This story is part of a series from our recent travels to Belize. Click here to start at the beginning.
You know it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when I agree to go on a trip that doesn’t allow cameras of any kind.
Yes, it’s true. Turns out one too many careless tourists dropping cameras and lenses on 1000-year-old Mayan human skulls ruins it for everyone.
Let’s back up.
As we researched excursions and adventure to be had while in Belize, the ATM Cave kept popping up — with an “only if you’re REALLY adventurous” caveat. Needless to say, it had our attention.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre) or ATM, is a cave near San Ignacio and now controlled by the Belize National Institute of Culture and History, Institute of Archaeology. In its prime it is believed to have been used by the Mayans for ceremonial purposes — and archaeologists have discovered remains of 14 human skeletons inside. We saw six of them.
There are only 24 people in the world certified to guide through the cave, and our guide, Danny, has been operating there for over a decade. He met us at a small gas station in San Ignacio and the six of us piled into his small SUV for the dirt road journey into the jungle.
Not only are there no cameras allowed in the cave, but we’d be swimming during parts of the journey — so we brought nothing along but helmets and headlamps. Danny carried a small dry bag with our headlamps and extra batteries.
From the small parking lot you see in the photos, we hiked for about 45 minutes. Twice, we crossed water so deep we had to swim, holding onto a rope to guide us to the other side.
Eventually, we arrived at the mouth of the cave. Large rocks formed a staircase of sorts down to the water, but almost immediately, we were in water too deep to stand — and we swam into the darkness.
At this point, we were committed. We would be in the cool, dark cave for hours. Danny led us through the darkness — at times physically squeezing through crevices one at a time and at others into cavernous chambers dripping with stalactites.
We swam. We squeezed. We scrambled over boulders. We clung to the walls. These photos make it look bright and clean in there when in reality it was pitch dark except for the light from our headlamps. Occasionally, Danny would shine a bright flashlight onto the walls or ceiling or through an opening he needed to show us. When we arrived in the large chambers, we stopped and gathered as a group so Danny could give us the history. He pointed out pottery, skeletons, rock formations — all part of the ceremonial significance of this sacred place.
At points, the pottery and skeletons were only inches from where we walked and Danny had to remind us to be careful where we stepped. Portions of the cave had a narrow path marked in red tape so as to minimize the risk of stepping on a precious artifact.
As we hiked and climbed and swam deeper into the cave, the significance of it all weighed on me. And I can hardly believe they let people in there.
One particularly challenging portion of the trail required us to climb UP. First, a large rock wall that required coaching and spotting for each of us.
After removing our shoes for this most delicate portion of the cave, we climbed an aluminum ladder, lashed to rocks inside the cave by archaeologists in order to gain access to the final chamber of the cave.
The most famous part of the cave, this is what drives many people into the cave in the first place. The Crystal Maiden.
So named because the bones have been calcified to a sparkling, “crystallized” appearance, this skeleton was believed to be an adolescent girl, possibly a sacrifice victim, but is neither crystal nor a maiden. Archaeologists now believe these remains are male.
Now barefoot and exhausted and soaking wet, we just stared. It was a heavy moment. We’d just journeyed through 2 miles of darkness — gathering scrapes and bruises and trying not to think about what might be in the water we were swimming through — for this moment. Danny told us what archaeologists know about the “Crystal Maiden” and before long it was time to retrace our steps back through the cave and out of the underworld.
Every chamber, every crevice, every dark pool of water up to our necks. We did all of it twice, and it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.
A traditional Belizean lunch of stew chicken and red beans and rice awaited us back at the trailhead where we had a chance to change clothes and regroup before the drive back to Belize City and our flight back to Ambergris Caye. The kids did GREAT. We were so proud of our little adventurers.
- Wear quick-dry clothes and water shoes. Everything you’re wearing will be soaked and dirty, and you’ll want shoes that can double as hikers during rocky portions of the cave. I wore KEENs – my favorite. I’m convinced there’s nothing those shoes can’t do.
- Bring a change of clothes. We had some extras stuffed in a bag, but we didn’t get this instruction before we went. It’s nice to have clean, dry clothes after a day like that.
- Don’t bring: sunscreen or bug spray. It will wash off almost immediately as you start the hike.
- Be ready for anything. This ain’t Disney World. It’s a real, dark, dirty cave. No bathroom. No visitors center. No creature comforts. If that’s not your thing — this isn’t the excursion for you.
- Follow the rules about cameras. Seriously. I wanted SO BADLY to break the rules and sneak a tiny GoPro into the cave. Who would know? But out of respect for what this place means to Belize and to the Mayan culture — just don’t.
Goonies never say die.
– Mikey Walsh, The Goonies
We booked our excursion itinerary through Tuff E Nuff Dive Shop and Tours in Ambergris Caye, Belize. They “office” out of Coco Beach Resort, where we stayed, but they conduct tours across the area and into the mainland. They are AMAZING. We had to reschedule and rearrange after lost luggage, we were a sizeable party of six (including two kids), and they were incredible to work with. Jeff and I have hired guides many times in many places — and we know a professional, reliable group when we meet them. I would recommend the guys at Tuff E Nuff to anyone headed to Belize. Tell Rico Sarah sent you.