Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of nappy.
Mayan Ceremonial Cave Tour Takes You Into the Belizean Jungle & Back In Time
A few weeks ago, I spent five amazing days basking in the sunshine in Belize. I split my time between the lush green jungles in Belmopan and the beach shore in Hopkins. However, there was something alluring about the jungle at the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge that captivated me and made me never want to leave.
Nestled right under Sleeping Giant Mountain off the Hummingbird Highway, the resort spanned 10,000 acres and was home to a plethora of wildlife that walked among us as we visited their home. The river ran along the side of our cottage and wild pineapples, mangos, and tropical plants grew abundantly. You could hear the jungle singing at night, whispering through the trees, peacefully letting you know they know you’re there.
On my first full day in the rainforest, I was invited to go on a tour of a Mayan ceremonial cave. Thousands of years ago, before the Europeans invaded the Americas, ancient Mayans would visit the cave and sacrifice high-ranking members of their society with hopes the gods would bless them with rain. With a childhood dream of being an archeologist tucked in my back pocket, I kindly accepted the invitation, strapped up my tennis shoes, and headed into the jungle to explore the cave.
What I experienced in the Mayan ceremonial cave was an unforgettable moment that was drenched in sweat, history, and perseverance. An excursion exclusive to guests visiting the Sleeping Giant resort, this cave was in its natural state and opened its doors to us to teleport back thousands of years into ancient Mayan civilization. Although I initially had no clue what to expect, my journey through the Mayan cave proved I could conquer any fear I faced and that nature is a home to us all, no matter the century.
The Orange Groves
To get to the jungle trail entrance, my five companions, the guide, and I had to walk through rows of beautiful citrus groves. The driver told us Sleeping Giants was full of citrus trees; literally miles and miles of grapefruit and oranges waiting to be picked and turned into freshly squeezed juice for its guests. I’d never seen orange trees before and with my eyes full of wonder I let my fingers graze against the ripe fruit as we made our way to the path.
Although the grass wasn’t too high, the bugs were coming out from every direction as we approached a small, clearing leading into the trees. A sign signified we’d arrived at the right place and our guide, Orlin, passed out hard hats with lights on them for us to carry as we made our trek up the mountain to the cave.
Before going on this excursion, I had all types of ideas about what being in the jungle would really be like. My perception had been built on a foundation of Disney animations and Jurassic Park films, so when I found myself surrounded by trees that looked more like the woods than a safari, I was relieved. However, Orlin made sure we were aware of the dangers beyond the trees.
One of the first rules he told us was not to lean on or grab hold to trees we passed as we were hiking. Not only were some of the trees poisonous, but many contained sharp spikes that would poke holes through your hand if you weren’t careful. Considering I am someone with very sensitive skin, this put me on high alert. I vividly remember getting poison ivy as a kid and I didn’t want to ever experience that itch again. So I was super cautious as I made my way through the foliage.
We passed many beautiful specimens of plants and flowers as we climbed the steep, man-made steps that had been built into the mountain for us to climb. Orlin was knowledgeable on all things in the jungle. He’d grown up in Belize and had spent his childhood exploring the jungle terrain.
With a machete in his hand and a hard at hanging from his belt, Orlin was the guide and protector we all needed to feel safe as we made our way up the mountain. He made sure to point out the poisonous plants, like the Tree of Giving and Take and the Black Bark Tree, so we could avoid them as we hiked. I watched the dark moss and gigantic tree roots swim from beneath the soil attempting to trip me as I walked. I imagined the British soldiers Orlin told us about practicing military tactics in the jungle surrounding us as we walked the path. The air was thick and humid and tiredness caught up to me quickly. I took a few breaks during our 30 minute ascent and it seemed the high we got the harder it was to make it up the mountain. But once I made it to the top, I was greeted by a breathtaking view into the Mayan Underworld.
A Hole In the Mountainside
Although caves take you underground, this one’s opening in the jungle was a hole in the side of the giant mountain. The ascent to the cave opening had been exhausting. There was sweat dripping down my face and back. This was also my first time hiking and I clearly didn’t understand the assignment when it came to wearing the proper shoes. My Pumas were not equipped for this journey and my toes were burning. To make matters worse, after the 30-minute hike, I’d already run out of water. But I forgot all of that when I was greeted by the most amazing breeze.
Out of the mouth of the cave flowed a delightful draught. The cold, burst of air whirled throughout the cave and cooled us off from our voyage up the mountain. Bats swirled through the wind above our heads as we proceeded to climb over fallen rocks to make our way to the entrance. Green vines and plants clung to the sides of the cave entrance giving it an almost pre-historic feel. Before we entered the cave, Orlin gave a few more ground rules including watching our steps and not touching the thousand-year-old formations that grew within the cave.
As I entered the cave, I took one last look back at the sunshine before I descended into the darkness of the Mayan Underworld.
Into the Mayan Underworld
While to us we seemed to be merely entering an old cave, to the ancient Mayans, caves were the portal to the Underworld. Similar to the Underworld in Greek mythology, the Mayan Underworld was a place that housed the dead, and spiritual leaders would congregate in these places to perform sacred rituals both to honor the dead and appease the gods.
Orlin told us beforehand that there would be a few wet spots in the cave but that it was mostly dry. Perhaps it had rained in the days leading up to our tour but the cave was extremely wet. I slipped and slid through the cave in my sneakers and worked hard not to fall as I made my way through its muddy terrain. Giant stalagmites and stalactites protruded from the ceiling and the floor of the cave like swords piercing the air and large spiders crawled on the walls as we passed by.
Walking through the cave, it was clear why the Mayans believed caves to be the portal to the Underworld. The dampness and darkness of the cave was the perfect dwelling for otherworldly creatures and the vast echo of your own voice bouncing off the walls was enough to convince you that you were not alone beneath the mountain. Mud gathered around my heels as I slid down a large rock sliding deeper and deeper into the cave.
Maiz, Floods & Sacrifice
Remember, back in the day, the Mayans in Belize would use this cave as a ceremonial space for human sacrifice. However, we’d been walking for over an hour before we came in contact with some of the skeletal remains.
Due to flooding in the cave, water had moved many of the bones from their original locations, leaving remains scattered across the cave floor. Embedded deep in the mud, pieces of jaw bones and rib cages could be seen jetting out from the surface. Unlike some ancient Mayan civilizations, this tribe only sacrificed willing participants from affluent families in the community. According to legend, the native people encountered a multi-year drought that killed their livestock and destroyed their corn crops. To petition for rain, high-ranking individuals would offer themselves as a sacrifice to the rain god Chaac and pray he would crack the sky with his lightning ax and pour water from the sky.
The resort staff had placed markers at each site to identify the human remains and as went deeper into the cave, more human bones began to float above the mud. Most of the remains had been damaged, mere remnants of what was previously left behind. There were also pieces of Mayan pottery that were used to transport water and the psychedelic drugs they used during rituals. As we approached the large sacrificial altar, we discovered the fully intact skull of a Mayan child. The forehead of the child had been intentionally pushed in, a Mayan body modification technique that symbolized high status. Chills ran through my body as I imagined the small child’s last moments in the cave as he sacrificed himself and begged for rain.
There was only one piece of ancient Mayan pottery left intact in the cave. The rest had been destroyed or stolen by looters along with the precious jade that had been left by the ancient Mayans. We’d been walking for almost two hours when we made it to the sacrificial altar. The large rock had been made smooth and pieces of ancient tools and human remains would be seen stuck in the mud surrounding it. We took a rest here, sitting on the altar taking in the sounds and the ancient energy. At one point, Orlin told us all to turn off our hat lights. Suddenly, we were surrounded by darkness and I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I could hear the wings of bats fluttering through the space and the wet, mildew smell filled my nostrils. But I couldn’t see a thing. In that moment of silence, I felt calming energy and peace enveloped in darkness.
Drops of Blood
The cave carved into the mountains in the middle of the jungle had two entrances. However, Orlin was very clear that exiting on the opposite side was risky so we turned around and began to make our way back out of the cave.
Walking back seemed a lot easier than the journey to the bottom of the cave. It involved a lot of climbing and the mud seemed to cling to my shoes as I attempted to climb out. Everyone was getting stuck in the mud. It was as if something didn’t want us to leave.
As previously stated, I did not wear the correct shoes for this excursion, but I’d done pretty well the entire time. It wasn’t until I was nearly out of the cave that I fell.
A large portion of the cave ceiling had fallen down and in order to get out, we had to climb over the rocks. Coming down, my foot slipped from under me and I plummeted to the ground. My hiking companions surrounded me helping me up and making sure I was alright. I was fine but as we were exiting the cave, I noticed drops of blood on my clothing. My hand had sliced open when I fell and there was a large gash near my wrist. I borrowed some water from our guide to wash out the wound and, although I was injured, I was happy I was able to leave a little bit of myself behind in the Mayan ceremonial cave.
The Most Poisonous Snake in Belize
Although we were walking through the jungle, dangerous animals never crossed my mind as we made our way through the trees. I was more concerned with avoiding poisonous plants and trees. However, nature came calling as we made our way down the mountain.
Orlin told us the jungle was full of dangerous creatures including jaguars, gigantic spiders, and howling monkeys. But with the extreme temperatures, the humidity, and the inability to catch my breath after walking for over three hours, I’d completely forgotten about being eaten by a jaguar while hiking in the jungle. My boyfriend accompanied me on the hike and we’d both slowed down to a slow walk on the descent because neither one of us had on the correct shoes and our toes were pounding the sole on the downward hike. Orlin walked with us and the rest of the group moved further ahead. Suddenly, everyone came to a halt.
Debbie, one of our hosts at Sleeping Giant, yelled out there was a snake on the path. Of course, I took a step back. I’d never seen a snake in the wild, so I didn’t want to put myself in the way to be bitten. Orlin came to the front to investigate and immediately took a few steps back. He said not only had he never seen a snake on this hiking trail but that the snake blocking our exit was the most venomous viper in Belize, the fer-de-lance Yellow Jaw. The snake was camouflaged into the path and was barely visible. Orlin said that had Debbie kept walking, the snake would’ve bitten the second or third person following behind her.
But we had to keep going. We had to get out of the jungle. Without saying a word and clearly afraid, Orlin picked up a large stick and tried poking the viper. But it wouldn’t move. With no options left, Orlin slid the stick under the snake and threw it into the trees. We all took off running down the mountain, full of adrenaline and fear from the near snake attack and thankful to be safe after coming face to face with one of Belize’s most dangerous creatures.
I’d never been happier than when we emerged from the jungle back into the citrus groves. Relief flooded over me as the thick jungle air loosened up to reveal and crisp breeze. I’d never been so happy to see oranges in my entire life.
In that same breath, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. This was my first time hiking and it was extreme. Every step I took through the jungle and through that cave, I’d told myself I would never go hiking again. But suddenly, I had a change of heart. I liked how it felt to face my fears and conquer them. There was something powerful about completing a feat I believed I could not do. I’d found a newfound love for hiking and the mysteriousness of the jungle.
Seeing the ripe oranges were like laying eyes on the gates of paradise. I was covered in sweat from head to toe and the air-conditioned van waiting to pick us up beckoned me. However, there was a longing feeling for the cave, like I’d experienced something I’d never get to experience again.
I looked back over my shoulder one last time as the van drove off and wondered about the Mayan people, the moments they’d had there, and all the blood spilled there with hopes the rain would come. It was an awakening moment that grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me until understanding became clear. For the first time in my life, I realized how large and how small I was in the grand scheme of life; in history. And I smiled at the thought of having walked through the Mayan Underworld and survived.