Confronting Fear in the ATM Cave

Belize ATM Cave Tour
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“Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it” is incredibly simple travel advice found in Kristin Newman’s hilarious memoir, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding.

It didn’t take much researching to discover that the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave in Belize is definitely “the thing.”

You enter the cave with no expectations, and leave holding your head a bit higher. It is a badass feeling, knowing you just spent hours inside of a cave (swimming, climbing and sometimes contorting your body in odd positions to make tight passages) once used by the Mayans for sacrifices (sometimes human) to their gods.

Our guide told us that exiting the cave was akin to rebirth, and strangely it did feel that way. I’m not sure if it’s the swim out in crystal clear water, or the sight of brilliant daylight after spending hours in the dark, or simply a side effect of being in a state of wonder and awe and presence for several hours. As much as I’d like to proclaim that I was reborn as a badass, I’m still scared of stupid things and remain mostly my same self. But the experience did make me better. A little braver, a little more confident. And it’s all thanks to a stupid ladder…

I’d been inside of the dark and fascinating ATM cave for over an hour, alternating between climbing slippery rocks and swimming, while simultaneously telling everyone this tour would never be allowed in the U.S. It wasn’t until I spotted the ladder that I truly became afraid.

I watched as members of our group went up the ladder one by one, dodging a large rock at the top and climbing to solid, safer ground.

The ladder shuddered. It didn’t look steady – I started panicking in my mind. An hour inside of a cave climbing rocks where one wrong step could easily lead to broken bones or worse – and it was the modern ladder scaring the daylights out of me.


My turn.

Going up wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought and I quickly made it to the top to meet up with the others. The adrenaline wore off and amazement took over as we viewed ancient Mayan pottery, crystallized skulls, and a fully intact human skeleton from Mayan times known as “The Crystal Maiden.”

It’s difficult to see such a thing without a million questions popping into your head. Who was this person? Were they sacrificed? What was their life like? It’s an experience that gives you a rush, then asks you to pause and reflect on what you’ve seen long after the experience is over.

I’d forgotten about the ladder until the moment I realized I had to go back down. I immediately felt anxious.

After expressing my concern with Ben, our guide, he decided to make me go down first. Great. He started down and demonstrated where to place my feet and hands to ensure a safe descent. The first step was the hardest, but eventually I started descending. Knees weak, legs turned to human Jell-O, I was afraid I’d just fall the rest of the way down. But I made it.

I laughed it off and made fun of myself, but long after I saw the situation in a new light. It was one of those rare moments in which I allowed myself to become completely vulnerable and afraid. It was 30 seconds of pure fear and uncertainty, but I made it down and so did everyone else. (Full disclosure: the Snickers bar awaiting me at the bottom may have had something to do with this.)

I’ve realized that it’s difficult for me to allow myself to be vulnerable and afraid, yet it’s the things that make me the most uncomfortable that ultimately lead to my best memories.

Taking a leap into the unknown, trying something new and terrifying; it always feels so difficult and scary until it’s done. But none of these experiences negatively impact me – they lead to growth, confidence and clarity.

It’s easy to be comfortable. But sometimes the most exhilarating moments of life are delving into the uncomfortable and finding fulfillment on the other side.

A note about the tour: The ATM Cave was my favorite experience in Belize. Cameras are not allowed due to damage done to the pottery and skeletons in the past. This is not a bad thing – being free of distractions forces you to soak up the experience, be present, and truly appreciate the cave. The tour is described as acceptable for anyone in good physical condition but it was much more physical than I anticipated, and there was also a lot more swimming. Most of the “hike” inside the cave was easy, but the first 10-15 minutes felt the hardest. I’m chalking most of that up to the adrenaline of being inside of a cave for a first time, but some of the climbing is hard and feels frightening at first. We did the tour with Carlos the Caveman and were very happy with our guide, Ben.

6 thoughts on “Confronting Fear in the ATM Cave

  1. Pingback: Take it from a twenty-something: You’re allowed to take a time out | twenty-something

  2. Kelcey

    Hi there! I am going to Belize over Thanksgiving (Nov 21-29) and I really enjoyed reading your post! I am going down there the 21st with a group a people from Under30Experiences and then I will be continuing the rest of the journey on my own (on the 25th). We’ll be staying on Caye Caulker and doing some kayaking, snorkling and exploring Ambergius Caye. This post has made me want to do ATM on my now! Do you have any other adventurous suggestions for me?
    Thank you!

    1. Stephanie Post author


      Thanks for reading! You will love Belize. Gosh, I’m still missing it even now months later…definitely one of the best trips of my life. I wholeheartedly recommend the ATM cave tour – it was my favorite experience of the trip and absolutely 100% worth the price. I stayed in San Ignacio for 4 days, and then Ambergris for 5 (with a day trip to Caye Caulker). I’m actually planning a trip to Caye Caulker and Placencia next year, so you’ll have to send me an email with tips for Caye Caulker! 🙂 You mentioned snorkeling…I did a snorkel day from Ambergris Caye to Hol Chan/Shark Ray Alley and that was really fun. If you need restaurant ideas, I also wrote a post about my favorite food stops:

      I hope you have an INCREDIBLE time on your trip!! It sounds wonderful. Enjoy it 🙂

  3. Lily

    Great piece Stephanie – and totally how I felt doing ATM years ago (when they were still allowing cameras)!! So much fun and makes you feel invincible after you leave. 🙂 That ladder would scare anyone! Gotta love Belize. 🙂

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Ah! It must have been wonderful to take photos. I wish I had some photos of the Jurassic Park esque foliage on the hike to the cave. Also glad I’m not alone in my ladder fear 🙂 I’m doing the ATM cave again this spring…time to face the ladder again!


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