We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize. Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves. They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them. I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves. We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from. When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.
We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.
They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites. There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:
After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:
There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits! The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first: After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:
The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld. Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:
That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.
The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last. Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago. It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto. They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices. We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9bdBVPeDQ
It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water. To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area. I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it. I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.