We normally don’t take expensive tours as we travel through Central America on a budget. The ancient site Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave, is an exception. It cannot be seen without a guide so we splurged – and it was worth every penny.
I have five useful tips for people take this tour, plus a full review.
First, I received nothing for writing this. After our tour, the company sent me pictures of the cave, at my request, because cameras are not allowed in the cave. All pictures on this post are copyrighted to Pacz Tours of Belize, and all pictures are used here by special permission. Cameras are not allowed to prevent damages to the artifacts, and to prevent tourists from twisting ankles and busting legs. Our guide said once the camera ban was followed by all companies, accidents dramatically declined.
Second, we paid $95 USD each for the tour (and then we gave a good tip at the end). The company’s website has the price listed for $110 USD. We booked ours off the street the day before the tour, so that may be why there is a price difference – I do not know for sure. That said, if you are on a limited time frame on vacation, you may find it worth it book online to be assured a spot. This tour is worth it.
With these two bits out of the way – here are five quick tips for this fantastic experience:
1. Wear sneakers for optimal balance and support, not water shoes.
2. Wear socks. You will have to take off your shoes once you get close to the human remains and cultural artifacts.
3. If you wear prescription glasses, you don’t really need a leash, unless you are clumsy or not a good swimmer or your glasses are loose.
4. Everything you bring inside the cave will get wet, so bring dry clothes for the ride home. You can keep a pack in the van or bus you came in. (We didn’t bring any valuables at all – we kept them at our hotel.)
5. Eat a good breakfast, and bring bottled water. Everyone leaves their water outside the cave.
Now for the review.
The day started at 8:30 a.m., from the company’s office in San Ignacio. A van ride to the site lasted about an hour – and it was bumpy and unmarked for about half of that time. At one point, the driver joked the van can swim, because we drove through a creek.
Once at the park entrance, it was about a 45 minute hike on a well-maintained, level trail. We crossed a stream three times. The current is slow, but bed is made of slick stones. There is a rope, if you need it. Sometimes I used it, sometimes I didn’t. Once, a woman fell down right behind us, face first into the rocks and nearly crashed into my spouse.
At the cave entrance, we turned on the helmet headlamps provided by the guide. Then we entered the water and immediately had to swim to the first ledge. Creepy, but so cool! Thankfully, the water is a little warmer inside the cave than it was in the outside stream.
Inside the cave, we were led through the water, up and over many boulders, through more water, and up and over even more boulders. Incredible rock formations and stalactites are everywhere. It’s amazing how long it takes stalactites to form.
This place is a dream come true for amateur geologists and/or archeologists and/or anthropologists. We enjoy this kind of thing, so I was giddy with excitement before I took off my shoes.
Once the shoes were off, we were close to the main attractions. The pottery and fire marks are incredible. They have not been moved since the last Mayans performed religious, hallucinogenic rituals a thousand years ago.
These were enough to take my breath away. But wait. There’s more. Oh yes.
When the Mayans reached the post-classical period, a prolonged, severe drought caused them to worry about their survival, so they anted up the rituals to the gods and this is why you can see human skeletons. They were offered as sacrifices to the gods.
Humans have always used religion to explain their experience on this earth. And the stories that go with this site are just fantastic. There’s no other word.
Our excellent guide, Renan, told us he does not believe those people sacrificed were slaves. Rather, he believes they important in some way, which is why it was a sacrifice to kill them in the name of the gods. I don’t want to share all of his stories – in case you ever take this tour with Renan. I guarantee he will hold your attention.
We did not feel rushed, despite many other tour groups with other companies. Renan answered every single question I had, and I tend to have many on tours like this. I learned so much about life and death in another time on this planet – and got to cave-water hike in such a cool place.
The trip back out of the cave used the same route as the way in and it was a pleasant hike. Everyone was in a great mood from the awesome experience we had just had.
When we were back to the starting point, I was famished. We changed into dry clothes and had a box lunch included in the tour price. My spouse had a chicken sandwich, my sandwich was veggies – cucumber, tomatoe, lettuce, onion. The box also had fried and salted plantains, banana, watermelon, bottled water and a bite-sized Milky Way bar.
The ride back to San Ignacio was another hour, past orange and tree farms. Half the ride is rather rough on a gravel road with big chuckholes. Sit towards the front of your ride, if you can.
We returned to the office at about 4:00 p.m., about an hour before expected, probably because our group was full of fairly fit people and we moved fast without really trying. That is when we paid for the tour – at the very end.
If you want a great experience in the San Ignacio region, go on this day trip with Pacz. Do it. Spend the money and go. So worth it. Hopefully you will get Renan – he’s just all kinds of extra awesome, on top of an awesome tour.
I want to mention how we found Pacz. The company was recommended by the Sidewalk Sage – a pleasant Scotsman who also rented us a dirt bike for a few days during our San Ignacio stay. I also recommend his services. Or rental was about $38 USD a day, and it helped us get to many other sites, including Mayan ruins, natural waterfalls and Mennonite regions that look like Pennsylvania with occasional palm trees. The Sidewalk Sage is a good guy who was helpful to us.