The jungle is cold at night. By the light of a crescent moon, we trek through pines and palms, pushing stray foliage aside, lifting our feet high over the treacherous knotted roots of strangler figs. The air smells of wet earth. It is still, and quiet, but we humans are not the only ones awake. A pair of eyes shines from the darkness, glimpses us, and is gone.
Through gaps in the trees above, the black
sky looks like a jeweller’s display, studded with millions of glittering stars.
Ancient Mayans believed their sun god turned into a jaguar at dusk, and the
constellations were his spots. Branches crack underfoot, but it is wise to
tread carefully. Real jaguars roam these forests.
Through the gloom, the edges of a colossal
pyramid rise up above the jungle canopy. It is one edge of a city, vanished for
a millennium: Caracol, once the centre of a mighty Mayan empire.
More than 80 years ago, another adventurer
came to these jungles, looking for lost cities, buried treasure and mystical
ancient objects with strange powers. He was a dashing archaeologist between the
two World Wars, instantly recognisable by his trademark hat. But his name was
not Indiana Jones. It was FA Mitchell-Hedges.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have
always denied that there was one specific inspiration for Indiana Jones, but
Mitchell- Hedges – who gets name-checked in the fourth movie – is a
well-qualified candidate. Like Indy, Mitchell-Hedges’s version of a career in
archaeology involved blowing things up, fighting villains and being callous to
the scores of women who fell hopelessly in love with him.
We scramble through the mists up the side
of one acropolis, clinging to the creepers and allspice trees that have
overgrown it. What remains of the stairway belize on foot is slicked with moss
and dew. It is easy to lose your footing, and tumble back down, bouncing off
the steps like the sacrificial victims of a thousand years ago.
As the sky lightens to delicate shades of
pale blue and tangerine, we reach the peak. A blood-curdling roar splits the
silence. ‘Have you seen Jurassic Park?’ asks Calbert, our guide, a Mayan from a
nearby village. ‘Just kidding. That’s a howler monkey.’ A whole family of them,
swinging through the trees on long black tails, babies clinging to the backs of
adults. The noise is unbelievable: like something from the fires of hell. No
wonder the Mayans worshipped howler monkey gods.
Just then, the sun glimmers over the
horizon, and the ruined city is flooded with warm rose gold. This is the sight
ancient priests awaited every morning: their god returning from his jaguar
form, and illuminating the observatory with his blessing. The pink light picks
out mysterious carvings in the stone, telling of ancient victories against the
rival kingdom of Tikal, of captured slaves, of the blood sacrifice of a
princess. But of the most mysterious artefact of all, there is no trace. For
this is the kingdom of the crystal skull.
legend of the crystal skull
Indiana Jones may have looked for crystal skulls in Peru, but he was way off
track. The legend of the skulls comes from Belize, which is where
Mitchell-Hedges came to look for mysteries back in 1926. Mitchell-Hedges
claimed that he never sought fame, but this was not strictly true: he had his
own radio show in New York, and wrote memoirs with titles such as Danger, My
Ally and Battles With Giant Fish. He claimed to have fought with Pancho Villa
in the Mexican Revolution, to have been asked by the British secret service to
spy on Trotsky, and to have found the lost empire of Atlantis. Along the way,
he stopped to hunt crocodiles, wrestle tiger sharks and engage in steamy romps
with bar wenches. But his most famous feat was the discovery of the Skull of
Doom, a lump of rock crystal fashioned into the shape of a human skull,
glittering among the rubble in the ruined Mayan city of Lubaantun, Belize.
Ancient priests, he said, could focus their energies through it, and will the
death of their enemies. ‘Several people who have cynically laughed at it have
died,’ he warned.
Even at risk of incurring death by Mayan
curse, it is tempting to laugh cynically. The Skull of Doom was a fraud. It was
almost certainly one of several that a dubious antiques dealer, Eugene Boban,
secretly commissioned from German craftsmen in the 19th century. Boban sold a
number of these skulls, on the pretence that they were of ancient Mayan or
Aztec origin: one ended up in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC, and one in
the British Museum. These days, both museums have their skulls labelled as
fakes. Mitchell-Hedges, the old charlatan, did not find his skull at Lubaantun.
He still had the receipt from when he bought it at Sotheby’s.
How many of Mitchell-Hedges’s adventures
were real, and how many only existed in his imagination, is unknown. But he did
come to Belize, hacking through jungles, meeting Mayan villagers and exploring
deserted, tropical archipelagos, and he did excavate the ruins at Lubaantun.
Clutching a dusty copy of his Belizean travelogue, Land of Wonder and Fear, I
set out on the Hummingbird Highway to follow the route of his real-life
Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a small country crammed with diversity.
Ecosystems range from mountainous pine forests to reefs, savannahs to jungles.
These support a plethora of flora and fauna, including 540 species of bird and
124 species of mammal. The human population is diverse too. Mayan teenagers in
hoodies shop in the Ah Fang Taiwanese supermarket. Bearded Amish and Mennonite
men drive their horse-carts past the Bismilla Lebanese café. South Asian youths
play pool in a roadside shack. Creoles and Canadians dance the night away to
Garifuna music, the unique blend of African and Amerindian cultures created
when, in 1635, escaped African slaves from a Spanish ship allied with the
native Caribs on St Vincent, and later spread to Belize. Even in remote
villages, most people will happily chat away to you in perfect English. Belize
is the only Anglophone country in Central America, making it easy and
pleasurable to explore, and to meet new friends along the way.
It is not long before we reach the
colourful seaside town of Dangriga. My plan, scribbled on a scrap of paper,
sounds more like Moby-Dick than Raiders of the Lost Ark: I should go to the
Riverside Café and look for one Captain Buck. No disappointment is in store
for, aside from having both legs and being Creole, Captain Buck looks the part
of Captain Ahab. He is a grizzled old seadog in a booth near the bar, tucking
into the local delicacy of crispy pastries – known as fry jack, and served with
everything. The Captain isn’t much of a talker. He nods towards his motorboat,
moored just outside.
It is a searingly bright Caribbean day, and
the sea glitters as if filled with sequins. Ten minutes out of the harbour, a
shiny grey fin breaks the surface. Captain Buck veers the boat over towards it.
For a fleeting second, four or five bottlenose dolphins curve out of the surf
by the bow, before plunging back into the depths.
Buck fires the motor again to Man-O’- War
Caye, a tiny island that seems from the distance to have some sort of
pestilence buzzing above it. But the specks in the air are not flies. They are
hundreds of magnificent frigatebirds, swooping and gliding over their nesting
spot. Captain Buck takes the boat so close that we are enveloped in their
flock: the males puffing up scarlet throats, the females circling the trees. An
inquisitive pelican paddles up to the boat to see if we have fish to spare.
Past Man-O’-War Caye, we cross a mangrove
lagoon enclosed between two sandy crescents. It is filled with manatees, giant
sea mammals that were supposedly mistaken for mermaids by the sailors of yore.
The manatee is a noble beast but, with its sunken eyes, bloated cigar-shaped
body and lumpy face, it is not the prettiest. Those sailors had not seen a
woman for a very long time. Finally, we reach Tobacco Caye, the same tiny
sandstrip where Mitchell-Hedges broke his journey south from Belize City to
Punta Gorda. These days, it is home to a cluster of cabanas for snorkelers,
divers and kayakers.
Belize is famous for its dive sites,
particularly the Great Blue Hole – a perfectly circular sinkhole, as wide as
the Eiffel Tower is tall, set in the middle of Lighthouse Reef. Plunging to 120
metres, the hole is a favourite lurking ground of sharks, and was made famous
by Jacques Cousteau. Even for the casual snorkeler, there are plenty of thrills
to be had, and Tobacco Caye is an ideal spot to start having them: the reef
starts just a few yards offshore. If you can persuade Captain Buck to take you
out to a channel, you can jump in amid eagle rays, turtles, tarpon, barracudas
and even whale sharks.
temptation of the exotic
Mitchell-Hedges was more into battling giant fish than appreciating them, and
he spent his time on Tobacco Caye alternately big-game fishing and scouring the
islands for Mayan ruins. He found lots of fish, but no Mayans. As the sun
begins to dip and the sky fades from azure to violet, my inquiries about
crystal skulls don’t get very far either. Kirk, the barman at Tobacco Caye
Lodge, looks confused: ‘Crystal who?’ I explain. He gives me a pitying look and
a piña colada.
The piña colada – rum, coconut milk, and
fresh pineapple – brings to mind a very different aspect of Mitchell-Hedges’s
adventures. Once, he claimed to have been presented with exotic fruit by an
admiring tribe of female Amerindians, who hoped he might be the answer to their
acute shortage of husbands. Manfully, he resisted, with the immortal words:
‘Personally, I refuse to be seduced by pineapples.’ If pineapples test your
fortitude, you could be in trouble. Piña coladas made fresh on the beach, with
authentic Belizean fruit, are shamefully seductive at the end of a hot
Back on the mainland, we head south,
through the eerie primeval swamps of the Cockscomb Basin. Trekking along muddy
jungle paths, we follow a trail of fresh jaguar paw prints. The cat does not
want to be found. Instead, it leads us to a ghostly sight: the rusting chassis
of a high-wing aircraft, crashed into the trees many years ago by some
zoologists. They survived, but left the wreck to be eaten up by the jungle.
Few tourists make it further south than
Placencia, a glitzy peninsula inhabited by Belize’s celebrities, but that is a
huge mistake. Southern Belize’s little-known Toledo district is outstandingly
beautiful, and a true wilderness: 1,700 square miles, 26,000 people and only
three petrol stations. No big resorts befoul the coastline, and the only
airport is a landing strip, accepting nothing much larger than a 16-seater
plane. With a local expert, such as guide Bruno Kuppinger, you can have a true
After a few years playing the stock market
in New York, Mitchell-Hedges complained that he had been ‘sidetracked into a
counterfeit jungle of counterfeit excitement when I should have been rollicking
down the trail of adventure in the primitive, unspoiled wilds’. Similarly,
Bruno was a successful businessman in Germany before he got fed up with the rat
race, and moved to Belize to live in a tent.
But there the similarity between the two
men ends, for Bruno is an unassuming man of extensive cultural knowledge and
unimpeachable honesty. ‘Oh, ja, the famous crystal skull,’ he says, eyeing me
nervously to check my sanity. ‘It’s not mentioned in the excavation reports.
But I can take you to meet someone who knows all about it.’
Daryl Capps lives in the pretty seaside town of Punta Gorda. This white-haired,
congenial American was a member of the Society of the Crystal Skulls, founded
in 1945 in California to investigate the paranormal and archaeological claims
made for these objects. Daryl has chosen to make his home here, just 26 miles
from Lubaantun – but he doesn’t believe the Skull of Doom is genuine. ‘It’s too
perfect,’ he says, with a laugh.
‘Some people think crystal skulls are of
alien origin,’ he continues, pointing to a photograph taken through the Skull
of Doom, which appears to show a shadow of a 1950s-style flying saucer through
the middle of it. ‘But look at the uncropped photo.’ In the full version, the
origin of the flying saucer is revealed: it’s a 1950s-style ceiling fan,
refracted through the skull.
Sceptic though he may be, Daryl does
believe that several of the other crystal skulls purportedly discovered all
over the Americas are authentic – and raises the question of whether they may
emit mysterious psychometric energies. The British Museum is circumspect,
pointing out that no crystal skull has ever been found at a well-documented,
official excavation. As for me, I couldn’t say it better than Indiana Jones: ‘I
don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocuspocus. I’m going after a
find of incredible historical significance.’ Lubaantun itself is that find, and
it’s within a few hours’ reach, up the river and through thick forests.
From Punta Gorda, Mitchell-Hedges took
canoes up the Rio Grande (not to be confused with the river of the same name
that’s part of the US-Mexico border). Now, the journey is made by motorboat. As
saltwater turns to freshwater, the mangroves are replaced by huge cohune palms,
their quills of green leaves held high in the warm air, and by sturdy cotton
trees, with pale, gnarled roots stretching down to the shore. Creepers trail
into the crocodile-infested river. In a feathery thicket of bamboo, gigantic
orange and grey iguanas hang heavy, like living Christmas decorations. Three
Mayan children crawl on their bellies along an overhanging trunk, hoping to catch
one of these monsters for dinner.
Around Lubaantun, most of the Mayan
population lives in villages of pimento sticks and palm thatch. When we arrive,
the women come to greet us, wearing puffsleeved dresses in shades of flax,
grape and lime. The Mayans here stood firm against imperial rule until the 17th
century. Neither army nor church could conquer them: they were finished off by
European diseases. The current population migrated from Guatemala a century
ago, and has re-established a traditional way of life.
Lubaantun is neither the largest nor the most elaborate of pre-conquest Mayan
sites, but it is one of the most atmospheric. After you have navigated dirt
tracks in an all-terrain vehicle, you scramble down a perilous grassy slope cut
into the trees, cross a bridge, then climb a hillside to a high plateau. It is
late afternoon when we reach the edge of the city: piles of sandstone slabs,
heaped higgledy-piggledy, amid dense palms and swirls of mist.
These stones were cut so precisely that
they once fitted together without cement. Now, they lie scattered around, like building
blocks in a messy child’s room. The reason is not just the passage of
centuries. Mitchell-Hedges’s partner in crime, Thomas Gann, ‘excavated’ this
city using dynamite.
By blasting huge holes in the sides of
ancient monuments, he hoped to find tombs filled with gold. But Gann, like the
conquistador Hernán Cortés before him, found no gold in the Mayan lands. Mayans
didn’t value the stuff; their most prized substance was jade. And, like Cortés,
Gann caused irreparable damage in his obsessive pursuit of riches.
The good news is that the ruined ruins at
Lubaantun comprise a tiny part of the entire site. ‘Ninety per cent of
Lubaantun has never been excavated,’ Bruno tells me. So there are mysteries
still lying here, undiscovered? ‘Oh ja, all around these hills.’ Maybe a
crystal skull? ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Bruno does not want anyone turning up
with a case of dynamite, but there is a better option. ‘We are hoping to start
archaeology tours at Uxbenka, southwest of Lubaantun. Visitors will be able to
dig on the ruins, but it will all be done under proper academic supervision.’
As it sinks down into the mists, the sun
turns blood orange. The city is quiet, except for the chirping of cicadas. A
millennium ago, priests and nobles in feathered headdresses strode the avenues.
Merchants traded obsidian in the busy markets. Young men played for cheering
crowds in the ballcourts. Now, it has all been swallowed up by the jungle, many
of its secrets lost forever. ‘In the setting sun the immensity of the ruins we
had uncovered came home to us with overwhelming force,’ wrote Mitchell-Hedges
at this very spot. ‘Slowly the sky crimsoned, a red glow tinged the jungle and
the desolate courtyards, the terraces, the pyramids of this great city which we
had called Lubaantun – the Maya word for “The City of Fallen Stones.”’
And the crystal skull? Lubaantun is full of
mysteries, but that isn’t one of them. The Old Belize Bar in Belize City has a
plastic copy you can have your photograph taken with. It’s only slightly less
authentic than the Skull of Doom. Should you wish to be seduced by pineapples,
they’ll even serve you another piña colada while you, like Mitchell-Hedges,
watch the sun set over the horizon. Unlike him, you won’t need to invent your
The article 'The kingdom of the crystal skull' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.