But not just any fear.
Fear of spiders.
I’m embarassed to admit that yes, it was in fact spiders that kept me from going into Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, with Justin during our time in Belize this August. Lame, I know. You see, I have an almost debilitating fear of those annoying little arachnids and I was convinced that a great place to encounter some really creepy spiders would be in a deep, dark cave. No, thank you!
Unfortunately, my decision to stay back at the hotel while Justin went adventuring turned out to be one I would greatly regret as I, apparently, missed out on one of the coolest experiences in all of Belize. Justin came back to the hotel that afternoon a total adventure high, assailing the cave as one of the coolest adventures he’s ever gone on (right up there with swimming with sharks!). And that’s saying a lot coming from a chronic adventurer like himself!
ATM cave is one of Belize’s most popular attractions, and it’s an easy day trip from multiple locations throughout the country, though it’s most commonly undertaken from San Ignacio.
Although it’s not overly physically strenuous, it is not for those without a moderate level of physical fitness and a decent sense of adventure. Visitors will hike along a jungle path for about 45 minutes before the reach the entrance to the cave. During that hike, they will be required to cross several shallow streams.
But the view of the beautiful jungle and sound of gently flowing streams along the hike makes any mild discomfort worthwhile …
To enter the mouth of the cave, visitors must swim across 25 feet of water that is approximately 8 feet deep. Although guides are available to help weaker swimmers, those who cannot swim or who are very uncomfortable swimming may want to choose an alternative adventure.
Actun Tunichil Muknal is not just popular for its geographic features and physical challenges. It is actually most noted for its significance to Maya culture and history. The Maya used the cave to conduct rituals and sacrifices to their gods. It is believed that one of the main reasons Maya civilization collapsed was due to drought. This would be one of the reasons why the Maya ventured deep into the cave to provide offerings and to offer human sacrifices.
That’s right — the remains of over a dozens human skeletons have been found in the cave. The Maya also used natural outcroppings in the cave as shelves to place their offerings and to even build fires to burn insence for the gods. The deeper the Maya ventured into the cave, the greater their plight and the more desperate they were to receive help from their gods.
If Maya history and anthropology aren’t quite your thing, perhaps you can appreciate the natural beauty of the stunning stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave.
Although the cave continues back for at least three miles, visitors only walk about a mile into the cave. After squeezing through a few tight spaces and wading through knee-deep water at times, finally you reach “The Cathedral,” the cave’s main point of interest. The Cathedral is a large open room that contains an expansive collection of Maya artifacts and human remains. To enter The Cathedral, visitors must remove their shoes and proceed wearing only socks to protect both the artifacts and the natural environment of the cave. Visitors must exercise great caution in this area so as to not disturb the artifacts. Unfortunately, many of the artifacts have already been damaged and the skull of one of the skeletons even has a hole in it where a visitor dropped a camera onto it. (Note: it is for this reason that photography is actually no longer allowed in the cave, hence why we are not using any of our own photographs for this article).
Because our photo options are limited due to the new restrictions, I recommend you check out this video for an excellent tour and history of Actun Tunichil Muknal.
The Crystal Maiden is the most popular of the human remains in the ATM cave as she is the only female to have been found there, and she is also the only fully intact skeleton remaining. It is still unknown exactly why these people were killed inside the cave.
Ok, so a beautiful hike, a stunning cave, Maya artifacts, and human remains … are you beginning to see why I regret not going into this cave?
Although I thoroughly enjoyed our three weeks in Belize, my decision not to go into the ATM cave remains one of my greatest regrets in all my travels. And the worst part? Justin never even saw a spider!
I guess Eleanor Roosevelt really knew what she was talking about when she challenged, “Do at least one thing every day that scares you.” The thought of going into ATM certainly scared me, but the rewards of doing it would have been well worth the risk — even if I had seen a spider!
Don’t be like me. Don’t let a silly fear stop you from experiencing something amazing. Don’t let the fear of what could happen keep you from really going for it and embracing life. When you visit Belize, don’t leave before you visit ATM!
How to plan your trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal
Where to start: Although you can catch tours leaving from Belize City, we recommend basing yourself in the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo District, bordering Guatemala. This is the most popular base for exploring ATM, as well as for exploring several of Belize’s Maya ruins and other caving adventures.
When to book: If you are traveling during high season, book your trip at least a few weeks in advance (November – April). If you are traveling during the low season, you can most likely just book when you arrive in San Ignacio. There are dozens of companies offering tours, and most hotels partner with a specific tour company, so they can connect you.
How much time in San Ignacio: Allow several days in San Ignacio just in case you are unable to book a tour, or in case your tour gets cancelled due to inclement weather or high water. There will be plenty of Maya ruins in the area to explore during the remainder of your stay in San Ignacio.
How much it costs: A trip to ATM will cost between $70 – 85 USD. A bit pricey, but well worth it. Most tour companies operate within the same price range, so one is just as good as another.
Things to consider: Be sure you are in appropriate physical shape to undertake this adventure. Moderate physical activity is required, and some spaces in the cave can be tight. As mentioned above, you will also be required to swim a short distance, which for non-swimmers can prove challenging and intimidating. Wear clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty (or ruining!), but that will dry quickly when wet. You can wear a bathing suit, but be sure you bring clothing to put over it as you will be climbing through the cave and you will not want to expose your bare skin to the rock. Wear closed-toed shoes and bring a pair of socks. Helmets and head lamps will be provided by your tour guide.
Enjoy your adventure!
Have you ever allowed fear to hold you back from doing something you later regretted?