This Cave in Belize is a Window into Mayan Civilization

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The 1.6‑kilometre deep Actun Tunichil Muknal cave hosted torch‑lit ceremonies and sacrifices 1,000 years ago.

Had I imagined I’d be in this situation, I’d never have entered the cave. Up to my neck in tepid water, I’m eyeing a hole above the surface not much larger than my head, which I will have to tilt at an unnatural angle to fit through. But there’s no going back – other members of our tour, including my wife and two teenage sons, are lined up in the narrow passage behind me. I block out the mounting panic and scrape my helmet through the keyhole.

To my relief, the corridor opens up on the other side and rises above the stream. Still, I’m amazed this adventure is permitted, let alone organized. Our tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, an archeological marvel an hour’s drive from San Ignacio in Belize’s jungle‑y interior, began with a brisk 45‑minute hike, which included crossing a raging river while clinging to a rope. I couldn’t tell if our inscrutable Mayan guide, Emil, was joking about the crocodiles.

May 11, 2021
Photo of the inside of a cave

Deeper inside the cave, we come to a clear, deep pool. After swimming across, we scramble on wet rocks and gravel stream beds up into a narrowing gorge. Emil points out the wildlife in this domain of total darkness (bats, white catfish, tailless whip scorpions), and we begin to see the leftovers of the cavern’s long‑gone Mayan tenants: broken pottery, fireplaces and, eventually, ancient animal and human bones. We clamber up a dry waterfall into a ballroom‑size cavern replete with stalactites and stalagmites, some carved to throw shadows of faces under the glare of our headlamps. Here and there are skulls, locked in place by centuries of mineralization. In a side passage lies an almost complete skeleton of a young man. It was once mislabelled by archeologists as the “crystal maiden,” after the sparkly shards that have formed naturally around the bones.

Photo of stalactites inside a cave
Photo of a broken ancient vase inside a cave

Archeologists believe these remains belong to victims of human sacrifices made to bring rain during the drought‑stricken end of the classical Mayan civilization, from 700 to 950 CE. To imagine navigating this cavern, a full kilometre from the entrance, as the ancient Mayas did – by torchlight or in utter darkness, for purposes ritualistic and deadly serious – is to glimpse a belief system utterly alien to our own. The mystery lingers long after we emerge into the sunlight once again and gratefully inhale the hot Caribbean breeze.