Belize is well known for its world-class diving along the western hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, yes. But there’s a littler-known activity on the mainland that’s a total must for adventure travelers: the absolutely amazing ATM cave tour.
When I read about the sacred ATM cave — that’s for Actun Tunichil Muknal, no relation to the cash machine — I knew we had to try it. I did some research on the web (thanks, as always, trusty TripAdvisor!) and reached out to Carlos, who goes by “Carlos the Cave Man.” People seemed to love his expert leadership and charisma on tours through world’s top sacred cave, according to National Geographic. He’s one of only 23 guides in the country certified to lead the experience.
Getting to the ATM Cave Tour From Ambergris Caye: San Pedro to Belmopan
Since we were staying on the island of Ambergris Caye, our day required taking the first Tropic Air flight to the Belmopan airstrip on the mainland at 8 a.m., and returning on the last flight of the day at 4 p.m. When I called the airline to arrange the flights, I asked if they would be nonstop. “That depends on whether anyone wants to make a stop,” the Tropic Air lady said, and she had no interest in a credit card to hold the reservation — which is actually more your name jotted on a clipboard than a formal business transaction.
And separately, I asked Carlos, “How will we find you once we reach the airstrip?” He said matter of factly, “I’ll be the only person there.” Fair enough!
But all packed up and ready to go, we got the word from Carlos before 7 a.m.: The tour is off as the cave is closed due to the river’s high water level and flooding after rain. (I later learned this happens only a couple of dozen times or so annually.) I easily shook off my disappointment with a gorgeous day of standup paddle boarding, napping by the pool, and snorkeling the insanely magical Hol Chan marine reserve. But the delay only served to heighten the mystery surrounding the experience.
The next day, packed and fired up, we got word from Carlos at 6:30 a.m.: It’s on. So we hopped on a golf cart over to the Tropic Air San Pedro airstrip, where picked up the cutest Fanta-sponsored boarding passes and boarded what ended up being the first leg of the flight: a 17-minute trip to Belize City, while we waited for the fog to clear in Belmopan. Hubby scored the copilot position next to the pilot on the seven seater. (A dream for a grown man whose favorite iPad diversion is a flight simulator app.)
On the next, 18-minute leg to Belmopan, we were the only two passengers on the flight. At roughly the cost of a parking ticket in Los Angeles, it had to be the cheapest private charter ever.
And it was such a thrill! I sat up front next to the pilot, and basically tried not to push the pedals on the floor (it would honestly be just like me to flail around in excitement and send the plane careening out of control). So much fun and excitement already, and we weren’t even anywhere near the cave.
When we landed in Belmopan, sure enough, there was no one there but Carlos — along with Tamal from London and Max from the U.S., the two other guys who’d be joining us through the cave. Also in the truck was a naturalist named Martín, who’d actually be guiding our tour since Carlos was in pain from a flare-up from an old injury he suffered during a training session that covered how to remove incapacitated people from the cave if necessary. (Probably just don’t get incapacitated in there would be my best advice.)
And away we went down a paved road, where we stopped for water (and, as it turned out, a solicitation of “party supplies” from an opportunistic Belizean near the store), and then down about 10 miles of dirt road to a ranger station where our hike to the cave would begin.
Hike to the ATM Cave Entrance
We loaded up on bug spray, and set off on the hike to the cave entrance. There are three significant river crossings, especially deep in the rainy season. I hiked in Keens with socks (a hideously not-cute look, but this was about function), and the guys were in either hiking boots or tennis shoes. The jungle is impossibly lush and gorgeous. Martín pointed out insects, fruits, foliage — and even jaguar tracks. (Best not to think too hard about that while you’re out there.)
It’s here I’ll pause to note that we’d left all cameras in the car, as they’re no longer allowed in the cave since, last year, a tourist dropped one on an ancient skull and damaged the relic badly. (My first thought on learning this: What an idiot. My second thought: Ugh, that could have easily been me — klutz of all klutzes. Oh, and then a bonus third thought: I hope that guy wasn’t American.) So we were forced to really be there in the moment, experiencing, seeing, smelling, touching, listening to Martín’s education. If you know me, you’d know I’d never choose to be without a camera, but being forced to abandon it was probably the best thing for us that day. (And that’s one to grow on.)
After about a mile and a half, and shortly before the cave entrance, there’s actually a picnic bench where we sat and ate the burritos, plantain chips, and sour sop juice Carlos and Martín had picked up for us. (Thanks, Snoop Lion, for the heads up on sour sop juice — you weren’t kidding, it’s so good!)
And when we rounded the next bend, there it was: the entrance to the ATM cave, so lush and vine-y, turquoise water pooling at the mouth, it looked like it had to be a Hollywood movie set. (Thanks to the internets and Belize Escape Artist for the photo I borrowed above.) Straight out of Indiana Jones.
ATM Cave Tour: At Last!
We entered the cave by swimming through that first pool, I think about 10 feet deep, wearing helmets and headlamps. Inside, it’s stalactites, stalagmites, and rocks that range from jagged and lethal looking to silky smooth. A couple of bats fluttered about. Apart from them — and an isolated, harmless-looking spider or two — there was no life save for this kind of invisible energy that seemed connected to the ancient Mayans who left evidence of their haunting civilization inside.
At a certain point, after we’d left the last sign of daylight from the cave entrance behind, Martín instructed us to turn off our headlamps. With him at the head of the pack, we each put a right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us and waded through chamber after chamber, navigating rocks underfoot and all around us. It was an exercise in total trust, which the unflappably solemn Martín said, and I’m paraphrasing, was “the whole goal of life.” It made no difference if eyes were open or closed. Total and complete darkness.
At some point, we again turned on our headlamps and continued to navigate our way through chamber after chamber, some in shallow water, or no water, and in other cases water deep enough to require swimming rather than wading. We passed through passages in rocks so narrow, one actually required positioning of your head above a notch only wide enough for your neck. (Pause again to note: This activity is only open to a maximum of 125 people daily, and during the slow season, perhaps 50 people passed through on the day we went. It’s not open to children younger than 12, and adequate physical fitness is required — but no mention seems to be made anywhere about size, which seems totally relevant to the discussion.)
Ascending higher and higher into various cave chambers by carefully, patiently bouldering our way along, and at one point climbing an extension ladder tied to a rock wall, we eventually ended up in an area filled with scattered remains of 1,200-year-old Mayan civilization: pottery, evidence of fire and bloodletting — and indeed bones of sacrificed humans. The most magnificent of these is the so-called “Crystal Maiden,” a totally intact and fully calcified skeleton of a sacrificed girl believed to be about 16. Her bones glittered under our headlamps.
Also nearby is the now badly damaged skull of a child — following the great camera/tourist incident of 2012. Major party foul, dude.
Separating you from these ruins are merely unsecured bands of tape or ribbon on the ground meant to indicate where to walk — and more to the point, where not to walk. (We removed our shoes and walked this area in socks only.)
It’s in this area that we saw the only other tourists of the day, two other groups (each larger than ours), who’d arrived in the series of chambers at the same time. Those of us in Martín’s group all agreed a smaller tour was much better, for reflective quiet, for education absorption, and for the careful personal guidance our leader gave us when it came to gingerly placing our feet over treacherous cave walls and boulders.
After exploring the area, it was back down slowly, approximately the way we came, all of us kind of stunned about what we’d seen — and me often turning to hubby to give him the pantomime click of the camera like Pam and Jim in The Office wedding, to record these mental moments you know are just once in a lifetime.
(In return, he’d give me the hand symbol for “OK,” the universal way to tell your scuba buddy you’re not in peril — and our silent way of communicating general awe and happiness, under water or above it, since we got our scuba certifications.)
Back near the cave entrance again, Martín suggested we could take a slight detour if we were up for it, down a sort of natural water slide with a super-strong current that dumped each of us in sequence into an unfamiliar chamber. Each of us but Martín, that is. We called out his name a few times — nothing. Hm. Eventually, of course, we saw his headlamp glow from a chamber above and we all reunited for the final trek out. (Later, I asked him what was up with that? And he said, “Well, you all seemed like you had some more energy to burn off, so I let you feel a little lost and get worked up about it.” And it was true: We were all so excited.)
Finally, we saw a few faint rays of light, and eventually found the large pool at the cave entrance again. Looking outside it now at the above-ground world — vines, trees, animal sounds, pooled water reflected in sunlight — it was somehow like seeing the whole world for the first time again.
And it’s so, so pretty, isn’t it?
From there, it was high fives all around and then a rather quick version of our hike back to Carlos’ truck at the ranger station, where we quickly changed into dry clothes and hustled so David and I could catch the last flight of the day out of Belmopan. Back over the dirt road, through the river crossing, and back down several more miles of paved roads lined with isolated horseback riders, colorful shanties — and we were again at the Belmopan airstrip. I noticed it was 3:49 for a 4 p.m. flight. When we arrived, the passenger list was complete (there were two others this time), so we actually left a few minutes early, at 3:56, for our quick trip back to Ambergris Caye. (The plane seemed so small and car-ish, I kept glancing up to use the rear view to check what was surely my disastrous hair situation. But nope, no rear-view mirrors in the air.)
Back in San Pedro town, it was barely 4:30, and we were starving after one of our best shared adventure travel days ever — just about up there with rafting the Telaga Waja River in Bali at the tail end of the rainy season — so we sat down for dinner at the beachfront bar and restaurant Caprice right away for a big meal and a toast. A toast to the day, a toast to Belize, and a toast to great adventures — all those both in the bag and yet to come.