ATM Cave Tour: One of the Best Activities in Belize and a Bucket-List Must!
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.
This is the Belmopan “airport.” Needless to say, it was not hard to find our ATM cave tour guide, Carlos the Cave Man.
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!
On the day we were to go on the tour, I was so excited, I was up at 4:30 a.m., and for my troubles, I was rewarded with an incredible sunrise view over our beautiful Victoria House resort.
See also: Touring caves and Mayan ruins in Belize
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.
Just the pilot, hubby, and me from Belize City to Belmopan via Tropic Air. I call shotgun!
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.)
The drive from Belmopan had its share of video game-style, off-road moments/miles. All part of the adventure!
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.)
See also: 10 Of the Most Majestic Caves in Belize
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.