As we stood balancing on rocks at the mouth of the cave, our guide Luis asked in all seriousness, “You know what ATM stands for, right?”
“Yeah, Automated Teller Machine!” stated a member in the tour group enthusiastically.
Jimmy followed his lead, “At The Moment!”
“True True…” Luis said with a grin, “but not the correct answer.” With a dramatic pause, he leaned in and whispered… Another Tourist Missing.
Okay okay, so actually ATM is short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, which translates to The Cave of the Stone Sepulchre. It is known locally as the cave of fear, which makes sense given it is essentially a graveyard full of sacrificial remains.
As a quick disclaimer, the ATM cave tour is no joke. This is for the moderately fit and adventurous type – if you have a fear of walking through confined spaces or climbing up wet rocks, then you’ll have to give this a miss. Afraid of getting a few bumps and bruises (aka cave kisses)? Again, not for you. But to be fair, the cavernous openings, stalagmite formations, and ancient artifacts are totally worth it! ATM is truly an experience of a lifetime as you walk among skeletons and artifacts from 1,000 years ago. The fact is, words cannot convey the experience – you have to do it yourself!
A tourist squeezes through a tight opening. Photo Credit.
Cameras are forbidden in the cave. Unfortunately, a tourist made the mistake of dropping their camera on an ancient skull. Can you imagine how awful that person must have felt? Cameras were banned the next day. As much as I was itching to have my Go Pro to capture the experience, it was nice not to be “stuck behind the lens” and just enjoy the experience. You can still find pictures online from professionals, or some people that straight up ignored the no camera policy. Don’t be that person please.
Over 1400 artifacts have been catalogued, including the famous “Monkey Pot“.
You cannot enter the ATM site without a certified tour guide. There are currently less than 30 government certified guides and groups are limited to 8 people. When we visited in mid-January, our guide Luis estimated there would be approximately 60 visitors that day – during the Christmas season it is not unusual for there to be 200+ visitors per day. This may not seem like a lot, but given there is only one way in and out of the cave, groups can (and will) create a bottleneck at certain points.
We were happy with our small group of 4, including ourselves and another couple from our hotel named Terry and Teresa (seriously, how cute is that?). Our hotel arranged for Luis to pick us up which was very convenient. The total cost per person was $85US – this included transportation, the park fee, lunch, and of course the guided tour. In Plancencia the same tour may easily cost you $185US since it is several hours away.
The helmets are stylish & you will be glad you have them
We parked near the entrance, used the facilities and donned our gear, which consisted of a helmet with a headlamp. This isn’t just for show, there were several times when I unexpectedly hit my head against the cave wall and was glad for the helmet. It is approximately a 45 minute walk down a wooded path – the trail requires you to cross the river a few times until you reach the mouth of the cave. You can leave water bottles at a covered area before heading into the cave.
Right off the bat your first steps into the cave are wet ones. Get used to it, as you will be in and out of the water throughout your tour –submerged up to your shins, waist, and at times up to your neck. And to be clear, the water is cold. Naturally we occasionally gave out a holler entering the water, but as Luis reminded us, “Guys, its just water… not poison!” We spent approximately 2.5 hours in the cave, and while we felt like we were deep within the cave, the tour only takes you in 2,000 feet.
A member from Discover Magazine slips through the narrow openings
There is no shortage of natural features to feast your eyes on throughout the cave. While you navigate primarily through limestone formations, there are several walls of healthy mineral formations. I would love to tell you exactly what they were, but quite frankly I have no clue. They were sparkly and pretty – oooooooh sparkly. What more do you need to know? Our guide explained that locals (especially those that are older) fear the caves. For centuries the Mayans passed down stories to children of there being monsters in the ATM cave. It is easy to imagine the tricks the mind would have played a thousand years ago, as spooky shadows were cast from the jagged rocks with a torchlight.
I considered writing a history of the cave as we learned from our guide. However, I wouldn’t do it justice and quite frankly the history of the cave is largely unknown. Guides can merely guess as to the exact purpose of the ATM based on the facts and artifacts that have been studied by scientists from the site. Suffice it say the Mayans were willing to do anything to save their culture from the drought and famine. Ceremonies were likely conducted to pay tribute to the Gods in hopes of encouraging rain and fertility in the region.
For me, the most nerve wrecking part of the tour was ascending (and descending) 10 feet on a rock to reach the shelf above the river. 10 feet isn’t that high, but it is more intimidating when you are climbing a wet rock with groups waiting to go up and come back down. Luckily our guide was patient and told me exactly where to place my feet. Jimmy on the other hand was bringing up the rear and pretty much had to figure it out for himself. Naturally he did a great job.
Once on the shelf, you will see many ceramics in the cave that were used for their sacrificial ceremonies. The pottery is all broken to release the spirits within. Not into ancient pottery? No problem. How about observing human skeletons from sacrificial ceremonies?
Remains from 14 skeletons have been discovered – 7 adults and 7 children. I inquired as to whether they were all part of one ceremony or several. While there is no certainty, our guide suggested they were likely all part of one sacrificial ceremony, as it was obvious that as the years went on the Mayans moved further into the cave to perform ceremonies in new cave rooms.
“The Crystal Maiden” is the most intact skeleton – literally sealed into the floor. While for years the skeleton was thought to be female, our guide suggested it was perhaps instead a young male. It will remain a mystery for now…
If you chose to visit ATM, we highly recommend you research credible guides. Our guide Luis really took his time to go through the cave, and our small party of 4 made it easy to ask questions and have discussions about the cave and the artifacts. To be fair we were supposed to be a group of 8, but a carload of 4 people got lost when they tried to find the location on their own. Guides will pick you up from your hotel or somewhere in town – this is much easier for everyone and highly recommended.
Aside from seeing the artifacts, one of the most memorable parts of the tour was when Luis turned to me on our way out of the cave and said, “I can do this in the dark.”
“Oh yeah?” I retorted.
“What you don’t believe me? Want to do it?” He challenged.
I emphatically replied, “Yeah!” before anyone else had a say.
We turned off our headlamps and grabbed onto one another’s’ shoulders as Luis guided us through the river in pitch-black darkness. Your eyes try to adjust and “see” what’s around you – but there is a complete absence of light, which makes it impossible to know where you are going. At times the river was deep and we could not touch, but Luis knew exactly where to go. We asked several other groups if they did the same thing and they said no. I felt like we had a really great experience. Plus we got to bond with two new friends along the way!
At the end of the day, all I can say is you have to take the tour. You not only have the chance to explore a beautiful cave, but also walk among artifacts that are over 1,000 years old. Something like this simply wouldn’t fly in the US – everything would be roped off and enclosed in cases. Luckily, there is a good understanding between the government, guides, and the tourists that this is a site to be both respected and appreciated.