Everything You Need to Know About The ATM Cave, Belize

Hi everyone, I’m back today to talk about the ATM cave in the Cayo District of Belize. I recently went on this truly unique adventure and left feeling completely exhilarated!

I have to be honest. We went to Belize for Christmas and New Year. Earlier in the year we went to Costa Rica. At that time we were debating between Costa Rica and Belize and I knew I wanted to do ATM but I didn’t feel physically in shape enough for it. I’d stopped working out the 7 months prior, and that (and other things) led us to go to Costa Rica instead. So I’m mentioning that because for ATM it’s best for people who do at least some physical activity.

{About The ATM Cave}

Actun Tunichil Maknal, lovingly and commonly known as ATM was rated as the number one sacred cave in the world by Nat Geo. The name means “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher”.

It’s an ancient Mayan sacrificial site and inside is the full skeleton of the Crystal Maiden and other Mayan artifacts. You will wade through water in the little over 1.5mi. journey inside (no underwater swimming), do 6 river crossings, climb over huge boulders, clear narrow passages and see stunning stalactites and stalagmites.

We saw a few tiny bats but didn’t come across any other animals. I did see a video of a group that saw a small snake.

For me, ATM was the highlight of our whole Belize trip (for my husband it was snorkeling at Hol Chan).

{Photos from My Visit to ATM}

Unfortunately (but kind of not), I don’t have a single photo from my visit to ATM as I didn’t take my DSLR nor my phone with me. Cameras are NOT allowed on this trip. And not recommended either!

So while most of my posts are full of photos, this post is not. But it IS full of useful tips for anyone considering visiting.

I’ll cover:

  • Who Should and Shouldn’t Do It
  • What to/not to wear
  • Equipment
  • Safety
  • Getting There

{Why Aren’t Cameras Allowed on the ATM Tour?}

The ATM cave is what the guides call, “a living museum”. In no other museum do you get to get so up close to the most valuable artifacts they have. And unfortunately before 2012, when they did allow cameras inside, a tourist dropped their camera on one of the human remains and damaged it.

When I say no cameras allowed, that includes DSLRs, phones and even tiny GoPros – it’s not allowed. And to be honest getting through the cave, sometimes through narrow passages, climbing over tall rocks, wading through shoulder-height water, you’re kinda too busy focusing on that to be taking photos anyway. It would have been difficult to be snapping away.

Not to mention that it’s a cave. It’s dark. All the flashes going off from cameras would be pretty annoying. So just enjoy this truly unique experience and let that be the imprint in your mind. I totally understand wanting to have pictures so you can show off your bad-assery on Facebook and Instagram. But once you’re doing it, and you’re in there, you’ll just appreciate the fact that you got to.

{Who Should Do It?}

On that note, who should do the ATM tour? Anyone who’s somewhat physically fit can do this tour. There’s some flat hiking to get to the first river crossing. The first crossing has a rope for people to hold onto as that one is deep and you can’t just walk across, as you can with the other 2 crossings. You’ll never have to do any underwater swimming on this tour. I’m not a strong swimmer and I was fine. I had a life vest and held onto the rope.

There is rock climbing, like holding onto rocks to climb, slide or butt scoot through some areas. Your guide and group are always there with you, to make sure everyone is safe. We were a group of 8 comprised of a couple in their 50s and the youngest person was a new college student – so like 18-19 years old. I think the youngest people I saw, in general, were teenagers.

The woman in her 50s was nervous at a few points during the tour, but again we were all there to help each other. I got nervous at a few areas as well. Some of the boulders are pretty big and you have to butt scoot or climb over and being a petite person I felt like I’d fall in a few places but my husband was there and everyone in the group was helping each other as well.

  • People who are VERY uncomfortable with the dark, confined spaces, climbing rocks should not do ATM.
  • If you’re not a strong swimmer I think you’ll be fine because you can wear a life vest, as everyone in our group and everyone else I saw inside did too.

I happened to run into some friends in San Ignacio who told me one of the tour companies said their daughters would be fine on the tour, but they were clearly too small and too young – like 6 and 9. Luckily they had the good judgement to ignore that tour operator.

This would be a good time to share a video of the ATM tour. I don’t know how these people were able to video this but here you go.

{Life Vests}

I mentioned life vests above, but it warrants mentioning again. The people in the video aren’t wearing life vests but everyone in our group wore one. There are 6 river crossings (3 on the way there, and 3 on the way back). The first river crossing which is right at the beginning of the tour, is the deepest. They have a rope for you to hold onto to help you get across. The other two crossings are shallow enough that you can walk. Depending on the time of year the water levels will vary. I’m 4’11 and I was there the day after Christmas and I could walk across the 2 shallow crossings. Inside the cave at that time of year there were some areas where the water came up to my shoulders. But we never had to do any underwater swimming.

{Equipment}

They provide the life vests, helmets and flash lights or helmets with headlamps attached. So you don’t have to bring any of that stuff with you.

{Getting There}

My husband and I were staying in San Ignacio, so we got picked up from our hotel that morning. We were the only ones in our group, staying in San Ignacio. Everyone else had flown over from San Pedro, Ambergris Caye that morning.

Flying in from San Pedro, Ambergris Caye: What you do is fly from San Pedro to the Maya Flats airstrip and from there arrange transport to get to the cave. It’s a 1 hour flight, if they make a stop in Belize City. There are two domestic airlines, Maya Island and Tropic Air. It kinda makes for a long day but you can do it.

Coming in from San Pedro seemed pretty common. One woman traveling alone did that as well as there was a large family group of about 20 people and because there were so many of them they were able to work out a special group rate and kind of charter the to-and-from flights.

Flying in from Caye Caulker: Unfortunately the airstrip on Caye Caulker has been closed since October 2017 and no one seemed to have any info about when it will re-open. So for those staying on Caye Caulker, you’d have to first take a water taxi to San Pedro (30 minutes) and then fly to Maya Flats airstrip and from there arrange transport to get the ATM. I think it can be done but there are more logistics involved and scheduling to figure out.

Flying in from everywhere else: Belize has a good infrastructure, with airstrips in all the major tourist areas – Hopkins, Placencia, Dangriga, OrangeWalk. Visit the websites for Tropic Air and/or Maya Island Air to find out about schedules, fares and flight times.

{The Schedule}

They offer morning and afternoon tours. We are morning people so we were up bright and early for them to pick us up around 8:30am at our hotel. They drove us to a pretty big convenience store which is the meting point for all the groups. That store has a bathroom. They charge $1BZD to use it. Whether they have tissue paper is hit-or-miss, so you might want to have some. There’s another restroom at the entrance before you do the tour. Take care of your business at either of these opportunities because after that there are no facilities nor facili-trees.

Side note: It’s a pretty big store and the prices weren’t bad so it’s a good time to pick up a few things too as we were there for probably 30 minutes or so.

From there I pretty much lost track of time. I know we ate lunch around 2pm and were back at our hotel around 4pm. What time you get back to your hotel, also depends on the order of pick ups and drop offs. We were the first ones to be picked up and last to be dropped off.

{What To Wear}

I wore:

  • jogging shorts
  • a long sleeve hiking shirt on top of my bathing suit top (I bought one of those fancy, Columbia hiking shirts from REI)
  • water shoes (Keens)

People were wearing yoga pants, hiking pants, and shorts. And I saw people in tank tops, short sleeved t-shirts as well as long sleeves. Wicking clothes, clothes that dry easily or waterproof is the way to go.

{Shoes for ATM}

Shoes: Two key points here:

  1. you want to protect your toes from getting stubbed.
  2. something waterproof, as there is significant wading and walking through water.

Do NOT wear anything open toe and without sufficient padding for your toes. In the photo below, both of these are water shoes. But the pink ones have NO toe protection. So it’s important to pay attention to both toe protection + waterproof.

water-shoes-travel-wanderlust-hiking-waterfalls

{Worth It to Buy Keens?}

I did buy Keens but I understand that they’re kinda pricey and makes you really wonder if it’s worth it just for this one trip. I mean “am I ever going to wear these again?” Personally, I have used them a lot in addition to ATM. I lived in them in Costa Rica. We’re planning to go to Hawaii this year and I will definitely take them with me then, as well as future travels.

You don’t have to go out and buy a pair of Keens. My husband bought water shoes from Costco. I saw people wearing sneakers too. Some things to note:

  • My husband’s shoes smelled pretty bad afterwards. We kept them outside the hotel room through the rest of the trip.
  • I hope that the people who wore sneakers brought another pair with them because I doubt they dried for a very long time.

I did the ATM tour the day after arriving in Belize – so it was at the very beginning of our trip. It would have really sucked to get hurt and have that impact the rest of your holiday. Not saying that it’s ok to get injured towards the end of holiday, but you know what I mean.

My personal experience, I had several, “so glad I bought Keens” moments during ATM. I’ve worn them a lot and plan to get a lot more use out of them.

But what if you don’t think you’ll wear them again, is it still worth it? Then I’d say no. I’d just take an older pair of sneakers and toss them afterwards.

{What NOT to Wear for ATM}

  • anything you will cry about in case it gets ripped
  • anything not waterproof/doesn’t dry quickly

I didn’t rip any of my clothes (nor did anyone else in our group) but there were a few moments where I really thought I would.

You don’t have to wear water shoes. As I mentioned above, you can wear sneakers but they will basically get ruined because they will take forever to dry. So if you have an old pair you’re about ready to get rid of anyway, ATM is a great place to give them one last hurrah.

You can wear pants, but again I’d wear something lightweight that dries easily. Do not wear jeans, you’ll be hating life. 

{What to Bring With You to ATM}

  • Pack an extra set of clothes to change into afterwards
  • Travel towel(s)
  • Cash to tip your guide
  • DEET bug repellant
  • Sunscreen

There are restrooms where you can change afterwards. I packed two of those light, packable travel towels which was great because I handed one to my husband and he went off and changed in the men’s room and I could simultaneously head to the ladies vs. waiting for each other with only 1 towel. These towels are super light and packable. I like this one as it comes with large and small towels as well as a mesh bag.


This is a #travelhack for you. You never want to put wet items in a plastic or other closed bag for too long, because they won’t breathe. Instead they’ll collect mold which means your items will take forever to dry (multiple days, if at all) and they will smell really bad.


I put sunscreen and DEET on before leaving for the day but if you’re really sensitive, pack these to re-apply afterwards. Note about sunscreen at the end of the article.

I did the ATM tour in the morning, so afterwards, we ate lunch (2-2:30ish and then loaded into the vans to be dropped off back to our hotel. They have another tour that starts at 2ish but I was glad to do it in the morning.

Anything that you don’t take with you on the hike will stay in the van. Before going to Belize, I heard about some people having things stolen from the tour vans. Thankfully we didn’t experience any of that in our group, but also we didn’t really take any chances by leaving any valuables either.

{What To Take On the Actual Hike}

A pair of socks. Inside, at some point, your guide will direct you to remove your shoes and put on your socks. Our guide carried a drybag and everyone handed him their socks, so it was easy – you won’t have to carry them and worry about them staying dry. Alternatively you could just wear your socks the whole time. They’ll be wet but if you don’t care that’s fine. They’re going to get wet anyway.

What kind of socks? We purposely wore our “regular” socks vs. our more expensive merino wool hiking socks, as we anticipated they’d get pretty dirty and we might just want to get rid of them…which we did. They were really dirty afterwards and weren’t drying even a day-and-a-half later so we just tossed them.

socks-after-ATM-cave.jpg

Besides the socks, I literally didn’t take anything else with me on the hike. (I can’t remember the last time I literally had NOTHING on me. It was kinda liberating!) I left my ID, cash, credit cards etc. at the hotel. My husband took some cash and a credit card, put it in a ziploc bag and in his pocket. They were fine, in that they weren’t damaged but they did get wet. If you want to take a bag with you, I’d recommend a proper drybag, like this one.

As I mentioned above, anything that you don’t take with you on the hike will stay in the van.

Some people brought a Clif bar or snack with them. Clif bars are good because you can open and eat it without your hands touching the bar, otherwise I’d be hesitant to eat anything without washing my hands first. Please make sure you take snacks that are fully contained – there’s no trash bins inside.

{What NOT to Take on the Hike}

Anything you really aren’t going to need. No need to carry extra weight for nothing.

{Money}

We pre-paid for the tour before we left for Belize, about $110USD per person. We booked it through anywhere.com. You can also book when you get there, subject to availability. They accept USD or BZD. The Belizean dollar is pegged to the US Dollar. $1USD=$2BZD. Ask about any additional fees if you pay by credit card.

{Afterwards}

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how badly my clothes and hair would smell after the tour – from the life jacket and helmet. When we got back to our hotel, we headed straight for the shower and got some laundry done at the hotel.

As I mentioned above, my husband bought water shoes from Costco. They look like sneakers vs. Keens which have all the openings to breathe. His shoes smelled afterwards. We left them outside the hotel room for the duration of the trip and when we returned home we powdered them with baking soda to get the odor out.

#travelhack: If your feet ache on holiday since you’re on them all day, wash or soak them in warm water, dry them, and rub Vicks VapoRub on them. Put socks on after, so you don’t mess up the floor. Your feet will feel really soothed in the morning. I know this might sound weird but it really works.

Sunscreen: I bought a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen at that store I mentioned, before starting the tour. I’m not sure if it was old or that’s just how sunscreen is there, but when I applied it and rubbed it in, it produced flakes. I used it throughout my trip but always had to do a bit of a wipe down before heading out.


I hope you found this info helpful! If you end up going, I wish you a BRILLIANT time! I really hope this article helps you prepare and get everything you need! Let me know what you thought of it! I love hearing from our readers, as well as your fun, funny, interesting, and helpful stories from your travel experiences! You might like to follow us on Facebook and Instagram too, where we share a lot of different content and images.

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Samta, Founder of PassportPages

{About PassportPages}

I created the PassportPages travel blog, to provide nuanced, detailed travel advice, tips, and hacks for traveling all over the world — from a unique and different perspective than the other popular travel blogs. There aren’t as many travel blogs geared towards:

  • nuanced, detailed travel tips and advice
  • vegetarians/vegan travelers
  • ethnic Americans, Canadians, and others
  • petite women

As a non-Caucasian there’s an additional layer to traveling abroad that other popular travel bloggers can’t relate to, like my experience on my most recent trip to Paris.

{About Samta}

When I’m not traveling and/or adventuring (and even when I am), I operate my tech startup, ShaadiShop. ShaadiShop is a marketplace for Indian-friendly wedding venues in California.

During undergrad I decided to study abroad which triggered my travel passion. I lived in Adelaide, Australia for a year and after that, for the next 10 years I spent 1-2 months each year, traveling to various destinations around the globe, on my own while I managed my direct marketing company.

I think traveling solo, prepared me to become an entrepreneur – journeying into new experiences, figuring it out as I went, self-reliance, facing your fears head on, trying new things, and so much more!

Then I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration, and I met my husband. Now we travel around the globe together and often. I love backpacks, vegetarian and vegan cooking and of course planning our next trip. I’m also kinda addicted to blueberries. =p

Check in on the blog or better yet follow PassportPages to get travel info from around the world. And definitely post your questions and comments. I love hearing from our readers! Cheers!

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Samta, Founder, PassportPages

Other PassportPages articles you might like:

Things To Do on Caye Caulker
Ambergris vs. Caye Caulker? Where to Stay?
Vegetarian or Vegan on Caye Caulker

Cover image: As I mentioned, I don’t have any photos from ATM since we weren’t allowed to bring cameras. So I borrowed this one from the Cahal Pech Village Resort.

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