In 1989, a team of geologists from National Geographic made an amazing discovery of a vast network of naturally formed caves and underground rivers. They alerted archaeologists to this find which is now widely considered to be one of the most well preserved examples of ancient Maya culture in Mesoamerica.
Little did they know that they had just stumbled into the portals of ‘Xibalba’ (the name meaning ‘place of fear or death’) – the entrance to the underworld and dwelling place of the Maya Gods. And that this was just one of several sacred caves in Belize!
The Maya believed that there are thirteen gods belonging to the thirteen levels of heaven and nine gods from the nine underworlds, and they all required sacrifice and dedication. It was here at the mouth of caves, as well as deep within the recesses, that the Maya priests and rulers communicated with the gods and performed their most sacred rituals.
They would sending offerings to appease the gods and to petition for divine assistance. Caves were places where souls could defeat death and become revered ancestors, making them important places for burials and sacrifices.
Almost all known caves in Belize functioned as Maya ceremonial caves. However, only a few living Maya ever visited the caves. Only spiritual leaders and shamans were allowed to enter, and then only to perform the necessary rites and rituals on ledges within the caves. Special ceremonial pots were used in these rituals and at the end of the ritual, the pot was broken or punctured to release its spirit and to prevent the pot from ever being used again.
You can visit quite a number of Belize’s sacred caves to see the remnants of these rituals, sacrifices, and the general splendor of the caves themselves! Actun Tunichil Muknal, for instance, features impressive altars and ceremonial areas and is packed with pottery and numerous artifacts made of jade, obsidian, bone and other materials. It’s most well-known feature is the famous “Crystal Maiden”, the intact skeleton of a young sacrificial woman that, due to an accumulation of calcium carbonate over the years, sparkles eerily in torchlight.
ATM was opened to the public in 2000, but only under the close supervision of licensed guides. It is still widely studied and was the subject of a National Geographic documentary, Journey Through the Underworld.
Barton Creek Cave is located in the Maya Mountains and is approximately 4.5 miles long. Archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of 28 humans, ranging from children to adults, cooking vessels, stone tools, spindles, monuments, ritual offerings of corn and other agricultural products and fire hearths. Archaeologists now believe Barton Creek Cave was used for agricultural and fertility rites, family burials, human sacrifices and ritual bloodlettings.
This ancient wonder can be explored only by canoe, an incredible way to admire the ancient beauty that’s hidden within.
Crystal Cave (or Mountain Cow Cave) is located in the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and is also a part of the branch system of caves. Exploring this cave is not for the faint of heart!
This is a cave for the physically fit only and is a good cave for those with some caving experience – expect rock walls, small crevices, tiny gaps, bats, blind crickets, spiders, and massive “crystal” stalagmites and stalactites. The hike to reach this cave is about 50 minutes and getting into the cave requires a short (15 foot) rappel. If you’re up for it, this will be the highlight of your Belizean caving adventure!
Nohoch che’en or Caves Branch was declared an archaeological reserve by the Belize government in 2010. The system is a 19-mile network of caves in the Caves Branch Valley (approximately 28 miles of caves have been surveyed in this area of Belize alone). Archaeologists estimate that the caves in this area were used from the Middle Pre-Classic to Post Classic Periods by the Maya, primarily for burials and ceremonies/rituals.
It has most recently become one of the most popular cave tubing tours! A perfect way to experience the beauty of the caves and see the sacred places of the Maya firsthand.
So what are you waiting for? Take the plunge and experience the ancient heritage and impressive natural beauty of Belize!