CAYO, Belize — Shoeless and shivering cold, I’m halfway through a subterranean triathlon of wading, swimming, and climbing through Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal, a portal to the sacred underworld according to ancient Mayan lore. Locals still call the cave Xibalba, or “place of fear,” and as I tiptoe past yet another human skull, it’s not hard to understand why.
Three hours before, the cave looked welcoming — refreshing, even. A river flowed from the vine-draped grotto, and a swim across a 15-foot pool was required to access the inner depths. Jumping into the clear, minnow-filled water was the closest I and my Northeastern University classmates — volunteering in western Belize over our spring break — would get to scuba diving off the country’s Caribbean coast. Eager for semi-aquatic adventure, we may have overlooked the fact that we were venturing into what was once a den of human sacrifice.
Not far from the cultural hub of San Ignacio, Actun Tunichil Muknal is closer to Guatemala than to Belize’s tourist-heavy eastern seaboard. Famous for its skeletal sovereign, a young woman whose calcified remains have earned her the epithet the Crystal Maiden, the cave is one of a number of prehistoric sites in the mountainous Cayo District, where the Mayan civilization thrived more than a millennium ago. The skeletal remains of 13 other humans, as well as many ceramic and stoneware pieces, have been discovered in the limestone abyss.
Our archeological adventure began after a bumpy backroads drive and a 45-minute jungle hike that included fording a waist-deep river three times.
At the mouth of the cave, we abandoned our packs and strapped on miner’s helmets. Split into two groups, three of my classmates and I – joined by a middle-aged American couple and two visibly nervous French-Canadian women – put our trust in Martin, a guide from San Ignacio’s Mayawalk Tours. Headlamps shining, we plunged into the aqueous aperture and followed Martin into the dank, dark unknown.
Not for the feeble or claustrophobic, navigating the cave required spurts of doggy paddling in between traipsing shallow waters, clambering over slick boulders and squeezing through tight passages with names like “the guillotine” — all obstacles of adventure or of peril, depending on one’s intrepid spirit.
Along the way, sights of fluttering bats and gigantic spiders, plus the occasional crab, reminded us spelunkers that life survives underground. Seeing fellow tourists slipping and colliding, helmet-first, with overhanging rock slabs reminded us that, amazingly, we had never signed liability waivers.
About a mile in, we climbed away from the clammy stream to a dry upper space called the Cathedral. The white flowstones and massive stalagmites and stalactites of the soaring chamber looked more like Gaudí creations than natural occurrences.
There, we removed our shoes and kept an eye out for artifacts blocked off by nothing more than strips of orange tape. Past foot traffic had damaged the haphazardly scattered bones and bits of broken pottery found in the chamber, and our wearing only socks was meant to prevent further harm. Cameras have not been allowed in the cave since, in 2012, a tourist dropped his and shattered a centuries-old skull.
Sitting below jagged stone altars, most of the pottery had calcified into the cave floor. Martin pointed out the “kill holes” in some of the ceramics, evidence of the bloodletting ceremonies and hallucinogenic quests that Mayan priests and royalty would engage in to connect with the deities of the underworld.
We saw four partial skeletons before scaling a rickety ladder, wedged precariously between boulders, to a small separate chamber that was the Crystal Maiden’s resting place. The only female found in the cave, her skeleton — sprawled and facing upward, jaws gaping — was also the only one that was fully intact. The sparkling remains were deceiving, showing no indication she had been the victim of human sacrifice. It’s believed she was killed with a club.
As I looked at her calcified skeleton one last time before descending the ladder, ready to make my way back above ground, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was. I would be leaving Actun Tunichil Muknal alive.
Eryn Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.