“You're young enough to be my grandson,” Phyllis confides to me as our van plows through muddied water of the washed out dirt road. Phyllis frowns. “I don't like caves, and I'm not a good swimmer.”
Was she not deterred by whip scorpions, skeletons, and photos of tourists swimming in a murky mausoleum? Nevertheless, I promise to stay close, equally blind to the path ahead that will harm both body and spirit.
In the potholed parking lot, rain pelts us as we don our plastic hardhats. I am the lone Canadian in a group of older Americans. A two-minute trail takes us to Roaring River. Swift riffles heaving from the cloudburst betray a deadly undercurrent. There is no bridge.
“Our first crossing,” Oscar, our guide, mundanely informs us. “There will be six total.”
I am stunned. This wasn't in the brochure.
Phyllis, hands on her itty bitty hips, is stupefied. “How deep?”
“To my waist,” Oscar says. He is a robust man, our drill sergeant, a Belizean Rambo with a potbelly emerging through his mesh shirt.
“What!” Phyllis exclaims. “My neck barely reaches your waist.”
Oscar takes her hand curtly, and she unwillingly braves the current.
I fall in behind everyone else, the good soldier. Our first crossing is slow but safe.
The river meanders across our path a second and then a third time. Oscar, impatient at our sluggish pace, reaches the far shore just as my foot enters the current. Phyllis asks me to carry her bag, as she and I trudge over slippery, algae-covered rocks. About two-thirds across, water tugging at my thighs, I hear a splash to my right. Phyllis is down, and thrashing downriver. I thrust my legs toward her, trip on submerged bedrock but manage to keep my balance and our collective bags dry, and clutch the toes of her flailing foot. I brace myself against the rush of the river.
She stretches out a frail hand, but my ten fingers are occupied. I look from her foot to her hand, practice the switch with my eyes, then release toes and lunge to fingers. “If it weren't for you,” she remarks afterward, “I’d be halfway to the ocean.”
The constant deluge seems suitably adventurous, though others grumble. Amidst wild jungle, a short trek past abandoned termite mounds, lay a row of palapa-roofed picnic tables. Lunch time. My veggie sandwich is a bit dry, but the fried plantains are delish. Oscar advises us to empty our bladders, as we will spend hours in the dark before reaching today's highlight: the cave of the crystal maiden.
He attaches headlamps to our plastic hardhats, then buries our socks and cameras in his dry bag. “Today, safety is priority,” he barks. “Therefore, I am the boss! Inside the cave, we must pass directions from one person to the next.”
Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, in reference to old spirits and skeletal corpses, ranks as the top Belize attraction. Except for one added Home Depot ladder, the ATM cave has changed little since the reign of the ancient Mayans, who ventured within this holy quietus to perform bloody rite and ritual.
The cave entrance opens before us like jaws of the Earth, the river its liquid tongue. My wife, Jenn, opted out with this reason: “I think you'll enjoy yourself more if I'm not there.”
Oscar hefts his leak-proof bag of tourist socks and digital cameras. “Here, we swim. Keep your heads up! The headlamps are not waterproof.”
“Just like Goonies,” someone remarks. One-by-one we waddle onto a slick slab of rock, jump like tentative ducklings into a pool of sapphire, then doggie paddle into the humid darkness.
Our headlamps cast meagre light in this underworld of quartz walls and monstrous stalactites. Oscar commands something I can't hear. I have again chosen to be last--for others' safety, and to linger amongst these geological marvels, carved by river and rainwater over 100,000 years.
“Sharp rocks to the right,” the guy ahead relays.
The farther we explore along sheets of flowstone and climbing bulbous stalagmites, the more the guy ahead decides to be a smart ass.
“Wet area ahead!” he indicates with a sweep of his hand.
“Thanks,” I mutter, tiptoeing through nipple-high water.
We stop in the heavy, nocturnal stillness. Oscar helps Phyllis scramble up a steep staircase of boulders, while I ponder this sacred, once-hidden world of shadow and sacrifice. I clamber up to the main chamber, known as The Cathedral, whose genesis is a flat rock shelf.
"Shoes off! Socks on!" Oscar orders. This no socks, no service policy keeps our skin oils off the sacramental stone. He hands us our cameras. Someone complains that the humidity has fogged up his lens. I look up. My headlamp reveals an angry spirit, a mystic shapeshifter that dances before my roving eyes. Perhaps this is a guardian. I blink, and the ephemeral spirit crumbles into mist. Am I guest here, or trespasser?
I tug on dry socks, twist through a narrow passage, scraping spine and knee, and enter The Cathedral.
I am familiar with the word cavern: a large, dark, underground chamber. I have spelunked the lava caves of Iceland and meditated in Sri Lanka's golden cave temple of Dambulla where elaborate murals colour every surface. Neither truly deserve the word cavern.
Here, in this football-sized field enclosed by limestone, magnificent columns stretch from floor to ceiling like something from Lord of the Rings, while immense drip curtains of sensuous stone put Picasso to shame. We have stepped into the divine. Miracles dangle above in the form of elegant rock draperies and soda straw stalactites. My dim light cannot fully illuminate these vast mysteries sculpted by the collaborative hands of water and erosion. Sunless rock is the canvas, single drops of limestone-laced water the artist. Many shapes remind me of candle wax, huge rivulets that flow, snake and coil into countless latent architectures. Entrancing, but Oscar hastens us deeper into The Cathedral.
We are not alone. This is a place of pious ritual and bloodthirsty deities. I take delicate steps in my wool socks. The path is well-trodden. We pass 1,300 year-old ceramic bowls used in sacrificial ceremonies, many with kill holes to allow the spirit to escape. Most are shattered. "Tourists stepped on them," Oscar says, matter-of-fact.
Oscar points to a rocky outcrop that juts upward like the head of an old crone. "Ixchel, the jaguar goddess of medicine and midwifery." With his flashlight, he spots her flat head. Shadows flicker behind, dancing the goddess to life, much like the Mayans witnessed by torchlight. A nightmarish effect.
Eighteen corpses were found in The Cathedral, including children. Oscar stops at a site outlined by red tape on the floor, a pathetic barrier to tourist stupidity.
We pass other groups, some much larger than ours. I feel irritated. Irritated by the careless step of the tourist. Irritated by the guy who looks bored and checks his watch. Here we stand, deep in the jungle, inside a certifiable cavern that took ten millennia to form, and someone yawns. Perhaps they are uncomfortable. I want to shake them, bring them to the aliveness and privilege of being here.
I am irritated with myself. I paid for this. I might trail behind, to pretend I don’t belong, but I cannot escape the tourist herd.
The end nears. The Home Depot ladder helps us ascend a tricky slope.
“This is the highlight,” Oscar reminds us. He leads us past a set of jumbled bones—many cracked by fickle feet—to another, complete skeleton.
“The crystal maiden.”
Her bones shine like diamond-coated ivory, limbs spread-eagled, pelvic girdle protruding the highest. “She was 17 to 21 years old. Likely a sacrifice.”
She lies there, just past a small rope that would not be out of place in the Smithsonian. In the dim light, her slender vertebrae embedded in the cave floor, I notice her white skull is tilted forward, her jaw arched in a frozen scream.
This is the main attraction. A girl sacrificed to the gods. Did she consider it an honour, or a terror?
Oscar's face is inscrutable. He takes tourists here several times a week to gawk upon calcified remains of his ancestors.
Now, our time is up, escorted away to accommodate the next group’s corpse viewing. But I am not ready. I feel at odds as we retrace our steps, a kind of shameful sadness. I wanted an opportunity to pay my respects, to offer…thanks? Forgiveness? Clemency? Something.
At the entrance of The Cathedral, we slip our feet into soggy shoes and descend to the river tunnel that winds us out of the cave. The sky is a welcome window to colour and light, yet solemn cloud obscures the sun. We finish the remnants of our mediocre lunch and ford Roaring River thrice more.
On the road back to San Ignacio, the van is full of quiet and bedraggled rookie spelunkers. In my exhaustion, I question my part in this tale. Have I simply contributed another eighty dollars to Belize tourism, or have I pushed a sacrilegious tourist train one tie closer to being a wreck? I ponder the wonders of the day, the carvings of the river, the shadow of the goddess, and the tremendous art walling The Cathedral that bore witness to that girl's final breath.
As we step out of the van, Phyllis calls after me. "Thanks again for saving my life!"
If You Go:
♦ You can arrange this journey with Pacz Tours (http://pacztours.net), which included guide, van ride to river, pack lunch and helmets with headlamps. There are, however, many tour operators that run out of San Ignacio. Do your best to ensure that they are licensed to conduct tours inside the cave.
♦ Expect to pay upwards of $200 US a person, and to hike, swim, and climb slippery surfaces. But don't expect to be able to bring your camera into the cave. A recent tourist incident (in a long line of such incidents) resulted in a dropped camera crushing an ancient skull inside The Cathedral.
♦ Good physical condition is required for the river crossings and scrambling up steep rock in the cave darkness. The claustrophobic, arachnophobic, and anyone wary of tight spaces should opt-out. That being said, if a 70-plus grandma can spelunk these caves, then those of determined heart might just make it!
All photographs by Lee Beavington.
- Due to recent floods, the river crossings were more treacherous than usual.
- The towering entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, leading to a vast network of river tunnels in the earth.
- Lee Beavington inside the cave, complete with plastic hardhat and headlamp.
- Magnificent flowstone was one of many geological marvels found inside the cave.
- We had to wear socks inside The Cathedral, so as not to damage the ancient Mayan pottery and skeletal remains.
- The crystal maiden, her calcified bones preserved for over 1,000 years.
Lee Beavington is an intentional author, educator, ecologist, photographer and traveller in search of truth, creativity, and conversations that matter. He seeks simplicity, strives to be mindful, and listens for the song of the river and tree. He is a writer by need, not choice, from a conscientious and curious calling to put wonder into words. Lee writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and is revising his first novel.