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We had just spent a few relaxing days off the Caribbean coast of Belize, and were enjoying our last supper on Caye Caulker at Sandro’s Italian restaurant (excellent, eat there if on Caye Caulker) when an enthusiastic American girl told us about this ‘ATM’ tour we just had to do when we got to San Ignacio the next day.
“You, like, climb all through this cave, and swim through a river to get to these, like, real Mayan artifacts, skulls, and there’s even a skeleton. It’s, like, really intense and everyone says it’s the ultimate cave adventure!”
We left shortly after wrapping up our feigned interest in the tour, and once outside looked at each other and said, “Yeah, right! Who are we? Indiana Jones?” Little did we know that 24 hours later we would be booking two places on the next day’s ATM tour, about to set off on one of the more adventurous day trips of our lives.
San Ignacio, Belize, sits far inland, 12 miles from the border of Guatemala. Apart from two small Maya ruins around the town, the tiny ‘city’ has little to interest the tourist, except a baker’s dozen of tour agencies which organize outdoor and adventure tours in the surrounding area. Our list of to-dos included visiting one of the bigger Maya sites and maybe some lazy canoeing on the Macal river. However, hurricanes and tropical depressions had raised the water levels of the river so high that we could not canoe, and a bridge had been washed out, thus eliminating the possibility to visit the ruins of Xunantunich.
“So, what can we do?,” we asked at Mayawalk tours. Lucky for us, he said – gearing up for his best businessman spiel, the only tour running is actually the best tour of all. Had we heard of the tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, he asked. The ATM tour?! A laugh slipped past our lips as we clarified that we are not that adventurous, and after all, we had just spent the last week swimming with sting rays, nurse sharks and barracudas out on the Cayes and wasn’t that enough.
Somehow, twenty minutes later, we left the office with two tickets and a list of what to bring and what to wear for tomorrow’s ATM tour. The list was helpful and a nice touch, but in no way revealed the true intensity involved in tomorrow’s activities. We knew that hundreds of Maya artefacts (mostly pottery) had been found in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, we knew there were bones and skulls, and that everything remained in its original place, nothing removed, or set up on ‘display’.
What we didn’t expect was to find ourselves wading through waist-high water not even five minutes after the bus dropped us off somewhere in the middle of the Belizean wilderness. Two more waist-high river crossings and a 45-minute hike through the jungle ensued before arriving, huffing and puffing, at the cave entrance. The ATM tour had only just begun.
After the necessary picture-taking, we plunged into a 10-ft deep pool of water at the mouth of the cave and swam inside. We had been told to bring a set of clothes to change into and that our shoes would get ‘wet’ – but not that we’d be swimming in freezing cold water inside the cave!
For the next two hours, our guide Martin led us through this cave as we rock-climbed, waded and even full on swam through different parts of the cave. At one point we found ourselves in complete darkness, as Martin led us (hands on the shoulder in front, head lamps switched off) to the dry hinterlands of the cave. Not sure why he did that, but it was actually very cool and very, very dark.
Waaay relieved to reach ‘dry land’, we were hoping for an easier hike from there. No such luck. Shoes came off to protect the area of artifacts to come, and we hiked in (drenched) socks along the rough, sometimes sharp and always damp cave floor, to view the pots and vases left as offerings to the Gods by the Maya. We also spotted two skulls and a half-spider half-scorpion cave monster, which suddenly made us even less excited about wearing only socks.
Finally, we climbed our way deep into the back of the cave to see the skeleton of the Crystal Maiden, an impressive 1,200 year old full-body skeleton of a young female, which Martin explained would have been the Maya’s ultimate sacrifice to the Gods. Somehow the structure of this back pocket of the cave has diverted the water away from the skeleton, allowing it to remain perfectly in place for over a millennium. Calcified in the course of the years, it has a crystallized appearance – hence the name.
Having now walked in the dank, dark cave in soaking wet clothes for over an hour, it was time to slide back into our shoes, dive back into the water and scramble and swim our way back out the exact way we came in. As we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we were so happy we nearly cried, but instead we swam out, ate lunch and hiked and waded our way back to the bus, where dry clothes and towels were awaiting us.
Would we do it again? An emphatic No! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we are so glad (and proud!) that we conquered the ATM cave. It’s one of the most fascinating tours we’ve ever done, and the history lesson in the depths of the sacred and in-tact location of Maya sacrifice and worship is the most tangible contact one could ever have with the ancient Maya.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave has been featured on Discovery Channel, History Channel, twice on National Geographic TV and in the New York Times. Adventurous types come to San Ignacio just for this tour, sometimes waiting days for enough people to sign up. For the extreme travelers out there, the ATM tour even has an overnight option which includes a night hike, some repelling inside the cave and of course, camping in the wilderness.
For the less adventurous cavers, we would recommend Barton Creek Cave, another cave tour we took from San Ignacio. You discover the much-wider cave seated safely on a canoe, led by an experienced guide who allows you to admire Maya artifacts and amazing stalagmites and stalactites of this vast cave from a comfortable (and dry) distance.
After going with a different tour company for the Barton Creek adventure, we can recommend Mayawalk Tours as the better of the two, and we should note that during the dry season the adventure level, along with the water level, is decidedly lower on the ATM than what we experienced at the end of the rainy season.