Disclaimer – I’m not going to lie, some of the ATM Cave Tour is tough, BUT don’t be put off by my account of the ATM Cave Tour. Our guide cottoned on early that we were a very quick and able group so chose to challenge us. There were much larger groups, including a group who had to be in the 70s! doing the ATM Cave Tour but were taking an easier route than some of the stuff I talk about in this post. Check with your guide prior to booking this and let them know exactly what you are and aren’t willing and able to do. Also bear in mind the weather. I did the ATM Cave Tour at a particuallry wet time of the year, so water levels were much higher than normal.
So what are the ATM Caves?
In all honesty, I didn’t have a clue what the ATM cave tour was prior to starting this trip. The first thing that sprung to my mind when I heard the phrase ‘ATM’ was cash machine; so no, this isn’t a trip to a cave to find the Worlds-most-hard-to-reach-cashpoint!
For those not in the know *slowly raises hand* ATM translates to Actun Tunichil Muknal (now you see why everyone calls it the ATM cave tour!) which is a Mayan archaeological site complete with (nearly) pristine artefacts including offering jars, ceramics and human skeletons!
The ATM cave tour really is as close as most of us will get to being Indiana Jones or Lara Croft because to get to these awesome artefacts you have to cross three rivers, do some jungle trekking and enter a pitch-black cave and navigate your way through the narrow crevasses, plunge pools, and slippery climbs all while going against the flow of the river!
The most heart gutting thing about the ATM cave tour is that you CANNOT under any circumstances take a camera with you (hene why none of the pictures in this thread are my own), no matter how much you plead or how well it’s strapped to you. The reason is, some imbecile a few years back dropped their camera onto one of the skulls leaving a square shaped hole in its cranium and thus ruining thousands of years’ worth of history in an instant. So, the pictures in this article are from stock images, I take no credit for their awesomeness.
Pre-ATM Cave Tour Heads up
It’s best to book the ATM cave tour in advance as places can sell out in peak season. It’s a relatively short drive from San Ignacio, just over an hour. If you can, try and get onto a small group booking, I did see some larger groups go through and I was thankful to be in a more relaxed group with just 5 of us.
A couple of pointers, wear clothes that you don’t mind a) getting wet and b) are comfortable when they are wet – you will be wet for the whole day. Also, try to wear something that at least covers your knees and shoulders so you don’t come out covered in grazes.
On the day, what happens?
You will get picked up from the main town of San Ignacio and diven in a 4×4 to the parking area where the ATM Cave Tour starts. Your guide will kit you out in a helmet with a waterproof head torch on top. Apart from the clothes you are wearing, that’s all you will be taking with you. If you need a snack or the toilet, now is the time to do it.
You are now ready to henceforth your adventure.
Let the adventure(s) begin
Within about 200m (muddy) walk we came to our first of three river crossings. Due to the Biblical style rains the region had suffered recently, the rivers were high. High rivers meant they were a chocolate brown colour with a reasonably strong current, and that you couldn’t touch the floor; you have to swim. Thankfully there is a rope to hold on to so that you can pull yourself across. Just don’t let go!
Part one of the ATM Cave Tour done, we clambered out onto the muddy bank to continue a good paced hike through the jungle. I’d heard from one girl I spoke to that the jungle trek was tough, aside from being slippery because of the mud, I wouldn’t class any of the jungle trek as beyond gentle – it’s pretty much flat and there is a wide and clear marked path so it would be near impossible to get lost.
We approach the second river crossing – not quite so deep this time, approximately thigh height, but the challenge this time was not to trip over the rocks under the water. The current was still strong here and tried it’s best to push you over if you stumbled on a rock – again the rope is there, so use it.
Another short jungle walk followed by our third and final crossing. A little deeper this time, up to bum height, still with plenty of rocks to trip over, the strong current and a rope to hold on to. The final scramble up a muddy bank and a short walk will lead you to a clearing in the jungle. Your last toilet stop on the ATM Cave Tour. The word ‘toilet’ is used in its loosest sense, it’s a piss behind a tree really with your fellow teammates, thankfully girls and boys were separate. Now the real adventure begins.
If you thought it was tough going so far, then think again!
The next bit really is taken straight from Tomb Raider. Lara Croft would be right at home here! You’ll see a great big mouth of a cave with a river gushing out of it into a pool of deep clear water, vines hanging down the entrance leading into a great pitch-black hole.
Our team was given a short briefing, helmet lights are switched on we all head on in, swimming at first against the water in the cave. We were told there was slightly more water coming from the cave than normal due to the rain.
The next few of hours is a constant mix of swimming, clambering over rocks and scrambling over or down little waterfalls. Keep an eye out for some of the residents of the caves, the Tailless Whip Scorpions look sinister but are harmless. We only saw the baby ones, so tiny in comparison to ones I’ve seen on previous cave trips, cute almost. You might also see the occasional bat hanging from the roof of the cave.
For the majority of the ATM Cave Tour, I felt at ease, nothing too taxing. However, there’s one part our guide took us through which everyone in our nimble group struggled with. There is an alternative route, our guide took us the ‘fun’ route. It’s like a tall and very narrow crevasse – imagine you were Spiderman climbing up between two narrowly spaced buildings – however, while using every limb, knee and elbow to pull your way along, imagine a strong current pushing you back – it’s an inch by inch unnerving eight-legged spider shuffle along the length of the gap. Exhausting!
Next, a bit more clambering. Our guide takes up a great big calcification to see the freshwater dripping down into the cave and forming the crystal-like formations. It feels like climbing on gritty cement with how grippy it is, but only it’s white and sparkly.
And finally.....we make it to the Great Chamber
We keep traversing our way into the cave, swimming under low height ceilings, until eventually, we get to the place where the Great Chamber is. We are at the pinnacle of our ATM Cave Tour. To get up to the Great Chamber we have to scramble up a wet and slippery formation, a long way down with nothing much to break our fall (apart from our backs maybe!). At the top of the formation, this is where you say bye-bye to your shoes.
To help protect the archaeological area this section of the ATM Cave Tour is done in barefoot – there are still thousands of artefacts buried in the silt and sediment and removing shoes helps to reduce the impact of tourists tramping over it.
Even though you are at the Great Chamber, there is still a fair amount of walking on all-fours to get through narrow gaps to see the artefacts. The air in this part of the cave is quite still, smelly and stuffy.
The journey is TOTALLY worth it for the next part
First, we look at the rock formations, the Shamans, or their stooges, had carved out faces in the soft rock of the stalactites and stalacmites. To look at the carvings, they don’t look too impressive, but if a light is shone against them they form various creatures which were sacred to them.
Clever stuff! You will also get to see hundreds of ceramic jars – some look like they had only just been put down and others were calcified over and had almost become part of the rock.
So, everyone knows the Mayan Empire (along with probably every ancient civilisation) was pretty savage. The next part of the ATM Cave Tour moves onto the sacrifices. The first few body remains they show us were from Monkeys, these were for a lesser offering, as well as a collection of bones. We were told these bones were from the Priests/Shamans themselves who cut off their own little fingers as a larger offering. We get shown a little row of bones, once belonging to someone.
Our guide doesn’t hold back in the description of each specimen we stop to look at. The more we go on does make me thankful that I have a pretty much empty stomach at this point. Twinned with the stuffy air of the cave I do start to feel quite queasy!
Bones Soup anyone?
We get told about the ‘bone soup’, as he called it, which is where a whole load of skulls and body belonging to numerous sacrifice victims were dumped into one pit on top of each other – various sacrifices of prisoners which were much larger offerings than the previous priest’s pinkies that we’d seen. Our guide also informed us of the various forms of self-mutilation they practised; we were told stories of how they cut off their foreskin, sharpened their teeth, scarred themselves etc, all signs of how superior they were and to appease their Gods
Anyone feeling peaky yet?
Our ATM Cave Tour continues. Across a muddy clay flat, dodging the puddles of stagnant water, eventually finishing up at a ladder. In classic Belize style, it’s rickety, goes up and up with a hard landing if you slip.
The grande finale, 'The Crystal Maiden'
You will be lead into the chamber with a pretty much complete skeleton; ‘The Crystal Maiden’.
Note – Our guide told us that the Crystal Mainden was once thought to have been a female, hence the name, it actually turned out to be a guy in his early to mid-twenties??? Not sure if there was truth in that. The reseach I’ve done since seems to point to it being a female.
Either way, these remains are the apex of the absolute gore that went on in the ATM caves. He was most likely a prisoner from a rival tribe who was captured and tortured to death as the ultimate human sacrifice.
And so our guide/ storyteller went on to tell us in full detail the series of events. This skeleton was calcified, like the other remains we’d seen, so it was in the position it would have been left in. According to our guide, who seemed to be revelling in these gore stories, the more you tortured someone, the more you would please your God. And henceforth the grand finale of the ATM Cave Tour.
The Crystal Maiden was found in a spread-eagle position, most likely he was held down by other lesser priests while the grand priest performed the ritual. By looking at the injuries from the skeleton the archaeologists know that a club like object was used first to dislocate the knee. They then cut off one of the hands before breaking his back. You could clearly see the crushed vertebrate half way up the spine of the skeleton. Our guide then went on to talk about how sometimes the priests removed organs of the prisoners while they were alive (this just brings back visions from the film Apocalypto – if you’ve not seen it and gore is your thing go watch it – if, like me, you hate gore, I’d suggest giving it a miss.
And then you'll see the reason why NO-ONE is allowed to take cameras in with them
Not too far from The Crystal Maiden, you will see the reason why no one is allowed to take a camera on the ATM Cave Tour. The infamous skull with a whopping great hole in it from the irresponsible douche bag dropping their camera on it.
This skeleton with the camera-shaped hole in its head is in a huddled down and in a curled up position. We were told it was of a younger person. Our guide with the gore fetish goes on to tell us that this sacrifie victim was bound with their arms around their back and then had their head chopped off.
We descend the rickety ladder and back across the mudflats, past more skeletons and bone pits, sometimes with just tiny parts poking out of the ground. Then it crosses my mind, how much skeleton fragment and bone dust do I have stuck on my feet. I try to push that thought straight out of my mind!
Reunited with shoes, and on the home straight, via the 'throat cutter' and 'water slide'
We get reunited with our shoes and begin the journey back, which is a lot easier as you are going with the flow of water. We have a couple of deep swims which is nice – time to wash any bone fragments off my body.
There is a formation of rock with a swim through called the throat cutter. This aptly named feature is a shard of rock that’s jutting out, at neck height. The water here is fairly deep so you carefully have to swim strategically through with no clearance for anything – tough luck for anyone with a fat neck! Another fun formation is the rock slide. The water is tumbling down a little channel and you’ll get to slide on a natural water slide – which is always fun.
Slowly a little glimmer of light in the distance shows that we are nearly out. Our ATM Cave Tour is almost over. We need to get back to where the truck was parked which means retracing the jungle walk and river crossing from the morning, only this time the river crossings are higher as it had rained whilst we were in the caves.
Finally, back to the van, very wet, a little bit cold with really wrinkly fingers and totally exhausted but ready for a well-earned (late) lunch.
....and back to civilisation
We had survived, apart from the odd scuff and bruise, unscathed. And it was frickin’ awesome. This was a total Indiana Jones/ Lara Croft experience and if you are in the area I would highly recommend it. It’s the perfect excursion for anyone who loves an actual adventure twinned with tons of storytelling, facts and archaeology. I’d do it all again in an instant.
Are you thinking of doing the ATM Caves? Great! Is there anything else you’d like to know?
I’d also love to hear from you if you’ve done a Cave trip like this anywhere else in the World. I’m keen to do more! Please comment below.