Descend to New Depths of Xibalba in Belize’s Crystal Cave

by Caribbean Lifestyle Editorial Team
History tells us that long periods of drought brought a series of unfortunate events, seemingly leaving the Mayas — throughout the region — no choice but to offer human sacrifices to their rain god Chaac. As I prepare for this new adventure, my imagination wanders at the ancient Mayans who once made trips deep into the cave systems scattered throughout Belize. Though not an ancient Maya elite, I was about to enter “place of fear”, Xibalba: the underworld ruled by the Maya death gods and their helpers. Spelunkers can visit Belize’s Crystal Cave of Mile 42 on the Hummingbird Highway, 12 miles outside the capital city of Belmopan, to discover a hidden treasure within St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. Equipped with sturdy shoes, a packed lunch, 2 liters of water and my protective gear — I was ready.

I was warned by my guide, Israel Manzanero Jr. of Wildland Belize Adventures, that the tour ranks as physically intense. Trekking along the jagged limestone path to Crystal Cave was both scenic and educational; my guide Israel shared the cave’s discovery in the early 1960’s was by an archaeologist, mapping the cave systems in the area, and the Belize Audubon Society (BAS), who co-manages the protected area in which it is situated. The national park houses a total of 575 protected acres that hug the Maya Mountain range. 

An Entrance like No Other: Rapelling by Rope into Xibalba

Inside, two cave systems beckon to explore by foot or river tube alongside trails to hike, a refreshing cenote (the always aqua inland Blue Hole – an invigorating swim after a long hike) and striking wildlife sightings. All five species of Belize’s wildcats roam the park, including the elusive Jaguar, while over 300 bird species recorded within the park.

About 45 minutes in, my tour pauses at the entrance of the cave; I take a moment for my lungs to catch up as I breath in my surroundings with awe. The opening of the cave reminds me of a gaping, screaming mouth that I am about to rappel 15 feet down into. As I get outfitted with my head gear and reminded of the dos and don’ts, Israel recounts the event that gave the Crystal Cave its local name — Mountain Cow Cave. A Baird’s Tapir, locally called Mountain Cow, wandered too close to the mouth of the cave, fell in and perished. So while the Maya no longer offer sacrifices today, perhaps Xibalba still has its ways.

Armed with a pounding heart and surprisingly strong arms, I descend into the cave with everything I need to enter the underworld.

Keeping this momentum of adrenaline, we continue deeper into Xibalba with a steady pace. Carefully, we maneuver and master the “crab walk” as we safely navigate through tight, rocky spaces. Israel becomes my eyes as he recommends my next steps while highlighting points of interest. As we traversed over its muddy ramps and dark fissures, the magically lucid world of Crystal Cave came alive; its flow stones, drapery, conned stalagmites, jelly fish, and even cauliflower formations. Yes, it really does look like a sparkling cauliflower! Not to mention, the eerie human remains and fire pits, pottery, pottery shards, jewelry; alongside other relics, these remains are all evidence of its human sacrifices. The best part of this 6 to 8 hour adventure? Discovering the Crystal Cave’s “Wonderland” chamber in Belize. You enter the cavern with bare feet – a precaution to preserve the delicate surroundings; only to be greeted by thousands of calcite formations seemingly coated with heavy doses of fairy dust. Trust me, its brilliance will forever be etched in your mind.

From Ancient Mayan Elites to the Amateur Spelunker:

Crystal Cave is must-experience in Belize

This “place of fear” has now captured the imagination, and respect, of human beings for hundreds of years; from the ancient Mayan elites down to this amateur spelunker. So if you are ready to venture into the most extreme cave experience in Belize, know that your exhilarating adventure in Crystal Cave also carries a purpose. Each visit to a Belize Audubon Society co-managed protected area, including St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, helps support its sustainable conservation and management of Belize’s natural resources. For more information and a list of verified tour operators in cave and nature excursions in protected areas, contact [email protected].

Written by Dareece Chuc, Belize Audubon Society for the 2020 Belize Gold Book.
Special thank you to BAS for all photos, courtesy of Dominique Lizama and Karyme Cabrera and © Belize Audubon Society. Article found on page 64 of the 2020 Belize Gold Book. Read more articles from the #BelizeGoldBook below:

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