Exploring the Ancient ATM Caves in Belize

Here's all you need to know to visit the ATM Caves in Belize...

Do you want to see dead people? The skeletal remains from ancient human sacrifices, frozen in time where they fell? Interested in archaeology? Like exploring caves? Want to feel like Indiana Jones for a day? Ready for the best experience in Belize?

We have the perfect answer for you. It’s the one and only ATM Caves in Belize.

ATM Cave Skull
ATM Cave Skull – Photo by Mike Brinkman

Situated in the west of Belize, close to the border of Guatemala is the Tapir Mountain Reserve. Here lies a three mile long cave, which was only discovered in 1989. Although exploration revealed more than stalagmites and stalactites. Perfectly preserved was the full skeleton of a young girl dubbed ‘The Crystal Maiden’. Although it’s now thought ‘she’ is actually a boy).

Not only that, but many other stone and bone fragments were also discovered. There’s even a  preserved Maya pottery and a ‘Cathedral’. It all has to be seen to be believed. It’s not hard to see why National Geographic named it the top caving site in the world!

An Adventure in to the ATM Caves

Upon arrival, your guide will give you a helmet and head torch and then lead the way. Within one minute you reach the first obstacle. There’s a river to swim across. This isn’t wading across water up to your knees. You need to jump in the cold water and swim! A rope to the river bank will help you on your way, but you might want to hang on tight. That helmet and head torch aren’t for getting wet, so keep your head above water.

What am I doing here?…

Shaking yourself off, on through the jungle you go. The path is fairly flat and steady, but if there’s been rain, you better watch your step. It gets very slippy! Falling over a few times is all part of the experience.

Your clothes will still be wet from the first river, so don’t expect to dry off. There’s a further two rivers to cross until after one hour, you reach the mouth of the ATM Cave. Completely unassuming, it’s not hard to see why it took so long to discover. One of the main obstacles for access is the rain. A heavy few days of downpour can cause the cave to flood. If it’s flooded, you can’t get in.

With floods in mind, you won’t be surprised to learn this. The entrance is only accessible by descending down a rocky slope and then swimming in! Fish swim around your ankles and bats fly past. This is another world. Turn on that head torch, as there’s no convenient lighting for tourists.

Swimming ATM Cave Entrance
Swim in to find the bodies – photo by Mike Stenhousee

It’s about to get crazy…

When you eventually stand on the rocks, it only gets more crazy. Not only are the passages narrow, but you have to find a way through. It initially involves crouching and bending your body to pass through. That’s only part of it though. At some parts you submerge yourself in water up to your neck. Your neck then has to squeeze through rock formations. It’s too narrow for your head or any chunky body parts.

At this stage you’re either terrified or exhilarated by the mind blowing experience.

Roughly half way through your journey, you have to climb some huge rocks. Your upper body strength (or a strong guide) will help you here. At the top of the climb it’s time to remove your shoes. Belize rightly want to keep this cave well preserved, so you’re going to proceed in socks. What awaits is magical.

ATM Caves Maya Pottery
ATM Caves Maya Pottery – Photo by Jkolecki

The Cathedral is a huge open area. Stalagmites and stalactites are everywhere. Many of them reflect shadows of Maya Gods on to the walls. It is in the Cathedral that the Maya would have tripped on drugs. Lit incense. Watched the shadows dance on the walls and offered sacrifices to the Gods of the underworld. Some of the stalagmites and stalactites were even modified to make instruments. Being a drummer, our guide allowed me to tap out a rhythm for the group. I’ve never known part of nature sound so harmonious.

Not only is the Cathedral’s size and presence out of this word, skulls are visible. Ingrained in to the floor over hundreds of years, noone knows how many bodies might be under the sediment. What is clear, the bodies vary from one year old to mid-thirties. The most likely cause of death for each person was blunt trauma to the head. Death wasn’t something to fear though. Being sacrificed to the Gods of the underworld was a true honour. It also explains why parents would offer their young children for sacrifice.

ATM Caves Entrance
Who knows what wonders await through here – Photo by Elevenamx

‘Special’ people were also sacrificed. In the floor it’s possible to see elongated skulls, like the kind you only imagine from aliens in the movies. The Maya used cranial deformation to make certain individuals appear important. For the Maya they looked more beautiful than anyone else.

Surrounding the bone fragments and skulls is immaculately preserved Maya pottery. Many contain a ‘death’ or ‘spirit’ hole, knocked through at the time of sacrifice to allow the souls to escape.

Climb away from the Cathedral you experience the climax of your trip. The absolute jaw dropping, “I can’t believe I’m here” moment. At the top and around the corner of a steep ascent, the ‘Crystal Maiden’ awaits. The fully formed skeleton of a sacrificial ‘victim’ lays preserved in time. Calcified over the years and glistening in the light.

The Crystal Maiden
Crystal Maiden – Photo, Wikimedia Creative Commons License

It is here where your journey in to the ATM cave ends. Of the three mile depth you have only visited about a third. Who knows what awaits the archaeologists that are able to travel further on.

The way back is the way you came. Although it isn’t simply a case of retreading your steps. Our guide diverted where possible, at one point allowing me to pick a path and lead the group (I took them the hard route). He also turned out the headlamps and let us walk together, holding hands on shoulders so noone got lost. Walking in waist height water, through a cave with no light was insanely fun. I’ve never known darkness like it.

Exiting the ATM cave and trekking back through the jungle it’s hard to think how you will explain this one to friends and family back home. One thing is for certain, it certainly felt strange to be back in the real world.

Skull ATM Caves
A Skull buried in to the floor of the ATM Cave – Photo by Claire A

How to visit the ATM Caves

The ATM Caves are protected and it’s not possible to visit them without a guide. There’s less than 30 licensed guides in the whole country, so that gives you an idea of how closed off they are.

The small town of San Ignacio is the best place to be. There are many tour agents on the main street. All offer a price of around $85 – $100 USD. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it! All tours include return transport (the ATM Caves are one hour from San Ignacio), a guide and lunch. The round trip time is about seven hours.

I shopped around to get a feel of who would give me the best experience. I decided on Maya Walk and can confidently say, they were absolutely incredible. Here’s why I chose them:

  • Leaving at 7AM. Most companies set off at 8:00 – 8:30AM. You want to be one of the first people there. Swimming in to the ATM Cave, tiny fish surround you in the clear waters. Later in the day when more visitors have arrived, the water is cloudy and the fish become invisible. Also, being early we more or less had the cave to ourselves. It just makes the experience that more personal.
  • Experienced local guides. There’s a strong history of tourism in the area and the company has been family owned and operated for over 20 years. Putting back in to the local economy is always a good thing. They also work with archaeologists exploring the cave.
  • Free shoes! Much debate has taken place about what footwear to use. You will get soaked and your shoes won’t dry out. Open toe sandals are no good, you’ll cut your feet. Trainers are too slippery and you’ll fall in the caves. Hiking boots are fine, but take forever to dry. Maya Walk have this problem sorted. They offer you free closed toe sandals. That saves you any hassles.
  • Free coffee! That might sound small, but free filtered coffee when you arrive at 6:40AM goes down a treat.
  • Eco-friendly. Belize has a huge problem with litter. Maya Walk have reusable tubs for their dinners and drinks. The guides are also very cautious about imprint left on the ATM Caves.
  • Lunch was good and veggie options were available.

A final point to note. Nothing is allowed in the ATM Caves. You can’t carry anything with you. Your guide can carry a small bottle of water and your snacks, but that’s it. Some years ago, a foolish tourist dropped a camera on a skull and smashed it. Thus cameras are strictly banned. Don’t try sneaking your GoPro in either. The consequences aren’t worth it! Because of this policy, the pictures used in this article are shared under the Creative Commons License. All have been credited to the photographers.

What to wear for the ATM Caves

You don’t need much for the ATM Caves:
  • Shorts
  • T-Shirt
  • Closed toe sandals like these ones for men or women (or free from Maya Walk if you don’t have your own),
  • Socks (a thick pair are recommended).

That’s it! You’re going to get wet and won’t dry off, so keep it light and simple.

Bring a change of clothes and a towel to leave in the van. There are free showers on site too. You’ll need one (and to clean your dirty clothes) after experiencing the ATM Caves!

Where to stay near the ATM Caves

We stayed at Elvira’s Guest House in San Ignacio. It’s right in the middle of town and super cheap at only  $17 for a private double room. As with many hotels in San Ignacio, they face on to the main road. Wherever you stay, you might want to bring earplugs!


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