Walking Among Bones of Human Sacrifices in the Caves of the Mayan Underworld 

January 2021: Belize is more than idyllic cayes or islands, and world class diving. It is also a country with incredible jungles, Mayan ruins and vast mysterious cave networks. Most Mayan ruins can be found in the jungles of western Belize. Almost all Mayan cities in Belize were built near a cave network leading into the Mayan underworld.

The caves were dark and mysterious places to the Maya. They believed that after death, their souls would pass through the Maya underworld where they would face a series of trials and tribulations and those that failed these tests would be condemned to an eternity of darkness and suffering.

During the time of the Maya, the people lived in constant fear of famines, drought, pestilence and a numbers of other natural calamities. The Maya believed that all of these disasters were caused by the Gods and to prevent them human sacrifices were necessary. It is said that the God’s were more appeased when the individual sacrificed was young and when the death was carried out in a violent and painful manner.

The darkest and deepest parts of the caves were believed to be where the Maya Gods lived such as Chaac, the God of water and rain. Because of this, the caves were sacred to the Maya and only priests could enter the caves along with those who were selected to be sacrificed. The caves to this day are sacred to the descendants of the Maya that still live in Belize and the people today do not believe that these caves are places of evil. This is because according to them the people including children that were sacrificed volunteered to do so in order to save their people. They also believed that by sacrificing themselves they would be able to skip the trials and tribulations of the underworld and go directly to heaven.

I went to Belize for New Years weekend to explore some of these caves expecting them to have an oppressively dark energy to them because of their violent past but instead I was in total awe by their natural beauty.  

Arrival to San Ignacio

The hub to most of the caves and Mayan ruins in Belize is the small town of San Ignacio along the Guatemalan border.

Day 1:  Our trip didn’t begin as I would have hoped. My friends and I started our Belize trip by flying into Belize City. Belize normally bustling with tourists was now virtually empty because of the pandemic. We hired a taxi and somewhere along the 3 hour drive to San Ignacio along the road by a mosquito infested  swamp our taxi broke down. It was New Years day, the sun already set and the few vehicles we saw on the road were operated by intoxicated drivers. With the real risk of being robbed while we were stranded on the side of the road, we hid all of our luggage in the bushes. As we waited for our driver’s friend to pick us up, a van full of rough looking drunken revelers pulled over to check us out. One pot bellied man with his shirt off seemed very interested in us and I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing. Luckily our pick up vehicle showed up right around this time, and towed our broken down vehicle to San Ignacio. I asked the driver if we would have been robbed standing on the road for any longer and if the car would still be there by morning. His response was 50 % chance of being robbed and 100 % the car would be gone.

It was only about 8pm when we arrived at our hotel in San Ignacio, one of the few that the government allowed to stay open during the pandemic, and the hotel was closed and dark. Our first night in Belize was not going well.

A security guard heard our knocking and let us in. He said all of the hotel staff went home hours ago to beat the Covid curfew and that we were expected arrive hours ago. The guard checked us in and apologized that the kitchen was closed. We were starving and had been traveling all day from San Diego with no available meals on our flights because of Covid restrictions. We just couldn’t accept that there was no food and we had to resort to survival tactics.

Johnny raiding the kitchen 

We discovered that the hotel grounds were very large, and the security guard had a lot of ground to patrol providing us plenty of time to explore the kitchen which was left unlocked. We were able to scavenge a meal of cheesecake, watermelon and bread. This would have to do. Then when the security guard returned, we convinced him to sell us some wine. The night didn’t turn out so bad after all.

 

 

 

 

 

Barton Creek Cave

Day 2: The next day we visited two caves. The first cave was Barton Creek Cave, a cave run by a Mennonite family that can only be entered via canoe. The cave was nice, but it was mostly just a warmup for the better cave we planned to visit in the afternoon-Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave.

 

 

 

 

 

Entrance to Barton Creek Cave

My friends exploring Barton Creek by Canoe

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave

ATM Cave is known as the cave where dozens if not many more people, mostly children were sacrificed. But it is more than just a grim place of human sacrifice. It is also a natural paradise of waterfalls, clear green subterranean rivers flowing through spectacular cave stalagmites, and sparkling crystals.  I rate the ATM cave as one of my most enjoyable cave experiences to this day.

In order to reach the cave, you need to wade across 3 or 4 rivers through the jungle. Along the way you can spot iguanas sitting in the treetops hanging over the rivers. Occasionally the guide mentioned, tapirs venture out from the forest and can be seen. Then when you arrive to the cave, you need to swim into the river that flows out of the cave. As soon as you enter, you need to climb a waterfall and swim beneath some stalagmites. From there you continue swimming up the river inside the cave for a few awe-inspiring hours until you reach the area where the sacrificial ceremonies occurred. To get to this area, you need to leave to river behind and climb a ledge up into the cave. There are so many bones and skeletons that you need to walk along a designated path bare footed to avoid stepping on any of the bones and crushing them. Evidently this has been a problem in the past. No cameras or phones are allowed into the cave as well ever since a misguided tourist dropped his camera on a skull cracking a hole into it-remember the cave is sacred to the descendant of the Maya.

This area is very deep in the cave and does have a haunting feeling to it. Many of the skeletons and skulls are of young kids. The skulls remain contorted in the expression of pain that the individuals likely experienced in their last gruesome moments in life. Our guide explained that one child was buried in the cave and left to die slowly in the darkness under the crushing weight of the rocks. Others were bludgeoned to death with rocks or clubs as shown by the holes in their heads. The sacrifices were always carried out by the priests who used a natural narcotic to carry out the ceremonies. The priests also would perform bloodletting and self-mutilating ceremonies on themselves to further appease the Gods. One ceremony involved impaling one’s testicles on a rock.

A skeleton of a teenage girl that was sacrificed probably a thousand plus years ago. Her skeletal remains have crystalized over time.

Cave of the Crystal

Us Exploring Crystal Cave

Day 3: The next cave was the Crystal Cave, which was more physically demanding and less visited than ATM cave. This cave involved lots of crawling through tight spaces and walking along treacherous and slippery boulders and even some rope climbing. We set off the next morning to spend all day exploring this cave.

 

 

A jungle turtle we found on the trail 

It was a good day to be inside a cave. It was downpouring all day and because of flash flooding, the cave we visited the day before-ATM Cave would be impossible on a day like this. We hiked a few hours through the rainforest in the mud to get to the entrance of the cave. Unlike ATM Cave, Crystal cave is a dry cave and not subject to flash flooding. Like ATM Cave, Crustal Cave was also a cave where human sacrifices were performed. Various chambers of the cave contain ceremonial Mayan vases and skeleton remains.

Our cave guide, who felt comfortable with our skills despite the difficulty we had with slipping and falling in the mud, decided he would take us to the innermost chamber of the cave-the crystal room, which is meant to be a room containing sparkling crystals on all sides of it.

Johnny squeezing through a crevice

 My confidence in the guide was not re-affirmed when his head lantern began to dim, and he explained that his lantern was almost dead. We all brought extra head lanterns and tried to offer him one, but he refused.

Luckily, we made it to the crystal room and the cave did not disappoint. The best part of this cave was its raw beauty and feeling of wildness.

 

Bats were a common sight in the cave

A skull of someone sacrificed in the cave from hundreds of years ago. 

Mayan pottery bowls found throughout the cave. This one was in perfect condition. 

Richard navigating muddy and small passageways

Large room before the crystal room 

Crystal Room

Sneaking into the Cahel Pech Mayan Pyramid at Night

Cahel Pech Mayan Pyramids (1200 BC)

Every night we barely made it back to the hotel on time to eat dinner before all of the staff had to depart in order to beat out the covid curfew. Luckily, we made it with only moments to spare after exploring Crystal Cave.

After nightfall, we decided we needed to explore the 1200-year-old Mayan Pyramids-Cahel Pech located next to the hotel. As we were about ready to depart the hotel, as always, we were the only ones up and about in the hotel at night, the security guard intercepted us and inquired where we were going. We were up front with him, and he warned us not to get caught and to wear our masks. If we were arrested, it would be for trespassing and for not wearing our Covid masks. The guard mentioned that the police are more vigilant for trespassers in the reserve ever since a murder there that occurred a year ago. Evidently, three youths ventured into the reserve at night, climbed the pyramid and two of them decided to sacrifice one of the others. One of the boys had his head decapitated by the other two. It was definitely felt like human sacrifice was starting to become a strong theme of the trip.

We set off at night dressed in all black. The pyramids were located in a park next to our hotel and were surrounded by jungle and a residential area, but it was walled off from the nearby shanty houses. The guard house lights were on, and we tip toed past hoping that there were no guard dogs. There weren’t. We made it successfully past the guard house. For the next hour we climbed the pyramids and pranced about in the moonlight like conquerors celebrating our accomplishment. Our giddiness was interrupted when we heard approaching footsteps somewhere below. We all sprinted off in different directions with flashlights off.  I was hiding out in the jungle ready to make a break for it through the trees and take my chances with the snakes. After a few minutes of hiding out, the steps never resumed, and I decided it must have been our imagination. I very sneakily walked out of the reserve along the jungle path in total darkness with just the full moon light to guide me. Somewhere along the path I heard some rustling in the bushes and thought it was my friends. it wasn’t and whatever it was likely a wild animal. I eventually met up again with my friends back at the hotel room

Day 4: The next morning went to visit the Cahel Pech pyramids legally and during daylight. Afterwards we set off to the airport to catch our noontime flight back to San Diego.

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