My heart is pounding, and I am covered in a layer of muddy sweat. I crawl on all fours and peer down a dark cavern. Tilting my headlamp, I see the outline of a tiny baby’s skeleton; its skull sporting a blunt hole. A Mayan sacrifice.
Let’s Go Caving
The mountains surrounding San Ignacio are littered with caves. They come is every shape and size as well as water filled or dry. You can float down them in a rubber tube, repel into them, or canoe through them. The options are endless but, the three most popular caves to explore are the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, Barton Creek Cave, and Crystal Cave (locally known as Mountain Cow Cave).
Arriving in San Ignacio, Belize I was eager to sign up for a caving experience.
After a presentation from my tour provider, I chose to explore Crystal Cave. Described as a physical and technical climb, where I would get covered head to toe in mud; it was an adventure I just could not resist.
Driving an hour and a half out of San Ignacio, we arrived at Belize’s Blue Hole National Park where we would access the mouth of Crystal Cave.
The adventure began with a 45-minute hike up through the jungle. Over roots and under vines we climbed, stopping occasionally for our guide to point out various medicinal plants. Reaching the cave’s entrance I was astonished to find that I would need to scale down a rock wall to reach the cave’s floor. I am not a massive fan of heights or climbing down.
I can climb up all day long but, down; not so much.
However, I swallowed my fear and lowered myself over the ledge. Slowly I reached for foot and hand holds and made my way down until I heard my guide say that my feet had reached their destination.
Moving into the twilight zone of the cave, we dropped our backpacks and consolidated our water bottles in our guide’s bag. The only thing we were allowed to carry through the cave was our cameras.
Only a few feet into the darkness and I started spotting Mayan artifacts. Pottery, stones, and bits jewelry littered nooks and crannies in the cave walls.
As we moved deeper and deeper into the cave the artifacts became less utilitarian and more sacrificial.
The ancient Mayan’s believed that caves were the gateway to the underworld of Xibalba or “The Place of Fright” and were fearful of these dark places. This fear, however, conflicted with the Mayans beliefs in Chac, the god of rain, who lived on the fringe of the darkness in the mouths of the caves.
The Mayan’s gave many offerings to Chac. These offerings were typically pottery and stones and were placed near the front of the caves. However, as drought and starvation began to set in, in the eighth and ninth centuries the Mayan’s grew more distressed. In a desperate attempt to please the gods and bring the rain back they began venturing deeper into the caves. Their offerings growing more sinister.
In a desperate attempt to please the gods and bring the rains back they began venturing deeper into the caves. Their offerings growing increasingly sinister.
Viewing the Sacrifices
Once we reached the depths of the cave we started seeing the remains of the human sacrifices performed in ancient times. Archeologists have discovered several skeletons in the cave. But, most recently they have discovered the skeleton of an infant no more than three months old.
For me, this was the hardest sacrifice to view.
We had been in the cave for more than two hours. My muscles were tiring, I was cover in silty mud, and I was beginning to feel closed it. But, I pushed on too fascinated to stop.
Squeezing up through a tight hole, I followed my guide into a cramped chamber. As the rest of the group piled in behind me we were instructed to turn off our headlamps. Then our guide lit a small torch. The walls around us erupted into sparkles. We were now seeing the cave as the Mayan’s would have, with the light of a flame. As we watched our shadows dance on the walls; our guide beginning to explain the significance of the chamber. Pointing down a small shaft beside the wall he softly informed us that below was a human sacrifice. The human; an infant baby no older than three months.
Moving aside he gave us each a turn to look down into the cavern.
Aiming my headlamp down, I saw the baby. It was so tiny. My breath caught and I exited the confining chamber quickly. My modern mind could not fathom the faith and desperation it must have taken for a mother to give her child up for that. She must have had the strength of a warrior. An unsettled feeling shivered up my spine.
Back out in a more open section of the cave, I steadied my breath and began the grueling climb back to the surface. Pushing the image of the baby from my mind.
Back Into the Light
Muscles spent, I pulled myself over the final crux of the climb. Flopping onto my belly, I twisted and rolled upright. As I brought my head up I saw that we had reached the light. After over three hours of complete darkness seeing natural sunlight is beautifully blinding.
Making my way to the cave’s month I collapsed onto a semi-smooth rock and gulped down half a bottle of water. My body and mind were done.
No adventure tires you out as completely as caving. Especially, if like me you border on scared the whole time you are underground.