Meander Into The Maya Underworld: Capturing The Cover at Barton Creek Cave

by Carolee Chanona

Eustress. A feeling to dare forward: excitement, adrenaline, fulfillment, and achievement, all balled up in one notion to push past the boundaries of a comfort zone. And once you’re enveloped by darkness and the unknown, that spells out spelunking. Frankly, going caving is cool, to begin with, but when it’s into a ceremonial cave to capture a magazine cover? That cool factor intensifies.


Venturing off the highway onto the semi-paved road in Georgeville, we begin the typical half-day excursion. The Barton Creek Archeological Reserve is about 45 minutes outside of San Ignacio Town, found past a traditional Mennonite community in the Upper Barton Creek area and through an outlet of the Barton Creek itself. Francisco—our guide from Belize Family Adventures—and his land cruiser are unphased by the gentle rush, rippling over river rocks and his tires.

In a country with more than 100 navigable caves, including the nearly 540,000-square-foot Chiquibul Cave System—the largest in Belize and longest in Central America—Barton Creek Cave is “wet” subterranean spelunking, only explored by canoe. Outfitted with our headlamps, life vests, and paddles in the 3-person canoe, we head towards the main event: draped mounds of stalactites and stalagmites that have taken millennia to emerge from the limestone-rich Cayo District.

Being inside a cave is a foreign kind of quiet. When the only sound is that of your own breath and wavelets made by your paddle, you’re prompted to notice what you are (brave), and what you are not (fearless). At a pace of maybe a mile an hour, our canoes suddenly became time machines; between 400 A.D. to 950 A.D., Mayas entered caves by torch, lighting the cave alive with its foot-tall licking flames. It’s impossible to see the entirety of the chamber that we’re in all at once: we’re limited to the undulating walls, jaw-dropping natural oddities, sparkly otherworldly ceilings, natural bridges, and the mineral-rich water that our headlamps illuminate.

Francisco explains that royalty, high priests, and human sacrifices were the only ones allowed within these ceremonial caves for sacred offerings to the many gods of the Maya. Proof of this endured in the form of ceramic pottery for fire hearths of ceremonial copal incense, tools and weapons, and even calcified skeletal remains. Though, the cave is still “alive” today, actively creating new formations as water drips through its caverns. For a moment of solemn silence, we each turned our lights off to reflect with reverence on the lives lost within, and no amount of patience allows our eyes to adjust in the sheer stygian void of darkness that is Xibalba, validating why the Mayas believed it to be the portal to the underworld. These caves are the last living witnesses to Belize’s rich Maya history.

Deep breaths keep the claustrophobia at bay with an opening no wider than an MRI machine—the cave ceiling is but a few inches from my face. 

Still, my brain races forward to etch all the grooves and curves of these chambers into remembrance; those same cavern walls act as a calming reference as we emerge into the sunlight. Barton Creek Cave’s towering triangle of an entrance gathers itself to us—a portal back into the present—and we savor each new gulp of sunlight like some vital but forgotten thing. All the same, but changed.

Written by Carolee Chanona for the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book.
Feature photo and all other photos © Full Memory Photography/Caribbean Culture & Lifestyle. Article found on page 4 of the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book. Read more articles from the #BelizeGoldBook below:

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