Tag Archives: belize

Confronting Fear in the ATM Cave

Belize ATM Cave Tour
Image credit

“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.

Breakfast at Estel's San Pedro

The Best Thing(s) I’ve Ever Eaten: Belize

When I think of my recent trip to Belize (with 6 other women, most of them family) I think of laughter, adventure and sunshine. But I also think of the food.

Our 9 day adventure led us from the jungle in San Ignacio to the ocean breeze and sunshine of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that none of us expected the food to be as consistently good and beautiful as it was. While I have many more photos to share and stories to tell, I figured it made sense to first share the most important aspect of our travels: all of the delicious and beautiful things we ate.

Breakfast at Vanilla Hills Lodge

Everything Claudia cooked at Vanilla Hills Lodge – San Ignacio
No really, everything. During our stay with Claudia and Franklin at Vanilla Hills Lodge, (a small yet gorgeous eco-lodge/B&B outside of San Ignacio – please go there now) we ate every single meal with them (with the exception of lunches, and one dinner). We only went out because we were gently encouraged to explore.

Claudia is passionate about cooking, immediately evident in her careful choice of dishware (an extensive and jealousy-inducing collection) and natural ability to make food look as beautiful as it is delicious.

Banana Pancakes and Chocolate Mousse Vanilla Hills Lodge
The breakfast view at Vanilla Hills Lodge Belize

Breakfast included homemade breads, jams, brie, banana pancakes, farm fresh eggs and local fruits. For dinner, there was no menu. It was more a game of sit down and be surprised/amazed at what Claudia cooked up for the evening. This is a fun game and I highly encourage you to play it someday.

The food here was art. Delicious art. I am still dreaming about it. If you have any interest in staying here, I highly recommend it. The TripAdvisor reviews speak for themselves.

Fry Jacks and more at Estel’s Dine by the Sea – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
I’d read about Estel’s (and pretty much every other place we visited/ate/drank) from San Pedro Scoop, which is an AMAZING guide to Ambergris Caye (and beyond) should you ever decide to visit Belize. Really, I don’t know how I would have planned this trip without that website – it’s perfect.

Breakfast at Estel's San Pedro

Anyway, the fry jacks at Estel’s just came off as one of those specialty items you need to try in San Pedro, so we all did.

To put it simply: fry jacks do not disappoint. I appreciate that I can go into a restaurant for breakfast, order not one but TWO giant pieces of fried dough and nobody judges me. It’s also really fun and mature to put them in front of your mouth and pretend they are your mouth. They also taste really good when you are hungover and need comfort.


Fry jacks stole the spotlight here, but the fresh juices (Grapefruit and Limeade) and my lobster omelette were equally amazing. If lobster is in season when you visit, that omelette will make you very, very happy.

Breakfast view at Estel's San Pedro

It’s worth mentioning that Estel’s also has one of the most fantastic breakfast views. Sitting in sand, looking out over the Caribbean sea while palm trees sway and rustle gently in the wind, stuffing your face with fried dough and fresh lobster…it’s the stuff of dreams.

Ceviche at Wild Mango’s – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
As much as I love food, I’m sheltered. There are so many things I tried on this trip that I’d never tasted prior (lobster and ceviche to name a few). Yet I found myself ordering ceviche with confidence, like I’d tasted it a million times before.

Ceviche Wild Mango's San Pedro Belize

When I took my first bite, I wished I could taste it one million times more. I taste tested everyone else’s ceviche, and then ordered ceviche again when we returned here for our last dinner in San Pedro. Not quite a million times, but hey, I did my best.

Drinks and a view at Wild Mango's San Pedro Belize

Should you find yourself at Wild Mango’s, there’s not a ceviche there I wouldn’t recommend. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back for more. Don’t forget a panty ripper – they are ridiculously good here.

The Belize Chocolate Company – San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
The Belize Chocolate Company should actually be called Heaven on Earth, or My Favorite Place Ever, or if I Could Control My Dreams I’d Go Here and Eat This Every Single Night or maybe The Place Where Chocolate Dreams Come True.

Belize Chocolate Company

At first, I tried to be practical. We were on our way to an early dinner, so I figured I would just try one. Then I really wanted 3. Then I lost all willpower and just decided screw it, it’s economical to just buy a box of 6. And then eat them all. With a milkshake on the side. (Isn’t being a grown up awesome? Nobody can tell me not to have dessert first.)

Assortment of Chocolates Belize Chocolate Company
Chocolates from Belize Chocolate Company San Pedro

I love chocolate, so it’s no surprise I loved this place. Do not miss it.

Stew Chicken, Rice & Beans & Plantains at Ko-Ox Han nah – San Ignacio
This is a meal that made my ex-vegetarian sister proud to be an ex-vegetarian. It prompted her to exclaim how much she loves chicken. It made her want chicken…for breakfast. Actually, I think it made everyone want chicken for breakfast.

Stew Chicken, Rice & Beans at Ko-Ox Han nah

The service here was friendly and warm. The restaurant is incredibly small and open air, but colorful and inviting. Stray dogs ran by the open door and peeked in while we ate, trying to appear curious but really just trying to pick out who the biggest dog lover in the group was. (It was Karen. She abandoned her meal for dog pets outside.) I loved this restaurant and meal so much that I had to go home and learn how to make stew chicken for myself.

In the end, Belize pushed me out of my culinary comfort zone. It taught me about all of the delicious things that can happen when you just say yes. It also taught me that taking an extra 5 minutes to present your food beautifully can magically make it taste better. And that there is truly no better thing than lingering over a meal, surrounded by people you love, laughing and eating something delicious in a beautiful place.