively explored and maps show that it covers a total distance of 3.3 miles (5.3 km). In the year 2000 ATM Cave was opened to the public and many tour companies in Belize offer fully guided day trips into the cave.
There are several unique factors that make the ATM Cave experience unlike any other tourist attraction in the region. First, the cave is still completely intact, left exactly the same way the first explorers found it. That means that all artifacts, including human skeletal remains and Maya pottery, are still there with no glass or separators between visitors and the artifacts. Cool or creepy, take your pick, but this is precisely cameras have previously caused accidental damage and are now banned from the cave.
The second unique part about ATM Cave is the incredible, adrenaline pumping adventure tourists take to reach the main chamber. Read more about the journey below.
ATM Cave is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, which is a 40-minute drive on a bumpy road from San Ignacio. Once you enter the Reserve by vehicle, it is a 45-minute easy hike into the jungle. This hike involves crossing two rivers on foot. Don’t worry about getting wet during this hike, as the cave itself is flooded with water and requires a light swim just to enter. Once inside of the cave, it is a 90-120 minute adventure through the cave’s various chambers before you reach the main chamber, “The Cathedral” where the skeletal remains and Maya pottery are located. It should be noted that given the sensitive areas of The Cathedral, visitors are asked to remove their shoes and walk barefoot or in socks in this area.
You will likely spend about 30-60 minutes doing a guided tour of The Cathedral before you pack out and head back out. The full ATM Cave trip lasts between 4 to 6 hours.
ATM Cave Tour
The terrain throughout the whole ATM Cave experience involves hiking through the jungle, swimming into and throughout parts of the cave, as well as bending, crawling, scrambling, and climbing. There is no natural light in the cave, so water resistant headlamps are provided by tour companies. Hard helmets are also provided.
While the journey to ATM Cave involves hiking, crawling, climbing, swimming, and scrambling inside of a huge cave. You don’t need any specialized training in caving or rappelling to participate. As a result, it is regarded as an eco-tourism activity rather than an extreme caving adventure. ATM Cave guides are well versed in both safety and knowledge, making it a great educational experience.
For safety reasons, visitors to ATM Cave must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide. These guides have been expertly trained and certified by the Belize Tourism Board. They know every little nook and cranny inside the cave and will guide you through safely. All guided tours are generally limited to a maximum of 4-6 people at a time. It is imperative to listen to your guide very carefully at all times to avoid injury to yourself or artifacts. The cave is home to bats and insects, but they will generally flee the area when tours are coming through.
ATM Cave is full of tight crawl spaces and areas of deep water. It is not recommended for anyone with claustrophobia, a fear of the dark, or medical conditions. Cameras are banned from the caves without exception due to valuable artifacts being previously damaged by cameras being dropped.
When to Visit
It is best to avoid visiting during Belize’s wet season since flooding can lead to tour cancellation. Learn more about the wet season in Belize as well as some tips on what to pack for Belize here.
Recommended ATM Cave Tour Companies
If you’re seeking other cave adventures, we also recommend the following:
- Extreme Caving at Crystal Cave or Black Hole Drop
- Leisurely Caves Branch Tubing
- Barton Creek Cave Canoeing
ATM Cave Park Photo Gallery
*Since cameras are not allowed ATM Cave, the below photos are credited in the captions.