Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave Tour in Belize

The cave entrance to the ATM tour in Belize, Central America.

Of all the tours I took, Atun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), was the most active, but also the most amazing tour. This tour alone will be one of my most memorable moments in San Ignacio, Belize. Even better is I'm glad my parents were able to make the tour (I was originally concerned it would be too intense for them), but they didn't have any problems. The drive there was slow and bumpy, as half of the road wasn't paved. The day we went was also raining, which made the car ride more interesting (driving through big puddles) and made the 45 minute hike more interesting (splashing through mud puddles). None of the mess mattered because the cave entrance requires a short swim. Here are some of the basics of ATM Cave Tour:

  1. The drive to the start of the ATM is a dirt road. It rained heavy the night before and was still lightly raining when we started and parts of the road were flooded. Our tour guide as able to carefully navigate throw shallow portions of flooded dirt road.
  2. There is a 45 minute hike to the opening of the cave, and another 45 minutes hike back to the van. The whole route (from van to cave opening, to cave end) and back is point A to point B, then back to point A along the same route.
  3. You will cross the river 3 different times per direction. Depending on how high the river is, it is likely to rise up to your neck in water.
  4. The tour guides will provide a helmet (much needed as a bumped my head at least 3 times) and a head lamp that mounts into the helmet. Without the light, the cave would e completely dark.
  5. The cave entrance and a couple of other portions inside the cave will require you to swim (as the water is too deep to walk through). Don’t worry if you don’t know how to swim, as you can hitch a ride with the ATM tour guide.
  6. If you want to enter the center of the cave (dry portion) you will need a pair of socks (either wet or dry). If you want dry socks, the tour guide will have a waterproof bag to put the sock into. Otherwise, if you’re wearing socks already, you will only need to remove your shoes. The purpose for this is to minimize the oil from your skins (hands and feet) from transferring into the cave.
  7. No cameras are allowed inside the cave. This is a recent rules after a tourist dropped a DSLR camera onto an original skull and broke the teeth out. If you have a GoPro or other waterproof camera, you can probably bring it with you on the hike and leave it in the picnic benches with the tour guides other gear. You’ll capture some amazing moments crossing the river.
  8. Bring a complete change of clothes (which you can leave locked up in the van) to change into after you have completed the tour. At the trailhead, there is individual showers (4 for men, 4 for women) for you to shower and or change.

I did the 45 minutes hike in water shoes, swim trunks, and a dry fit shirt. Both the swim trunks and dry fit shirt were made to handle water. The water shoes were comfortable enough to walk in (especially since the ground was soft and muddy). But the advantage for water shoes is they provided good traction for climbing up and over rocks inside the cave. The water shoes also helped protect my toes from being jabbed by rocks. Many others wore regular running shoes. If you are to wear shoes, I'd suggest removing the soles to hasten the drying process.

Overall, our tour guide with Belize Nature Travel, Hue, was amazing. He explained much of the history in great depth. Many of the other tour guides just breezed by us, without much of an explanation into the details. Our guide was also the second van to arrive in the morning, and being early pays off to avoid the crowds. The day we went, I hear 180 visitors were going in (each guide can bring 8 people along). Our guide said it’s possible for the park to turn guests away at the ATM front gate (before the hike). I therefore advise you to plan ahead with an experience tour company that knows to get there early. I also don’t think we finish the tour until 2pm, so expect a late lunch (aka, eat a breakfast).

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