February 2nd 2019
To the ancient Maya, caves served as sacred gateways to the underworld — Xibalbá — and the dark world beneath the forested surface of mainland Belize stands out for its eerie assortment of ceremonial centers hidden within serpentine formations.
Experience the artistry of nature combined with spooky remnants of Maya rituals when your small adventure travel group dares to enter Belize’s netherworld. Here are five caves worth checking out:
Actun Tunichil Muknal, a living museum with bones still in place
Reaching the gaping mouth of the impressive cave system Actun Tunichil Muknal (“Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” or ATM) represents a challenge, but the rewards make the trek more than worthwhile. Located in the Cayo District of western Belize, ATM features multiple chambers that open along three twisting miles (5 kilometers) of dark passageways. Walk, climb, swim, or wade through craggy and sometimes cramped corridors to go from chamber to chamber, with only your headlamp lighting the tricky path. Along the way, check out the stalactites and stalagmites, with occasional Maya artifacts perched on ledges or tucked into nooks. Climb up a boulder to enter the final, uppermost chamber, aptly nicknamed “The Cathedral,” where Maya priests performed mysterious rituals, including human sacrifices. Victims’ skeletons, full and partial, still occupy the sacred site, and notice the lofty altar, carved out of existing rock. Getting to ATM requires a 45-minute jungle trek, crossing a stream, and finally swimming or wading up a mountain river flowing out of the cave’s tree-shrouded entrance.
Grab a paddle and strap on your headlamp for a unique canoeing adventure into the Barton Creek Cave in western Belize. Like many in Central America, the cave system served as a ceremonial center for the ancient Maya. Archaeologists recovered jewelry, pottery, and human remains from its chambers; some relics remain visible on cave ledges. Jungle growth, including cascading vines and ferns, surround the triangular, jagged entrance into the Barton Creek Cave, located in the Cayo District. Paddle past crystal formations, looking up now and then at the amazing stalactites hanging overhead. While some chambers are soaring and roomy, other openings are so tight you’ll need to watch your head while squeezing by.
Blue Creek Cave, a watery formation filled with mystery & beauty
Enjoy a splashy greeting of flowing crystal waters and swirling pools at the entrance to Blue Creek Cave, nested in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Pouring out a steady stream of pristine water, the cave’s craggy mouth can be a fun experience to enter by swimming, floating, or wading. But during the rainy season, it becomes more of a challenge as water gushes out in torrents, forming rapids, churning pools, and small waterfalls, making for a more-thrilling welcome. (Actually, sometimes the flow can be too strong for entering.) Most often, conditions remain ideal to hike, wade, or swim through 5-mile (8km) cave system, located in the Punta Gorda District of southern Belize. The deep, winding formation contains roomy, cavernous chambers and small, narrow caverns, all adorned with stalagmites, stalactites, and naturally carved rock. Historians believe the Maya used the cave as a ceremonial center, and once inside you’ll appreciate the Maya’s fitting name for the formation — Hokeb Ha (“Where the Water Enters the Earth”). Getting there entails a hike of about 20 minutes from Blue Creek Village, taking you through thick jungle growth and along the river’s edge until you reach the scenic entrance.
Caves Branch River, for a floating tour of the underworld
Settle into an inner tube for tranquil, floating exploration of the Caves Branch River in southern Belize. To get there, take a short hike through lush rainforest at Jaguar Paw, and hop into your inner tube on the riverbank; the river’s cool, steady currents guide you to the impressive entrance. Lie back and enjoy nature’s artistry, including stalactites, stalagmites, and rock- and crystal sculptures, as you float through the cave, located in the Cayo District. The Maya performed rituals at various sites within the formation; you’ll see pottery, glyphs, carvings, and skeletal remains among evidence of underworld ceremonies. Occasionally, the dark, spooky atmosphere is displaced by bright forest growth, as the river weaves in and out of several caves, taking you from darkness to light and back again during your floating expedition. Caves Branch River provides a fun, leisurely look into an underworld bathed in Maya intrigue and naturally sculpted formations.
Che Chem Ha, a dry cave system featuring intact Maya pottery
Known more for its collection of ancient pottery than its geologic features, Che Chem Ha presents visitors with a trove of Maya artifacts, indicating its role as an ancient burial ground. Notice the Maya emblem at the cave’s gaping entrance, also protected by a more modern metal gate to deter looters, a foreboding welcome that looks like something that Indiana Jones would encounter. As you walk through the tight passages and broader chambers, keep an eye out on the floor for pottery shards and larger, complete pieces on ledges and recesses in the walls. As you venture deeper, use ladders to reach higher caverns to see an amazing collection of intact Maya pottery, some pieces still with lids and containing decomposed maize (corn) and other seeds. Getting to Che Chem Ha (“Cave of the Poisonwood Waters”) entails a hike of 30-45 minutes.
February 2nd 2019
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