Belize’s forest-clad highlands sit atop Central America’s most extensive cave system, containing some of the largest subterranean passageways and chamber rooms in the western hemisphere. The caves were carved out of limestone by the Chiquibul River, and the watery darkness hosts a variety of resident troglobite cave creatures, as well as the occasional sub-aquatic spelunker. According to legend, the Chiquibul cave system was also the entrance to Xibalba, the macabre Maya underworld.
- Related blog post: Maya festivals for the end of time
The place of fright
which translates as “the place of fright”, was home to the most feared Maya
deities, the Lord of Death and his evil attendants – ghoulish specialists in
disease, starvation, pain, blood-spilling, gut-wrenching and
skeleton-transforming. It was here that wayward souls would be confronted with
terrifying tests of courage and acumen, including a river of poisonous
scorpions, a house of killer jaguars and a game played with balls made of
demon gods of the underworld were eventually outwitted, though not entirely
defeated, by the wily protagonists of Maya mythology, the Hero Twins, who
overcame Xibalba’s deadly obstacles and avenged their father’s death. Even
though the menacing powers of Xibalba were diminished, the Maya continued to
offer sacrifices to appease the gods, and for a while, the Maya civilization
Collapse of the great civilization
evidence shows a dramatic increase in cave sacrifices in the late Classic
Period, around 900 AD, coinciding with geological evidence of a drought. It is
presumed that Maya civilization was undone by a climatic cataclysm, a
decades-long drought that first destroyed the agricultural-based economy and
then brought down the socio-political system, causing migration from once
prosperous and proud cities, famine and death.
Maya ruler-priests ventured deeper and deeper into the lair of the underworld
gods, making ever more elaborate sacrifices in an attempt to stave off the
collapse of the great ancient civilization. But eventually, the people
dispersed, the forest closed in and the sacred caves lay undisturbed for a
Modern explorers in the ancient
In the late 20th Century, archaeologists rediscovered the ancient
passage to the underworld and the well-preserved remnants of the Maya drought
culture, and today, several ceremonial sites in western Belize are open to travellers.
Accompanied by a licensed guide, adventurous souls can take day trips into the
depths of the caves and examine the relics left behind by the ancient Maya.
The most challenging expedition,
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) is a labyrinthine series of caves
located east of San Ignacio in the Tapir Mountain Reserve. A swim across a deep
clear river pool is necessary to reach the cave entrance. From there, a
three-mile hike leads to further underground obstacles: walking through chest-deep
water, scaling rocky ledges in the dark, squeezing through narrow cracks in
limestone walls and climbing a tall rickety ladder.
the darkest depths of ATM, there are roomy underground chambers with ornate
stalactite and stalagmite formations, countless ceramic shards and broken pots
(Maya believed that it was necessary to smash a sacrificial vessel to release
the spirit within), and altar places where bloodletting ceremonies occurred
(Maya priests offered their own blood by piercing their tongue or foreskin).
The climax of the adventure is discovering the bony remains of human
sacrifices, including ATM’s central attraction, the Crystal Maiden, a fully
intact calcified skeleton of an adolescent female victim.
Barton Creek Cave, also located near San Ignacio, offers a more leisurely visit to the
underworld. Explorers can marvel at the naturally wondrous cathedral ceiling
and the archaeologically amazing ritualistic remnants from the comfort of their
canoe. The Barton Creek Cave includes 10 ledges of known sacrifice sites and
skeletal remains of nearly 30 sacrificed humans. Take in the serene and surreal
while paddling the mile-long route into the mystical Maya underworld.
local tour companies offer trips to ATM and Barton Creek, including Belize Nature Travel and Pacz
Mara Vorhees is co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to Belize.
The article 'Journey into the Maya underworld' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.