Caves were used by the ancient Maya for performing spiritual rituals like sacrificing to their Gods and bloodletting. In the enigmatic Maya religion and mythology, caves were considered to be the home of gods and an entrance to the ever mysterious underworld. The underworld was called ‘Xibalba’ and its literal translation from Mayan language is ‘the place of fear’. In the Popol Vuh, it has been described as a court that lies beneath the earth’s surface and is often associated with death. In Maya religion, Xibalba is also thought to be dead’s realm and the lowest among the 9 underworlds.
The Maya were Belize’s first inhabitants and caves were fundamental to their religion which is why Belize’s history with its caves is like the fate of soul mates, you can’t pull them apart.
Today, because of the lime rock matrix that occupies a majority of the landmass of the country, it is spattered with caves and one can’t think of Belize without thinking of its majestic caves. Some of the most extensive cave systems in the world are found just beneath the surface of this country.
If you want to travel back through time and enter the realm of Xibalba, then you have to explore any (or all) of the below 10 caves to learn about the enigmatic and ancient Maya civilization –
1. Black Hole – The Black Hole drop in Belize is for those people who seek the real thrill of adventure. The descent is 300 feet deep, starting with the first 10 feet and providing an unforgettable rush in the next 200 feet. The final 100 feet will take you through the canopy of the Belizean rainforest and this entire experience is definitely not for those who were expecting a vanilla holiday. Ladder climbing, hiking and some rock climbing skills will definitely be needed to get in and out of the Black Hole but even when it is done, the adrenaline will take a long time to come down.
2. Rio Frio Cave – The signature of this cave is its massive mouth and it is also the largest cave you will come across in Belize. Located in Mountain Pine Ridge, the arched entrance is miraculous and in the rainy season, you might get to experience the river that runs through the paths of the cave. The cave tour is not that strenuous or difficult and you should carry a flashlight to experience it properly.
3. Barton Creek Cave – This ceremonial cave can be explored with the help of licensed guides on a canoe. It might take up about half a day but the cultural and natural wonders you come across is well worth the sweat. The canoe will glide along the river cave and will take you through chambers that will remind you of cathedrals and wide roomy passages. It is interesting to note that Barton Creek Cave was part of a recent list of ’9 most unusual and beautiful caves in the world’, and when you are in your canoe exploring this cave, you will know why.
4. Chem Chem Ha Cave – A lot of Maya artifacts and artworks can be found in this cave which was discovered by a farmer. The entrance itself is riddled with Maya motifs which would appeal to the archeology hobbyists among you. The chamber walls are lined with ‘ollas’ or storage jars and you can reach the high chambers through ladders inside the cave. You can only explore this cave with a licensed guide since it is carefully monitored to stop looting of artifacts.
The Crystal Maiden at Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Photo by Demian Solano www.demiansolano.com
5. Actun Tunichil Muknal – This ceremonial cave is so rich in Maya artifacts that you will never experience so much first hand cultural knowledge anywhere else. You can see bloodletting altars and more than 1400 other artifacts. There are both dry and wet chambers in the ATM cave and some sacrificial remains might also be found, particularly the ‘Crystal Maiden’ artifact which is the remain of a young human female but because of calcium carbonate covering, sparkles in the lamp light, giving the experience a rather grim memento mori. There is also a hike of 45 minutes where you will cross 3 streams.
6. Caves Branch Cave System – There are about three caves in the Caves Branch cave system – Petroglyph, Waterfall and Footprint. The names of the caves have been taken from the objects you will find on the walls inside. There are embedded footprints on the walls of the Footprint, about six waterfalls in Waterfall, and Maya’s ancient rock drawings from 300 to 900 A.D. in Petroglyph. The humongous cave system has been formed by the Caves Branch River that goes through these caves and has many a squeezes to make your heart skip a beat.
7. Laguna Cave – There is a wooden ladder about 4m long which can be used for climbing over the steep slope over which the entrance of the cave is situated. Then you will go through two entrances, through a slope of 8m depth and into a lower chamber which has an exquisite skylight filtering to the center. Some crevices of the cave are home to bats and speleothems, and further in, you will see a wooden bench through which the village of Laguna, after which the cave has been named, can be seen.