The motto of Caye Caulker may be go slow – but the marine life doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. As soon as you dive beneath the clear turquoise waters, a riotous world awaits you. If you go snorkeling Caye Caulker, you’ll see countless colors of fish, giant-yet-friendly nurse sharks, enormous manta rays, and if you’re lucky — perhaps an elusive turtle or two.
This was my second time snorkeling in Belize. The first time, I left from Ambergris Caye on a half day trip. This time, I did a four stop full-day snorkeling trip with Ragamuffin Tours – and it was one of my favorite things I did in Belize by far.
Props to Ragamuffin for doing their part to keep the reefs healthy while providing snorkeling tours in Belize – these little changes we make can mean a world of difference for underwater life. You can do your part by switching to reef-friendly mineral sunscreens and avoiding the ingredient oxybenzone as much as possible. Buy sunscreen in your home country if possible, as you will have less selection abroad.
At our first stop, we spotted innumerable colorful fishes, ranging from standard silver to bright yellow, purple, and electric blue. A few manta rays undulated on the floor below us, unperturbed by us up at the surface.
We hopped back on the boat and about five minutes later, had a crew of sharks patiently trailing us. Proving Pavlov right, these sharks followed us, tipped off by the hum of the motor. No doubting it: it was shark breakfast time!
Luckily the squid they feed these sharks are far easier of a catch than tourists, so the sharks (and cheeky jacks) are well-fed and uninterested in the people bobbing above them.
I’ve dived and snorkeled with sharks many times — there’s nothing to be afraid of. I reserve my fear only for great white sharks — a leftover fear from growing up near Stinson Beach, shark attack capital of California.
These nurse sharks are perfectly harmless so long as you don’t bother them, so I watched happily from a respectful distance. Seeing these sharks is one of the highlights of snorkeling in Belize, so don’t let an unwarranted fear of sharks scare you out of it!
After our stop marveling at the sharks, it was time to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the best place for snorkeling in Belize. There, our guide dove down and pointed out different species of fish, telling us their names and interesting facts about them.
We even got lucky and spotted an adorable sea turtle! Sea turtles are often quite shy so it’s really a rare treat to see them in their natural environment.
Our last and final stop was snorkeling in the gorgeous Coral Garden. Beautiful coral that looked like hands spouted everywhere, next to fan coral that waved to us in the ocean current. Electric blue fish darted into their hiding spots. And then, something amazing happened —
A beautiful spotted eagle ray photobombed me and glided right past. I followed it for a few minutes, and even managed to snap a few selfies with this gorgeous, elegant creature!
After the excitement of our final stop on our Belize snorkeling tour, we cooled off with all-you-can-drink rum punch.
Whiiiiich I may have taken a little too literally.
But the highlight of our day snorkeling in Belize hadn’t even happened yet.
No – that was the pod of three wild dolphins who swam alongside us as we sailed home. They swam in perfect formation, diving into the water and disappearing momentarily only to resurface to the squeals and ahhs of our entire boat. Dolphins are one of my favorite creatures on Earth — which is saying something, as a massive animal lover — and this was a moment I’d never forget.
Nope, not even after unlimited rum punch.
Recommended Company:Raggamuffin Tours Cost: $70 USD for a full-day trip Recommended Accommodations:Go Slow Caye Caulker Further reading: Lonely Planet Belize Useful tips: No need to bring your own sunscreen – they will provide reef-friendly sunscreen for you. Lunch, fresh fruit, rum punch, and a ceviche and chips snack are provided. They provided all snorkeling gear but you could also bring your own snorkeling mask if you want something with a better fit.
Note: Many thanks to Raggamuffin Tours for the complimentary tour (and rum punch!). All opinions shared are my own — no BS, as always. This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you purchase something using one of my links, I get a small commission.
Deep in a cave in Belize’s interior jungle is a sacred Mayan burial site, where the remains of 14 human sacrifices have been found.
To get there, you’ll have to swim through bracingly cold waters, wedge yourself between glimmering stalactites dripping down from the ceiling, and navigate using only a headlamp to see your way through pitch darkness. Sound crazy? It just may be, but doing the ATM cave tour was easily the most unique and interesting thing I did in my 10 days in Belize.
After a bumpy car ride from San Ignacio, we arrived in the park and walked half an hour to reach the cave entrance. Entering the cave, we swam through crystal blue waters teeming with tiny fish. Though the water was cold, we warmed up quickly under the exertion of swimming wearing our clothes, socks, and sneakers.
While the ATM Cave tour was one of the highlights of my trip to Belize, I still was surprised by a few things that I wish I had known in advance of my trip.
You’ll have to wear clothing as well as your bathing suit
The ATM Cave was considered a sacred site by the Mayans, who often used caves for their religious rituals.
That same deference is still given today, so you will be required to wear clothing over your bathing suit out of respect, and go to shoeless when traversing the fragile burial sites.
Cameras are strictly not permitted inside the cave
Similarly, you are no longer allowed to bring cameras…. after a tourist dropped his camera on one of the skulls, putting a large hole in it. Because of this bone-headed (pardon the pun) move, cameras are now banned from all ATM cave tours.
While there was an initial first thought that I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to photograph it for myself, I have to say, I’m happy for the camera ban.
Not having a camera forced me to live in the moment rather than trying to capture the magic of Actun Tunichil Muknal for the blog. Luckily Maya Walk provided me with photos to use for this post (note: all photo credit belongs to them)
An ATM Cave tour is way more intense than it sounds
The ATM Cave was extremely narrow at some points – sometimes, you’d have to angle your head just so to make sure you could squeeze through a crack in the cave’s walls, dipping nearly up to your shoulders in cold cave water.
While I found it to add to the excitement, it’s definitely not an adventure for the severely claustrophobic. There were times when you had to angle your body and head just right to get through a small break between the rocks, and at one point I even slid, waterslide-style, down a small stream to get into a wider pool.
But it’s not too claustrophobic the entire time
While there were times in the tour that felt quite intense, narrow and dark and cramped, the majority of the time you’ll have plenty of space to walk through. It’s usually just one cramped bottleneck that you have to get through and then you’ll be in a larger, open area.
At other times in the tour, the cave was so wide you almost felt as if you were walking into completely nature-made atrium.
Still, it’s not a walk in the park
Prepare for a 45-minute hike through the jungle (wearing no bug spray or sunscreen as both can damage the jungle ecosystem). You’ll also have to swim/wade across three big yet calm rivers in between – the first of which comes about 5 minutes into the walk, so that basically your entire hike is in soaked shoes (which is fine if you have water shoes but I did the hike in my sneakers!) and wet clothes.
And that’s just to reach the mouth of the cave. We swam, walked, and squeezed our way through nearly 1 kilometer into the center of Actun Tunichil Muknal, where we had to climb up few big rocks to get to a series of large “rooms” in the cave.
Our guide was helpful, pointing out where we should place our hands and feet and provided a safety guide.
You’ll see much more than just skeletons on the ATM cave tour
While there’s a lot of hype about the human sacrifices you’ll find in the cave, the other artifacts and the stories behind them are equally interesting, in my opinion, as well as the actual physical geography of the cave itself.
One of the coolest things about this tour was learning about the burial rituals of the ancient Mayan people. In the large ‘room’ of the cave, our guide pointed out shards of pottery from as far back as 700 AD scattering all over the cave and up its walls, some high up on ledges to protect them from the flow of water.
It turns out the pottery was broken on purpose, rather than by fragility or aging. The Mayans believed that they needed to break the pottery in order to release the spirit of the person and allow their soul to rest in the afterlife.
Still, the human remains are pretty freaking incredible
That said, much of the intrigue of the ATM Cave tour comes from seeing the remains of the sacrifices in person.
The first human remain you’ll encounter is the skull of a young nobleman. Mayan nobles practiced body modification, particularly head shaping. They placed boards on the foreheads of newborns of high stature to shape their foreheads. One single filed tooth remains on this skull with the misshapen forehead, further evidence of his nobility.
Though we may gasp at this now, consider the fact that women today inject themselves with botulism and stuff silicone in their bodies in pursuit of beauty, and you’ll realize we aren’t so far off from the Mayans. Seeing the skull of a sacrificed child nearby, however, is a little harder to chalk up to moral relativism.
The final room in the cave complex is where you’ll see the ATM Cave’s most famous resident: the intact skeleton of a young boy completely covered in travertine deposits that sparkle and shimmer like diamonds in the light of your headlamp.
But the cave’s geology is nothing to ignore, either
Even if it weren’t for the rich mythological and archaelogical importance of the cave, the ATM Cave would be worth visiting for its geological beauty alone.
Walking through the caves, I wouldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the cave’s stalagmites and stalactites, coming together at times to form columns over the course of centuries.
No wonder the Mayans felt something when they were in this place: it is an underworld of sorts, disconnected from heaven or earth.
An ATM Cave tour is a spiritual experience
Seeing the light of day again after traversing our way back through the cave, I felt something inside me change.
I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person, but I felt deeply moved by seeing the way people from long ago lived, believed, and ultimately died. Although human sacrifice is understandably seen as barbaric today, the Mayans who worshiped in the ATM Cave were responding to fears and mythology in a way that made sense for their time.
Anthropologists and archaeologists now have evidence to suggest that the Mayan civilization ended because of a prolonged drought. The ATM Cave provides some proof of that. Geologists are able to see periods of drought quite literally crystallized into Actun Tunichil Muknal itself.
Perhaps the Mayans, fearing for their culture’s future, sacrificed these nobles and children in a failed attempt to save their civilization itself from the ravages of drought.
In the face of our current and coming climate change, this hits a particularly resonant note. It also resonates because the ATM Cave, too, is at great risk. While the Mayan civilization likely ended due to drought, Actun Tunichil Muknal and the Mayan ruins within it could likely meet the inverse fate.
Flash flooding caused by more frequent and powerful hurricanes could destroy what remains of ATM Cave. Hurricane Earl, which slammed Belize in 2016, luckily did not cause any lasting damage to the cave, but who knows what the future of stronger storms could bring?
There are strict limits on tourism — for good reason
While tourists offer promise to the preservation of ATM Cave, they also threaten its future. The governing body which protects the cave has put up precautionary protocols. They limit the visitors to 125 per day, in groups of 8. All guides are required to be licensed and entering without a guide is strictly prohibited. After a tourist damaged one of the skulls, cameras were banned.
It is important to tour ATM Cave with licensed and ethical tour guides, who do not risk damaging ATM Cave to amuse their clients. Choose a well-respected tour. As a result of the limited number of places available for the ATM cave tour, prices are high. During peak season, you will want to reserve in advance to ensure you have a spot, as once those 125 spots are booked, the tour is full for the day.
It’ll be one of the highlights of your Belize trip — trust me.
It’s best to bring the right clothes from home
While you can buy certain things you need on the ground in Belize, you’ll find them overpriced compared to home.
At the least, you’ll want a pair of water-resistant shoes (here’s a pair I recommend for women, and one I recommend for men). I did it in my sneakers and was miserable for it – but I also didn’t know I wanted to do the ATM cave tour until I was halfway into my 4-month Central America backpacking trip, so I couldn’t pack appropriately.
A few other things you’ll need: a pair of quick-drying socks, a bathing suit, and a change of clothes for afterwards. Your guide should have a dry bag for anything like cameras and phones in case you want to take photos during the 45-minute hike to and from the mouth of the cave, but don’t count on it.
You won’t need sunscreen or bug spray since you’re not allowed to wear either in the cave to protect the fragile ecosystems and geology. Just wear clothing that covers your body such as a loose, lightweight linen shirt like this one (women’s / men’s) as that will offer your skin protection without harming the environment.
Eat a big breakfast beforehand
You don’t eat lunch until after you finish the tour. Definitely make sure you eat a hearty meal beforehand, as the Belize cave tour is about 3-4 hours of physical activity which can range anywhere from easy at times to physically quite strenuous.
It may be a good idea to bring some nuts or energy bars (I like these ones for travel!) with you so that you can snack before your hike into the jungle to keep your energy levels up, if you’re like me and are prone to blood sugar crashes.
Don’t count it out if you’re not a good swimmer
There’s actually very little swimming involved on an ATM Cave tour and all of the swimming sections have a rope for you to hang onto.
Many tour companies will also provide a life jacket for you to feel more comfortable as well. If you’re tall, you may even be able to stand nearly the whole time. If you don’t know how to swim, but also don’t panic when you’re in water, you should be totally fine on a Belize cave tour.
However, it’s not for people who are afraid of the dark or claustrophobic!
While the swimming is minimal and you don’t need an insanely high level of fitness to do it, what you do need is to feel comfortable during the tour. I have general anxiety in general, with a very slight amount of claustrophobia and a small fear of the dark. I was fine on this tour, personally, though I had a few nervous moments.
However, if I had more severe claustrophobia, I definitely could not have completed this tour. It’s a bit more of a psychological journey rather than physical, and it’s not easy.
You will be given a helmet with a headlamp on it, so you really won’t be in pitch blackness, but still – it won’t be bright, either, obviously! There is a point as well where your guide will ask you to turn off all headlamps, which was a little spooky for me, but I was able to handle it.
Use discretion when deciding if it’s right for kids
I’ve been asked by many people if this Belize cave tour is appropriate for kids, and to that my only answer is “whose kids?”
Your kids need to be able to A) not be afraid of the dark B) swim or hold a rope comfortably enough and C) be able to walk and swim and be physically active for about 4 hours consecutively.
I’d say at a bare minimum your kid needs to be 8+ and an easygoing traveler who is used to going on short hikes and swims. Any younger than that and I think your kid would struggle.
Be aware that trips are dependent on weather!
The cave’s safety is entirely dependent on water levels and therefore the weather. The whole cave system is susceptible to flooding so if there is any hint of bad weather the tour will be canceled for everyone’s safety.
As a result I recommend booking it for earlier on in your trip so that you can reschedule if necessary!
For my 26th birthday, I took myself to Belize for a short 4-day trip after finding a $300 return ticket on a whim. Since I didn’t have much time in Belize, I decided to stay in one place and make the most of it. After some Googling, the most idyllic place to spend a weekend quickly emerged: Ambergris Caye. Since I was trying to save money for
Since I was trying to save money for my escape from New York City, I then focused on how to travelAmbergris Caye on a budget, with only four days to spare. Although Belize is an expensive destination, there are ways to travel Belize on a budget – and the Cayes are some of the best places to do so!
I justified the expenditure as being educational, having the “opportunity to practice my Spanish” — little did I know that it’s the only country in all of Latin America with English as its official language (Creole and Spanish are also widely spoken, especially by the large Salvadorean population)
I decided to spend my time in the small town of San Pedro, located on Ambergris Caye, which I presumed was an island… although in yet another reproach to my geographical confidence, is actually a peninsula attached to mainland Mexico!
Where to Stay in Ambergris Caye on a Budget
I stayed at the absolutely wonderful Sandbar Hostel for $15 per night for a single bed in a 10-person dorm. I don’t think I’ve ever been more pleasantly surprised by a hostel experience. It had all the little details which make a good hostel great, including privacy screens, outlets and small shelves next to each bed, and personal luggage lockers beneath each bunk bed. The cleaning staff seemed to come in almost hourly to sweep up any sand on the ground, always with a friendly smile. The bathrooms and showers were clean, and — a real bonus in this part of the world — had excellent water pressure.
The hostel had its own bar and restaurant, which was a great way to socialize and meet other travelers. Luckily, it never got too rowdy to make it hard to sleep. The location was also perfect – less than twenty minutes walk to the airport (yes, San Pedro is so small that you can walk to the airport!) and about ten minutes from the ferry terminal.
How to Get To Ambergris Caye on a Budget
I flew into Belize City and took a taxi into the city followed by the boat, which all together ended up being about $50 USD since I was flying solo. On the way back, I knew I was a bit crunched for time so I decided to take the plane back to Belize City for about $75, and I was so glad that I did – the views are absolutely stunning. So if you’re planning on heading straight to Ambergris Caye from the Belize City airport, you need to tack on a minimum of $100 extra to your airfare, because the water taxi is super expensive!
What to Eat in Ambergris Caye on a Budget
The food at Sandbar was a tiny bit expensive – as most food in Belize is – but it was so convenient I couldn’t help eating breakfast there almost every day – and dinner once as well.
I had these delicious salbutes, which I would compare to shredded chicken tostadas, topped with tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, and lettuce. And at only $14 Belizean dollars (the Belizean dollar is pegged exactly at two Belizean dollars to one U.S. dollar, so half everything – making it $7 USD), it was probably the best deal on the menu.
In the main town, I took advantage of Belize’s proximity to El Salvador by indulging in one of my favorite Latin American foods of all time: the humble pupusa. Made of masa and stuffed with delicious bits like pork, beans, chicken, cheese, squash, you name it… pupusas are then topped with a pickled cabbage slaw, a mild tomato sauce, and as much Marie Sharp’s habanero hot sauce as you can stand. Each pupusa was 2.50 Belizean dollars each. 3 plus a drink made a delicious meal for approximately $5 USD.
What to Do in Ambergris Caye on a Budget
There’s plenty of adventure activities in Belize. If you like snorkeling and/or diving, the Belize Barrier Reef’s Hol Chan Marine Park and Shark Ray Alley are musts.You can go on a half-day snorkeling tour for about $35 USD. Be sure to ask for the 10% Sandbar discount if you choose to book your trip through Amigos Del Mar.
You do have to take a tour, because unfortunately you can’t just swim out to a reef. You do have to go out in a boat a fair amount for to get to the snorkeling destinations. But oh, was it ever worth it! Hol Chan is probably one of the best places to snorkel in all of the Americas. It’s teeming with brilliant color, which luckily isn’t dying off at a such a high rate as some other reefs in the world. I’m terrible with identifying fish (which is something I actually really want to work on, because I’m a nerd like that) but they really ran the gamut from electric blue tiny fish to your more standard Nemos and Dorys.
Honestly, I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef back in 2012 and I found Hol Chan to be just as exciting and colorful in terms of marine diversity.
Shark Ray Alley is basically a place where all the snorkeling companies in Ambergris Caye have decided to feed sharks and rays off the side of the boat so tourists can snorkel alongside them. It was exhilarating and only slightly scary to be 10 feet in the water, completely uncaged, from huge sharks about 10 feet in length — but I kept myself calm by telling myself I was much more difficult prey than the fishes being fed to them off the side of the boat. Huge manta rays undulated alongside the sharks, trying to get their fill too. My guide even seemed to be dancing underwater with one, who he claimed he “knew”, and asked if I wanted to as well, but my memory of Steve Irwin is too fresh to want to take that chance #neverforget
If snorkeling or diving isn’t your jam, and you’d rather just take in a beer and enjoy the scenery, Palapa is a great place to enjoy a beer over the water and relax. You can imagine you’re in your own private overwater bungalow for a fraction of the cost (suck it, Maldives honeymoon I’ll probably never have!). Belikin beers – the local beer of Belize – are about $2 USD and go down a little too easily. Part of that is because they’re the thickest bottles I’ve ever drank out of. Seriously, they’re practically weaponized. Each presumptive “bottle” is probably actually half glass, half beer. Still, when in Belize, you gotta at least try a Belikin.
If the weather’s nice and you fancy a spin on a bike, you can rent a bike from Joe’s for the day for $15 (to be honest, I don’t remember if this is in Belizean dollars or regular dollars!) which is a fun way to see more of San Pedro. It’s all pretty walkable, and you really get to seeing how small it is on a bike. I enjoyed biking towards the northern peninsula, close to mainland Mexico, and seeing just how off the beaten path I could get in such a short amount of time.
And of course, the best thing you can in Ambergris Caye on a budget is relax on the beach and take in the sunset. San Pedro’s beaches aren’t your typical ocean beach. There aren’t really any waves to speak of, and the water is very shallow – you could probably walk a hundred meters out and still be standing, not treading water, so it’s not the best for swimming. But it’s beautiful for relaxing by and wading in, and for watching the sun set around you with a beer in hand – one of the most classic things to do in Belize.
Mosquito repellent & after-care: Belize has a tropical climate with mosquitos year-round, particularly in the rainy season. Zika, dengue fever, malaria, and chikungunya have all been reported there. While there’s no reason to cancel your trip on account of it, protect yourself with mosquito repellent (as a back-up, I carry around a few mosquito repellent wipes with me in my purse in case I forget to apply spray before leaving or that I can apply after swimming). It’s also inevitable that you won’t leave without a few bites, so bring some after-bite relief too (this is hard to find in Belize).
Full-size travel towel:This travel towel is full-size so it’s big enough to use as a beach towel, thin enough to pack up super small for your luggage, and it dries super quickly in Belize’s humid climate.
A guidebook: I use travel blogs a lot when I’m on the road but I also love having a guidebook to give me more specific, thoroughly researched information. Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook and Lonely Planet Belize is no exception. I usually buy the Kindle version, but paper versions are also great fun to peruse.
Reef-safe sunscreen: If you are planning to do any water activities, such as diving or snorkeling or even swimming, please use a reef-safe sunscreen like this one. The active ingredients in sunscreen are killing off coral in huge numbers. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world and is under threat. So please don’t use normal, chemical-laden sunscreen in Belize’s fragile ocean ecosystem!
Filter water bottle or Steripen: Belize’s tap water is not drinkable anywhere in the country. I recommend traveling with a water bottle with a built-in filter that filters out nasty bacteria and viruses like this awesome LifeStraw bottle so you can reduce your plastic waste. Alternately, you can use a Steripen which sterilizes water using UV light. A great investment if you travel frequently and want to reduce your plastic bottle consumption!
GoPro: If you go snorkeling or cave tubing or ziplining, you’re going to want a way to capture all of that action! A GoPro Hero 6 is currently the highest-quality option, but if you’re on a budget, the GoPro Session is also an excellent choice. Be aware that you need to buy protective casing if you want to take either of these cameras diving. They are only waterproof to 10 meters, and you’ll exceed that if you dive (most dives are at least 15 meters or so).
Finally, don’t forget travel insurance! Whether you’re scuba diving, caving, ziplining through the jungle or just relaxing on the beach, don’t forget to purchase travel insurance! It’ll protect you in case of accident, injury, lost luggage, theft, or any other disaster that could befall your trip. I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for two years and recommend them highly. I’ve included a way to get a free quote below.