The ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave is an extraordinary attraction in Belize. Undoubtedly, visiting the ATM Cave in Belize is one of the most incredible experiences you can have in Central America. Although, it’s actually only possible to visit the site with a guide. So, doing an ATM Cave tour is the only way to see this astonishing historical and natural attraction. In this guide, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about doing the amazing ATM Cave tour in Belize.
Read about other tours near San Ignacio in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Caracol Mayan Ruins. Otherwise, please read 46 AWESOME Things to Do in Belize (Best Tours and Travel Tips).
Table of Contents
Everything You Need to Know
In this guide, we’re going to tell you absolutely everything you need to know about doing the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave tour in Belize, which is probably the best tour in Belize!
Initially, we’ll tell you about the mindblowing attraction itself, its history and why you should visit. We’ll then talk about the best ways to book this tour. Specifically, we’ll look at the pros and cons of booking in person in Belize as well as through online tour operators such as Viator and GetYourGuide.
Afterwards, we’ll talk you through the incredible adventure of exploring this cave. Basically, we’ll break down the typical itinerary of an ATM tour in Belize. We’ll then cover all practical tips for your visit, including details about what to wear, what to bring and where to stay nearby. Finally, we’ll answer a bunch of FAQs.
So, without further ado, what exactly is the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize?
FYI – the tour is also referred to as the ATM Caves tour, ATM Cave Belize tour and ATM tour.
What Is the ATM Cave in Belize?
Actun Tunichil Muknal, commonly shortened to ATM, is a famous cave located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in the west of Belize. The cave is renowned for being a Mayan sacrificial site. Within the cave, you’ll find ancient Mayan artifacts, including skeletal remains, which are thought to be human sacrifices. Indeed, by doing an ATM Cave tour, you’ll see several skeletal remains; the most famous being The Crystal Maiden, which are the amazingly intact skeletal remains of a 17 year old boy, who was sacrificed.
Actun Tunichil Muknal actually translates to Cave of the Stone Sepulchre. The word sepulchre loosely translates to a burial place or burial chamber. Certainly, the ATM in Belize was used for sacrificial burial.
National Geographic has rated Actun Tunichil Muknal as one of the 10 most sacred caves in the world. This is largely owing to the fascinating history of the cave. Below, we’ll look at the key historical facts about the cave.
ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave History
It’s difficult to have absolute certainty over the exact history of the ATM Cave in Belize. But, with archaeological findings and interpretations, there are, more or less, some fairly accurate estimations of its history.
The discovery of the cave by the Mayans dates back to around 250–600 A.D. But, the use of the cave as a spiritual entity dates back to around 700–900 A.D. Of course, with the demise of the Mayan civilization around 900–1050 A.D., most of the archaeological findings date back to around 250–900 A.D.
The cave was only recently re-discovered in 1989. After that, an archaeological exploration project, known as the Western Belize Regional Cave Project, was run by Dr. Jamie Awe. The research conducted during this project revealed approx. 1,400 skeletal remains as well as pottery, tools, weapons, and vessels. These findings help to piece together the history of how and why the Mayan people used the cave.
The cave eventually opened to the public in 1998, making it possible to visit this spectacular place.
Why You Should Visit the ATM Cave in Belize
By doing an ATM Cave tour, you’ll explore and discover the astonishing Mayan sacrificial site firsthand. You’ll get to see the skeletal remains and experience one of the most amazing historical attractions in Central America.
Visiting the ATM Cave is also a thrilling and wild adventure! You’ll be hiking, wading, swimming, climbing and caving, in order to reach the awe-inspiring Mayan artifacts.
Below, we’ll talk about exactly how to visit Actun Tunichil Muknal!
Visiting the ATM Cave: The Strict Limits
As mentioned, it isn’t possible to visit the cave independently without a guide. The Belize Tourism Board, in coordination with the Belize National Institute of Culture and History and the Institute of Archaeology, has granted licenses to only a number of tour operators, who can legally conduct tours in the cave. These tours must hire a licensed tour guide to conduct the tour, of which, there are only around 20–25 of these guides in Belize.
Basically, these certified tour guides freelance with travel companies, and it’s these travel companies that offer ATM Cave tours.
The main reason for these strict visitation rules is conservation. Unfortunately, there have been tourists in the past, who have visited and accidentally destroyed some of the artifacts. A visitor once accidentally stepped on a human skull. Whilst, in 2012, a tourist accidentally dropped their camera onto another human skull, severely damaging the artifact. This is why cameras are now strictly banned in the cave. Basically, we only have ourselves to blame for the strict visitation rules!
The guides also help to enforce rules to preserve the cave. This includes asking visitors to take off shoes and wear socks inside the upper dry chamber of the cave, whilst ensuring visitors maintain a safe distance from artifacts. After all, we don’t want any more damaged human skulls!
FYI – there is a strict limit of 125 visitors per day.
Getting to the ATM Cave in Belize
So, to visit the ATM Cave in Belize, you’ll need to do a tour with a licenced company that hires licenced tour guides. It isn’t possible to hire a guide or organise a tour at the cave itself. So, don’t bother driving there and trying to organise a visit.
By doing a tour, roundtrip transportation to and from the ATM cave will be included in the price. Let’s look at ATM Cave tours in a bit more detail below.
ATM Cave Tours
When it comes to ATM Cave tours in Belize, most of them depart from the nearby town of San Ignacio. So, an ATM Cave tour from San Ignacio is the most popular option. As mentioned, it’s possible to book ATM Cave tours in person in San Ignacio or online through operators such as Viator and GetYourGuide. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference in terms of how you’d like to book a tour.
FYI – all ATM Cave tours are full day tours.
When and Where to Book ATM Cave Tours
There are several licensed tour operators offering ATM Cave tours in San Ignacio, Belize. We don’t intend to exhaustively list all of the tour companies in San Ignacio. But, certainly, there is one standout tour company in San Ignacio offering ATM Cave tours and that’s MayaWalk Tours.
To book a tour with MayaWalk, you can simply head to their office located here in the centre of San Ignacio. Often, it’s possible to be able to book a tour for the following day. The main benefit of booking a tour in person is the ability to negotiate the price. The tour is advertised for $125USD; but, with some haggling, you could get the price down by around $10USD. Additionally, if you book numerous tours with the company, there is more scope to drive a harder bargain.
The downside to booking directly with MayaWalk is their strict cancellation policy. If you cancel more than 30 days or 30 days before your scheduled tour, you’ll still be charged a 30% cancellation fee. Additionally, if you cancel within 7–29 days of your scheduled tour, you’ll be charged 50% of your deposit plus a 30% cancellation fee. Worst yet, if you cancel less than a week before your scheduled tour, you won’t be given any refund!
If we’ve learnt anything from the pandemic, it’s to be risk-averse with booking tours. Thankfully, you can book the same tour on Viator, with MayaWalk, for the same price, but you’ll have a 24-hour free cancellation policy. You can book this tour on Viator by clicking the link here.
Viator ATM Cave Tours
As mentioned, booking the MayaWalk ATM Cave tour directly on Viator gives you the security of a better cancellation policy. Otherwise, you’ll find other ATM Cave tours, offered on Viator, that are cheaper. Essentially, these tours are exactly the same but just run by other less-known companies. This ATM Cave tour is offered for $120USD, whilst this tour is offered for $115USD.
Of course, these tour prices are subject to change. Please let us know in the comments if the prices for these tours have changed.
GetYourGuide ATM Cave Tours
Of course, you may want to book with GetYourGuide if you’re more familiar with this online tour operator. GetYourGuide offers an ATM Cave tour departing from San Ignacio with Belize Caving Expeditions, which is the second most renowned tour agency in San Ignacio. Again, by booking through an online travel agency, you’ll have a 24-hour free cancellation policy. Additionally, you don’t have to pay a deposit. You can book the tour and simply pay later.
Visit the ATM Cave From San Pedro
Certainly, it’s most popular to do ATM Cave tours from San Ignacio. But, it’s also possible to do ATM Cave tours from all over Belize. Such is the popularity of visiting the caves, it’s possible to do ATM Cave tours from any other major tourist destination in the country. So, it’s possible to do a tour from San Pedro or Caye Caulker. It’s even possible to do an ATM Cave tour from Placencia!
ATM Cave Tour Price
Depending on the tour company you choose and how you book, the ATM Cave tour Belize price is usually around $115–125USD. Sure, it isn’t a cheap tour. But, it’s absolutely worth it!
ATM Cave Tour: Our Experience
By telling you about our experience doing an ATM Cave tour in Belize, we’ll give you a little taste of the itinerary and what to expect on the day. Indeed, Beck and I agree that exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal was one of the most unforgettable experiences we’ve ever had travelling!
Personally, we did our ATM cave tour with MayaWalk. We did not receive a free tour nor were we paid to promote MayaWalk. We just really enjoyed their tour and so we’re happy to recommend them. As mentioned, we recommend booking the MayaWalk tour on Viator for a better cancellation policy.
Because cameras aren’t allowed in the cave, we can’t do the usual and show you epic photos that we took. But, thankfully, MayaWalk has kindly consented for us to use their photos in our blog.
Driving to the ATM Cave in Belize
Your adventure starts in San Ignacio. By booking with MayaWalk, you’ll meet at their office. If you don’t have your own aqua shoes, this is a good chance to try on and borrow some for the day. This is included in the price of the tour, owing they have enough shoes to go around! Anyway, you’ll certainly need them as there is wading, swimming and caving involved during the tour.
The drive from San Ignacio to Actun Tunichil Muknal takes around 45 minutes. The road leading to the site is unpaved and uneven, so expect a bumpy ride!
Hiking and Wading
Once you arrive at Actun Tunichil Muknal, you’ll be provided with a life jacket, helmet and headtorch and you’ll have a safety brief. You’ll leave your bag with a fresh change of clothes in the tour company’s van. Once you’re all organised, you’ll commence a roughly 1.5km hike through the peaceful Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.
Eventually, you’ll reach a river that you’ll have to cross. Guided by a rope, you’ll wade through the water, which will reach about chest height. It’s certainly a thrilling experience and part of the tour’s adventure.
Swimming and Caving
After wading, you’ll soon reach the entrance of the ATM cave system. You’ll have a long river passage to negotiate for around 2km or so. This will involve swimming, clambering, climbing and caving through tight corridors and awkward passageways. Indeed, if you’re claustrophobic, you won’t want to do this tour. Even before reaching the incredible Mayan artifacts in the dry chambers, you’d have gotten your money’s worth from the adrenaline-inducing caving.
The Crystal Maiden
After navigating through the long river passage, you’ll eventually reach an upstream sump, which leads to dry chambers. This is where you’ll take your shoes off and walk the remaining distance in your socks.
At this point of the tour, you’ll start to see the amazing Mayan artifacts such as pottery and tools. When you arrive at each significant artifact, your tour guide will explain its significance and history. You’ll also see skeletal remains, which are certainly the most jaw-dropping attractions. Specifically, you’ll eventually reach the famous Crystal Maiden – a 17 year old boy who was sacrificed and whose skeleton is remarkably well-preserved.
After spending an hour or so in the dry chambers, exploring Mayan artifacts, you’ll retrace your steps to complete the return journey. Once you arrive back at the Actun Tunichil Muknal entrance, it’s possible to have a shower in the changing rooms and get changed into your dry clothes. You’ll then enjoy lunch on some picnic tables at the entrance, before making the return drive back to San Ignacio!
What to Expect When Visiting the ATM Cave, Belize
Hopefully, by reading this guide, you’ll have a fair appreciation of what to expect during an ATM Cave tour in Belize. Overall, it’s a physically demanding adventure tour that’s fairly strenuous. Often, the most frequently asked question about this tour is about how physically challenging it is. Let’s answer this question in a bit more detail below.
How Strenuous is the ATM Cave Tour?
If you haven’t figured it out already, this tour isn’t for the faint-hearted. After all, it’s an adventure tour that requires wading, swimming and caving. You’ll also have to pass awkward and narrow passages in the cave. Plus, you’ll be sopping wet and cold for most of the day.
At the end of the day, you know your body and capability best. So, you’ll have to make that judgement for yourself, whether you think you’re able to deal with the rigours and demands of this tour. Of course, if you’re physically capable, it’s well worth the efforts involved.
What to Wear and Bring
To ensure comfort, it’s important to be well-prepared for this tour. Basically, you’ll want to make sure you have dry items of clothing to change into after the tour. As mentioned, you can keep your dry clothes in your bag in the tour company’s van during the tour.
Here’s a list of everything you’ll need to take or wear during an ATM Cave tour in Belize.
- Change of clothes
- Swimming gear: if you don’t have an entire swimsuit, rash shirt or board shorts, wearing quick dry or dry-fit clothing is a great alternative.
- Aqua shoes: tour companies advise closed-toe shoes; but, really, aqua shoes are ideal. You don’t really want to ruin a pair of trainers.
- Socks: these are mandatory to wear as you walk in the dry chambers. DO NOT wear a white pair of socks!
- Microfibre towel: after the tour, you can have a shower, so don’t forget a towel!
- Snacks in a ziplock bag: the life jacket provided has a small compartment for snacks. We recommended keeping your food in a ziplock bag to keep it dry.
- Water: the tour is physically tiring and thirst-quenching. You won’t be able to fit a water bottle in your life jacket compartment. So, we recommend having one in your backpack, so you can rehydrate after the tour.
- Sunscreen and insect repellant
Where to Stay in San Ignacio
Most people will visit the ATM Cave from San Ignacio, Belize. With this in mind, let’s look at the best budget, mid-range and luxury accommodation options in San Ignacio.
- Budget – Yellow Belly Backpackers: if you’re looking for the cheapest accommodation, head to Yellow Belly Backpackers. The hostel is certainly a favourite among backpackers.
- Mid-range – Matus Guest House: Beck and I stayed at Matus Guest House and really enjoyed it. The guest house is certainly the best value for money option in San Ignacio. A stay in a private room at this lovely guest house is a similar price to staying in a dorm room in a hostel.
- Luxury – San Ignacio Resort Hotel: the San Ignacio Resort Hotel is definitely one of the nicest places to stay in San Ignacio.
Travel Insurance For Belize
You’ll need travel insurance if you’re travelling throughout Central America, especially if you’re doing adventurous activities!
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Beck and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
Below, we’ll answer the most frequently asked questions about the ATM Cave in Belize.
Is the ATM Cave Suitable for Non-Swimmers?
You’ll need to swim in the cave; but, you’ll be provided with a life jacket. So, it’s possible for non-swimmers to do this tour.
Can Kids Do the ATM Cave Tour?
Yes, but there is a height restriction of 40 inches (1.01 metres).
Is There an Age Limit For Visiting the ATM Cave?
No, there is no age limit – just the height restriction we mentioned above.
How Long Does the ATM Cave Tour Take?
It’s a full day tour. The tour company will provide details for timings. But, usually, the tour runs from roughly 7am to 4pm. You’ll spend around three hours in the cave.
Can I Enter the ATM Cave on My Own?
No, you can only visit the cave with a licensed guide.
Can I Get a Guide at the Site?
No, you’ll need to book a tour with a licensed tour operator who employs licenced tour guides.
Is the ATM Cave Open?
Yes, it was closed briefly during the pandemic.
How Much Does it Cost?
ATM Cave tours cost anywhere between $115–125USD.
What Should I Wear For the ATM Cave Tour?
For more information about what to wear, please read our Packing Checklist.
- Other historical attractions in Belize: there are plenty of other fascinating historical sites to see in Belize. If you’re keen to see other historical sites near San Ignacio, visit Caracol or Xunantunich.
- Crystal Cave in Belize: another great cave to explore near San Ignacio is Crystal Cave. Viator offers this Crystal Cave Tour. It’s also possible to do cave tubing at Crystal Cave. Again, Viator offers a Belize Cave Tubing Tour at Crystal Cave.
- Getting from Belize City to San Ignacio: it’s easy enough to catch a chicken bus from Belize City to San Ignacio. This bus usually costs around $9BZ ($4.50USD) and takes three hours.
Central America Guides
- Mexico: we spent a month exploring incredible Mayan ruins and breathtaking cenotes. Read about the 13 Best Mayan Ruins and 25 Best Cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula.
- Guatemala: we also spent a month in Guatemala, exploring all of the main natural attractions. Read our 17 Best Hikes in Guatemala guide.
- El Salvador: we spent around three weeks trekking some lesser-explored volcanoes in El Salvador. For more information, read our 20 Epic El Salvador Hiking Trails Not to Miss.
- Nicaragua: we spent another three weeks exploring Nicaragua. Read about the 16 Best Hikes in Nicaragua and the 4 Best Hikes on Ometepe Island.
- Costa Rica: we explored the most popular waterfalls and volcanoes in Costa Rica. Read about La Fortuna Waterfall, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Poas Volcano and Irazu Volcano.