ATM Tour: A Must-Do in San Ignacio!

No, that doesn’t mean a trip to the ATM for more money. Although that would be nice (with other people’s money), am I right?

ATM in Belize stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located near San Ignacio and is a well-known hosting an incredible Maya archaological site filled with ceremonial ceramics and sacrificial remains.

Yup, you read that right. Sacrificial remains. Skeletons!

Even though I’d been excited ever since learning that such a tour exists, when I told people of my plans to take the tour, the reactions I received from friends and family members were a bit more… mixed. Some replied with a “why would you ever want to do that?” but there were also a few that feigned excitement for me, so there’s that. It’s the little things, guys.

Unfortunately, since a tourist dropped a camera on a skull a few years ago, we weren’t allowed to bring in cameras, but the company I toured with were able to provide some stock photos. All of the following included photos belong to them. Before I go on, I have to say to that tourist, really? 

The Tour

All of the companies that I checked out seemed to offer comparable prices with lunch and a small water bottle. Don’t expect anything too fancy, obviously, but I did freak out a little over the plantain chips that were included with our lunches. Score!

From San Ignacio, it’s about an hour’s drive out to the cave. Our driver made a few stops to collect some lunch materials throughout the town before heading out on the extremely bumpy road. If you get motion sick easily, I would recommend taking a Dramamine before heading out. Think off-roading. When you almost can’t take it anymore and friendly conversation in the car dies, you arrive at a parking lot equipped with modern toilets. Once you get all your gear (helmet) and change of clothes in place, there’s about a 45-min walk through the jungle to reach the cave entrance. We crossed a knee-high river about three times.

Right outside the cave mouth, there’s an open area with picnic benches. This is where you’ll eat lunch once you re-emerge. This is also where you’re going to leave everything you brought with you, with the exception of the helmet and lifejacket, if any. Because it’s unsupervised, they advise you to keep all valuables in the car. I wish I snuck my phone into the bag, however, because a photo at the cave entrance would still look amazing.

The beginning of the cave tour, you get right into it. In order to get onto solid ground in the cave, we had to dive into chilly chilly water and swim about 20 feet towards a rock. It’s a pretty epic start to an epic tour.

The guides stop frequently to pass along information about Maya culture. After about an hour meandering from place to place, you finally arrive to huge rocky column leading up to a platform about 100 feet up. With their help on foot placement, you climb this, get to the platform and keep going up 1000 feet. This is where you leave your shoes and put on those handy socks tucked up in your helmet.

This is where the cool(er) part starts.

Not only do you start to realize how big the cave is, but you also start seeing all the pots and pans that they left behind.

All of the relics you see are preserved SO SO well. And while you’re engrossed in the guide’s explanations, he’ll start casually pointing out the first sacrificial remains right in front of you. The closest one wasn’t even 6 inches from where my foot was.

Many of these sacrifices were male, suffered from blunt force trauma to the head, with ages ranging from baby all the way to forties. Many of the remains have calcified over a period of time, so they look a little fluffy and sparkly. They weren’t at all the skeletons I pictured.

The Mayans believed that blood was a necessary source of nourishment for their gods and viewed human sacrifices as the ultimate offering. Most of these offerings were prisoners of war and done so because of a recent drought or in hopes of good crops for the new year.

atm8 atm11
As we continued on our way on this insanely surreal tour, we finally reached it, the most famous skeleton of the whole tour: The Crystal Maiden. This skeleton was thought to be a female for the longest time. Only recently, did they realize it to be an adolescent male, but the name of Crystal Maiden stuck.

20090416_Schlegel_Belize atm19


Hands down, the ATM tour is one of the best I’ve ever taken.

I typically like my tours to have a bit of an adrenaline rush and man, this provided. I do think that the amount of physical activity you go through in this is a bit understated on websites. To get to the archaeological sites, you have to basically boulder up about 1000 ft, which is understandably intimidating for some people. On the day of my tour, I didn’t see anyone get stuck at the bottom or refuse to go up, and everyone made it down safely.


Practical Information

What to Bring

  • Swimsuit
  • Gym shorts
  • Chacos/wet shoe (They will advise the wet shoe, but I was fine in Chacos)
  • Water (drink up before you go in, you’re not allowed to bring a bottle in with you)
  • A healthy sense of adventure and a “down for anything” attitude
  • Change of clothes (to be left at the picnic area)
  • Toilet paper (no bathrooms at picnic area)
  • Socks (stuff these in your helmet so that they stay dry. This is what you’re allowed to wear within the archaeological site)

Although all the sites I read said to bring some sort of bug repellent, the guides usually recommended us to forego both the sunscreen and the repellent so we didn’t contaminate the water with chemicals. We really didn’t need either anyways. The walk to the entrance of the cave was bug free and in the shade. There were also no bugs in the cave either.

Because I’m a geek, I considered bringing my Fitbit with me, just to know how many steps the whole adventure was. But there are parts where you are fully submerged, so I would advise against it.

Do I Need to be Fit?

I would advise that you are. Although you don’t necessarily have to train for this tour, being a regular exerciser would definitely be an advantage. There are also some tight spaces that you need to fit through, particularly a section that was called the Beheader. 

To get to the picnic area, the walk takes about 45 minutes through the jungle. Depending on the water levels, you may have to wade through waist-deep rivers three times.

You spend about 4 hours in the cave itself and, although they pause frequently to explain cave structures and Maya culture, it’s mostly nonstop crawling and wading. There was only about an hour where my feet were not in water. This hour was spent climbing 1000 feet of rocks to get to the archaeological sites.

Tour Info & Cost

To even go into the cave, you have to have a guide. As of May 2016, I paid $95USD for the tour, which includes lunch, transportation, and entry fees. It does not include a tip. I went during shoulder season, so prices during peak season may be a lot higher. Don’t hesitate to chat with other people about how much and who they went with. Usually, if you find someone who got a great deal, you can talk it down a bit with the tour company.

There are many different tour companies once you get into San Ignacio. I went with Pacz Tours, who were lovely to deal with! Others from my hostel went with MayaWalk and spoke highly of them as well.

Many of the guides know each other and frequently have the same talking points. I think they’re all trained together at one point, so no matter what guide you get, they’re probably pretty good.

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  • Van @ Snow in Tromso

    It’s funny (and creepy) that that’s the reason for why they don’t allow cameras inside :D I’d definitely be up for it though – Maya culture is so interesting!

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Yeah, they showed us the one skeleton that suffered and it was sad to see. The culture is definitely really interesting… I wish I had more time to learn about it all!

  • laurenonlocation

    Whoa this is a crazy tour! I’d definitely be up to try this even though it freaks me out a little to be that close to human skeletons! Definitely an adrenaline rush, that’s for sure! Looks like your time in Belize just blew ya away! Adding it to the bucket list for sure :D

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Yeah, I couldn’t believe something like this existed that when I did learn about it, I knew I had to go. Would definitely recommend ;)

  • Ruth Rieckehoff

    Wow! I remember when I went there. One of the best adventures of my life. One of the things to be aware is that you have to swim to get inside the cave (not a lot). If you do not know how to swim (like me), plan accordingly. My husband help me to get inside.

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Right?? It was amazing! Very true. There was one guy on my trip who couldn’t swim, but they said he could just put on a lifejacket and he’d be ok. The mental aspect eventually got to him, but we all helped pull him to shore hahaha.

  • greyworldnomads

    That sounds quite adventurous. I’m not quite sure if I’d choose to see these ‘remains’, though. #WanderlustWednesday

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Hi! Thanks for visiting! Yeah, it was the purpose of the tour, so all of us were prepared :)

  • Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld

    So thought you were talking about an ATM from the title, but this is way more exciting!! This is such a crazy unique thing to do, wow! I think I might freak out a bit!

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Hahaha, it’s the curiosity that got you, wasn’t it? ;) Yeah, after a few hours in the cave, it started to get to some people in our group. They just wanted out!

  • Jessi @2feet1world

    The Beheader?! Yikes! But seriously, this looks incredible. What a fascinating spot!

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha, I know! When he said it, we were all like “err, wonderful!” hahahah.

  • Isabel @ TheSunnySideofThis

    Woo!! This is my kind of tour for sure!! So adventurous and unique, the price is well worth it for all you get!

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Yea yea! I completely agree!

  • Kerri

    OK, totes cool. I’d do that.