Central America

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – An Adventure Begins

Posted on / by Alex Berger

I’d spent the previous day exploring San Ignacio and comparing tours, tour companies, and their prices. Everyone I spoke with informed me that the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM tour was an absolute must.  I was still hesitant. I don’t especially like organized tours, didn’t know much about ATM and had trouble swallowing the $100+ tour price.  I’ll be honest, I cracked more than a few quiet jokes about the parallels between the $100 sticker price for the day tour and the tour acronym.  Eventually, I meandered into PACZ Tours and surrendered.  The word on the street was that the tour was intense, exciting, and for reason that would later become clear, wouldn’t be in operation much longer.

The office manager of PACZ tours was the very definition of a character. I assume an English expat he had the football game was playing in the small, sweltering office as he went about his business.  Pausing periodically to mutter a husky curse, chuckle, watch a near goal, or light up a cigarette.  A shorter fellow, with old tattoos on his arms he looked the part of a stereotypical soccer hooligan, and no doubt would have been a shoe in said part in any modern movie.

The early morning tour was already booked, but I was informed, there was room on an 11:00 tour the following day.  After another look at the walls of the office, decorated by signed photographs with some of the travel channel’s most famous names: Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and others I decided to take the plunge.   I booked my spot which bought me lunch, transport and a guide.  Bob handed me a slip of paper that outlined what I absolutely had to have for the trip.  Chief among the items on the list: Water poof shoes, socks and a backpack.

Eager to be prepared, and hoping to avoid getting my Keens wet, I stepped into a few of the local shoe stops that dotted the road. After a bit of haggling, and a series of assurances that the shoe wouldn’t disintegrate as soon as it touched water I ended up purchasing a $10 pair of throw away sneakers. Then returned to my exploration of the city.

Path to the ATM cave

A Rough Start

After an early wake-up, I set off to round-up breakfast, pausing at the local watering hole and tourist nexus, Eva’s. From there it was a matter of time before two white vans pulled up in front of the PacZ office.  I piled into the 2nd of the two, and immediately felt a tingle of concern.  I’d booked what I had thought was a rugged, out of the ordinary, slightly dangerous tour suited to young/adventurous travelers.  The people I found waiting for me on the van were a mixture of all ages, and all builds.  Most, however, can best be described as cruise ship types.   These weren’t the young backpackers I’d expected, these were families with young children mixed with near retirees.  Frustrated, I crawled into the remaining seat, sandwiched into the back of the van and began the hour or so ride out of San Ignacio and into the jungle, down a long winding dirt track, across a small river and through several large citrus orchards.

Wading a River in the Belizean Jungle

Eventually we reached a small dirt parking lot, where we piled out of the vans, received a quick briefing and began changing into our water/walking gear.  I’d started the morning out wearing my new throw away sneakers, but also as a precaution, included my usual Keen Targhee IIs.  Good thing I did.  By the time we reached the parking lot the glue attaching the sole of the shoe had come apart, leaving a poorly stitched, cheaply assembled fabric sock behind. As I tossed the worthless shoes back in the car and donned my trusty Keens it’s safe to say I wasn’t a happy camper.

Fording the Rivers in the Belizean Jungle

Fueling the fires of my frustration, there was only one couple in my age/fitness group in the nearly 20 strong group.  To make matters worse, there’d been some sort of mix up, and despite having been promised a pick-nick lunch the company had only packed 10.   Luckily I’d ended up with one of the meals, and set to sharing it with a few of the others.  Then, after a decent delay – we set off into the jungle.

Jungle Mushrooms

I quickly bonded with the other younger couple who shared my frustrations and set off into the jungle, leading the pack.  I was fairly livid, and had allowed myself to slip into a pessimistic mood.  I expected the 45 minute walk through the jungle to take some 10-15, and the time spent wading in water to be nothing more than the 3 times we had to ford across the gently meandering river, pictured above.

Leaf Cutter Ants in Belize

To my surprise 5 minutes passed…10….15….20…25…30…and we were still winding through the jungle on a rough, uneven, often muddy dirt path.  Things were looking up – and my mood began to improve.  The three of us paused briefly at a small line of leaf cutter ants as they carried their heavy loads in a streaming line across the path.

ATM Base Camp

Eventually, dodging under low hanging vines, carefully scaling muddy river banks and keeping an every vigilant eye out for snakes or other dangers, we arrived at the ATM base camp.   The area consisted of a small group of open air palapas, clustered around a fire pit.  The palapas had hooks to hang backpacks or jackets on, tables to prepare gear and a series of hard hats fitted with head lamps hanging from their rafters.

This is where the trip really began for me.  As we waited 5 or 10 minutes for the rest of the group to catch up and arrive, we settled in, and quickly formed into groups of 8.  Each group of 8 had its own guide, and operated individually. The guides were cave guides, and different from the individuals that had ferried us out to the base camp.

Luckily, our group consisted of the younger couple mentioned previously, two middle-aged French Canadian parents and their teen daughter, a middle-aged American, and one intrepid gal who was probably at least in her late 50s.  It’s also where the tour guides told 5 members of other group that he wasn’t comfortable allowing them in the cave for safety reasons.  With a pained look on his face, the guide explained that they shouldn’t have been allowed to book the tour, due to safety concerns and the dangerous nature of caving portion of the trip.  Apparently the person who booked/researched the trip for the group as a whole, failed to properly listen to the safety warnings.

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

Would you believe me if I told you that this ended up being one of the best tours I took during my trip?  Make sure to read part two as I forge ahead and make my way into the dark, winding maze like cave system of Actun Tunichil Muknal.

Continue the adventure with part two [here].

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.