Hot! Belize Tours: The ATM

The best of Belize is easy to see, just plan on taking a guided tour. The excursions serve two purposes – optimizing tourism while protecting the sights and natural beauty of the country. While Belize guides have names like Juice, Ash, and Boom, these are not kids off the street. Some have advanced degrees in anthropology, most have grown up in the local villages, and all have that magic combination of knowledge, storytelling and experience.

The Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM tour is considered one of the best jungle excursions. It follows the Raging River 1.5 miles through the jungle and deep into a cave. It ends in an underground cavern where Mayans conducted rituals, ceremonies… and human sacrifices!

Bright and early on my first full day in Belize, I join four others from the Trek Stop for the ATM. It starts like an average day of climbing. We stop in San Ignacio for gas. We stop around the corner to pick up three more at a local hotel. We stop at the grocery store for water and snacks. Six countries are represented in our group of eight – my first example of the diverse international draw Belize has.

We make one final pit stop at Teapot Kettle Village before reaching the trailhead. Our guide Eduardo has remembered his machete, but not his shoes. He leads us barefooted through the jungle as we cross the Raging River – fortunately not so raging in the spring.

We are hardly alone in the jungle. There is a tour ahead of us and one behind, but each guide maintains a gentle pace. Eduardo stops to describe some the massive Kahune palms with their 40-foot fronds used to thatch roofs and palapas, the rubber trees with their stretchy sap, and the bristly Give and Take Tree, whose needles cause a nasty infection, but whose trunk oil cures it.

Soon, we are at the cave entrance. We lunch, change into our suits, and secure our headlamps. There’s no avoiding getting wet. The first step is like a jump into a pool. Soon the natural light is gone and Eduardo is leading us through the caverns shining his torch on the glittering stalactites. The formations ripple off the walls like the water we are wading through.

We move deeper and deeper into the cave, the chirping sounds of bats surrounds us. Our headlamps cast shadows in the water and on the walls and by the time we reach the hidden Cathedral Room, it’s hard to tell how long we’ve been walking or how far we’ve traveled.

We boulder up to a dry ledge 10 feet above the river and change out of our shoes. Another short scramble and we are in a grand cavern that seems larger than the Basilica in Rome. The air is dense and it’s not hard to image we have gone back in time. Scattered on the floor are Mayan pots and ceramics – many undamaged after hundreds of years. There are no ropes or barriers to any of these artifacts, just small pieces of tape guiding the path.

Eduardo describes how the Mayans carried all of these items up the river using only torches for light. But it’s not just oils and foods they have brought back for their rituals. There are also people. I stand less than a foot-length away from a human skull.

We move past the Cathedral Room into smaller caverns and see more evidence of the ceremonies that happened centuries ago. The farther we go, the thicker the air seems and the shorter my breath. It is mystical even without the help of the hallucinogens the Mayans used to help them connect with their gods.

Eventually, we retrace our steps down the boulders, through the river, out of the cave to the light of day, through the jungle. Back to our van and our modern world.

The Facts:

Price for the ATM tour averages $55 US. It is an all-day trip. You will need a swim suit and closed toe shoes. Guides have dry sacks for cameras and clothing.

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