Belize is famous for its coastal attractions. Top tourist activities include diving the Great Blue Hole (one of the best dive sites in Central America) and island hopping in the Caribbean sea aboard a sailboat. Less well-known, but equally deserving of attention, is the western town of San Ignacio near the border with Guatemala, where the ATM Cave is located.
The reason San Ignacio is on the tourist radar is because it’s surrounded by fascinating cave systems.
MayaWalk Tours is a small eco-friendly family-run tour operator based in San Ignacio. They run a variety of expeditions in and around the caves. Some are quite active, involving canoeing and tubing, while others have a greater focus on history and ancient cultures. One of the most popular tours takes in the ATM Cave.
WHAT IS THE ATM CAVE?
These are not – as the name suggests – cash-dispensing grottoes. ATM stands for Achtun Tunichil Muknal, and with such a mouthful for a name, it’s easy to see why the abbreviation came about.
The ATM Cave has some very special features. The huge chambers and fragile limestone formations are incredibly beautiful. The cave is also home to some interesting animals. Bats are commonly encountered, as well as occasional crabs, crayfish, spiders and amblypygids. The latter looks like a cross between a spider and a scorpion, with unsettlingly long probing legs…
The main attractions, though, are human remains and abandoned ceramics. One skeleton in particular – the ‘Crystal Maiden’ – is thought to be that of a sacrificed teenage girl.
Such well-preserved evidence of the Mayan civilization’s rituals led National Geographic to put the ATM Cave at number 1 on its Top 10 Sacred Caves list.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM AT ATM CAVE TOUR
The ATM Cave tour kicks off with a 45-minute jungle trek. Since the path traverses three rivers, it’s best to wear shoes that have traction but are comfortable when waterlogged. MayaWalk Tours have a few pairs at their office if you have nothing suitable.
At the entrance to the caves is a small clearing where they provide lunch. After this, it’s time to put on a helmet and make sure your torch works. You’ll also need to brace yourself for a quick swim into the mouth of the caves. Once inside, you spend several hours wading in knee-deep water and scrambling over rocks on your way to the dry chamber, which holds the artifacts and skeletons.
The guides are fantastic at providing in-depth information on ancient Mayan customs, but you’ll also have some fun holding hands in the dark, listening to eerie sounds and attempting to connect with your ‘spiritual animal’.
It’s great to see that the Belize Tourism Board is taking actions to preserve the caves and their contents. Only a small number of agencies are permitted access and group sizes are kept small. To prevent erosion, shoes must be removed once inside the dry cave area, and, since 2012, when a tourist dropped his camera and fractured a human skull thought to be over 1000 years old, photography has been banned.
MayaWalk Tours offers the best price in town. While the ATM Cave tour is advertised at US$110, you might have success haggling a discount, especially if there are a few of you.
IN AND AROUND SAN IGNACIO
While you’re in the area, why not consider the following:
SAN IGNACIO TOWN CENTRE
With a large market and a popular central square area, it’s well worth exploring the town itself. The locals are a friendly, sociable crowd, especially during the Belize Independence Day celebrations.
Catch a public bus or collectivo headed for Monkey Falls and you’ll find a delightful waterfall and bathing area with some fun, but small, cliff jumps.
If you stay in one spot long enough, you might also attract toe-nibbling fish.
CHAYA GARDEN ASHRAM
Whether or not you intend to stay, the Chaya Garden Ashram is a great place to visit. Having become acquainted with its co-owner Evan during his early-morning skinny dip in Monkey Falls, we accepted an invitation to meet his wife Laine and to sample their home-made kombucha.
Originally from Canada, the couple has renovated an abandoned building, planting various herbs and vegetables in the surrounding grounds and inviting people to take part in yoga and healing massage sessions. Hippies through and through, they were incredibly accommodating, providing us with a tour of the premises and even attempting to convince us that we should take some of their ‘special’ cookies for the afternoon journey over the border to Guatemala!
ONE FINAL ‘MUST SEE’
If you’re only in Central America for a short time and don’t intend to travel further west, you should consider visiting Tikal on an organised trip from San Ignacio across the border into Guatemala. These ruins are unmissable.